What a thrill it was to chat with Robin Whitten, founder and editor of AudioFile Magazine. I rely on their reviews for all of the audiobooks I check out at my library (yes! You can check out audiobooks at your library). Today, Robin and I chatted about how a narrator can bring you deeper into a story or drag you further out of it, how a good narrator can redeem an average book (and vice versa) and why the movie version of The Golden Compass didn’t work. If you have never read The Golden Compass, I highly recommend you take Robin’s advice and experience it on audio. It’s a full cast production and it is truly something special.
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Kate Winslet narrated audiobooks:
The Twits, The Minpins, and The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl
Matilda by Roald Dahl
You’re a Bad Man, Mr. Gum by Andy Stanton
Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
The Golden Compass movie
His Dark Materials television series
Other audiobooks narrated by Sean Barrett (voice of lorick Byrnison)
Neil Gaiman self-narrated audiobooks
Always by Morris Gleitzman
Always is the final book in the story of Felix, the hero of Morris Gleitzman’s Once, Then, Now, After, Soon, and Maybe
The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny
The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie, read by Alfred Molina and a Full Cast
The Iliad, narrated by Anton Lesser
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
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Hello, Bookworms welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where I get to know interesting people by asking them about their favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today my guest is Robin Whitten, founder and editor of AudioFile Magazine, which is my go-to guide for everything audiobooks. Robin chose a book that is not only great in print, but absolutely masterful on audio. And we do discuss the difference. Join me today as I chat with Robin about the beautifully produced children’s fantasy classic, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.
Julie Strauss: Hi Robin! Welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Robin Whitten: Nice to be here, Julie.
JS: My listeners know how I feel about audiobooks. I’m rather passionate and rather opinionated about them. And now that I have you here, we can do a deep dive. So I want to start, before we get to what you do now, I want to start with your reading life in general, how you became a reader and what your reading life was when you were a kid.
RW: Well, let’s see, I was a reader as a kid, and you know, all through, college, I was a reader. And then maybe as life got a little busier, less reading. Until I started some work that had me traveling a great deal in the car in the late 1960s. Actually no, I must’ve been a little later than that. In the 1970s. And I wasn’t getting any reading done. I was working and driving around, and a friend suggested that I try an audio. Ahe had been a traveling sales person and she said, this is the only thing. There’s nowhere in Maine; there’s no radio reception. And anyway, audiobooks are so great. So I went to the library and I took out my very first audiobook, which was a John Le Carré mystery called Call For the Dead. I remember exactly. And my life changed. From that moment on, I listened to audiobooks. I was fascinated by the form, by the creative performance side of audiobooks, by how the listening experience changed how I perceived the story. Here we are 30-some years later listening to audiobooks and talking about audiobooks, and the industry, of course, has exploded since then.
JS: Now you do a lot more than listen and talk about audiobooks. Tell me how you parlayed your love of audiobooks into a career.
RW: So as a reader, turning into a listener, I was fascinated by it. And I talked to the director of our public library, who was also a listener, and he was telling me about how our library couldn’t keep audiobooks on their shelves. There was so much demand that the audiobooks were just flying off the shelves. And so we talked about how the idea of an audiobook being a performance and that some performances were better than others. That it was something that should be, and could be reviewed the way music or a concert or films are reviewed. And so he let me know that at that time, libraries were acquiring a lot of audiobooks, but there were no reviews that had to do specifically with the audiobook. So they were just basing acquisitions on the reviews of the printed book. And he and I agreed this is not the same thing. There is so much creative performance and experience that goes into an audiobook. They should be reviewed as performances. This was the days of desktop publishing and newsletters that you could write yourself. So I thought I’ll just do a little newsletter on audiobooks. Would that be fun? He said, oh, that sounds like a great idea. And we can send it around to libraries. And anyway, that’s how it started. And in 1992 in June, I published my first newsletter AudioFile, which reviewed 25 audio.
JS: That you had listened to? All of them that you would listen to, and then you reviewed them for performance quality?
RW: Yes. And you know, they weren’t all positive reviews. Mostly positive reviews, but that’s how it started. We thought, it being a library publication, that there should be more people than just one listener. So I started talking among other librarians and people that I ran into who were or interested in audiobooks and recruiting people to other reviews. So along the model of professional reviewing the way it’s done for library journal and publications, that’s where AudioFile started. And it hasn’t changed all that much, just gotten a lot bigger. And more formats. Audiobooks have changed because this was all cassette in 1992. And then CDs coming in, and then MP3 CDs, and now digital downloads almost exclusively for audiobooks. But there’s been so many changes. But you know, that’s what I listen to is for the performance of an audiobook. What that experience is, that’s what I want to talk about. We have now almost a hundred reviewers who review for AudioFile.
