Audiobooks are on the rise. The world market is expected to grow from here 25 percent over the next year, generating more than $ 4.5 billion, according to Deloitte. And it’s not just the readers, but the authors who are drawn to them. Lily Chu is a Toronto author who published her novel Replacing as an audiobook on Amazon’s Audible, the most popular audiobook service, before making a print version of it (for next year). Since its release on July 15, Replacing tended to 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 series Hamilton, tells the story of a woman who plays the look-alike role for a famous Chinese movie star and tries not to lose her mind – and heart – in the process.
“I don’t think I can do that.”
My husband doesn’t look up at his phone like he’s been for the past hour (or 14 straight months, 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 turns, my husband puts his phone down – the ultimate gesture of loving looking at me. “Please. Just listen to it. (I’m paraphrasing here because there was a lot more blasphemy.)
“He is Replacing, my first rom-com book. The audiobook version is played by actor Phillipa Soo, who originally played 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 nomination this year for her performance in the filmed version of the series.
I wrote Replacing into a productivity frenzy during the first months of the pandemic and sold it to audiobook publisher Audible in the summer of 2020.
It is now a Friday evening at the end of April and I am watching the final audio version, deposited in my Audible application by my editor. It’s a shock to see her cute pink and blue cover on my screen alongside the other audiobooks I’m listening to. I get a rush almost painful in its intensity.
I start to listen and last exactly 32 seconds before screaming so loud the cats run away.
It’s incredible. It’s also upsetting because all of a sudden the main character, my Gracie, is suddenly our Gracie – Phillipa’s and mine.
I have lived with Gracie since I created her and I know all of her intonations and melodies. Or I thought so, because Phillipa’s interpretation creates a new Gracie, 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 harder than I thought.
I watch. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
This time my husband doesn’t bother to hang up. He pulls on a pair of headphones and ignores me.
I’m desperate to hear the book, but as a die-hard agitator, knee-jerk and flashy agitator, it’s physically impossible for me to stand still and just listen. I put on my huge black puffer jacket and don’t bother to take off my sweatpants before taking my book for a walk.
This time, when I click play, it is with conscious awareness that I will never have that moment of hearing it for the first time ever again. I savor it, letting Phillipa’s voice fill my mind and admiring how she brings Gracie to life.
I’m three blocks away before I have to turn it off – again.
There is a very exquisite agony in a finished product: it’s done – yes! But that means there is no room for change. My critical brain is overworked analyzing every word and turn of phrase, while editing even while I’m listening.
I send a quick text to my agent, who – very politely and with the utmost sensitivity possible – tells me to relax.
Alright Alright ! I hit back. If stopping anxiety were this easy, I wouldn’t have maximized the benefits of my therapy in two months.
But his digital confidence calms me down enough to hit play again. I have reread the book so often that I feel dizzy when I see the text. It went through beta players and two editors, as well as line edits and audio editions. Then I read it again (and again). Of course, all the glaring errors have already been detected.
So I settle in as I walk, letting Phillipa’s voice draw me into the story and dealing with the impossible task of putting myself in the listener’s shoes. And I’m stunned by the versatility of the performance. The characters get a brilliance and depth that I had hoped to achieve through the text, but are supercharged by the intimacy of hearing the nuance in her voice as she describes them each. I’m learning my own style. Until I heard it, I didn’t realize that when I read the story to myself, I emphasized certain words or phrases. It opens up a new way of looking at my story, and it’s a gift I’m grateful for.
At one point, I find myself walking down the same street I’m listening to a description of and pulling up to the very art gallery where I placed a scene as Phillipa recounts it. It’s a strange deja vu, to have the echo of writing memories of this part while listening to the finished product.
It takes me a week to listen to the entire book, and every minute is spent in motion. While running or walking, my speed is dictated by the rhythm of the story. At one point, I realize that I have slowed down to a snail’s pace as I try to focus on a scene. When cooking or cleaning, I bless the audio gods that I can multitask an enjoyable activity (my book) with a tedious chore (nothing domestic). It slips into the corners of my day. I find myself waiting breathlessly when I know a pivotal scene is brewing – a scene that makes me cry when I wrote it, and that makes me cry again when I hear it.
I finish on a Tuesday evening, around 11 p.m. At that point, I dissociated myself enough from the text to quietly listen to the last lines in a dark room.
When it’s done, I sit there for a moment, thinking about Phillipa’s performance and the power of the performer who created the voice that is now 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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