Audiobooks » 2020 Audie Awards

The 2020 Audie Awards: Best Multi-Voiced Performance

recommended by Mary Burkey & Robin Whitten

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of September 11, 2001 by Garrett Graff

WINNER

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of September 11, 2001
by Garrett Graff

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If your idea of an audiobook is a single narrator reading a book out loud, think again. These days many audiobooks are created as dramatic performances with a cast of dozens. Veteran audiobook reviewers Robin Whitten and Mary Burkey talk us through the finalists of the 2020 Audie Awards' 'multi-voiced performance' category—and the books that have been brought to life by dedicated teams of actors, editors and producers.

Interview by Sophie Roell

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of September 11, 2001 by Garrett Graff

WINNER

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of September 11, 2001
by Garrett Graff

Read
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We’re talking about the best audiobooks—those celebrated by this year’s Audie Awards—and the category we’re looking at is ‘multi-voiced performance.’ This format of having multiple narrators seems to be very popular. Can you explain what kind of audiobooks we’re discussing?

Robin: If we’re going to talk about multi-voiced performance, I think we should talk about the two different styles of multiple voices. One is multiple voices that actually never talk to one another in the production. So, for example, this year’s winner in the Short Stories/Collections category was Full Throttle by Joe Hill, where each story is read by a different narrator. That is pretty much always called a ‘multiple voice recording’ or an ‘ensemble recording.’

The contrast is a group of actors who are interacting with each other, as in a radio drama style. These are audiobooks like Angels in America, which was a finalist for Audiobook of the Year, and This Evil Eye, which was the winner in the Audie Awards 2020 Original Work category.

Would you agree with that, Mary?

Mary: Yes, but I would add in a third. So firstly, as Robin said, there are audiobooks like those short stories, that have different narrators all the way through but the characters never interact in any way, shape or form. At the other end of the spectrum are audiobooks that are like audio dramas, which have almost an old-school, radio show feel to them.

So different narrators are talking to each other?

Mary: Yes, one of the criteria for the ‘Audio Drama’ category is that it must have interaction. That’s the only one of the Audie Awards where there does need to be interaction. So, for example, Angels in America has the original, professional cast of the play and it sounds as if they’re in the same room together.

“Podcasts are kind of the gateway drug to audiobooks”

But there’s also a third type of multi-voiced production. Let’s say it’s a book that’s told in alternate chapters by a male and a female character, like Gone Girl, with terrific dual narration by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne. The story is told in multiple voices, but you don’t feel like they’re in the same room doing a drama together.

Robin: Yes, and what happens with those is that once one narrator is in a chapter from a particular point of view, they may have to do character voices within that chapter, but when they switch, those same characters will come up, but are spoken by the other narrator.

OK, OK, so just to clarify, in Gone Girl, there’s the husband and the wife, telling their stories in different voices, one male and one female, but they then both have to narrate other people as well, like, say, the detective.

Mary: Yes, and that gets into a little pet peeve of mine in evaluating audiobooks. Every once in a while when you listen to one of these alternate chapter books, one narrator makes one character have a Southern accent, but when the same character is spoken by the other narrator, there’s no Southern accent. Many times these full cast audios are not recorded in the same room. They may even be recorded in different cities and then the editors put them together. But there has to be an alignment in how you create these characters across the board.

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One book that does this really well and was a finalist in the Audie Awards teen category is Lovely War. This is a book with multiple characters voiced by different actors; it’s beautifully, incredibly done by an all-star cast of audiobook narrators. I’d give Lovely War full marks for having the character who is, say, Hades reading all of the other characters and reflecting the way that those other narrators voice their characters.

Let’s look at the finalists in the Audie Awards’ Multi-Voiced Performance category individually. Just to make sure I’ve got this straight: each of these will be a literal, reading out loud of a print book but with different actors reading the different characters.

Mary: Yes, and it might be in any one of those fashions we mentioned—whether it’s people in the same room, alternate chapters, short stories. It could be any or all of the above, but just one that represents multiple voices.

Which of the books on the multi-voiced performance shortlist would you like to start with?

Robin: One I found really interesting is 200 Women. This is a series of interviews with 200 women around the world, from all different walks of life, many of whom I had never heard of. Some of them are people that you might know—celebrity chefs or politicians—but many of them are just women living in totally different kinds of circumstances.

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This team of New Zealand journalists and photographers went around the world and interviewed them and photographed them in place. It’s a fascinating program. There is an accompanying coffee table book with stunning photographs. This would definitely be a case where you’d want to look through the book as well as listen to these women answering questions. It’s a very interesting, very unusual book.

Is it an oral history?

Robin: It’s more like cultural commentary. The full title is 200 Women: Who Will Change the Way You See the World. They’re being asked exactly the same five questions. So you’ll be asked the same question as a woman who is herding goats in Afghanistan. It’s stunning.

