Behind the Scenes at Arachne Towers: Lockdown Audiobook Production


The Corona Virus crisis meant a moment for reflection, strategising and funding applications at Arachne Press. When we got Arts Council England funding for nine audiobooks, we had to approach the challenge of creating them remotely, while we couldn’t get into the studio due to lockdown. Continuing our #LoveAudio celebrations, here’s a behind the scenes look at how we approached this. Cherry Potts talks to poet Jeremy Dixon, audiobook narrator Nigel Pilkington and Jessica Stone, audiobook producer at Listening Books.

Cherry Potts, Director

Having worked with Listening Books in the studio, I thought I had a rough idea how difficult it would be to record remotely – I knew what was possible, and what wasn’t, I knew that the pickups that were dealt with in seconds in the studio would be more complicated to deal with. I knew background noise would be a problem, and that with our anthologies, we needed the actors to be recording to the same standards. So I thought I knew what we were getting in to.

Having to be a director at one remove, though, not being on the ‘set’ as it were, was a real challenge; every problem was magnified by the repetitions that were necessary – and all those actors with neighbours who decide now is the perfect time to drill into the party wall! Jessica and I really bonded over the problems, admitting to occasionally shrieking as some slip happened again and again. But also, I found myself laughing out loud listening to actors apologising for burps or shrieking in their own frustration at some word that would.not.come.out.right; or sighing happily at the perfect rendition of a particular phrase.

I have to be honest; I wouldn’t choose to do it like this. I now know not to rely on an audition recording, and to audition over Zoom. Compared to being in the studio, remote recording is time consuming and frustrating, but needs must in lockdown, and when it goes well, it is a joy.

The absolute best experience has been recording A Voice Coming From Then by Jeremy Dixon. Because of the sensitive material, I asked Jeremy who he wanted to read. We agreed that the reader must be a queer man, and of roughly the same age as Jeremy. Shared understanding of what it was like growing up ‘then’ was really important. I put a call out to actors I knew and to the narrators we were already working with as the people most likely to know someone; and Sophie Aldred, who has narrated two novels for us, immediately suggested Nigel Pilkington. Initially I had in my mind that we were trying to replicate Jeremy’s approach, if not actual voice, as a 15 year old and as an adult, but in the course of auditioning, with Jeremy listening in, we discovered that what was needed was a voice that was, in essence, the reader, reading for the first time – which gave a very necessary steer for what the listening experience would be – this is a book wreathed in content warnings, the tone had to be exactly right.

Nigel read some of the poems  for us on the spot, and it was an emphatic yes, and the resulting files sent off to Jessica for technical approval. Short delay while Jeremy reformatted his carefully laid out and largely unpunctuated poems, so that they could be read aloud without faltering.

Nigel asked if we wanted to listen in via zoom while he recorded. I hadn’t expected that, and it was brilliant, almost like being in the studio, immediate feedback, live performance, and very moving. We just had to remember to mute when we’d finished saying how wonderful every take was! We had, of course, chosen the hottest day of the year, and Nigel was expiring in his recording cupboard, but five hours later we had a complete book.

Jeremy Dixon, Author

My first full poetry collection A VOICE COMING FROM THEN (published by Arachne Press) starts with my teenage suicide attempt and expands to encompass themes of bullying, queerphobia, acceptance and support. In one of those unplanned cosmic coincidences that you just couldn’t make up, we actually recorded the audiobook on the 42nd anniversary of that suicide attempt. So, for me, lockdown recording was very emotional before we even started and then the beautiful and varied ways in which Nige was able to read my work only added to making this one of the most memorable events of my writing career.

Usually the author would not be present in the studio during recording but one of unexpected benefits of lockdown was that it enabled me to be involved via the wonders of Zoom. My editor Cherry was also there, and we could both give small directions in pacing, emphasis, and pronunciation although Nige didn’t really need very much of this, his readings were so fantastic that I kept thinking, ‘I would love this poem if somebody else had written it’. We recorded the audiobook on what was the hottest day of the year so far and so had many breaks for water and food etc, but I was still surprised that it took nearly five hours to record everything from introduction to poems to acknowledgements.

For a writer and poet, it was an invaluable insight into the processes involved in creating an audiobook and I feel very grateful that lockdown enabled me to be a part of it.

