Out now from Audible, the audiobook version of Steven Brust and Skyler White’s The Incrementalists features the voice talents of Ray Porter and Mary Robinette Kowal. (Listen to an excerpt here!)
We’ve got a chance for you to win one of our five download codes for the audiobook, as well as check out a conversation between Steve, Skyler, Mary, and Ray about the process of colloborating on this great project.
Is It Magic?
In The Incrementalists, a secret society of 204 people cheat death, share lives and memories, and communicate across nations, races, and time. They have an epic history, an almost magical memory, and a very modest mission: to make the world better, just a little bit at a time.
Its authors, Steven Brust and Skyler White, less immortal, and perhaps more ambitious, may be trying to do the same, not only in how the story unfolds, but also in how it was made. Their dedication to collaboration, from writing the book together, to the fourteen-hour editing marathon with Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, to this ongoing conversation with their friends Mary Robinette Kowal and Ray Porter, who recorded the voices for the Audible.com audiobook, may be every bit as much a commitment as The Incrementalists’.
Read the entire rollicking interview below the fold, then comment in the post for your chance to win The Incrementalists audiobook!
Steve: The idea for The Incrementalists had been hanging around for years, ever since Tappan King suggested it to me. Sitting around talking about Art and Craft and such with Skyler one evening during Armadillo Con in Austin, we got to talking about collaboration, and putting the two together was kind of obvious.
Skyler: I think I’d been griping about missing the collaborative aspects of theater and Steve said something like, “So why don’t you co-write something?” Mind=Blown. I had no idea you could do such a thing.
Steve: When I got back home to Minneapolis, I started writing. Mostly, we would email each other the next section. There were a few times when we’d open up a chat window and run some dialog in-character for a while. Skyler: And we talked about it incessantly whenever we were together—in Minneapolis for Fourth Street or Austin for Armadillo Con—roping other people in, asking for input, brainstorming during dinners and session breaks.
Steve: Right, we met Mary at Fourth Street that summer. She talked about puppet shows, writing, voice acting. Presumably she’d have gotten to brain surgery, nuclear physics, and driving Forumla 1 racecars if we’d had the time.
Skyler: I’d heard her Audible recording of her own book, Shades of Milk and Honey, which is so good. And I’d loved her reading of it, so when we started working with Audible, it was obvious to us that she’d not only make a brilliant Ren, but also be able to carry some of the technical oddities of playing a character with another character speaking through her. Not something you’d want to hand to just any voice talent.
Steve: We were so geeked when we got word that Audible had agreed with our request and hired her.
Skyler: There may have been dancing.
Mary: Having talked to Steve and Skyler about the book I was excited—No. That’s not right, so I’ll out myself here—I’m a giant squeeing fan. Normally when I’m asked to record a book, I’m all professional and calm, but when Audible asked me about this one I did a gasping squeal of excitement and said something incoherent like “oh my god really I would love to yes please yes when and where and oh my god yes.” I think I took a breath in there somewhere. When I actually got the text, I just giggled maniacally.
Knowing the authors put a bit more pressure on me. But— the biggest advantage to knowing you two was being able to just ping you when I had a question. Normally, when a question comes up in an audiobook, a narrator winds up just having to make their best guess. Since Steve and Skyler had heard me talk about the perils of narrating, they had already come up with a list of answers to questions like, “What does Jimmy sound like?”
Skyler: But we had no answers at all for what does Celeste’s voice sound like coming out of Ren’s mouth. I’m so glad you did!
Mary: For me, it was a matter of trying to keep the parts of the voice the same that were related to the physical instrument, so that’s mostly the pitch and placement of the voice. What changes most is attitude and the rhythms of the voice. There was one point where I tried to morph from one to the other, by shifting rhythms slowly over the course of a sentence.
Skyler: And you worked with other folks too, right?
Mary: I had an engineer/director in Grand Rapids, Michigan who I’d worked with before, Dustin Anderson. He’s great because he spots errors when I make them. I have an unfortunate tendency to grab a word from a lower line and insert it into the sentence I’m reading. It’s a by-product of reading ahead and I’ve been told that most narrators do it, but it’s aggravating and hard to catch on your own.
The recording itself involves me sitting in a soundproof box, with a microphone and a tablet. I used to always use paper scripts, but in the past year or two, the industry has moved electronic. I’m astounded at how much easier it makes the process because I don’t have to pause for turning pages. Paper makes noise.
As we go, we do what’s called punch and roll recording. That means that when I make a mistake, Dustin backs us up to a pause in the audio. Sometimes that’s a comma, sometimes it’s a period, sometimes it’s just a dramatic breath. He plays a little bit of the track that comes before it and then “punches” the record button and I start talking. It gives a fairly seamless recording as the end product.
And since people always ask, it took about two days to record my half of the book.
Steve: I hate being asked this question, so feel free to ignore it: but how do your various genres—puppeteering, voice acting, writing, tie in together, if they do?
