Why George Guidall Is the Undisputed King of Audiobooks
Early in his career as a narrator of audiobooks, George Guidall received a note from a truck driver in Montana. The man had been so absorbed in listening to Mr. Guidall’s eloquent recording of “Crime and Punishment” that he drove off the road. He was writing from his hospital bed to thank Mr. Guidall because he now had time to finish listening to the book.
Mr. Guidall is the undisputed king of audiobooks: more than 1,300 so far, with a stack of new prospects beside his bed awaiting his attention. Audio is the fastest growing format for books, generating almost $643 million in sales last year, according to the Association of American Publishers, and providing a sideline for plenty of celebrities. That’s Claire Danes narrating “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Annette Bening doing “Mrs. Dalloway,” Christina Ricci reading “Gossip Girl” and Colin Firth intoning “The End of the Affair.” But Mr. Guidall’s rich baritone has been called the voice of choice in this burgeoning industry.
It was never his plan. His father was a pharmacist, as is one of his four brothers, and the other three are doctors, so Mr. Guidall was headed for the family medical profession too. But as a self-described “fat and antisocial” child in New Jersey, he discovered acting when a high school English teacher recruited him to play Teddy Roosevelt in “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
“She said, ‘It’ll get you out of gym,’ and I said, ‘O.K.,’ already shivering from shyness,” he recalled recently. “She handed me a broom and told me to run up the stairs yelling ‘Charge!’ Sixteen years of repressed things came out, and I realized how much fun it was.”
The family name was Shapiro; Guidall is a permutation of his Hebrew name, Gedalyah, suggested when he was acting in a theater group touring in the Middle East in the early 1960s. He returned to school in his 50s to receive a master’s degree in social work, practicing as a therapist while continuing to act in soap operas and onstage. (He won an Obie award for his performance in the Off Broadway play “Cinders.”)
It was while doing “A Flea in Her Ear” at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven that he heard about a fellow actor leaving rehearsal early to narrate a book, and he started doing “talking books” for the blind. “It was a gig between shows,” he said.
Most days, Mr. Guidall, 79, drives from his home in White Plains to nearby Irvington, where the owner of the Voiceworks company has outfitted his basement as a recording studio. He sits in a tiny booth lined with egg-crate-foam soundproofing, his longtime sound engineer Rich Samalin at a computer console right next to the washer and dryer.
A list of phonetic spellings for words that might be challenging to pronounce is provided, but while he read a book about Lincoln’s war secretary Edwin Stanton, who was a lawyer in Pittsburgh, the Monongahela River required a few tries. Later, an Ohio politician named Clement Vallandigham engendered paroxysms of laughter. “With a book that’s over 700 pages, the pace is important — otherwise it would take two years to listen,” Mr. Guidall said. “So I’d rather keep up the speed and go back to correct. Once in a while, I fall off the sled and roll down the hill.” (After Mr. Samalin’s splicing, no one will know.)
It usually takes three or four days to record a book. Mr. Guidall scans it beforehand but does not meet the author (“It wouldn’t do any good; the author would lay down a framework that I wouldn’t welcome”), occasionally adding an interview afterward.
His aural oeuvre includes Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” Philip Roth’s “Patrimony” and lots of Stephen King. He won’t do books with gratuitous sex or violence. “There are people out there who expect a certain quality and respect,” he said, “although I did a book called ‘Small Town’ by Lawrence Block, which has the kinkiest sex imaginable, but it was totally justifiable.”
Sometimes a novel has a half-dozen characters on the same page, and he must give each a distinctive vocal identity, including the women.
“I keep a pair of red shoes in the studio for that,” Mr. Guidall joked. “Recently I heard about a voice clinic for trans people who want their voice to be more female. I want to go. I want them to teach me some tricks.”
He’s a bit disdainful of some of his competition in the audiobook world. “They’re just reading out loud,” he said. “They don’t have an emotional underpinning. There’s a rhythm to speech in terms of what’s implied. If it’s raining in the book, there’s got to be something about the voice that evokes the rain.”
Writers should want to have their books heard as well as read, according to Mr. Guidall. “It expands the author’s intent, brings it into an immediacy. I am the author when I’m doing it. I’m a literary hermit crab finding a home in someone else’s imagined truth.”
He is also vulnerable to taking an unpleasant character home with him. When he was narrating “Crime and Punishment,” the anguish of Raskolnikov was hard to live with. His wife, a psychotherapist, kept saying: “What’s the matter with you? You’re slouching, you’re mumbling, you look terrible.”
Occasionally, a devoted fan will ask: What do I tell my friends who say they don’t like to hear a book read to them? “Someone performing the book for you can make it clearer,” Mr. Guidall said. “One guy told me that he’d been trying to read ‘Don Quixote’ for years and couldn’t get through it. He wrote, ‘Thank you because now the book is mine.’ Originally we were wired for sound, not reading. The hunter would come back having killed the behemoth, and he became the storyteller in the cave. The cave that I’m speaking to is the car or the truck. People write and say, ‘Thank you for being with me in the traffic jam,’ or ‘My wife sits in the garage with the frozen food melting because she has to finish the chapter.’ These are my cave people.”
The cave people include some rather literary truckers who pass through a West Virginia town that’s a nexus of state highways, dropping off one recording at the local library and picking up another.
“You’d be surprised at the number of classics that have gone coast to coast,” Mr. Guidall said. He likens himself to the wizard of Oz — a voice behind a curtain that creates an illusion. At one event, a man approached him after a reading and said: “My wife thinks you have the sexiest voice. Now that I see you, I’m not worried.”
It seems the only audience not captivated by Mr. Guidall is his grandchildren, who protest, “Grandpa, don’t use that voice.” He makes appearances at libraries around the country with a behind-the-scenes look at his work called “The Art and Artifice of Audiobook Narration,” and based on the feedback he gets, he believes he is providing something more than entertainment.
“I’m creating accidental intimacy,” he said. “The people listening feel so close to me. I’m the furthest thing from a rock star, but I’m a rock star.”