JS: Let’s say a commonly well-respected author writes a book that’s maybe not her best. Let’s say that it’s considered the worst of her lot. But the performance or the audio is a fantastic, let’s say a full cast kind of performance. That would get a really good review in your magazine where it might not get a good book review in the New York Times. Is that how it works?
RW: It would probably say, the performance saved this less-than-stellar entry in a series. I mean, especially sometimes in long running series, they’re not all the very best one. The latest one is not the very best one, you know? And that’s something that a skilled narrator can do. They can make the most of what’s there to make the experience good. And so even though, I mean, I’m thinking of mysteries sometimes are a little disappointing, but if the narrator has done a wonderful job with characters, then you enjoy those characters even though the plot maybe was a little disappointing or you figured it out before the end. You know, some, any of the things that sometimes, in a print review might be called out as not the best example of the author’s work, but it can also go the other way. Because the narrators can wreck it.
JS: Yes. Oh, we’re going to get to that. As far as genre goes, do you have any personal preferences in terms of genre or are you very democratized?
RW: Well, no, I mean, I do, I personally have favorites. I love to listen to a lot of audiobooks in various mystery/thriller/suspense category. That would be my first choice, probably off the top. But one of the things that I’ve done in the last couple of years is we have a podcast called Behind the Mic with AudioFile magazine. And we talk about one audiobook each day for like five minutes, very short, little tiny book talk. And, there are four of them that share the – we have a host, so the guest, we are the guests on the podcast. So every month, I have a week of doing four or five little episodes on audiobooks. And I have pick my own five. So instead of just having Robin’s week is always mysteries, I have tried very hard to pick other things that interest me in general, but I might not pick up as my very first listening choice. And a lot of them I’ve found are non-fiction. And I think one of the things about audiobooks is that you really can love the one you’re with if it’s a good performance. Sometimes I will listen to a narrator who I really like, not particularly interested in the topic, but I love the way they tell a story, and then they surprise me because there, you know, if the story is good and it does pan out as being as interesting as I thought, it’s a surprise. I’ve judged in a lot of competitions and you don’t get to choose what you’re listening to. And again, I have been surprised that the really good stuff might not be something I would ever pick up. And yet here I was, I’m fascinated. I’m carried away with it. So, you know, although I have personal favorites, I also try to stay open and I love to be surprised.
JS: Is there anything that will turn you off to a book? Are there narration tics that make you go, no, I can’t sit through this one.
RW: Well, there probably there are a lot. Because I have a very high standard for what I consider great narration, but one thing I can’t stand just right off the top is, basically, screechy children’s voices. You know, when there’s children talking, to me, it completely plays down. The narrator is talking down to the child by trying to imitate a tiny little tinny voice that’s not necessary for the children and is extremely irritating to an adult. I think if you notice too much that the narrator is, now he’s in his man voice, and now he’s in his woman voice, you know, you shouldn’t even register that. And I think there’s another thing that’s interesting, along those lines, which sometimes happens with celebrities. If you are noticing that celebrity’s voice, then you are out of that story. It takes, particularly with celebrity narrators, whose voices are very well-known, they have to kind of tamp it down. They have to work harder to get into the story and to keep us in the story so we don’t keep remembering that it’s Tom Hanks reading to me. Right? That he’s not there as Tom Hanks, he’s in that story. And we shouldn’t really keep thinking about him because he should be the character.
JS: Are there any celebrities that you think really nail it that, or have done a great version of audiobooks before?
RW: Kate Winslet is a great example. She’s done a few audiobooks. She can be a kind of chameleon in the acting world where she can become whatever character she wants and you just don’t even notice that’s who it is. You’re so inside the story. I think one of the things that’s good about celebrities, cause I’m a bit 50/50, depends on what they’re doing. It’s great for marketing, because it brings people who otherwise might not think about an audiobook to the format. And then hopefully that celebrity has done a great job and they think, oh, this is great, I like audiobooks. So from that point of view, I have to be positive about it. Although I have to say it, isn’t always a success.
JS: So you mentioned, actors doing children’s voices, which leads me automatically to think about what we’re talking about today, The Golden Compass. I took your advice and I listened to it on audio, instead of reading it on paper. First of all, do you remember how you first came across this novel?