Mary: It’s all story-telling, really. The link between puppetry and voice acting is the easiest to see from the outside, I think, since they are both forms of acting. In many ways, narrating is like puppetry without the pain, since you go from a physically demanding art to being locked in a closet forced to read books aloud. The horror. The horror. What ties them together with writing is that they’re all about creating an experience for an audience and trying to gauge their reaction. Twenty years of live theater gives me a fair sense of how people respond to things, and how to provoke the reaction I want. When you remember that writing developed to convey the spoken language, I think the link becomes clearer. Really, writing is just word puppetry.
Steve: “Writing is just word puppetry.” That’s going in my blog quotes.
Skyler: Steve and I had both seen Mary do puppetry, but only I had seen Ray on stage—nearly a hundred years ago—when he and I were both in school at CalArts. His performance in “Merchant of Venice” stayed with me that long! I knew Ray was capable of exactly the sort of nuanced masculine vulnerability and wry humor we needed for Phil, I knew he’d done quite a bit of work for Audible, and I really wanted Phil to be voiced by a friend just as Ren was.
Ray: My favorite thing about going to the theatre or a concert or reading a book where the creators are people I know is how quickly that goes away. There is the initial “Oh, how cool, this person I know is acting in a play/playing with their band/sharing their book with me”. That usually lasts a very short time. When it is really great, it lasts about a nanosecond. That was the case with The Incrementalists.
I was taken with the book immediately but then realized I had the daunting task of narrating it. Added to this, sharing the narration with Mary. Have you ever been on a scary carnival ride and wondering if you fastened your belt after the ride is already moving? It was kind of like that. I felt a responsibility to the authors and my co-narrator but the book asks you to strap in and hold on, so the “Gee! I went to college with Skyler!” went away very quickly. I’d say by about the first noun.
Steve: Until the audio book project approached, I hadn’t considered what Phil’s voice would sound like—I’d sort of unconsciously been thinking he sounded like me. Once I thought about it, I realized that he didn’t—that his voice was richer, more melodious, yet very tightly controlled from years of giving nothing away when saying, “I’m all in.” The image in my head for Phil’s appearance was always Lou Diamond Phillips—turned out the voice was right too, so I used that as an indicator.
But the thing I want to emphasize—Skyler and I talked about this—is that it was only an indicator. When I see the cover for one of my books, I’m not thinking about how well the image matches what’s in my head, I’m looking at it as it’s own thing. The same applies here. So we told Mary and Ray that, while we might have some ideas, they were perfectly free to ignore them if they got hit with an idea. That, right there, is a big part of the joy of collaborations—I get to discover how someone else has played with something I played with.
Personally, I think it’d be really cool to collaborate with voice actors all during the writing process of a book, get a real back and forth going. I don’t know how comments on voice would affect plot, structure, characterization; but I’m certain they would, especially for someone likes me who loves using voice and dialog to reveal, well, almost everything.
Ray: When Mary and I were trying to hash out how we were to approach doing a book where our characters overlapped (she narrates Phil and I narrate Ren), Audible was so helpful in trying to find a solution. When the authors stepped in and said “Just do the book and don’t worry about if they sound different!” It was the needed spark. Listeners will have quite an experience with that aspect of the audio production of the book and I think it fits. Steve and Skyler have written a truly unique adventure. It takes us to wonderful and unexpected places both in the book and in our reading of it. I am grateful to have gotten to go along for the ride. I am also very proud to share a book with a narrator such as Mary.
My work lately has been pretty heavy on the fiction side. I have been very fortunate to have a pretty diverse bunch of books to narrate. There are challenges to both fiction and nonfiction and happily I get to do both. Normally, I don’t have to attempt women’s voices in a book about quantum physics but then again, it is quantum physics so I’m working different muscles. Don’t ask for my Marie Curie imitation.
Steve: For the most part, once things got rolling our job was to put all of our energy into not vibrating through the floor waiting to hear what it sounded like. But one interesting thing came up, where there was a question of how to handle, for example, Phil’s dialog when Ren was narrating, or the reverse, not to mention a few cases where it isn’t exactly clear. It was cool how quickly and smoothly the four of us, plus the producer, worked it all out. I think it took less than a day of email exchanges. Do I have to say how delighted we are with the result? Skyler and I bounced around her house after listening to the samples we got. Absolutely incredible result, and the delight of the process just added to it.
Skyler: I’m not superstitious, but on some level, I think I do believe in magic—or maybe it’s just that I love to cook and I’m extrapolating from the “good ingredients = good food” rule, but in my head, it goes something like this: If you do work you love with people you trust, and they do the same; if you keep opening the project up to more work and more love, to collaborators, and editors, and readers, then something will happen that rewards the work and the trust and the love. To me, collaboration isn’t just the most fun way to make cool things with friends, it’s a mechanism for doing better than I can on my own, for transcending my own abilities, and if there’s a better word for transcendence machine than “magic,” I don’t know what it is. But of course, I could ask my friends.
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