Nigel Pilkington, Actor

Being a voice actor during lockdown?  The myth of the Hydra springs to mind! – we’ve needed to grow many more heads for the many more hats that have rained down on us.  When you record a book in an external studio, your entire focus can be on your performance.  But when recording from home, you’re also tasked with the jobs of engineer, sound editor, and sometimes director, and it’s easy to let the performance be pushed to the back of the queue.

Not so when recording A Voice Coming From Then by Jeremy Dixon, published by Arachne Press, as we took our time, allowing Jeremy’s poignant and careful words to be intoned with sensitivity.  After each poem, I’d break to label the files, and this actually afforded me a natural gear change between pieces, so that each one could be approached on its merits, rather than rattling through the entire script in one pass.

So, as much as recording in lockdown has been vexing, it did actually work to our advantage in this case… and I managed NOT to lose my head…!

Jessica Stone, Producer

I have both sympathy and admiration for voice actors who’ve been forced to transition from professional studio to recording at home. Not everyone has access to quiet, non-reverberant spaces, and it can be a steep learning curve to work well with the technical equipment and recording software. This means that the raw recordings I receive from actors can vary significantly in how much interference they need from me! In this case, however, Nigel made my job as easy as it gets, with the happy result that I was free to enjoy Jeremy’s text and Nigel’s performance as I worked. I am especially fond of ‘I’m learning to shout “Oi!”’ 

#LoveAudio is the Publisher’s Association annual week-long digital celebration of audiobooks is designed to showcase the accessibility, innovation, and creativity of the format. Follow the hashtag on twitter.

A Voice Coming from Then will be published by Arachne Press in August 2021. It is available for pre-order now, from our webshop.

In Lockdown Conversation No2: Paula Read and Lily Peters

Mother and Daughter authors, Paula Read (Stations) and Lily Peters (Noon, An Outbreak of Peace), speak by phone from their respective lockdown locations.

A first in the lockdown series, with audio!

You can buy all the Arachne books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.

If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer, we recommend Hive for ePub.

In Lockdown Conversation no 1: Elizabeth Stott and Kelly Davis

 

Kelly Davis (Dusk) and Elizabeth Stott (We/She) in Conversation

 

Elizabeth: You and I were introduced over a decade ago by a writer friend, who said something along the lines of: ‘Kelly is a very clever Oxford graduate, and editor.’ I was a little daunted but found you to be a warm and open person. I remember us both taking our then teenage sons for a guitar masterclass at Maryport Blues Festival. Mum’s taxi service! If I were asked to describe you now, I might say (teasingly): ‘Kelly is a girly swot with passion and principles. And she is an excellent poet!’ And I have been fortunate to see you grow as a writer of poetry.

Kelly: Thank you so much, Elizabeth. I remember first seeing you read one of your beautifully crafted, slightly chilling short stories at a literary event in Cockermouth, and later bumping into you at the Words by the Water Festival in Keswick, where we both chair sessions. The Cumbrian literary scene is very lively and in 2017 our mutual friend Kathleen Jones (along with Jacci Bulman and Nicola Jackson) edited Write to Be Counted, a poetry anthology to uphold human rights and raise money for PEN. We both had poems in this anthology and enjoyed reading together at several events, including a launch at the Poetry Café in London. In 2018, we were both placed in the Magma magazine subscribers’ poetry competition. Now we are also connected through our involvement with Arachne Press. In my case, this came about through Barbara Renel, who lives in Wigton. Barbara is a writer of short stories and flash fiction and a long-time friend of Arachne. She asked for Solstice Shorts contributions from people who attend the SpeakEasy sessions in Carlisle and that was how I ended up submitting poems to Arachne.

Elizabeth: Your Dusk poem ‘Calling Them In’, with its echoing lines, is haunting and deeply unsettling. The form is unusual. Perhaps you could unpack it for me?

