The romantic portrayal of the writer that’s popularised in the public imagination is that of a solitary individual who works alone in a room that’s full of bookshelves stacked with volumes and volumes of books. It is a stereotypical image that has been glamorised, perhaps even glorified. Like all persistent stereotypes, there is a brief glimmer of fleeting truth embedded in it.
The writer’s journey may begin hunched in front of a notebook—or laptop—but it doesn’t end there. We may write ‘The End’ when the story is done, but in real life, that’s a new beginning—one where the solitary journey comes to an end and the collaboration begins.
I have a chat with Alex Kiester, the author of In Her Skin. The unique facet of Kiester’s journey is that her manuscript went directly from manuscript to audiobook. We have a chat about her journey from written to spoken word.
Dipa: Are audiobooks new or do you think they hark back to a time when we narrated stories by the campfire?
Alex: That’s an interesting question. I think storytelling in any capacity can probably be traced back to the days of telling tales exclusively in spoken word, often around the campfire. And audiobooks—one of the most modern and innovative form of book publishing—is probably the most like our original mode of communication. But the Audible production team heightens that experience by including multiple narrators, sound effects, and music. Listening to an audiobook these days is almost like having your own private theatre production in your head.
Dipa: Tell us about the Audible experience.
Alex: Audible is doing amazing things with the spoken word: sound effects, a full cast of actors—it is not just one actor reading everything out loud. And the best part is that it’s condensed to fit in your pocket. It’s both completely immersive and totally mobile.
My dad had never listened to a single audiobook till his own daughter published one. Now, he’s completely hooked and listens to Audible daily. So, publishing with Audible allowed me to convert a few traditional readers like my dad, but it also allowed me to reach listeners I never would have reached without that platform.
Amazon’s algorithm understands, very accurately, the people who will enjoy their books, so their recommendations carry a lot of weight. The individual narrators have a huge draw, too. Diehard Audible fans have their favourite narrators and will listen to anything in which they’re cast.
Dipa: Your book In Her Skin had three different narrators for each point of view. How did you go about selecting the voice actors?
Alex: When we first started working together, my editor asked me to look out for narrators I was particularly drawn to, so I began keeping a list. While I didn’t have specific casting requests for the characters of Sloan or Rachel, I did have a strong idea for the character of Meggie.
The narrator I had in mind—Cassandra Campbell—was perfect. Campbell narrated Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. In the audiobook, her performance balanced fragility with strength in such a nuanced way. She was at once tentative and able to maintain her backbone and strength, and that’s exactly what I had in mind for Meggie.
When I requested Campbell, my editor very kindly told me that it was a long shot. As the narrator of one of the most popular books of this decade, she was understandably in demand. But she made the request any way. Six months later, when we began casting, I got an email from my editor saying, “We got Cassandra!” I screamed—very loudly.
The production team recommended the other two actresses and when I listened to samples of their narrations, I fell in love. Bahni Turpin plays the detective, Rachel, and she’s got a great quality to her voice. She perfectly balances the grit and wryness that Rachel has. And as the narrator of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, she was a catch.
And Brittany Pressley, the actress who plays Sloan, captures all of Sloan’s nuance; she’s flirtatious and strong and confident, but not without a vulnerability of her own. Pressley hit that combination right out of the park. I feel like I won the lottery with all three of them.
Dipa: You studied the Meisner Technique—what was the most useful tip you learnt that you saw your voice actors apply?
Alex: I was both an actor and casting assistant, so I’ve had the opportunity to not only act myself, but also be behind the camera for a lot of other people’s auditions. Most times, the casting director doesn’t have specifications or preconceived notions of what they’re looking for—they’re just looking for someone to bring a character a life. They’re looking for someone to come in and bring something that everyone in the room can feel.
With In Her Skin, it was the same thing: we cast the actresses from hearing them perform their previous books and I knew almost immediately that each of them had something special and beautiful to offer. Then, we turned it over to them to do their thing.
Dipa: What should authors be prepared for when their book gets ready for an audio format? What was the most challenging part of the experience for you?
Alex: If I’m being honest, every part of the journey was challenging in its own way: the writing process, the editing process, even signing the contract had its challenges—I had to make sure I understood what I was signing. And even after your book is out in the world, the work isn’t over. In fact, the ongoing publicity has been one of the scariest parts for me. You really have to put yourself out there in an immediate way.
So, I think my advice to writers who are embarking on their own publishing process—in the audiobook format or otherwise—would be to be totally present and committed throughout each step of the process. Give each next step of the journey your attention and dedication, so when your book is out in the world, you know you’ve done everything in your power to make it a success.
Dipa: Unlike other creative industries like the music business, writing is still very much considered a solitary profession. Why do you think so many writers have difficulties collaborating?
Alex: Writers can sometimes be over-attached to their work, myself included. But no job in the world exists in a vacuum. And staying within that solitary bubble can be very limiting because you can’t grow within your comfort zone.
Dipa: What’s one piece of advice you have for writers who’re struggling to collaborate with others who have a different vision of their work?
Alex: I believe it’s important to both trust your gut and trust other people, which admittedly can be a tricky balancing act. Letting go of your ego is key. Last year I received feedback on my latest manuscript from my agent and a handful of beta readers that just tore me up. I was upset about it for two months. But when I was able to finally swallow my pride and absorb what they had to say, I realized they all had a point. One huge part of my book just wasn’t working. So, I got back to work and my book is so much better because of the edits I made based on their comments.
I think a key part of receiving feedback or collaborating in general is listening to what’s repeatedly being said about your work. If one out of five people say they aren’t responding to something, that may be a matter of personal preference or style. But if four out of five people are saying the same thing, it’s important to listen.