Jack Straw Studio and Cultural Center

This is Part One of a two-part post about the making of the Spear audiobook for Macmillan Audio. Part Two will go up tomorrow.

In February I laid down the narration for the Spear audiobook. It went well. It’s the second book of mine that I’ve recorded; while the process was similar to the first in some basic ways, it was very different in others. For those who want deep detail on the audiobook process, see my 2018 post about narrating So Lucky. From here I’ll assume you’ve read that post, and this one will build upon it.

Finding a studio

The differences between the two experiences began long before I set foot in the studio. For one thing, before I even signed the Spear contract I stated I would be doing the narration. Macmillan Audio hemmed and hawed, which surprised me. When I pushed them, it turned out that production costs for So Lucky had been outrageous and they weren’t sure they wanted to go through that again. But it turned out that was absolutely nothing to do with me as narrator, and everything to do with the studio we had used. Clatter & Din was the PNW’s leading post-production studio, used to dealing with famous bands and big-brand advertising, and charging accordingly: $250 an hour, a minimum of 8 hours a day whether you used those hours or not, plus markup for every single cup of tea and meal delivery. This is an astounding fee. No wonder Macmillan Audio had been unhappy. I expressed my surprise—why pay that much when this city is crawling with audio studios? Eventually Macmillan admitted that it was the only wheelchair-accessible studio in Seattle they could find.

Huh, I said. So if I could find a cheaper, wheelchair-accessible studio, would they be open to negotiation? Sure, they said, probably assuming there wasn’t one. Right, I said. Leave it with me.

It took weeks. I talked to engineers, studio owners, and producers all over town. While I could find studios charging as little as $70/hour, including the engineer, I could not find a commercial studio that was wheelchair accessible.

So then I talked to people about the cost of creating a permanent studio in my house—but given how big it would need to be to fit all the gear and a wheelchair it just wasn’t possible because a) we didn’t have that much room and b) we didn’t have that much money.

By now we were well into the pandemic, and it turns out Macmillan had started to work with narrators at home. They even had a person right here in the PNW who would come and set up a corner of the house as a studio on a temporary basis, along with all the equipment etc. Would that be okay?

I was tempted—until I started to seriously think it through. Not being able to use my office for a week? Trying to keep the cats out? Sound-proofing against the construction going on both behind us and one house up? Having an engineer in the house day after day? Plus—the real kicker—overloading our occasionally erratic bandwidth with two open Zoom channels, uploading massive chunks of audio, and ensuring the integrity of the constant work meetings Kelley takes all day? The answer was obvious: suboptimal. I didn’t say so immediately—I really wanted to record this book!—but started to ponder other avenues.

Perhaps I could apply for a grant to build something in the garden… Which reminded me of a grant I had considered applying for, years ago, to learn audio engineering at a community sound studio called Jack Straw. A nonprofit community studio. Hmm. I wondered if a) they were still around, b) they used professional-level gear, c) the studio would be accessible, and d) they would be willing to rent out to a corporate, commercial project.

So I hunted down their website—oof, it was an old and creaky site, very early 2000s, typical for a nonprofit1—found contact info for a man called Levi Fuller, and started talking. It turned out that Jack Straw Cultural Center had absolutely everything any professional could possibly need, would be delighted to work with Macmillan Audio on a book project, and held accessibility as one of their most cherished community values. I hope Levi will forgive me when I admit that initially I was sceptical about the accessibility. (Sorry Levi!) But after a series of questions it turned out he was not talking through his hat; the studio was perfectly, brilliantly, amazingly accessible to wheelchair users: level entry, button-push automatic door openers, wide doorways, spacious studios, and—joy of joys!—wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. Not only that but the studio was less than 20 minutes drive from my house, and less than half a block from a parking lot with plenty of wheelchair van-accessible parking slots2 and an excellent, wonderfully smooth curb-cut sidewalk connecting the two. (There was also a mini-mart nearby selling coffee, sandwiches, and other deli, and upstairs at the studio a cosy room where Kelley could sit quietly and work if she wanted.) It was absolutely everything I needed. I was thrilled. And the best part? They charged an astonishingly reasonable $55 an hour, including engineer.

In pretty rapid order we had a producer, a director, a Jack Straw engineer, and dates on the calendar. And because Tordotcom, the publisher, had been so efficient with their production workflow, we had a fully copyedited and proofed ms. to work with long before we had to be in the studio. So, holy shit, we were a go—all sorted months before the recording would begin.


Which is good, because with a book like Spear there was a lot of preproduction work to do.

With So Lucky, set in contemporary Atlanta, I didn’t have to worry about pronunciations or (with one exception) accents. Spear, on the other hand, is set in 6th-century Wales, with Primtive and/or Old Welsh (standing in for Brythonic), Primitive and/or Old Irish, and Asturian dialogue, names, and general vocabulary, not to mention the Old French, Middle High German, and Old English words in the Author’s Note.

