Bcause June is Audio Month, we asked beloved author Alexander McCall Smith to share his thoughts on why he loves the medium.
Every author must fear the adaptations of his or her work. I know people who have looked on with amazement as movie directors have changed their books out of all recognition, imposing new characters, different locales and different endings. Such is the allure of the screen that vandalism of this nature seems to be accepted by authors as an inevitable part of the process. Rarely, if ever, will authors stand up to a movie director or producer in full flight. They should, but don’t.
But if movies present good reasons for an author to be afraid, the same cannot be said of audiobooks. In my view, just as movie people are sometimes difficult and unreasonable, audiobook people are the unsung heroes and heroines of adaptation, always polite, always helpful and always willing to bring out the author’s vision in the finished product. As a result, I have never heard a single author complaining about what audiobooks have done to his or her story—quite the opposite, in fact.
Of course I am biased: I really like audiobooks. I love listening to a good reader and a good text, and never begrudge the hours that I spend in the company of these recordings. In some cases I have listened to a particular recording time and time again, such is the pleasure I derive from a good reading. An instance of this is an audiobook I have of Somerset Maugham’s short stories. I have listened to one of these stories—“The Outstation,” a splendidly claustrophobic tale of two colonial officials at one another’s throats in a remote river station—five or six times. The reader, a well-known American actor, might not have been the first choice to do a story by a British author writing about British characters, but his reading is so magnificent, so measured and beautiful, that it is hard to imagine anybody doing it better.
When it comes to the recording of the audio versions of my own books, I have had the good fortune to have publishers who seem to take infinite pains to get just the right reader for the task. The job of reading the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels was given to Lisette Lecat, a South African-born actress who now lives in the United States. Lisette’s performance over the course of the 14 novels that currently make up the series has been flawless, and she has, for many people, become the voice of my Botswana heroine, Mma Ramotswe. I have also been extremely lucky with the readers of my other series—every one of them, I feel, sounds just right.
What is it that makes a reader perfect, as Lisette Lecat is? I think that the most important quality is intimacy in the voice. A good audiobook reader must sound as if he or she is reading to you, the listener, and not addressing a much wider, less personal audience. An audiobook should sound like the bedtime stories we listened to as children—stories that are addressed to us and to nobody else. That is the most important requirement, even if there are others. These include the ability to do different voices for different characters. That is something that I admire greatly in a good audiobook reader. I was fortunate enough to have Hugh Laurie read on my Portuguese Irregular Verbs series. In those books he managed to be three totally credible different German professors. He later became much more famous with “House,” but I hope he returns to recording audiobooks one day. Anybody can act on television—rather fewer can do a brilliant audiobook. Please come back, Mr Laurie: I shall willingly write you further books!
Alexander McCall Smith is the author of more than 60 books for adults, teens and children. The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Café, the 15th installment in his best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, will be published later this year.