On the heels of the wonderful news about Clean Sweep being nominated for an Audie award, please welcome to the blog Nora Achrati and Robert McDonald from Graphic Audio, who have generously agreed to answer some of the questions you had about dramatized audio adaptations and how they work.
Creative Director at Graphic Audio
Nora Achrati is best known to the BDH as Nora Sofyan, the narrator for Sweep of the Heart, and as the voice of Dina in Graphic Audio’s Innkeeper Chronicles adaptations. Nora was an audiobook narrator for the Library of Congress before becoming a full-time director/narrator for Graphic Audio, and was a stage actor / teaching artist / occasional puppeteer before any of that. She has performed in hundreds of Graphic Audio titles and has her own website, which is coming together in fits and starts because she also has kids.
Welcome Nora! First thing first, what is your official job title? What do you do at Graphic Audio?
Nora: Hi! Thank you so much for inviting us here! This is really exciting for us. My official job title at GA is Creative Director. I adapt novels into scripts, cast them, direct voice actors, select & organize their takes, and narrate books, when called for. Also, I occasionally get to act in other directors’ books, which is super fun!
Let’s get right to it. What makes a book a good dramatized adaptation candidate? For example, how did you first decide to adapt the Innkeeper Chronicles and work with Ilona Andrews?
Nora: Our Acquisitions Team is in charge of acquiring titles and signing deals with authors, agents and publishers that fit the requirements of Graphic Audio – action-packed stories with strong dialogue that moves the story forward. Then our Director of Production assigns books to creative directors based on who he’ll think will be a good fit for the book (and sometimes also according to scheduling considerations, etc).
I learned from the Acquisitions Team that Graphic Audio has a history and great relationship with the Andrews’ literary agency and actually wanted to license the KATE DANIELS series when INNKEEPER CHRONICLES was suggested by the agency instead.
I’m a little afraid the Horde will eat me for this, but I had no idea who Ilona Andrews was before Clean Sweep landed on my desk. I’d also just come off of directing and narrating a 10-book first-person paranormal romance series about a woman with a werewolf lover and a vampire suitor, and while it was fun and educational, I was really, really ready to dive into another genre, any other genre. We do westerns. We do space operas. We do high fantasy. I read the Clean Sweep blurb and was 100% prepared to go to our Director of Production and ask to please give me a space book instead. Little did I know…
Could you briefly outline how you go from book to dramatized adaptation? How does casting work?
Nora: The director gets the manuscript, reads it, and starts converting/marking it up into a script (while taking LOTS of notes – keeping track of characters, major scenes, sound effects, locations, etc).
Once the characters have been identified and the script is more or less finished, the director casts the book. Graphic Audio used to record all its actors in our studios outside Washington, DC, but in recent years we’ve transitioned to a lot of remote recording, and our casts now include actors from around the globe.
Then we start recording narration & dialogue. Most of our directors are also narrators/actors, so they’ll generally narrate the books they’ve been assigned, though we sometimes use outside narrators as well.
Dialogue directing is my favorite, or maybe second-favorite, part of production – we work with each actor individually, reading their scenes with them and asking for performance adjustments as needed. Often the same actor will be scheduled to record for several projects at once – so directors will switch off within a single session, and actors will have to shift from being, say, vampires to cowboys on a dime (they’ll also often play multiple roles in the same script. It’s a lot of fun.)
Actors send in their files and the director listens through them and selects the takes that work best. When everything’s recorded, all the files – narration, dialogue for all characters – get handed off to the sound designer (or designers), who put it all together and add the sound effects and scoring magic, do all the level-adjusting wizardry, and master everything. Sound designers are titans.
Then the designers send the book back to in chunks at a time for review, and we’ll give notes, ask for tweaks, and express eternal gratitude for the gold they spin out of the straw we hand them. Listening to the sound-designed product is my actual favorite part of the process. It’s magic.