I decided early on that there was no point trying to figure out how real really early Welsh would have sounded, so I substituted modern Welsh. Ditto for Primitive/Old Irish to modern Irish. The Astures of northern Spain supposedly used a p-Celtic language very similar to Brythonic, so for that accent I just used a very light and precise version of modern Welsh (much as a northern Spaniard fluent in modern English might sound today). Then I made a list of words and phrases I’d have to get right; it came to 73.

I started by trying to figure it all out myself (I’ve spent my life figuring things out; I know how to use the internet). But here’s the thing—everyone on the internet disagrees about everything. So then I asked a friend, Cheryl Morgan, to help with the Welsh but, while she is learning to speak Welsh, she isn’t fluent, and we weren’t sure of quite a few things. So then I sent the list to the Macmillan producer and said, Help!

Three weeks later I had over seventy individual sound files of flawless pronunciation from native speakers. It was like facing a fifteen mile uphill trail in a crappy wheelchair and suddenly someone coming along and saying, No worries, I’ll give you a ride to the top. I grinned like a fool.

I listened to them over and over, until I was confident I could pronounce them correctly. Then (because I’m not familiar enough with the IPA—International Phonetic Alphabet—symbol system) I had to figure out my own system of writing them down phonetically.3 Here’s what that looked like:

Then I put them in order of appearance in the text. Then I started marking up the text itself.

Last time, with So Lucky, I worked from my own Word document on an old iPad Air—and I vowed that by the next time I did this I’d have an iPad Pro with Pencil so I could mark things up with my own notations in colour—the kind of thing I used to do when I first started performing my own work for live audiences, reading from paper. In a sound studio, of course, an iPad is better: you really don’t want to use paper—all that rustling—but working to annotate things with keyboard is tedious and seriously suboptimal.

But I’d had the iPad for a couple of years now, and had been experimenting with notations on PDF. It turns out the native Adobe app is rubbish, so I found something that worked: PDF Expert.4 Now I was happy as a kitten surrounded by string. I could read a paragraph, underline to emphasise, highlight places where I often stumble, add accents, jot pronunciations in the margin, and notes about what accent to use, and/or how heavy—or all of the above. And then I could look at it, realise I could now hardly see the actual text for all the markup, wipe it all away, and start again.

Here’s an example of the final markup of an early page.

Underlines of a whole word mean that’s the word to emphasise; of a syllable, ditto (usually—though sometimes it just means Pay attention to this bit because you tend to get it wrong); and of a consonant, alliteration, which is easy to stumble over. A wiggly underline means that syllable has a non-English pronunciation, like Lugh, which is pronounced something like LOO-ough, with the –ough being a kind of rolled-on-the-tongue wind sound (I’m sure there’s a better way to describe it but that’s how it feels in the mouth), or a rolled r—like the r in Peretur—or ll, which is pronounced something like a breathed-out chluh.

The early pages are heavily annotated because that’s where most of the names come up for the first time. As the manuscript continues, I tend to markup pronunciations only when they’re really difficult5 or the word hasn’t appeared for a while.

However, just because I know precisely how to pronounce a thing and actually relish getting it down pat, doesn’t mean that I should.6 To take a modern example, the French pronunciation of Paris sounds perfectly fine when a Frenchwoman in France is using it, but if an American pronounces it that way during a conversation in a sports bar it sounds ridiculous. And of course working folk never pronounce things the same way nobility do—every class has its own accent. How then would a 6th-century Greek quartermaster/military logician speaking Welsh pronounce something? Or a Briton with a northern accent? On top of that, I had to think about how to differentiate people of the same class, and then fold gender into the mix. It all took a while to sort out but by the time I arrived at the studio I was ready!

Except, of course, no plan survives contact with the director…


Meanwhile, preorder the audiobook wherever books are sold:
IndieBound | Amazon.com | Bookshop.org | Barnes & Noble | Apple | Amazon.co.uk

  1. Now they have a spiffy website, very nice looking and easy to use.

2. My wheelchair van requires an 8-foot striped access aisle to extend and use the ramp. In Seattle, these are rarer than hen’s teeth.

3. My system wouldn’t work for others. For example I know in this context that when I write -alk, it means to use the guttural sound a bit like the one that comes at the end of loch, or the beginning of Hanukah—because /x/ wouldn’t mean much to me in the moment—though perhaps no one else would.

4. Other professionals recommend Notability but that’s not one I’ve tried; PDF Expert does everything I need, and it’s wonderfully stable and wicked fast.

5. The phrase ‘The Eingl have taken Deverdoeu’ was the bane of my life! For one, Eingl is pronounced like a cross between AIR-n-gul and EH-n-gl, and Deverdoeu sounds like d-verr-DOY-uh, which, coming after ‘taken’, is just plain tongue-twisting. There was one other phrase that I stumbled over three times but mercifully I’ve blanked which one.