Mary: I think 200 Women is a good example of how many audiobooks today, especially the multi-voiced ones, have really strong appeal for podcast listeners. Podcasts are kind of the gateway drug to audiobooks. That whole idea of social history, finding out about a culture, little snippets, feels very comfortable to podcast listeners. This is a title that can bring podcast listeners into the audiobook fold.

Let’s move on to Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Tell me about this book.

Mary: Oh my God, I love that book so much. That’s another one where the audiobook brings what’s written on the page so much more to life. It has many different characters telling the same story from different points of view, and you get to know the characters through how all of the other characters see them. It’s a perfect example of alignment in how the characters are portrayed and also the differences, by the way the emotional content comes through in the audiobook.

Robin: It’s a great example of using so many narrators and getting the fun out of the book.

Now we’re at Dooku: Jedi Lost, part of the Star Wars story.

Robin: Star Wars is a franchise that will never stop, including in audiobooks.

Mary: I have served on a lot of different audiobook committees including the Notable Children’s Recordings. There is no deep dark secret about the deliberations of that particular committee: it’s open for people to come in and listen, so I’m not breaking any big secrets here. So I’ll just say that there was a Star Wars book, years ago, that made our Notable Children’s Recordings list. You might say to yourself, ‘Star Wars, that’s not fine literature!’ But I always like to use a seesaw analogy for audiobooks. There can be a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that everyone recognizes as the finest literature, that gets a narrator who brings it down to not-so-good. The very best book in the world can have a terrible production and if you listen to it, you would think it was a terrible book. Conversely, there is the perfect balance. A lot of the time, that’s what the Audie Awards are going for: a book that is a great representative of its genre—because the Audie Awards have so many different genres: romance, business, etc—with perfect narration and audio representation.

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Then again, there are the occasional books that are not the world’s best literature, but the audiobook production makes that book sing and turns it into something that brings a smile to your face. And the Dooku: Jedi Lost Star Wars book, with the sounds of the light sabres and the absolute re-creation of those voices from the movies, just makes it a joy to listen to.

Let’s move on to Hey Kiddo, a graphic memoir by Jarrett Krosoczka, which was another finalist in the multi-voice performance category, with a cast of more than 40. This book also won the teenage category in this year’s Audie Awards, so I’ll direct people who want to know more about it to that discussion. But briefly, what’s it about?

Mary: Hey, Kiddo was a National Book Award finalist as a graphic memoir, recognising the literary power of Krosoczka’s personal story of his mother’s heroin addiction and childhood with alcoholic grandparents. It’s told from the point of view of Krosoczka at age 17, and teens forge an immediate connection with the author’s description of how his artistic talent helped him survive his upbringing.

Krosoczka co-produced the audiobook with Scholastic Audio’s Paul Gagne, creating a labour of love where the work was literally rewritten and reshaped into a new aural work.

So finally the winner in this category—not surprisingly, given it also won Audiobook of the Year—was The Only Plane in the Sky: an Oral History of 9/11. We’ll refer anyone wanting to know more about it to your previous comments, but just in terms of the multi-voice aspect, this audiobook has a 45-person cast. We hear the voices of astronauts, firefighters, teachers, fighter pilots, artists, family members of victims.

Robin: It’s a spectacular production from the printed book. It was an incredible labour of love and meticulous care, with 45 actors and Holter Graham doing the surrounding narrative. The integration of all that material is extraordinary.

Mary: It also points out to the large amount of teamwork that has to go into an audiobook. It’s different from a solitary author sitting down and writing words. An author does have an editor and a copyeditor and the same is true for an audiobook. Some audiobooks definitely display that quality production factor, that amazing sound quality, the editing. The producers are the hidden heroes of audiobooks.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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Mary Burkey

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus, Ohio. She has served on all four of the American Library Association's audiobook award committees and currently serves as chair of the Audio Publishers Association's Audies Awards. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013).

Robin Whitten

Robin Whitten is the founder and editor of AudioFile Magazine. Started in 1992, AudioFile reviews and recommends audiobooks as a multi-platform resource, publishing in print, e-newsletters, the AudioFileMagazine.com web site, and seasonal programs like AudiobookSYNC for teen audiences. AudioFile also maintains the Talent & Industry Guide, the sourcebook for audiobook professionals. Robin has served on the board of Directors of the Audio Publishers Association, and as an Audie Awards judge.

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Mary Burkey

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus, Ohio. She has served on all four of the American Library Association's audiobook award committees and currently serves as chair of the Audio Publishers Association's Audies Awards. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013).

Robin Whitten

Robin Whitten is the founder and editor of AudioFile Magazine. Started in 1992, AudioFile reviews and recommends audiobooks as a multi-platform resource, publishing in print, e-newsletters, the AudioFileMagazine.com web site, and seasonal programs like AudiobookSYNC for teen audiences. AudioFile also maintains the Talent & Industry Guide, the sourcebook for audiobook professionals. Robin has served on the board of Directors of the Audio Publishers Association, and as an Audie Awards judge.