What is the abridged writing process like? How do you decide what to cut and how much, does it take several rereads of the book or a read of the whole series first? Do you mainly focus on translating sound descriptions into sound effects?
Nora: It depends on the book/series, but in general, we try to stay as faithful to the original manuscript as possible.
When people think of book adaptations, they usually think of movies or TV shows, which – because of the nature of those media – can end up making extensive and sometimes radical changes to story and characters, for a whole host of reasons. Our work isn’t that. I’m not sure how many people this analogy will speak to, but what we do is a little more akin to how old movies used to be adapted for radio performances – we’ll cut or condense some scenes for time, and occasionally add or adjust narration to account for the fact that it’s a purely auditory medium, but we won’t change the overall story or introduce new characters. (Side note: it was FASCINATING to read about the Tapas adaptation process, where whole new characters were created!).
We try our darndest to preserve what we know (or think) will be important later on, in the case of ongoing series (this is where you, Mod R, have been incredibly helpful when it comes to tackling the Kate Daniels universe). But production has to move fast, so in a lot of cases we aren’t able to read a whole series before we start (and in some cases, the series is ongoing / still being written.
It’s both harder and easier to adapt really well-written books – harder to make cuts, because the writers have already generally been so thoughtful about what’s included and why, so there’s less fat to trim; but easier to “envision” (“enhear”?), because descriptions are so lush and specific and characters are so well-drawn.
How much feedback do you usually get from authors?
Nora: This all depends on the author. As directors, we always hope authors will be responsive when we have questions about the story or different characters, but that they’ll give us free artistic reign when it comes to the rest of it.
For Clean Sweep, HA were basically unicorns – completely hands off about the process and the choices we made, but also incredibly responsive to questions and willing to talk about anything, any time.
I also just loved their vibe. Our first Zoom meeting, we talked about kids and pets and they gave me dog advice (we don’t have one yet, but we recently moved house and the kids are begging) and then they had a side conversation about buying a generator. It was delightful. I remember going to my husband afterward (who also works at Graphic Audio!) and being like “I just talked to the best people.”
Really lucky GA directors will at some point get paired with a series or an author they just vibe with. The Eric Carter series, the Heroes’ Road books, the Jig the Goblin series, Terra Ignota, Ishmael Jones — the directors of those books clicked with the material or the authors or both, and the productions reflect that. I am a really lucky GA director to have landed with House Andrews.
Who is your favorite Ilona Andrews character?
Nora: In Clean Sweep? Caldenia, hands down. In all of Innkeeper? Beast.
Could you tell us about your upcoming projects, the ones you are most excited about?
Nora: I just finished directing the first three titles in KF Breene’s Demon Days, Vampire Nights series (Robbie worked on Book 2, and designed the scene that shows up in my favorite web clip ever). Right now I’m working on a new series about a girl, a Beast Lord, and a sword…
You don’t say. Do you have any recommendations for Ilona Andrews fans?
Nora: GA’s Stormlight Archive adaptation is what converted/addicted me to Graphic Audio books. It’s amazing, I recommend it to anyone.
Suitable for most: Michael J. Sullivan’s Legends of the First Empire and Riyria books; the Archie reboot series; CJ Cherryh’s Alliance-Union Universe (so good!); Cassandra Rose Clarke’s Forget This Ever Happened.
I’ve also heard good things about (but haven’t yet listened to) Devon Monk’s Ordinary Magic series, Jim C. Hines’ Terminal Alliance series (USA/CA only), Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle, Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War, and Barry Hutchinson’s Space Team & Sidekicks Initiative.
Sound Designer and Creative Director at Graphic Audio
Before arriving at Graphic Audio, Robert McDonald was full-time musician, dividing his time between touring the world with various artists and composing music for films, TV, and video games. An interest in immersive audio brought Robert to Graphic Audio, where he’s been a sound designer on multiple titles. Robert lives in the Washington, DC area with his wife, two cats, a dog, and a baby showing up any minute now. You can hear more of his audio work on his website
Welcome Robert! First thing first, what is your official job title? What do you do at Graphic Audio?