Kelly: ‘Calling Them In’ started simply as a response to Arachne’s call-out. I Googled the word ‘dusk’ and found references to children being called in from play and that made me remember my sons playing in the school grounds near our house. I used to call ‘Come home for your tea!’ over the back fence. But on one occasion, they were nowhere to be found – and I had that feeling of dread that all mothers of young children get when they suddenly slip out of sight. In fact they were just playing in some other part of the grounds, out of earshot, but the poem developed into a meditation on time stealing our children. The repetition occurs because I originally wrote it as a valanga (which means ‘avalanche’). This little-known poetic form was invented by Cumbrian author and poet Mike Smith (aka Brindley Hallam Dennis) in around 2007 and it suddenly went viral in Cumbrian writing circles 10 years later. Cherry edited the poem down a bit for the Dusk anthology but some of the repetition remains and I think it creates a sense of threat, which is amplified as the poem goes on.

Elizabeth: When you write poetry, do you have to stop the editor in you from getting in the way? It seems to me that you are able to let your imagination and feelings out, without a leash, and bring them back with a light hand to form your work.

Kelly: That’s a very good question, Elizabeth. My day job involves editing non-fiction where everything has to be crystal clear so it’s easy for me to fall into traps such as explaining too much at the beginning or end of a poem, or trying to manipulate the reader’s response. My poems tend to come very quickly, in a burst of inspiration, often triggered by personal experiences or memories. I then need to revisit them repeatedly, at intervals, to edit them effectively. This process can take a long time and may involve happenstance. For instance, I once wrote a poem called ‘White Gladioli’ that ended very abruptly and I put it aside, as I had no idea how to complete it. I later saw that Mslexia magazine were asking for specular poems. The specular form gave me the ‘other half’ of the poem and I was overjoyed when Mslexia published it in 2017.

 

Elizabeth, I know you write novels, short stories, flash fiction and poetry. How has your writing developed and what makes you choose a particular form?

Elizabeth: I had a lifelong notion that I should ‘write’, but didn’t take the idea seriously until mid-life, when I had a young family and needed an intellectual outlet. I had been used to writing in a business context, where work-related reports had to be concise, precise and structured. When I started writing fiction, I began to relate what I had learned about technical writing to so-called ‘creative writing’. My writing style in fiction has always been on the lean side, so my stories are often under 3000 words or so. Flash throws down a gauntlet and makes you ask yourself: ‘Why are you writing this?’ It’s a good way to find out what matters in a narrative. I am still in an early relationship with flash. It exposes a concept and it takes a bit of courage from the writer to recognise weaknesses.

Regarding poetry; years ago, I attended a local creative writing class where my notions of fiction were challenged, and I was introduced to the idea that I could also have a go at writing poetry. Experimenting with poetry made me re-engage with language and seemed to open out my prose.

What I start to write at any given time depends very much on my mood. For fiction, I like it best when I have a clear sense of a character. If I start with an idea, I find it harder to bring the piece to life. Writing a poem can help to evoke something. Even if the poem itself is not successful, it allows a rhythm and voice to emerge that gives a sense of where a prose piece may lead. I am very sound driven.

Kelly, you studied English Literature at Oxford. Did this encourage you to write creatively or did you find it inhibiting? Why did you choose poetry as your medium, and have you tried other forms?

Kelly: I loved writing poems as a child and a teenager but, sadly, studying Eng Lit at Oxford did stifle my creativity. Poetry became something to be pulled apart and analysed, and I no longer dared to write my own. It was only when I came to live in Cumbria in 1989 that I started tentatively writing again. And finally, about ten years ago, I started taking my own writing a bit more seriously. Like you, I value clarity and brevity. Perhaps that’s why I find poets like Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver particularly appealing. Poetry can be very intense – packing a great deal of thought and emotion into relatively few words. There’s something magical about the idea of writing a few lines that can stay in someone’s memory for ever. I have tried writing flash fiction and I have a few pages of an abandoned historical novel – but poetry seems to be my natural mode of expression.

A lot of writers study English Literature as I did, but you made a more unusual choice when you decided to do a physics degree. How do you think your interest in science has influenced your writing?

Elizabeth: My experience is that physics graduates end up doing all kinds of things. But I think it is more to do with having a mosaic mind in my case. I was pretty good at a variety of subjects at school, including languages, and I loved writing long essays for my English homework When my kids were small, I took a career break and needed something to call my own so I started writing articles and stories. I bought a typewriter in Boots whilst my two-year-old daughter demolished the stationery counter.

