Making a Book Out of Sound

Vermillion Cover

This spring, I’ve finished a long-delayed project—recording the audiobook of The Mysterious Tongue of Dr. Vermillion. The book compiles five paranormal mysteries, amounting of 8.5 hours of intrigue, suspense, and snappy one-liners.

Not since the playgrounds of my childhood have I enjoyed such unfettered creativity. Throughout my life, my interests have wandered in many directions at once—in Pittsburgh, I would write magazine articles during the day, study literature in the evening, and perform in stage plays and comedy shows on weekends. I have dabbled, aggressively, in a range of media, from poetry to documentary filmmaking. I love all of these, and I hope to dabble much more in the coming decades.

But there is something especially liberating about The Adventures of Elizabeth Crowne, the short stories I began as a serialized podcast around Halloween in 2016. Typing out each manuscript, I can indulge the “vintage” language I have always loved. I can research the Roaring Twenties to my heart’s content. When recording the podcast, I can read aloud—one of my favorite pastimes—and perform the many characters, mimicking a range of accents and temperaments (albeit with mixed results). Atmospheric music has always been an essential ingredient, and musician friends have been exceedingly generous with their compositions. In the most recent episodes, I’ve started incorporating “foley” sound effects as well, dabbing the auditory landscape with blots of realism. Parenthood makes theatre rehearsals an impractical pursuit, never mind filmmaking. In front of the microphone, though, anything is possible.

Which is why this audiobook is special to me. It’s not just a “straight read.” I have taken the best parts of the podcast (music, audio filters, overlapped dialogue) and applied them to the audiobook. The result is still a body of prose, which relies most heavily on the verbal images; yet I mean the experience to be bolder, more complex, almost cinematic in its delivery. The “transcripts” in the book have been rendered in the style of a wax-cylinder recording. In places, characters interrupt each other, talk over each other, match revelations with musical crescendos. The audiobook remains a homemade project, and there are technical weaknesses, including the endurance of my own vocal cords. Naturally, I hope such gimmicks aren’t necessary for a listener to enjoy the characters and plots. But if there’s anything I love, it’s an audacious experiment, this one in particular.

I can’t assess the quality of such a solo project, since there is no agent or publisher to laud its virtues. At this point, I am no longer self-conscious (as I once was) about crafting these eccentric works in isolation. Some friends have reported reading the Dr. Vermillion paperback in a single afternoon, barely pausing to warm up their tea. Conversely, one friend said he stopped around page 10, because my writing style was “trying too hard.” (A valid criticism). While the podcast has nearly broken 40,000 downloads, and listeners live everywhere from Pittsburgh to New Zealand, few close friends claim to tune in. As my friend Brandon put it: “I know you. I don’t need you to ‘read me a story.’” It can be weird, hearing a familiar voice that’s also disembodied. So for the first time in my career, most of these fans are strangers, and I have no idea what their impressions are.

All I can say is that this audiobook is almost exactly what I envisioned, and I am euphoric to finally share it with you.