See You on the Bookshelf | Episode 9
April 17, 2017
See You in the Cosmos was born out of audio; this week, we talk to producer Karen Dziekonski about the making of the audiobook.
Jack: I was back home at my parents’ house in Michigan one Thanksgiving, hanging out in my younger brother’s room, when I saw that he had, on a shelf, a copy of Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot. I remembered listening to an episode of the show Radiolab years before, in which Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, talked about how the two of them fell in love as they worked to gather sounds and images for a record made out of 24-karat gold. This Golden Record was to be mounted on the sides of the Voyagers 1 and 2 spacecraft, and these spacecraft, after they completed their mission to study the outer planets, were going to keep going – out beyond our solar system – into the far reaches of space.
That way, if one day intelligent beings in other galaxies should happen upon the record, they would have a sense of what life on Earth was like.
It was this cosmic message-in-a-bottle. Or a kind of interstellar love letter saying, hi, hello. This is us.
That night, over Thanksgiving, I went to bed … and when I woke up, I had this idea for a story. It’s almost like the remnants of a dream – this idea for a story about a boy and his dog, trying to launch his own Golden iPod into space. I started working on it almost immediately. And pretty quickly, I decided to tell the story on the device itself – as transcriptions of the recordings my main character Alex was making on his iPod.
So you could say that, very literally, Alex is a podcaster. And that even from the very beginning, See You in the Cosmos was, in a way, born out of audio.
Why am I telling you this? It’s because this week, on See You on the Bookshelf – if you haven’t guessed from the title by now – we’re talking about the production of the audiobook. We’re not even doing a recap! We’re just going to jump right in.
Karen: I really think our job is to make good decisions for our authors, with our authors, to bring their books into another format in a way that they’ll be proud of.
Jack: And that – that is Karen Dziekonski.
Karen: I’m Karen Dziekonski and I’m a producer at Penguin Random House Audio and Listening Library, which is the children’s audio imprint here. I went to graduate school for journalism right after college, and then I just didn’t want to do that … and I worked in a lawyer’s office and then I worked for a TV commercial producer, and I did some temping, and then I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. I really had no clue.
And then my friend worked in the children’s division at Random House, and she sent me a job opening for publicity. And I got that and – I mean, I knew that the company was a great place to work and everyone I worked with was just wonderful – but I had always loved to hear stories told out loud.
And I was a fiction writer in college. So I just liked going to live events and readings, and audiobooks were popular – but definitely gaining in popularity. People were really not asking if it was like, books for the blind anymore, so I knew it was an exciting format. And then the job opened and I thought, oh, this would draw on all my interests and my skills … and I was lucky enough to get it.
So, I learned how to produce audiobooks at Random House Audio from 2000 to 2003. And then I went freelance in order to also work for an oral history project called StoryCorps –
Jack: And if you’re an avid podcast listener, you might be familiar with StoryCorps – they’ve appeared on numerous NPR shows like This American Life. They started with these mobile recording booths in places like New York’s Grand Central Station, with the idea of helping everyday Americans record and preserve the stories of their lives.
Karen: I remember, I was sitting in my office at Random House and my friend emailed me a little blurb from the New York Times saying, this sounds so up your alley. And it was about how StoryCorps was launching and I was like, oh my gosh, I would love that.
And I ended up interviewing with them and I was like, I really need to do this because it’s so important to capture stories like these. And they were like, we really want to hire you, but you have a full-time job. So I’m like, I’ll quit! And I’ll go freelance, and I’ll work with you! And I was able to do that.
I traveled in the mobile booth along the west coast for a few months in 2005. And then in 2010, I took a job at HarperCollins and I was the executive producer there for almost four years. And then I came back to Random House, which was then Penguin Random House. And I’ve been here since then.
Jack: Audiobook producers are sort of these wranglers. Or maybe that’s not artful enough of a term, but producers are the ones that bring all the necessary people together, and are involved in overseeing the process and schedule – basically the entire program.
Karen: Over the years, I definitely have realized what I enjoy most about the job. I like the producing part. I like managing programs. I like making the casting decisions and working with authors and collaborating with them, and then hiring the people who will be in the studio directing, and using their talents to help the actor really bring it into the audio realm in the best possible way.
