In My Own Voice: The Carmella's Quest Collaboration

by Carmella Broome

My first book, "Carmella's Quest: Taking On College Sight Unseen," was released in print in February of 2009. As excited as I was to hold a copy in my hands, flip the pages, and yes, even sniff it to see if it really smelled like a new book, I was already thinking ahead to my next goal. I needed to get the book into accessible format for other readers who were blind. Getting "Carmella's Quest" into Bookshare's collection of digital books was quick and easy, but I wanted it available in audio format as well. I'd enjoyed books on tape for years through the National Library Service, and wanted my book to be included in their collection. I knew that my state's Talking Book Services had a studio where local volunteers recorded books about South Carolina, or by South Carolina authors. This collection was made available nationally to NLS patrons through interlibrary loan. 

Hoping for the best, I contacted Chris Yates at the Talking Book Services office near my home. After a little phone tag, we had an enthusiastic conversation about getting my book into their South Carolina-related collection. There was a catch to my request, though. I wanted to read the book myself. If Chris was taken aback, he quickly got over it. "Great!" he said. "How would we go about doing that?" 

I explained that I'd probably use a process similar to one I'd figured out when I needed to give presentations in graduate school. I had a laptop, a text file, JAWS, and a set of headphones. I would have JAWS read to me and I would repeat what I was listening to aloud to my audience. I wore an ear bud in one ear and simply slowed the speech rate down a bit and narrowed a document's margins so that I could easily stay a few words behind whatever JAWS was saying. I moved through the text line by line, adding pauses and inflection, and other more human embellishments. In this case, my audience would be TBS's digital recording equipment. 

"I don't know how you're able to read that way," Chris said, "but we're sure willing to give it a shot." We made plans to meet for a trial run a couple weeks later. 

The first recording session went great. I snuggled into a small soundproof recording booth with my laptop and my guide dog, Maggie. Chris was on the other side of the booth monitoring his equipment; we talked to each other through the microphone. I already had the JAWS speech rate and margins on the text copy of "Carmella's Quest" set the way I liked them. We did a quick sound check, during which I read several paragraphs, to make sure everything was set up right on Chris' end. I read for about two minutes before Chris stopped me. He actually left the equipment and came around to the booth. When he pulled the door open, I was amused to note that it made that weird sucking noise refrigerator doors make when they're pulled open. "This is going to be great!" he said. "You really have the voice for narrating. I can't wait to let national NLS know about this." I could tell Chris was really excited. I'd been sure my idea would work and was pleased with his enthusiasm. 

"I think readers will really be able to tell that you're personally invested in this reading," Chris said. I hoped so, too. I knew that, especially when reading a memoir, I'd connect with the story more personally if I knew the person narrating it was the person who actually wrote it. I also knew that I wouldn't have wanted anyone else's voice to read my book. If I did it myself, I could make sure it sounded the way I wanted it to. 

Our first recording session flew by as I read the introductory pages and first four chapters. Chris followed along in the print copy and monitored the recording equipment. We quickly figured out that if I stumbled or didn't like how I'd read a phrase or sentence and needed to go back and record a "do over," the easiest thing was simply for me to pause and then read it again. That way, Chris didn't have to back up his equipment and I didn't have to interrupt the "flow" of reading. After we finished the entire book, Chris would edit the digital files, and if needed, I would come back in and record any bits and pieces that needed to be read again. I knew it would take several sessions to record the whole book. Fortunately, I had a four-day work week at my counseling job and could easily drop in on my day off to record for a couple hours. We met about four more times during the next few months. Each time, I would read for an hour and a half to two hours to avoid my voice beginning to sound tired. 

Sometimes, though I was multitasking and very focused on context, content, and keeping track of JAWS, I would have moments where it felt as if I were experiencing the book for the first time. I suppose this had to do with listening to myself reading it aloud. It was as if the story were new to me, though I'd been over the manuscript multiple times during the past few months. I would think, "That's really funny," or "That's really sad," or "Wow, this girl really communicates well through writing." I would have to remind myself that "this girl" who wrote "this book" was actually me. It was strange but gave me a different appreciation for a story that had become way too familiar during the process of editing and rewrites. 

Meanwhile, I was invited to be the presenting author at a monthly event sponsored by the South Carolina State Library, of which TBS is a part. Their PR folks do a great job publicizing these meetings, which was great for getting the word out to the local media about "Carmella's Quest." After the presentation, a podcast of my talk was posted on the state library's web site, and clips were uploaded on YouTube. Curtis Rogers, who handles press release distribution and media contacts, also circulated information about my availability to speak to libraries across the state. This resulted in several opportunities to talk to school and library groups about being a published author. 

By early August, the recording of "Carmella's Quest" was complete. Soon after, Chris contacted me with a very brief list of edits I would need to come in and re-record. We made plans to do that in early September. Around the same time, Curtis Rogers sent out another press release letting the local media know of our collaboration and the unique way I went about reading my book. A reporter from a local TV station came in to interview me the day I read the last few edits. Several weeks later, the story ran on our local CBS station's nightly news program. 

In mid-September, I received a CD from Chris containing the complete recording of "Carmella's Quest." Listening to it read in my own voice was an amazing experience. It sounded so professional and yet so conversational, which is exactly what I'd hoped for. Once again, various emotions hit me as I experienced the story in a new way. I was thrilled with how the recording turned out. "Carmella's Quest" is now available across the country to anyone signed up with NLS. I'm proud to have contributed to a service that has provided me with countless hours of reading enjoyment over the years. I wish positive collaborations like the one between myself and South Carolina Talking Book Services could happen more often. Working together, we made "Carmella's Quest" accessible, in my own voice, to countless other blind readers. 

The moral of this story is, if there's something you're passionate about doing, don't let uncertainty stand in your way of trying. Find people who will support and encourage you as you pursue your goal. Brainstorm ideas and alternative strategies. Do some research and be willing to take a reasonable risk to find out what could happen. You may have to think outside the box a little and experiment with some techniques to figure out what will work best. The solution might just involve a little flexibility and creativity. This isn't always the case, but it's true more often than we might think.