We’re delighted our first author Q&A in this space features lauded writer (and first-time narrator!) Meghan Daum. Daum’s chronicle of real estate obsession, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, was recently produced through ACX. Also the author of two other critically acclaimed books, a novel and an essay collection, Daum writes a weekly column for The Los Angeles Times, which appears on the op-ed page every Thursday. She has contributed to public radio’s Morning Edition, Marketplace and This American Life, and has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Harper’s, GQ, Vogue, Self, New York, Travel & Leisure, BlackBook, Harper’s Bazaar, The Village Voice and The New York Times Book Review. Daum was kind enough to share some of her thoughts on the experience of narrating Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House in the Q&A below.
There was an audio version done of your 2003 novel, The Quality of Life Report. Were you involved at all in the making of that audio version?
It was narrated by an actress named Johanna Parker, and she did a fantastic job. A novel is a very different beast, narration-wise, than a memoir. There are different characters that speak different ways and people talking over each other and people talking to themselves and then turning around and talking to someone else. It takes a very skilled person to capture all that with one voice. The Quality of Life Report also had a lot of humor that was fairly dependent on seeing the words on the page. There were a lot of email exchanges and one character, notably, had terrible spelling and grammar. So that was an extra challenge for Johanna. But she handled it beautifully. Much better than I could ever could have.
What was the experience of narrating Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House like? Was it harder or easier than you expected? You must have a fair amount of experience from readings and the like, but how taxing was it vocally?
I was prepared for a pretty arduous experience. I’d heard that these things can take weeks and I imagined sweating it out in the studio all day and it taking forever because I flubbed words or needed to clear my throat or sneezed or something. But when I got to the studio, which is run by Stefan Rudnicki and Gabrielle De Cuir out of their home in the Valley, they said, “By the way, we’re hoping to get this done in three days.” I immediately thought, “Oh, no, we’ll be here around the clock; I’ll be catching naps on their sofa.” But, incredibly, we worked for about six or seven hours a day and got it done in three days. Gabrielle is a wonderful director, so a lot of our efficiency had to do with her. And I have a decent amount of experience speaking publicly and reading out loud, though I’m certainly not a professional. The thing that amazed me most was what a physical experience it is. You have to treat it like an endurance event, like a marathon. You need to make sure you take breaks and keep your throat lubricated. Every day Gabrielle served me the most beautiful lunch—stuff that keeps your energy up but also hopefully doesn’t have your stomach making crazy sounds. That’s another thing: you better not show up hungry. The mic picks up everything.
Did you make any adjustments to the prose because of the way it sounded vs. written on the page? Did the process change how you felt about the book in any way?
I actually couldn’t make that many adjustments to the text because that makes things hard during the editing process, since the editor is following along in the book. But boy did I want to! Frankly, the experience of reading the whole book aloud was hugely (and sometimes painfully) revealing of certain tics and habits I have as a writer. Like I use parentheticals and dashes all the time. I use the word “particularly” a lot, which is kind of hard to say out loud. I write incredibly long sentences, which I was aware of but never really had to deal with in a verbal context. When writers go out and read from their books, they tend to pick sections that flow easily and are easily understood by a listening audience. So you start to get a lopsided sense of your book. You only remember the smooth, straightforward parts. You forget some of the weird, sprawling stuff. And for better or worse I can be a weird, sprawling writer.
How much significance do you as an author attach to audio versions of your books (versus, say, movie versions)? Do you think this format is becoming more important for authors? Do you listen to audiobooks?
Well, authors generally don’t think about audiobooks as much as movies because they tend not to pay as well as movies. And, frankly, I don’t know that many authors that listen to a lot of audiobooks. You hear of people listening on road trips, that kind of thing. But most writers are so tapped into the idea of words on a printed page that it’s hard for them to integrate another kind of “reading” experience. I think that’s changing now with e-readers and people reading stuff on their phones and on grains of rice or whatever the next smallest and coolest format is. But obviously there’s going to be a whole generation of writers and readers (a generation or two above mine) that will never want to read anything but an actual book. For my part, I don’t listen to a lot of audio books but I’m a huge radio fan and podcast fan so it probably wouldn’t be too big of a leap.
What’s the initial response been to the audio version of Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House?
No feedback yet but that’s because I try to avoid all feedback. I’m a newspaper columnist, which means that I am constantly barraged with readers telling me what a moron I am and how my work isn’t worth the paper their parakeet poops on and that I and whoever hired me should be fired (if not executed) immediately. Often these are emails but more often they’re in comments on my newspaper’s website. I go through phases where I read them obsessively and make myself crazy. Lately I’m trying to go cold turkey, but of course the problem is you miss the nice stuff. So maybe I’ll take a peek at the audiobook feedback. It’s not printed on paper, after all, so that particular dig is off the table.
A big part of the ACX message is self-empowerment for authors. You are very active on Twitter. How important is social media for authors and how has it helped you in terms of communicating with and growing your audience?
That’s hilarious you think I’m “active” on Twitter. I see people who are “active” and they are literally tweeting every five minutes, seemingly around the clock. I often tweet as little as a few times a week. Social media is of course very important for authors (imagine that I’m saying that in a robot voice). Look, this is what our publishers tell us. I have no reason not to believe them. But I do think we’re in a transitional phase with all this media and that no one really has any idea what makes something sell or go viral or what. It’s basically a “throw enough sh*t to the wall and see what sticks” mentality. That said, I only joined Twitter because my publisher made me and I weirdly do not hate it. I actually kind of love it. This disturbs me greatly.
Any new book projects in the works you can tell us about?
I’m semi working on a novel but I’m also working on a series of essays that deal with the dichotomy between sentimentality and mean-spiritness in the current culture. Oh, did you fall asleep just now? I need to work on my elevator pitch, but suffice it to say it’s going to have stuff about internet comments. And death. And dogs. All the big subjects.