Jack: Karen’s first contact with the manuscript of See You in the Cosmos was through my editor at Dial, Jess Garrison.
Karen: I had been in touch with Jess because I worked on another one of her books that when the Odyssey last year –
Jack: That’s a yearly award for the best children’s or young adult audiobook.
Karen: – and I met her in Orlando, in June, and we were chatting at the award ceremony and she was telling me about your book. So I kind of kept an eye out for it. Because, you know, I think she has great taste and she was really talking enthusiastically about it.
Our editorial team for Listening Library presented See You in the Cosmos at a launch for Spring 2017. It must have been back in – I feel like maybe August or September of last year. And the way we divvy up titles among our producing team, because there are about twelve of us, is we set aside a time and we’re placed in an order and we pick titles in that order. But prior to that, we’re able to identify our top few that we really want to work on. And then the idea is that we would definitely get to work on something we really want to work on.
Right after launch, I went and I hunted for the manuscript and I started reading the first few pages, and that’s when I knew, oh gosh, I really want to work on this. And Cosmos was my first pick. And then after I was assigned to it, I emailed Jess and she was really happy about that.
Jack: Just to say this one more time in case you missed it: See You in the Cosmos is written as transcriptions of the recordings Alex is making on his iPod. Instead of chapters 1 and 2 it’s “new recording 1” and “new recording 2”. And so the book ends up being almost like a radio script; there’s a lot of back-and-forth between some of the characters in pure dialogue. There are even markers for sound effects that I had imagined happening while Alex was making his recordings.
Karen: You know, most of the audiobooks that we produce have a single voice, and the person sits in the booth and reads it and performs it. And then it goes to an editor and it’s pieced together, and then it goes through quality control and then it’s finalized.
Here we spent – I spent a lot of time casting it. And not only thinking about who would be appropriate, but I also, since I held the project so dear, I felt like I wanted to create a cast or build the cast that would all get it. And who were good people and good actors, and would enjoy working together, because they all for the most part recorded in the same room at the same time. Which we don’t really do that very often – where we have multiple readers speaking to each other, in the format that your book is written.
Jack: It turned out that the biggest challenge was actually casting the main character – casting Alex.
Karen: The greatest challenge was finding a voice for him, which was not easy because we really wanted someone who was the age of Alex – you know, a kid – just to be a credible.
Jack: Often, audiobooks with kid characters will be voiced by an adult woman – even if it’s a boy character.
Karen: Some women, they’re able to sound like young children. But with your book, I mean, where the main character … it’s first person, and it’s Alex, and he’s carrying the story, I just felt like the way to go was to actually have a kid reading it. Because I don’t know if we could suspend disbelief for that long.
Jack: At the same time, not many kids Alex’s age of 11, or around there, are experienced audiobook narrators.
Karen: It’s very difficult work in terms of just being able to read, number one, but also to get all the nuance and get all your meaning and convey that in a way. A lot of the agencies that represent kids – they were so fabulous about getting these kids into audition. I must’ve had fifty from various agents. And listening to all of them … my heart just kind of opened up every time I listened to a kid because they all tried so hard, you know?
But then just not having that bell go off with any of them … I was really worried a little bit, because I knew that whoever ended up doing it, they really had to carry the story. It wasn’t just a minor part. This was the whole book. So I was panicking a little bit. And then my colleague – I was talking to her about it – and my colleague was like, you know, Charles – who’s a studio owner that we’ve worked with for many, many years – Charles’s son is an actor. And I was like, oh my gosh, that’s right. He is! And he just read on Wally Lamb’s new book! Let me call Charles right now. And Charles was totally game and Kiv –
Jack: That’s short for Kivlighan.
Karen: – Kiv auditioned, and I think I played that for you, and there was something there that I just grabbed onto in his audition and I just … I knew he was the right way to go because we would have way more access to him than we would, you know, an actor who we had to book through an agency and we only had for X amount of time. And I just had a feeling that it would work out.
[ hopeful music ]
Jack: So I had a chance to meet Karen when I was in New York this past October. And that’s when she first played Kiv’s audition for me. And I was like, he sounds great – he sounds like Alex. Let’s go with Kiv.
