I sat down with locals Kris Hartrum, David Burr and Dani Harris to talk about their non-profit audiobook publishing house Talking Book and all things literary. Please enjoy this spirited interview with Asheville's premier book-heads that goes off the rails when their son Max finds a bug!
Hello Talking Book! First off, tell me a little about TB. What is everybody’s role here?
Kris Hartrum: So, technically I guess I was the first person. I worked with a guy named Ben on another project called Spoken Word, Inc., which was an audiobook production house. People would hire us to make stuff. And then we hired Dave a little bit down the road; Dave was an audio engineer/audio editor. Then Dani started designing the book covers.
Fast forward. We decided it would be cool if we started making books with indie and art house publishers in audio because people didn’t tend to make those kind of books in audio.
How did audio books even begin?
KH: Audiobooks were first a government run initiative for the seeing impaired. You applied for the program. It was like a library for the blind, but they would send you records in the mail. After that, there was something called Caedmon Records [an audiobook publishing house], started by two women who thought it would be a relevant literary project to record great artists of the time reading their work. That was our inspiration. We thought we should bring that idea back and make audio books literary again. Technically, recordings of literature predates music. So we win.
Fast forward again to us forming Talking Book with Dani and Dave. We recently turned it into a 501 c 3!
As for roles, I do the book acquisitions. David Burr is the head of all sound production. Dani Harris does all the graphic design and art stuff.
Hm, that is interesting about Caedmon records. I remember going to a museum and hearing a recording of Gertrude Stein read her work. Was that a project of Caedmon?
KH: Yeah, that was Caedmon Records.
Dani Harris: Also, The original name for audiobooks were talking books.
Oh, cool! So, who does the vocals? Do you reach out to people to read the books or do you read them?
KH: We don’t ever do the readings. When a books about to come out, literary agents, the author, or the publisher will reach out to us and we will license the audio rights, much like someone who licenses film rights. Then we send out a casting call, get a bunch of auditions, go through them with the author, and then see which one is the best one. Or sometimes we get the author to do it.
Does the reader’s voice affect the text?
KH: There are two completely different workflows. With an actor reading who is not the author, it becomes an adaptation. But on the other hand, if its poetry or a non-fiction essay, it oftentimes makes so much more sense for the author to read it. A fictional novel with multiple characters sometimes requires the skills of a professional actor to make it come to life.
David Burr: We’ve had disagreements at first. We did one book with a guy and disagreed on if he should read it. I was like, 'I don’t think he has a good narrating voice.' And, luckily, Kris fought me on it because it worked.
KH: Yeah, like his voice cracked while talking about something.
DB: If we would have gotten another narrator, it would not have had the same authenticity.
Where’s the sound studio?
KH: We moved into this house recently and we’ve only recorded a couple of things in the basement.
DB: We have a podcast as well. We record it here.
KH: Yeah, we have equipment and we record some stuff, but we only have two weeks left in this house until we are moving again. We’re kind of still building a new studio, trying to find the right space. We finished the Henry Miller book, 'On Writing' here. New Directions did it.
DH: Sometimes we’ll have authors come here. We’ll like host them on a little trip to Asheville and it kind of makes it special.
Do you audio publish a lot of local authors?
KH: We did Nickole Brown, a poet. We did Sebastian Matthews, a badass poet who worked at the Black Mountain College Museum.
DB: We did Nina Hart.
KH: Yeah, she was one of the first ones we did way back in the day. But most of the work we are doing is coming out of the West Coast and New York.
Do you want to be more a part of the Asheville community?
KH: We’re trying to be more and more of an Asheville thing. We had a huge party here the other night. A bunch of writers came from NY and The Carolinas and Mississippi and we had a big reading here. We are doing more locally this year.
In your personal life, do you read book or listen to books?
DB: I definitely listen to more audiobooks.
Is it weird to physically read a book now?
KH: I still read way more books than I listen to. Dani still reads books. For me audio is an obsession I have from living in Tokyo, riding trains, and walking everywhere. Because, my commutes were so long, I got really into audio. If i had to pick 60/40, print/audio. What about you?
I’ve never listened to an audiobook.
KH, DB, DH: Oooh, wow.
KH: We’ll give you a copy of The Sarah Book. I’ve always said, if you love podcasts, and you’re a reader, there’s no fucking way you are not going to love audio books.
I’ll try ‘em! How do writers you’ve worked with feel about their books becoming audio books?
KH: There is this little convo that will often happen when hanging with writers. They’re like, ‘I never realized audio could be such involved and add extra texture to the literary experience.’ After an author records their own book or hears somebody reading their book, they can’t stop listening to others.
Sometimes, I record my writing into my phone and play it back.
KH: Yeah, I’ll write something and read it in my head and be like, ‘This is amazing.’ Then, I record it and play it back and I’ll be like, ‘This is absolute shit.’
What’s the first book that changed your life?
DB: 1984. It really got to me.
KH: For me it was, X-men comics. I started trying to write comics and then I got obsessed with Alice and Wonderland. Then in the “classic-not-interesting-american-cliche" fashion, I got obsessed with Salinger.
DH: Probably the boxcar children.
KH: Those are always like, The Case of the Missing Pineapple.
DH: In all seriousness though, later in life I got into Salinger and 'Nine Stories' ended up being really eye-opening. He’s probably my favorite.
KH: Have you ever read Tender Buttons [Stein]?
Yes! Weird you ask, that was actually my first life changing book. My mom had it on the bookshelf as a kid and I found it and realized a lot. I was like, ‘Oh you can just write whatever you want.’
Have you ever wanted to do a book and not been able to or they weren’t feeling it?
KH: So far, the weird way this happened, it was was me being like, 'I wonder if this could be a weird loophole to talk to a bunch of my writing heroes?' We reached out to a couple and they were like ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ It just kept working. It spun out of control and now, not to sound like we’re living on top of the world, but the writers I used to obsess over are now reaching out to us.
But, now its bigger and it’s for the community. You always hope something will be big and it never is and we all thought this would be whatever and then people liked it a lot. Reverse-engineered!
So you guys have a podcast and a magazines well?
DH: Yeah, a lit blog.
KH: We just call it a magazine to make it sound cooler.
I like it. Can anyone submit?
KH: Yes! Once a week we publish submissions and more recently, we’ve turned it into a preview of full length books. Like little clips of readings from the author.
Max (kid) : It’s a bug.
KH: Oh yeah. It is a bug. Cool. The other day Max had a handful of caterpillars and i was like, ‘How did you find those?’
DB: Were they still alive?
DH: Some were.
KH: He’s always like, ‘What happened to it?’ I’m like, ‘You crushed it.’ He’s gonna grow up to be like John Wayne Gacy.
Do you do kids books on audio?
KH: We did one. But our mission is 100% literary poetry and fiction.
KH: I’m definitely going to send you you’re very first audiobook. You’re gonna be like, ‘Kris this changed my life.’
Final question: What are you reading right now?
DB: I’m reading Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner.
KH: It’s a really good book. Coffee House Press put it out.
The last book I really liked was 'Empire of Light' by Michael Bible. The book we are recording right now is Under the Sea, a book of short stories. And then I’m reading Yukio Mishima’s 'Spring Snow' which is good and psychotic. His books are always psychotic. Post world war Japanese death and sex.
Ah, the good stuff.
DH: The last thing I read that I love was 'Fates and Furies' by Lauren Groff. It’s so good, you should read it.
KH: You can borrow all the books we have in the house.
Thank you TB!