Robert: I’m a Sound Designer that has recently added the Creative Director feather to my cap, so I’m a Creative Director / Sound Designer Hybrid.
And what does a sound designer do?
Robert: For us, Sound Design is the last stage in a long process, where all the recordings of narration and voice actor performance comes together with ambience, sound effects, and music to make the final production you hear. I like to look at it as being a re-recording mixer for film, but there’s no picture. With sound effects and audio processing, we can put the characters in a room, or a cavern, or outside, or anywhere else they need to be. We take these disembodied voices and give them the ability to walk around, ride horses, cast spells, pilot spaceships, whatever’s needed!
How do you know what sounds to add? Does the person adapting the script decide, the director, or is it all in the hands of the sound editor?
Robert: It’s really a tag-team effort. The director will know that in a scene with a fistfight, you’ll need the sound of punch, but then it’s the sound designer that will choose that perfect punch sound, and line it up along with the actors’ exertions to really give that kinetic energy to the action. Selecting music is part of the sound designer’s role too. The director knows what sort of emotion needs to be supported or highlighted in a scene and makes the call for it. Then the sound designer finds that perfect music, even the perfect section of music, and edits it to fit under the performance.
Do you record your own sound effects, or do you have stock sounds?
Robert: A mixture of both. I like to record bespoke or create customized sound effects whenever I can, not only because it helps set a production apart from the crowd, but also builds a specific audio world that only exists for that particular story.
Sound designers often have to be very creative with sourcing of their sounds. The one interesting example of this that most people are familiar with is the work of Ben Burtt, the sound designer for Star Wars, who made the lightsaber sound by striking power cables. What is the strangest sound effect you ever had to use or make?
Robert: GA titles call for some pretty outlandish sound effects in general! For the Innkeeper books, there was one sound that required some extra work. Nothing in our sound effect libraries was working quite right for it, but I knew we needed something special. I grabbed a couple pairs of vibraphone mallets, and holding them by the wrong end, I recorded the wooden shafts sliding together. After copying and stacking the sound of those mallet shafts, I finally got the sound of Orro’s quills.
The Innkeeper Chronicles series is a Galactic adventure. Were there any unexpected sound challenges along the way?
Robert: A tough one was the battle with the Dahaka, where the Anansi eggs hatched and spiders spread across the battlefield, but I’d say the toughest was figuring out the Inn’s bells in Dina’s head. Nora and I went back and forth working out a sound that could be versatile enough to signal different things, convey different emotions, while still being instantly recognizable as the Inn’s bell. It ended up being a simultaneous set of real and synthesized bells, with layers that could be adjusted to fit the moment. It didn’t occur very often, but a lot of thought and planning went into it, which I think really paid off.
What was your favorite part about directing and adding sound effects when working in the Innkeeper Universe?
Robert: One of my favorite sequences to design was a scene with Dina returning home to Gertrude Hunt and entering her secret basement lab. I visualized the floorboards of the sitting room telescoping apart to reveal the staircase down, so I layered in the sound of slowed-down venetian window blinds clicking to get sort of a precise wooden mechanical effect. The music for that portion ended up working out great too. A big part of the fun of designing the Inn sounds is that by this point, they are mostly commonplace to Dina, and any sense of wonder about the Inn’s actions is all for the listener. Runner up would have to be the first time Shawn put on the Auroon 12 armor!
Could you tell us about your upcoming projects, the ones you are most excited about?
Robert: I’m currently directing and sound designing the next (147th, to be exact) DEATHLANDS title, Animal Kingdom. It’s my first time in the director’s chair, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Do you have any recommendations for Ilona Andrews fans?
Robert: Another book Nora and I worked on together was a title in the Demon Days, Vampire Nights series, one called Raised in Fire. If you enjoy Dina’s personality in Innkeeper, I think you’d enjoy that series too!