Between the Sheets...with Karen White
Romance Narrators: You’re about to celebrate your 20th anniversary of working in the audiobook industry. Amazing! How has the business changed over those years? How has the work itself changed?
Karen: Wow. This business has changed SO much since I started working as a secondary editor for Dan Musselman at Dove Audio of Beverly Hills back in 1998! (I was an actor recently relocated to LA from Boston, looking to get into audiobooks and this was the first gig I could get).
As an example, Dove (which no longer exists) primarily produced abridged books read by celebrities. There would be a veritable crowd working on the book in the studio in addition to the narrator – recording engineer, director, producer – compared to how the majority of books are created these days (one lone narrator wearing all the hats).
Unabridged audiobooks were so expensive to produce that they were primarily made for libraries and as “rentals”, kind of like Blockbuster for videos (remember them, anybody?). They’d send you a giant box with many cassette tapes in it and when you finished you’d send it back and then you could order another one.
In 1999, I started working for one of those companies, Books-on-Tape, in their brand spanking new Los Angeles studio which they used, ironically, to transition from using home studio narrators (who were literally cutting tape with razors to edit) to hiring LA actors to record. We recorded digitally but I remember that a hard drive big enough to hold a book weighed a good 25 lbs.!
For narrators back then, a big difference is that starting out, we’d cast people who didn’t have experience but they’d work with directors and engineers who would teach them the ropes. Also, everything was done “straight record” instead of punch and roll, so you really needed a director to mark the script for the editor. The narrator only had to do her job.
The other big change is that since audiobook production costs have decreased and the number of audiobooks increased, the number of books written by women and people of color has risen. I don’t think there are any numbers out there comparing the difference, but as publishing budgets still skew toward white males, so follow audio. But, it is slowly changing and that has made a big difference for those of use who are not white males.
Romance Narrators: You were recently featured in a Washington Post article called “What Does Passion Sound Like? How 5 Audiobook Narrators Talk Sexy.” You spoke about narrating love scenes so listeners don’t feel like creepy voyeurs. Can you tell us more about that?
Karen: Well, that was a comment Melinda at AudioGals made, but I think it’s the old acting rule – you can’t play emotion or tone or style or “sexy” – you can only play action. I want the listener to feel what they are feeling rather than hear sexy sounds and the only way to do that, as we are taught ad nauseum in acting classes, is to focus on what the characters are doing to each other, the affect he wants to have on her, for example. Then my vocal training kicks in to reveal what’s going on through the breath and sound of my voice.
Romance Narrators: Tell us about your beautiful evolution as a writer! Where can we read your books? Do you have a pen name? Do you plan to narrate your own work?
Karen: I’ve always been a storyteller – I remember as a little kid, coming back from a vacation and telling my friends about things that had happened and having the argument in my head that it wasn’t really lying to embellish my tales a bit, it was just making the story better. But I’ve always struggled with an extremely judgmental inner editor.
I created shows through improv with other performers (primarily updated versions of classic Commedia dell’Arte) as well as various performance art type pieces with students and choreographers, but I just couldn’t get around the voice in my head to sit down and write.
Then, a few years ago, I spoke about audiobooks at a library fundraiser. Another speaker was the editor of a regional magazine, Salt, and he invited me to write a short piece about the movie business, saying, “I can just tell you have stories inside.” Or something like that.
I stewed on that for a day or so and then sat down, wrote a little piece, and they published it with few edits. That experience percolated for another year or so – I was thinking I’d maybe try a humorous blog, return to my lapsed cooking blog or do a parenting thing. I can only imagine how my kids would’ve loved that! I had an idea for a middle grade series about girls and soccer, and started writing that with an old theater friend. Being able to send scenes off to her via Google Docs seemed to be the key to getting around my editor.
When she was unable to continue, I decided to start on another idea, a romance series set in Boston, with a Shakespeare company as a connecting thread. I decided to set it in 1988, during the time that I was a young actor in Boston and that has made it a tough sell for your typical romance publisher, but it’s been a fun journey. I am still working to sell this book, currently titled THE WAY YOU MAKE ME FEEL, and am at work on book number two. I’ll keep everyone posted as I am determined to get it out soon even if I have to publish it myself!
After running a poll on my blog about my pen name, I am 99% sure I am going with “K.E. White”. I wasn’t in the market for a pseudonym – a way to distance my writing from my real life or my narrating career. If I could, I’d publish with my own name. However, a very popular writer of women’s fiction already uses my name so I’ve been advised to use something else.
As for narrating my own fiction, I’m on the fence. On the one hand, I know I’d get my quirky sense of humor and I really know the characters and story. Plus I’d work for cheap. On the other, it’d be fun to hear someone else’s take on it. So…still up in the air!
