So far I have only heard my own voice telling the story of Tall Chimneys, either in my head or aloud. But deciding to issue Tall Chimneys as an audio book meant finding a narrator who I felt could trust. She - it had to be a woman since the book is written in the first person and the narrator is female - had to be British, preferably northern - someone who could make a convincing stab at a Yorkshire accent. It was a lot like finding a nursery or a childminder for your baby - who could you trust with so precious a responsibility?
Danielle Cohen is an English woman living in Vermont. She is a professional audio book narrator and producer who sent me an audition piece which really hit the spot. She sounded like me - I am a Mancunian - and yet she sounded like Evelyn too, who is not me. At first I thought I would need an American male voice to read the Epilogue but Danielle persuaded me to let her try it.
I am completely thrilled with the work she has done in bringing Tall Chimneys to the audio book market and so glad I agreed to let her try the Epilogue - she pulls that off with aplomb. She voices the wide range of characters - male, female, old, young, Yorkshire, Texan - with seeming ease. She handles the descriptive passages with great sensitivity and has been particularly successful at bringing off the tricky task of reflecting Evelyn’s complex character. The story covers the century of Evelyn’s life and Danielle has managed to age her voice very plausibly - the centenarian Evelyn is recognisably the same person as her twenty year old self while still having the completely authentic timbre of an elderly lady.
What has been most surprising to me, though, is her interpretation of some of the characters. I did not prescribe much to her although we chatted about accent a bit. I wanted to give her the freedom to bring her own creativity to the project, which was a risk - but it has paid off. Her take on some of the characters was unexpected. Danielle’s Ratton, for instance, who I conceived as having an adenoidal, grating voice, is much more authoritative, bombastic and arch - and consequently much more intimidating. Kenneth has emerged as gruff rather than monosyllabic - again, it’s the right note - it adds to his attraction.
Writing a book is a lot like having and bringing up a child. The idea of it comes like a twinkle in the eye long before anything actually exists; it’s the shadow of a germ of an idea. The conception occurs in an explosion of irreversible creativity as you open a blank document and implant the first squiggle. Then comes a period of planning, hoping, schemes and dreams as you nurture and cosset your creation in the dark privacy of your imagination.
At last the thing is born - not in its final form but as an entity which cannot be sent back, denied or ignored. It exists. It has life. Do not underestimate the labour involved in this part of the production. It is epic.
The next stage is more difficult. There are absolutes that are non-negotiable; you set the rules and build the boundaries outside of which your offspring may not stray. Within them you prompt, guide and suggest. You nudge it forward by small steps feeling ridiculously proud of those all-important milestones and chalking the mistakes up to experience. But you give the infant a certain amount of freedom too - to be itself, to make choices, to be spontaneous and unexpected - for here is where we see that spark of truth which makes our handiwork unique and dynamic. It causes it to live, to be its own self unlike any other.
At last you have taught it all you know; poured every ounce of your creativity and love into it. You feel it can stand on its own feet and you send it out into the cold and heartless world.
Here is the hardest part for the writer because you have to accept that the book ceases to be yours and becomes the property of the reading public in the same way that your child becomes, in turn, a pupil, a friend, an employee, a spouse, a parent - something different and unique to everyone s/he meets. The readers may make of your book what you had not intended or imagined it to be and you have to allow them to do so even if it turns out to be ‘the worst book [they] have ever read.’ You might think you have created something fine and honest but discover (as I did, from one reader) that it was ‘purple melodrama.’ For some, what you had perceived as courageous, resilient behaviour is seen as 'wanton foolishness'. Your touchingly naive heroine is called ‘weak and whining’, by one, by another ‘foolish and vulgar’. These responses really kick you in the guts and, if you are not careful, can send you scurrying for the gin bottle or the sanctuary of the bedclothes, but you can’t argue with them. Their perception is an unarguable actuality - entirely valid - for them. It’s terrifically hard not to be personally wounded but you have to remember that we are all different. We don’t all like the same things otherwise every person (and every book) would be a replica and that just wouldn’t do.
A handful of poor reviews shouldn’t undermine your confidence in your book though IF (and it’s a big if) you have disinterested feedback from others (i.e. not from friends and family) that is more positive AND you are certain in your own mind and heart that the book is ready to be out there.
Happily I know countless other readers have been inspired by the story. I read their reviews and emails with enormous pleasure. Some tell me that their chores have been neglected and their sleep deprived because the story hooked them and wouldn’t let them go. They love Evelyn, empathise with her, feel that they know her. They tell me that they feel like they have literally been inside the fictional Tall Chimneys. One American lady even plans a trip to Yorkshire. Readers have been transported back in time to their younger days, or reminded of the tales their grandparents used to tell.
Here are some of my favourites:
Like Danielle, some readers have brought interpretations to Tall Chimneys that were new and revelatory to me. One reviewer thought Evelyn ‘seems to represent Britain itself as it loses its global position, degrades into a socialist swamp yet survives because of its heritage.’ Another put forward the idea that ‘[Evelyn] is the antagonist and the house is the protagonist. It wants to die. The entire story is about its efforts to fade into the ground it is built on and her obsessive efforts to keep it alive.’ These reviewers are no more or less entitled to their appraisal than the ones who didn’t like the book although, of course, their reviews please me no end. For them Tall Chimneys stands on its own two feet, captures their imagination and takes them to a place they love. I am sorry that there are those for whom this was not the case. I respect both.
Now I am waiting to see what listeners make of my collaboration with Danielle - the audio book which is a new creation altogether; something of her and something of me. It’s ready and we send it out into the world hoping that it meets with friends.