RW: I think I do. It was a while ago. At the time, AudioFile was being published. We’d had not quite 10 years. I have a friend who was the head of Listening Library which is now part of Random House. He and I used to talk about audiobooks that he was producing. I mean, he produced all of Judy Blume’s original audiobooks, and many more. Just an exceptional pioneer in children’s audiobooks and relationships with the authors and getting authors excited about children’s audiobooks. So, his name is Tim Ditlow, and he told me about a project that he was collaborating with Bruce Coville, the children’s author, and with an English author that I’d never heard of named Phillip Pullman. And he said, this is really going to be exceptional. We’re going to do this with a full cast. And I thought, oh, that’s interesting. And he said, but we’re going to do it not the way most full cast was done at the time. And the way most full cast is done now, which is with a script and adapted script. We’re going to do unabridged, word-for-word. I said, wow, that’s quite a project there. You know, how many in the cast? Anyway, so I heard about that before it happened. And then when it came out, I got to listen to it. I knew about it, and I met Philip Pullman, and the whole relationship with many parts of this came to life, the people who produced it in the UK, where it was produced, as I say differently, with multiple actors. I guess what we would say is it’s highly edited. It was done like a film, that is, a highly complicated process, a very expensive process. And I’m not sure they’ve ever sort of replicated it. I mean, to some extent because all the people that were involved, all the care that was taken with casting and editing, everything has made it come out as such an exceptional audiobook that is, you know, a high standard for any kind of multi-voice performance.
JS: Do you happen to know, the actors playing the child characters, were they children at the time?
RW: No, they were adults. They were, and it worked perfectly because they weren’t trying to sound like children. They were young, I think, but not that young. I mean, not teenagers. They were all adult actors. And I think there was always a director. This is another thing. The whole thing was very carefully directed. I don’t think they actually rehearsed it, but they did many retakes, because the actors were often in the same room. That’s something else that doesn’t always happen now. You know, the California actor records their paragraphs and the New York actor records that those paragraphs, and then it’s edited together. They’d never see each other. They never actually interact. This was not done that way. These actors were in the same studio.
JS: Will you tell my listeners what this book is about?
RW: In 10 words or less?
JS: In 10 words or less, go! You have 30 seconds.
RW: So the golden compass is the story of a young girl, Lyra Belacqua, who basically comes of age in a world that is familiar and unfamiliar. She’s in a world that is very much like contemporary Oxford colleges or, you know, sometime past. Not too far past. A real world. She discovers that there actually are other worlds, other alternate universes, and she can move between the worlds. It’s a long saga. Three books in the original, His Dark Materials is the name of the first trilogy, and The Golden Compass is the first one. He’s created a universe, multiple universities, multiple worlds, in which there are creatures of all kinds. And I think that’s one of the great appeals of Phillip’s. In His Dark Materials series and The Golden Compass in particular. The daemons, which are the animal spirits that a person has, and there are witches, there are creatures of all kinds, and fascinating characters and lots of steam punk.
JS: Have you ever read it on paper?
RW: What an interesting question. I don’t think I have read it, on. So my only experience is, yes, in audio. And then I’ve seen the two film adaptions.
JS: Oh, there are two?
JS: The reason I ask if you’ve ever read it on paper is because I was enthralled by this book. I almost never read fantasy. And as I was listening to this, I was thinking, am I in love with this book because it is such an incredible audio production? Or because it’s such an incredible book?
RW: I think it’s both. The story is highly emotional, on so many different levels. And I think that’s one of the things that the actors were able to just bring alive in a way that not all readers would get. They bring out that powerful connection between Lyra and Will or the friendship of any of the characters in this. And also the kind of the suspense, the danger, the involvement that the communities within this world, these worlds have, is beautifully conveyed in the audiobook versions. One of the things that I think in the Nicole Kidman film is they just miss that. I don’t know why, exactly. I mean, there was a lot of controversy over the film, but there was just, they really missed bringing out what Phillip obviously has in this story and what is captured in the audiobook, about the connection of the characters and these great emotional and philosophical ideas, and thoughts that are going through it that they’re struggling with and we’re struggling with trying to resolve. It’s a wonderful story that children can enjoy because of the animals. They don’t have to get into all the deeper levels of the philosophy and conflict. I mean, I think that’s what Philip is so brilliant at, because in the tradition of Tolkien and CS Lewis and some of the great British fantasy writers he’s made many stories on many levels of what’s going on. And yet, it was sold first in this country as a children’s book. And then it was actually republished, or rebranded, so that they could bring it to a bigger audience that didn’t have any kind of an age restriction on it. I listened with my son when he was in middle school and we can still, he’s now 35, we can still talk about Lyra and Pantalaimon, her daemon, and the fact that not only do you have this daemon, who is your spirit animal and your conscience and your soul, but you talk to them and they talk back. That is something that’s a very clever trick in the audio because the demons were different actors. In print, what would you make of that? You might hear the same voice talking. If Lyra is speaking to Pantalaimon, and Pantalaimon is speaking back, do we hear the same thing? But in the audio, you have separate voices.
