EVEN THOUGH Flo Gibson has narrated more than 200 books, she would be the first to say that recorded books will never replace reading the printed word.
"Most books are read in silence," she says. With book in hand, a reader can set his own pace. Being able to linger over the words and let memory mingle with the author's meaning is, after all, what makes reading a good book so satisfying.
But, she is quick to add, a good book, well narrated, can come alive in a special way. "A narrator tries to read a book in a way that is true to the author's intention." And although narrating a book is not a dramatization of the story -- "it is quite different from acting" -- the best recordings are done when the narrator is engaged in "an intimate one-to-one encounter with the listener."
For the past nine years, Gibson has recorded audio books for the Library of Congress' "Talking Books" program -- The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped which provides recreational reading matter for anyone who can't read standard print -- as well as commercial producers like Books on Tape, Recorded Books, Tape-Worm, and, since last year, her own enterprise, Audio Book Contractors.
Gibson started out in radio, 35 years ago. "My deep voice was an asset for working in early radio which made all voices sound higher. I did soap operas, mostly. Not the best training ground for this kind of work. We did a lot of 'emoting' into the mike." She also studied drama at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. But after a brief stage career, she left acting to play the more traditional role of wife to a career foreign service officer and mother to four children. When her last child left for college nine years ago, Gibson began narrating.
"Narrators don't read a book cold," she says. Preparations for a recording take time and thought. "I like to get a feeling for what the author is trying to do in a particular book." For example, what is the overall tone or mood of the story, and how has the author paced the events, especially the climax? And, of course, who are these characters and how will they speak? If Gibson decides to use different voices for different characters, "often it is no more than a subtle change in rhythm and speech patterns."
Some books, however, require dialect. "If you are doing a British accent for listeners in this country, I believe you should go only half way across the Atlantic. An authentic Yorkshire dialect, for instance, will be difficult for an American audience to understand." Here again, "just a hint, or an inflection, is enough."
For a dialect recording of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, she says, "I see Mole as a little British school boy; Rat, as a twedy gentleman who sits in a leather chair -- the club type, you know; Badger is a Scot; and the Stoats and Weasels -- Cockneys all. Grahame's prose is almost poetry," she adds "and it has more human kindness per page than any other book." R
ECORDING is done inside a sound
proof booth. Although Gibson can
hear nothing but her own voice, she
can see, through a window, the monitor who sits outside. He can communicate with the narrator by gesture or through an intercom.
"The monitor and narrator work as a team," she says. "The best monitors are perfectionists." While the narrator reads, the monitor serves as both director and engineer. He listens to the master tape during a recording session and "if he hears a page turn, a blip on the reel, or a tummy rumble," he signals the narrator and the section is rerecorded. He catches sibilances and pronunciation errors. "You know we speak a very difficult language. Since I started narrating books, I have discovered that most of my life I have put the emphasis on the wrong syllable of certain words."
The monitor "may question your dialect and say 'that's not the voice you used with that character yesterday.' And he will notice when your energy is flagging even before you do. They are the unsung heros of book recording."
As engineer, the monitor tends the recorders, remote control units, a mixer, a compressor, an equalizer, two speakers, an amplifier, a control panel, and "of course the mike." Gibson observes that "today's equipment is sophisticated enough to take the sound of a cold out of your voice." It's all quite different from her early days in radio "when the equipment was, by today's standards, primitive. I was in a studio once when a singer hit a shrill piercing note and knocked two nearby stations right off the air."
Gibson recently finished recording all of Edith Wharton's short stories for Books on Tape. "All 86 of them. Look how they spoil me." In her opinion, Wharton is "America's first lady of letters. She has great versatility." Her stories range from chilling ghost stories to romantic tales to hilarious comedies. "Sometimes I have to draw the curtains so that I can't see the monitor cracking up."
Gibson has a strong personal preference for unabridged audio books. "I'm a purist. I don't believe in abridgements." When Audio Book Contractors, Gibson's own company, produced Dickens' A Christmas Carol, they did it without "sound effects and music. The richness of Dickens' language makes its own music."
Although recording under her own label is only a small part of her work, it does offer opportunities to produce recordings of books that the larger companies wouldn't do. Recently, while Gibson was browsing through the stacks of the Library of Congress -- ("I always say to my husband, 'if I'm not home in a few days, you know where to send the search party'") -- she came across a memoir of Jane Austen written by her nephew, James E. Austen-Leigh. "It gives a wonderful feeling for Jane Austen and her times." Books like this -- interesting but not well- known -- are just the sort of thing that ABC can do best. "We bring to life books that are out of print."
Looking back over the list of books she has narrated -- "201 since yesterday, but who's counting" -- Jane Austen, "with her wit, her charm, and her good sense goes to the top of the list" as an all-time favorite. The Bronte sisters and Henry James are not far behind. And Kipling. "He is the only author I know who said his books were written to be read aloud. The sound and rhythm are wonderful."
"Of course we don't always get to read the books we enjoy," Gibson adds. "Some books are badly written. And let's face it, sometimes we are not always cast in the right books." As when she was assigned the biography of a Hollywood silver screen queen -- "I should never have done it." In anothe novel she says she "mistakenly decided to use an Italian dialect. I wish I could take the whole thing back."
Of course, no matter how much preparation goes into a recording "you always feel you could do a better job the next time. Every time I reread a book, I discover something new."
"I feel so lucky to be doing this," she says. "I am very tall, you see." (Gibson is 5'10".) "Back in the days when I was performing on stage, I always seemed to get the maid's parts." She laughs. "Now I can play all the parts."