Entertainment & Arts

The shock, nerves and embarrassment of recording audiobooks

Books and headphones

Audiobooks are increasing in popularity but many authors admit they have a phobia about reading their own books. What is it like for those writers who record audio versions of their work? Two writers give their contrasting experiences to BBC Radio 4's Front Row.

"I was sitting in a recording studio going, 'this is filth'."

For Caitlin Moran, recording her best-selling memoir How To Be a Woman entailed overcoming a lot of embarrassment.

The book has candid memories of her adolescence and she admits it was in the recording studio that she actually read the book through for the first time and was "absolutely amazed" at what she found.

With its "visceral descriptions", she says it made her think: "I am a really vile person and I put this in a book."

Moran says she had to change her posture and voice, to cope with being watched by her publishers and a sound engineer.

"I thought if I look embarrassed, they'll be embarrassed and we'll get caught in a terrible spiral - a vortex of embarrassment - where we all might go, 'Ah, I can't stand it, I'm English.'

"I felt very noble as I was doing it because I felt I was saving everyone in that room from terrible, terrible embarrassment... and hopefully the listener, too."

Image caption How To Be a Woman has won Caitlin Moran a number of awards

The audiobook went on sale on 1 March, and looking back on the recording, Moran believes the experience gives the writer "the most total experience of your own work".

"When you're writing, it is like you're in a fever or a fug and you're not really conscious of what you're writing, it just sort of comes out of you. So it is the first reckoning really, to read it out loud."

She says it gave her a whole new perspective on the book.

"In an odd way, I kind of got to know myself.

"I felt like I was introducing myself to myself and I was really talking to my teenage self.

'Incredibly nervous'

"I'd never really felt any kind of self-pity for myself before in my life - but reading that book, I suddenly thought, 'Oh my God, you were so vulnerable and you screwed it up so many times all on your own - I feel really, really sorry for you.'"

For Lady Antonia Fraser, reading her memoir about life with Harold Pinter - Must You Go? - for BBC Radio 4 was very "tough" as the book concludes with Pinter's death.

Prior to this, she had always turned down requests to record audiobooks.

"I've always given the same answer - I'm not an actor and I have a great respect for actors. I'll write and they can talk," she says.

She had initially turned down the request from her agent, but a family friend, the director Ian Rickson, persuaded her and helped her rehearse, to give her enough confidence.

But still she was incredibly nervous and admits she could not help but break down while recording the last part of her book.

"I felt intensely nervous. I said to them if I break down, you've got to promise me you won't use that recording - because the sob is not in voice, the sob is in the story and I feel very strongly about that.

"And the first time I did break down - who can blame me - and immediately I did it again and I thought of the voice of my principal, Lucy Sutherland, in Oxford in the 1950s and I delivered it as she might have delivered it, and there was no sob in my voice."

But she admits she has never been able to listen back to the end segment.

The reaction after it was broadcast was a revelation to her.

"It had an extraordinary and very touching response," she says.

Image caption Lady Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter lived together for 33 years

"I found walking along the street, people would come up to me and say, 'I have to tell you how I loved your book and how moved I was.'

"Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I get lots of readers' letters... but I'd never had that kind of direct response.

"They were literally responding to the reading and my voice reading our story."

For Caitlin Moran, recording the audiobook gives conclusion to How To Be a Woman.

"It really feels like I've put the book to bed now - to the point where I think any author that didn't do an audiobook, a reading aloud of their book, still wouldn't really know what they had written.

"It turns into something else in your head. You remember it as something different and it's only in the act of reading it out loud that you actually go, 'Oh no, this is what it was', and you become the reader rather than just the writer. It's the final act of writing the book."

Caitlin Moran and Lady Antonia Fraser are onBBC Radio 4's Front Rowon BBC Radio 4, Thursday 1 March, 19:15 GMT. Or you can listen again viaiPlayer.

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