Studying science requires you to think in a structured, logical way and helps you develop a sense of pattern and a feeling for the direction of an argument. It also introduces fundamental ideas about what lies beneath everyday life and develops a sense of the scale of things, and the place of humankind in the immensity of ‘what is’. I was particularly interested in cosmology, and ideas about life elsewhere in the universe. This led me to marvel at how human beings can contemplate the vastness of existence with leaps of scale that dwarf our lives into insignificance. Our awareness is like a tiny flash of light in the immense darkness!

Kelly, on this subject – the fragility of individual lives – some of your poetry deals with your Jewish ancestry and the impact of the Holocaust on your family. Perhaps you could share how you think about these themes, and how it brings you to write about them in poetry, rather than another form.

Kelly: I am haunted by my grandfather’s story, and I’ve written several poems about him. He was a Lithuanian Jew and his family sent him to South Africa in the late 1930s, in the hope that he would make his fortune and send for them. But in 1941, before he had earned enough to pay their passage, he received a letter via the Red Cross from a good friend, telling him that his entire family had been shot into a mass grave. His friend crawled out from under the bodies, escaped and survived. But when the friend returned to his hometown after the war, his ex-neighbours (who had taken his house) murdered him. I don’t feel able to write about these events in any medium other than poetry. It enables me to distil the emotion and try to find a universal resonance. Of course these terrible stories are still happening all over the world – in Syria and many other countries.

To get back to your writing, Elizabeth, I very much enjoyed your story ‘One Beautiful Day’, published in the 2018 We/She Arachne Press anthology. I wondered what made you think of writing about a pair of aging married opera singers on a provincial tour? The story is written in the third person and entirely from the woman’s perspective. What made you decide to write it like that?

Elizabeth: I was inspired by an unusual event organised by a local arts society, which took place on a dark winter evening at a Cumbrian village hall more frequently used to host Brownies, playgroups and WI meetings. It was billed as an evening of opera, with a dinner prepared by a local chef. Two professional opera singers and a pianist, who had all performed at leading international venues, delivered a remarkable evening of music. They wore full evening dress and performed from a makeshift stage, amidst the children’s dangling Christmas snowflakes, surrounded by stacks of plastic chairs. The pianist, more used to a grand piano, played an electronic keyboard, perched (probably uncomfortably) on two of the stacked chairs, his evening tails hanging down behind him. The performers delivered their music as if from a London stage, with much grace and humour, whilst we ate our dinner on fold-out tables. There was a raffle, of course, mostly for alcoholic beverages. It was a remarkable insight into the life of touring musicians, performing largely for love, and little money. (Much like the life of a writer really!) My characters were fiction, I must add.

On the question of point of view for the story. You have to start somewhere. Sometimes, as the story progresses, it seems that it would work better from the first person, or in another tense. If I am not getting the right vibe, then I will try another perspective. A story must seem natural, even if it is clearly an artifact. There must always be a gap for the reader to inhabit. Grounding it too much will make the story fall flat. With this story, there is a little distance, and a formality, a wry humour, but we can still hear Reneé’s voice through the narrator. I kept the third person to allow me to pull away from the immediacy, and avoid the more obvious aspects of first person, which can be a little too ‘up close and personal’. I wanted to keep a wry perspective and allow the sensibilities of others to cast a light back, and Reneé’s misery could have dominated in the first person. I do use first person and I often play with tenses. Even second person, sometimes. Variety is one of the reasons why I like short fiction, both as a writer and reader.

Kelly, tell me about your plans to get more of your poetry published. It seems that independent presses, such as Arachne, play an important part in bringing new writers to light.

Kelly: I feel I’ve developed my own voice as a poet, and I have a reasonable body of work so I would love to get a pamphlet (or maybe even a collection) published. I am submitting where I see opportunities to do so. However, there are so many talented poets competing for airtime/publishing contracts that one has to be both patient and determined. I often get very warm responses from audience members when I read at poetry events – and that encourages me to keep writing and submitting. What are your writing plans, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth: I hope one of these days to finish a novel. I have a few that, for various reasons, I have not finished. And I’d like to get together new collections of my stories. I have also toyed with the idea of writing a play. I enjoyed watching actors engage with my Liars’ League stories in live readings. Of course, Arachne collects and publishes selected Liars’ League stories in its anthologies, and that’s where my story for We/She came from.

 

You can buy all the Arachne books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.

If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer, we recommend Hive for ePub.