Hearing is Believing
Bestselling author David Baldacci loves to hear his books come to life
By Brad Schmitt
Millions of people get a jolt from David Baldacci’s books — including David Baldacci.
The lawyer-turned-author remembers almost causing a mid-air incident when he first listened, on a plane, to the audio version of his 2001 bestseller Last Man Standing, read by actor/author Ron McLarty. Baldacci jumped out of his seat when he first heard the booming voice of his drug dealer character, “Big F.”
“I was lucky I didn’t get shot by a U.S. air marshal,” Baldacci says. “That was like, ‘Holy cow!’ Ron (McLarty) brought that voice from his toes all the way out of his mouth. That was my character on steroids. That’s where another artist takes the reading experience to a whole new level.”
Baldacci has taken the popular thriller to a whole new level. His first book, Absolute Power, took three years to write, but the 1996 novel was made into a movie starring Clint Eastwood, and Baldacci never turned back. He has gone on to write 17 best-sellers, with total sales around 90 million copies.
And he’s gotten much faster since his first novel: Baldacci churns out an average of two books a year, which is nearly impossible for most authors.
“For me, that’s who I am. That’s what I do, I write stories. If I’m not writing, I’m not comfortable,” he says. “If you love something so much that you think about it all the time, I don’t consider it pushing myself.”
His latest book, Deliver Us From Evil, features the globetrotting crime-fighter Shaw, first introduced two years ago in Baldacci’s The Whole Truth. In the new book, Shaw again travels ’round the world to catch the bad guy. But this time, he runs into an attractive 20-something female version of himself who’s chasing the same bad guy — and danger and romance ensue.
Like many popular authors, Baldacci has turned to audiobooks to expand his base of readers. His support for the format is so strong that he has signed on as an official Author Advocate for the Audio Publishers Association’s June is Audiobook Month campaign.
For Deliver Us From Evil he once again turned to his favorite reader, 62-year-old McLarty, a veteran narrator who has also voiced several Danielle Steele and Stephen King audiobooks.
So how does a novel get turned into 12 hours of CDs? It ain’t easy, and it takes a while.
Getting those 12 hours usually means about 30 hours over four days in the studio, McLarty says. Rookie readers can ruin their voices on the first day, not unlike the rookie pitcher who throws out his arm in his first major-league start.
“I used to go out full blast when I started these and my voice would be shot by the second day,” says McLarty. “So now I work with the audio engineer so I don’t have to shout.”
The process starts a week or so before the reader ever gets in the studio.
McLarty says he usually takes two days to read the book the first time, reading it like everyone else, for pleasure. Then he puts it aside for a day or two.
During his second read-through McLarty starts deciding which characters will get special, distinctive voices and accents. As he goes through the creative process McLarty turns to his actress wife and bounces ideas off her.
“I’ll go over to my wife and say, ‘Honey, what do you think about this voice for this guy?’ And she’ll say, ‘Tell me about the guy.’ And I will, and she’ll say, ‘I like that’ or ‘I don’t like that.’”
But Mrs. McLarty doesn’t have the final word. Each recording session has a director — just as a movie or TV show does — who usually likes McLarty’s character voices.
“Sometimes the director will be like, ‘What voice is THAT? I don’t like that voice. Don’t use that voice!’ I say, ‘Alright.’”
The studios aren’t exactly posh.
“The room is an airtight pre-fabricated little box that you walk into and the door closes. It’s almost like going into the safe of a bank.”
Reading in the studio can be a humbling experience. McLarty, who has churned out dozens of audiobooks, still averages about three mistakes on every single page.
“You transpose words,” he explains. “You mispronounce them. It can be frustrating. There’s nothing in the world that makes you feel stupider than recording a book.”
So much so that some TV and movie stars who are hired to read for audiobooks will quit in the middle of their first day reading. (No, McLarty wouldn’t name names.)
After the first day, McLarty says, “Your brain is shaking. It’s unnatural to get in there and do eight hours worth of reading. Out loud. You kind of stagger home and all you wanna do is go to bed.”
Still, McLarty eventually finds a rhythm, and he gets to the end on day four. But he’s not done yet. He always has to go back and re-record the first couple of chapters because they always sound out of sync with the rest of the book.
After that, the audio is edited, and sometimes music and sound effects are added, which can be a surprise to the author, as was the case when Baldacci was listening to the audiobook of his bestseller Stone Cold.
“They were going across this bridge, and there was a bomb on this car and it blew up. And I remember writing this scene, obviously, but they had this sound effect,” Baldacci said. “And it scared the crap out of me.”
Such decisions — on sound effects, music, one reader vs. a multi-cast — are often left to the audiobook director. Still, on Deliver Us From Evil, Baldacci says he wishes they would’ve used a woman for the voice of female protagonist Reggie Campion.
“Typically, a man trying to do a woman’s voice, no matter how good they are, it’s just not the same,” he says.
McLarty sees things differently.
“The wonderful thing about audiobooks is that the audience still uses their imagination, and me reading a woman’s voice? They just have to buy into it and suspend their disbelief — and people do,” he says.
Those small disagreements aside, Baldacci loves audiobooks because they reach new audiences and they give words more life, so much so that Baldacci often gets wrapped up in the audio versions of his own works.
“I’ve even pulled my car in the garage and kept the car running until the book ended because I was excited. I know it’s crazy,” he says.
“I mean, I know he’s not gonna die but it feels like he is!”