Now, some of the choices for the supporting cast felt just as right, but there was a little back and forth on this one character named Zed who – well, without giving too much away, I’ll say that a lot of his dialogue isn’t dialogue. It’s laughter. So Karen had a couple of different voice actors record and send over clips of themselves laughing. I’m going to play these two auditions for you right here.
Okay. So here’s number one.
Jason: It’s Jason Culp and here’s some Zed …
[ laughing and chuckling ]
Jack: And here’s number two.
Robert: Hi, this is Robert Fass with a bunch of laughs for Zed. Here we go.
[ laughing and chuckling snort ]
Robert: This is Robert Fass. Hope you had as much fun as I did.
Jack: Try to picture me getting these in an email, and listening to them, and laughing out loud at my desk as they’re laughing.
I think that was actually the last casting decision that we had to make. Soon after that, recording for the project started in New York, in Charles’s – in Kiv’s dad’s – studio.
[ peppy music ]
Karen: The studio is called CDM. It’s stands for Charles de Montebello. And it’s located in the Film Center Building, which is an art deco building on Ninth Avenue, between 44th and 45th. It’s on the eighth floor. And it’s pretty modern looking, and very comfortable, and you walk in and you’re immediately greeted by Tucker, the receptionist and the production coordinator there who does all the scheduling, and he does a lot of the trafficking of all the programs that record and get edited there.
And then the studio. They have three studios – one large studio, which is where your book was recorded. And it has an isolated booth with the huge open window that’s almost floor-to-ceiling where the actors can look into the control room, where the director and the engineer sits. So there’s a great line of sight. So I could just imagine, you know, Kiv sitting there and really being able to look at Charles and the director, who is fabulous – Paula Parker – and understanding the direction. Because that’s really important when you’re working with actors – to have that line of sight. So they’re not just hearing you, they’re also connecting with you by looking at you.
And then getting through the primary record with Kiv. He did all of his parts first, in the studio on weekends with Paula and Charles. And then they flagged parts that they wanted to go back and redo, and the way the whole project kind of shaped up, he really had a masterclass in audiobook narration. And they recorded on weekends and around his school schedule. And then his dad would mark places to have him redo and bring him back into the studio. They did things over and over and over again. And then they went outside and recorded some of the places, like in a field in Richmond, Virginia. So just having that ability to do that, I think really did bring a lot to the audiobook.
You know, he got a lot better as the process went on; Kiv took direction really well at the end. I mean, he just got it. Paula would just have to say one word and he would just grab onto that and he got what she meant. Whereas in the beginning, you know, it was harder for him because he had done one audiobook before, but it was a much smaller part. And this was on his shoulders. He was carrying yours. So they kind of just tried to balance out the performance.
And then bringing in the others to fill in all the dialogue between them. Brittany Presley, I know her a little bit personally, and she’s lovely. And I just knew she would just jump in. And I feel like she and Kiv really have a great rapport in the audiobook. And the same with Michael Crouch – Ronnie – and Kiv in that big scene where they’re in the car and it’s so heartbreaking. But just emotionally, they go there as actors. I know that.
So it was really fun to put that into place and build the cast. And then scheduling them all around their very busy schedules and around Kiv’s schedule. So once all of that – all the speaking parts were done, then Charles and I sat down and mapped out how to approach bringing in all the sound effects and the sound design. And what Charles tried to do was just create a base sound for every chapter, depending on where it was – like inside or outside. Like when Alex is on the roof, you could hear nighttime sounds … like some of these things just to create a rich environment for the listener, that’s just not single voice in a studio. To really get the sense that Alex is experiencing this world around him and to have all of those senses and sounds try to filter through in the audiobook.
I mean, I couldn’t have asked for like a better person to work on it, because [Charles] was so committed to the process. Because it was really an act of love for his son too – to help him through this and make him shine as well. And, you know, he loved the book too. And I just loved that whole part of the story, this connection between Kiv and his dad working on your book, and a story about a boy searching for his father and his truth. And so it was just feel-good all around.
Jack: Do you have a sense of how long this process took?
Karen: Oh, I wish I had my schedule in front of me. I had it all laid out! Kiv recorded over four weekends in November and December. So just him, he may have done about six sessions on his own, but they were shorter sessions because, you know, stamina issues. And he had soccer practice and stuff like that.
