Audiobooks are on the rise. The global market is predicted to expand by 25 per cent in the coming year, generating more than $4.5-billion, according to Deloitte. And it’s not just readers, but authors who are being drawn to them. Lily Chu is a Toronto-based author who published her novel The Stand-In as an audiobook on Amazon’s Audible, the most popular audiobook service, before doing a print version (due next year). Since its release on July 15, The Stand-In has trended on Audible.com, and was the No. 1 Top Audible Plus Listen for over a week on the platform. Actor Phillipa Soo, who starred in the original Broadway run of Hamilton, narrates the story about a woman who acts as a double for a famous Chinese movie star and tries not to lose her head – and heart – in the process.
“I don’t think I can do this.”
My husband doesn’t look up from doomscrolling on his phone, as he’s been doing for the last hour (or past 14 months straight, if we’re being honest). “Don’t do it, then.”
“I want to do it. I’m excited. I have to.”
“Then do it.”
“I don’t think I can.”
After a few more rounds of this, my husband puts his phone down – the ultimate gesture of care – to look at me. “Please. Just listen to it.” (I paraphrase here because there was a lot more profanity.)
“It” is The Stand-In, my debut rom-com book. The audiobook version is performed by actor Phillipa Soo, who originated the role of Eliza in the Broadway musical Hamilton, which earned her a 2016 Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical and an Emmy Award nomination this year for her performance in the filmed version of the show.
I wrote The Stand-In in a frenzy of productivity during the early months of the pandemic and sold it to audiobook publisher Audible in the summer of 2020.
It’s now a Friday night in late April and I’m looking at the final audio version, dropped into my Audible app by my editor. It’s a shock to see its pretty pink-and-blue cover there on my screen next to the other audiobooks I’m listening to. I get a rush almost painful in its intensity.
I start listening and last exactly 32 seconds before I scream so loud the cats scurry away.
It’s incredible. It’s also overwhelming because all of a sudden the main character, my Gracie, is suddenly our Gracie – both Phillipa’s and mine.
I’ve lived with Gracie since I created her and I know her every intonation and lilt. Or I thought I did, because Phillipa’s interpretation creates a new Gracie, one with amplified depth and personality. I have to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of the Gracie in my head with the Gracie in my ears – and it’s more difficult than I thought.
I look up. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
This time, my husband doesn’t bother to put down the phone. He pulls on a pair of earphones and ignores me.
I’m desperate to hear the book through, but as an inveterate fidgeter, knee-jiggler and pen-tapper, it’s physically impossible for me to stay still and simply listen. I pull on my huge black puffer jacket and don’t bother to change out of my sweatpants before taking my book on a walk.
This time when I click play, it’s with the conscious knowledge that I’ll never have this moment of hearing it for the first time again. I savour it, letting Phillipa’s voice fill my mind and admiring how she brings Gracie to life.
I get three blocks away before I have to turn it off – again.
There’s a very exquisite agony in a finished product: It’s done – yay! But it means there’s no room for changes. My critical brain is in overdrive analyzing every word and turn of phrase, still editing even as I listen.
I send a quick text to my agent, who – very politely and as sensitively as she can – tells me to chill out.
Right – okay! I type back. If stopping anxiety was that easy, I wouldn’t have maxed out my therapy benefits in two months.
But her digital reassurance calms me down enough to press play again. I’ve read the book over so often I get dizzy looking at the text. It’s been through beta readers and two editors, plus line edits and audio edits. Then I read it over again (and again). Surely, any egregious errors have been caught by now.
So I settle in as I walk, letting Phillipa’s voice lure me into the story and managing the impossible task of getting me into the listener’s seat. And I’m stunned at the sheer versatility of the performance. The characters get a gloss and depth that I’d hoped to reach through the text but are turbocharged with the intimacy of hearing the nuance in her voice as she portrayed each of them. I learn about my own style. I hadn’t realized until I hear it performed that when I read the story to myself, I put the emphasis on certain words or phrases. It opens up a new way to look at my story, and that’s a gift I’m grateful for.
At one point, I find myself walking along the same street I’m listening to a description of and I pause in front of the very art gallery where I’ve placed a scene as Phillipa narrates it. It’s an odd déjà vu, to have the echo of memories of writing that part while listening to the finished product.
It takes me a week to listen to the whole book, and every minute is spent in movement. When running or walking, my speed is dictated by the rhythm of the story. At one point, I realize I’ve slowed to a snail’s pace as I try to focus on a scene. When cooking or cleaning, I bless the gods of audio that I can multitask a pleasant activity (my book) with a tedious chore (anything domestic). It slides into the corners of my day. I find myself waiting breathlessly when I know a pivotal scene is coming up – one that makes me cry when I wrote it, and makes me cry again when I hear it.
I finish on a Tuesday night, just around 11 p.m. By this time, I’ve dissociated from the text enough to listen quietly to the last lines in a dark room.
When it’s done, I sit for a moment, thinking about Phillipa’s delivery, and the power of the performer who has created the voice that is now forever Gracie in my mind.
Then I start listening again from the beginning.
Author Lily Chu writes under a pseudonym and is an employee of The Globe and Mail.
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