JS: Have you listened to the entire series on audiobooks?
RW: Yes, I have.
JS: And do they all hold up to the first one?
RW: I think so. I mean, it’s essentially the same cast. There are some changes because they were done over a couple years, because obviously Phillip didn’t write them all at once. And there were a few changes. But essentially, they were the same. The Golden Compass will always be my favorites. We haven’t talked about lorek Byrnison, the bear, who is pretty much my favorite character.
JS: If you were to have told me there’s a talking bear, I would’ve thought, oh God. But I agree. Absolute favorite character. So well done. So beautifully acted.
RW: It gives me chills to even talk about it again. But I love that Sean Barrett did the voice for lorek, and he’s one of my favorite actors. He still does audiobooks. A lot of these actors in that original productions are still recording audio. I did look this up because I was trying to remember if this is right, but one of the things that they did was because the actors were actually in the studio together, they took out, with Phillip’s permission, the he said, she said. That was a big deal then. And I think it really helped to make the connection that the narrators have. And also, I think we should talk a little bit about how amazing Philip was as the overall narrator, because he’s not an actor, he’s a writer. I mean, he taught, he was a professor, so he can talk to people. But he had not been in front of a microphone. And, you know, his success as the storyteller narrator within the story is really astonishing, and to me ranks within the very best. I mean, there only a handful of authors that I can say are really at the top, the very top choice for narrators of their own work.
JS: Tell me some of the other authors that you think can do it. Because that’s one for me too, is authors.
RW: Well, you’re going to guess this one, but Neil Gaiman is right up there. He is spectacular. And I actually just discovered another author narrator. I mean, I can think of others, but we’re sort of in the same slightly fantastic worlds, and that is Morris Gleitzman, who is an Australian children’s author, very celebrated and well-known, should be better known in the U.S. Quite spectacular writer. He has a series that the seventh of it has just come out. I think more than a decade he’s taken to write this, but there’s something about, capturing the narrative in a way and putting you in the story. I mean, that doesn’t really sound very special, but when you hear it, you know.
JS: Robin, tell me, what are you reading right now?
RW: Ah, well, actually, that’s why I introduced Morris Gleitzman, because I just finished his new book, which is called Always. And I’m very excited about it. As I say, I’ve listened to a lot of mysteries. I listened to Louise Penny’s Madness of Crowds, which I was excited about. I listened to a new multi-cast Agatha Christie, a story with Alfred Molina, who’s one of my favorite audiobook narrators.
JS: He’s going to be Inspector Gamache. Did you know that?
JS: Yes. They’re making a TV show. She finally approved it. It’s a series produced by the people who produced The Crown and Alfred Molina is going to be on.
RW: Oh, be still my heart! Oh, how interesting. Well, that will be a treat. But you know, I listen to a lot of things, but I just finished the Always book by Morris Gleitzman and, in the same vein with Philip Pullman and The Golden Compass, this is a powerful, very interesting story that I think transcends the intended audience, which is teens, but for adults, it’s a very powerful and effecting, story and performance. It’s one of those, it’s the seventh in this series of this long story. So. we’re at the end and I have to go back! I have to know everything. I’m going to start at book number one, go back and find out this full back story of what happened.
JS: Will you tell my listeners where they can find you and AudioFile and get access to all of this wonderful information?
RW: Yes. On our website, you can browse find recommendations for thousands of audiobooks. We put up new recommendations every week. We also have our podcast, Behind the Mic with AudioFile magazine, and you can get it from our website or apple podcasts. Anywhere you get your podcasts. And we have another podcast that is a little bit different. It’s called Audiobook Break, and it is a serialized audiobook. It’s an audiobook that is been taken into chapters and released in episodes. The book that we’re doing right now is The Iliad. So it’s the original chapters. The narrator is Anton Lesser, who is a wonderful British actor. One to two chapters a week, but you can listen to the whole thing. Stories were serialized. David Copperfield was the first one we did. It was originally released, as a one chapter at a time. We thought it would be a great idea to try that with some of the brilliant audiobooks that have been done and see what podcast listeners think of this sort of short format. It’s taking the format of a podcast, in the sense of the length, and kind of putting it together. You access an audiobook when maybe 10 hours sounds like too much listening.
JS: Robin, I want to thank you for joining me today. This has been so lovely talking to you and about one of my favorite subjects, audiobooks, and I hope you will come back anytime you have a book you want to talk to me about.
RW: I would love to, Julie. This has been very fun. Had a lovely conversation. Thanks.
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