So they would go like 11–3 or 11–4 with frequent breaks and a lunch break. So they probably ended up recording like three hours a day, and maybe doing like, one finished hour a day? And then we tried to schedule like a half day with Terra. And then we had Ronnie come in in the afternoon with Kiv. So all in all, I would say we probably scheduled about 10 to 12 days to cover every part.
Jack: I love that you’re referring to them by their characters’ names. It’s as if the characters are actually coming in.
[ laughter ]
Karen: I think what surprises a lot of people is how long it takes, and how labor-intensive recording an audiobook can be. To sit in on a session and to hear – to really witness how it goes with all the mistakes and all the breaks to check a pronunciation … or oh, I stumbled over this, let’s go back and take it again. It’s not just sitting in the booth and reading something through once.
Karen: And also talking. Like, even now, talking to you for 41 minutes – it’s tiring, you know? So talking for hours on end and sounding the same at the end of the day that you do at the beginning of the day – that’s really challenging too. I mean, we work with amazing actors who do this for a living, and it is really, really hard work. It takes a lot of stamina. And you have to be a really good reader. You have to kind of know what’s coming as it’s coming out of your mouth. Because you’re the storyteller. You’re everything for the listener.
Jack: So I don’t think we can end this episode without playing an excerpt of the audiobook.
AI Voice: New Recording 13
Crowd: 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 …
[ rocket launching ]
Alex: HOLY BLEEP! That one went so high!
Announcer: All righty folks, that about wraps it up for our C-class launches. Let’s give our contestants one more round of applause.
Alex: OK guys, this is it, my last recording. I can’t believe it’s only been a day since I left Rockview on the Amtrak train!
Alex: Voyager 3 is already set up on the launchurdles next to all the other rockets, and Carl Sagan and I are standing by the registration tents next to all our new friends. After lunch even more people showed up, and even before the contests started some people were launching their rockets just for fun, and there were more dogs and NASA shirts and dogs with NASA shirts and Calexico was playing guitar and singing songs I didn’t know and –
Announcer: Next up, we have the D-class. That’s D as in Discovery, D as in Danger, which also happens to be my middle name.
[ polite laughter ]
Announcer: Just trying to lighten things up here, folks.
[ dog barking ]
Announcer: OK! First up in the D-class, we have Joel and Noah Turner from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Step on up, guys! Let’s give ’em room everybody …
Alex: I know I didn’t get to record as much for you guys as I wanted, I was too excited meeting everyone and seeing their rockets and T-shirts and lip rings and purple hair that I forgot to record more! But I guess I did get the sound of trains moving and the sound of cars on the highway, and the desert at night and Steve talking on the phone with his girlfriend who he’s in love with probably and –
Announcer: This is Joel and Noah’s second SHARF festival, last year they took first place in the egg loft . . .
Alex: – and now you know what the launches at a rocket festival sound like! Isn’t it SO exciting? Maybe after my launch I can get another iPod and build another rocket, I can build Voyager 4, and then next year I can come back to SHARF and launch that too, and then I’ll do Voyager 5 the year after and –
Announcer: All righty folks, it looks like they’re ready to go. Let’s count it down for them!
Announcer: Five . . . four . . .
Alex: Three . . . two . . .
Crowd: One . . .
[ high-pitched roar ]
[ clapping and cheering ]
Jack: And that was from the audiobook for See You in the Cosmos as read by Kivlighan de Montebello. Thanks very much to our audiobook producer, Karen Dziekonski. That was Jason Culp and Robert Fass you heard with the laughs. And while I’m at it, thank you to Kiv and Charles de Montebello, to Paula Parker, and to the entire cast of See You in the Cosmos for the really stellar job with the audiobook. And I’ll admit it right here: I cried in a suburban restaurant parking lot, listening to that one scene toward the end. You know the one.
Music for this podcast is by Saint Benjamin (now known as Ben Johnson Music Factory). See You in the Cosmos is available everywhere in paper and audiobook forms. I suggest you get both.
And if anyone ever tells you that the world isn’t filled with wonder and joy, just think about this for a second. Someone gets to do this for a living:
[ Robert Fass laughing and snorting ]
Jack: [ laughing ] It gets me every time.