let the commas breathe

I spent much of Tuesday holed up in a bunker studio in Clerkenwell, watching the enjoyable – but undeniably surreal – process of Jubilee becoming an audio book. Before W & N chose the actor to read it, they’d asked me: ‘What does Jubilee sound like? Whose voice is it narrated in?’ The real answer to that was, of course: mine. It had lived in my head for a very, very long time and I’d always assumed that it sounded exactly like me – my accent, my inflections, my gender. But that’s no good at all as an answer and what I heard, as I settled onto a sofa in the production booth, was Jubilee transformed, as actor Sartaj Garewal spoke it into a new kind of life.

…and here he is, doing just that


The first surprise was just how stop-start the process of recording was – a real contrast to the effortless smoothness of the finished product. Sartaj sat on the other side of a glass partition in a room designed to amplify the smallest noise, so that everyday sounds were expressed with a comic-book hyperbole. When he poured a glass of water we heard the sloshing, slapping glug up the scale in digital clarity. And I think he won’t mind too much if I tell you that, as lunchtime approached and all our bellies rumbled, the acoustics were particularly unforgiving.

The producer, Nic, was endowed with a corresponding supersense, hearing noises I couldn’t detect even in that amplified environment. He had an arcane language for all of them. ‘Slightly fluffy,’ he’d say, and Sartaj would nod knowingly and start again. ‘A bit sticky,’ ‘there’s a bit of pop in the “put”,’ and finally, zen-like: ‘let the commas breathe.’

Before recording began, Sartaj had drawn on clues in the novel to develop a voice for each character. I heard them anew, each – inevitably – slightly different from the way they’d been in my head. This is great, I thought, as 10-year-old Sarah instructed her friend Mandy how to kiss: he’s given an edge to her here, even now, long before the girls have a proper falling-out.  When my protagonist, Satish, suffered an especially tricky insomniac night, his inner monologues became an intimate and confiding voice in the darkness. A particular joy was simply hearing Satish’s name, the t hitting the back of the teeth, halfway towards being a th, just as it should be.

My own contribution to the process was considerably less highfalutin’, and when it came I was glad there was no mic on my side of the glass. Sartaj needed to recall the jingle from that 1970s Triumph bra advert. (Remember? Triumph has the bra for the way you are!) I sang it (Whether you’re ooh-ee! Or whether you’re do-wop-wop-wop!) and he sang it back, note-perfect.

As I listened to this – the book which had begun inside my head, being voiced outside it – I had the suspicion that Jubilee may not be wholly mine any more. And of course, it isn’t. It stopped belonging only to me at the moment of publication, and listening to it being read was just confirmation of what I knew already: books come alive, not in the writer’s head, but in the readers’. So that’s what I did, in that little basement studio: I listened to a new Jubilee being made – and I did a bit of letting go.


let the commas breathe

  • Advice
  • author photographs
  • Books
  • Britishness
  • Cover images
  • Events
  • Getting published
  • Jubilee
  • Monarchy
  • Music
  • Personal
  • Politics
  • Vigilante
  • Writing