Romance Narrators: Yes, please keep us posted! We want to read your work! You wrote and narrated a piece for NEVERTHELESS WE PERSISTED, which is nominated for an Audie this year for Best Original Work. Congratulations! Tell us about the piece you created.
Karen: I actually wrote two pieces, one is a short essay called FAITH and the other is a poem called THE BOX. I was in a writing group for a year or so and the leader would give us prompts each month. As you might guess, Faith’s prompt was faith. It’s a topic that has always been fascinating to me, a lapsed Catholic now living in the south where everybody goes to church and my kids are what we call “missionaries of atheism”. The Box, which shares a title with my absolute favorite improv game, is about regret. Another topic that swims in my head on a regular basis. I was so honored to be included in this amazing collection and it was a real eye opener to narrate my own work for the first time.
Romance: Eye opening how?
Karen: Can I just direct you to this blog post that I wrote right after I recorded my pieces?
Romance Narrators: Yes indeed! Why repeat yourself? You and Jill Shalvis have become a wonderful narrator/author pairing over the years. You’ve done 20 books together? What is that like to return to an author’s work again and again? Do you feel like you understand her on a deeper level after so much time spent in her worlds?
Karen: Oh, yes! There’s something about Jill’s sense of humor that I just get. When I read her words, her angst and neuroses-ridden inner monologues as well as her sweetly crabby dialogue, it actually feels like my words. If you took all my funny moments in life and edited out the boring bits.
Generally, my least favorite time in the recording process is the start of a new book. It always seems to take a good chunk of time to find the sweet spot where I’m riding the wave of the story instead of paddling along hoping for a wave to show up (I say this like I’m a surfer, but although I love the ocean, surfing terrifies me). With a writer that I get to return to again and again, like Jill or Julie James or Jamie Farrell, I’m ready to dive in from minute one.
Romance Narrators: One look at your Audible catalog and it’s clear how versatile you are in your work. Mysteries! Romance! Children’s! Classics! How-Tos! No one can pigeonhole you, lady. How do you shift so effortlessly between genres? Is your approach the same? Do you happen to have a genre where you feel most at home?
Karen: I feel so lucky that I get to narrate such a wide variety of genres because it keeps me from getting stuck in a rut as a performer. Of course, every book is different and requires a beginner’s mind approach, but being able to go from a scholarly book about immigration (THE MIDDLE OF EVERYWHERE) to a quirky cozy mystery (THE BATTERED BODY) to a book that examines the contractual burdens hamstringing creative workers via a legal battle between the makers of the Barbie and Bratz dolls (YOU DON’T OWN ME) to romantic suspense (CONVENIENT LIES) – it’s hard to get bored (and that was my actual February recording schedule). What I love about doing non-fiction books, whether history, self-help or whatever is that I have very interesting things to talk about at dinner parties. But of course I love the fun ride of a fiction story.
Romance Narrators: With such a variety of work, it may be hard to choose, but can you tell us about an audiobook of which you are particularly proud?
Karen: This past summer I recorded a beautiful historical fiction title (along with Elizabeth Wiley) written by an author who’s also a friend, Wiley Cash. We’d met at several events, I loved his first two books and when he told me he’d been thinking of my voice when writing his third, THE LAST BALLAD, I was so excited. When it finally happened a year and a half later, I was really intimidated because I didn’t want to let him down and his previous audiobooks were so well done. Also it has a huge cast of characters with a whole range of accents. Luckily, it was well received (won an Earphone) and he’s very happy with it. Phew.
Romance Narrators: What exciting projects do you have coming up?
Karen: More Jill Shalvis books – RAINY DAY FRIENDS and THE GOOD LUCK SISTER for Harlequin. I’ll be doing a dual narration with Joe Arden for the first time on what looks like a very funny book by Pippa Grant, STUD IN THE STACKS for Tantor.
Keep up with Karen online:
The Last Ballad https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062682024/the-last-ballad
Rainy Day Friends https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062850539/rainy-day-friends
The Good Luck Sister https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062873941/the-good-luck-sister
Stud in the Stacks https://tantor.com/stud-in-the-stacks-pippa-grant.html
The Middle of Everywhere https://amzn.to/2weFgxW
You Don’t Own Me https://amzn.to/2KB2EZx
The Battered Body https://amzn.to/2JVbVut
Convenient Lies https://amzn.to/2HR9JmV
Links to people mentioned in interview:
Dan Musselman https://www.linkedin.com/in/dan-musselman-13175543/
Jill Shalvis http://jillshalvis.com/
Julie James https://juliejames.com/
Jamie Farrell http://www.jamiefarrellbooks.com/
Pippa Grant http://pippagrant.com/stud-in-the-stacks/