[Note from Frolic: Our resident audio narrator Andi Arndt decided to share the spotlight this month with her colleague Elena Wolfe]
Settle in, Frolic reader, because I’m about to answer in detail, once and for all, a question I am asked all the time but have never answered. Until now. I’m an audiobook narrator. It’s my full time job and I love it. I got my start narrating erotica in 2014 with a three-book series by author C. C. Gibbs for Hachette Audio (All He Wants, All He Needs, All He Desires). It was a sexual escapade set in the world of mansions, luxury hotels, yachts, and private jets. Sounds fun, right? Once I determined that there were no issues with non-consent, I said yes.
As in any line of work, it’s hard to win opportunities in a new industry until you’ve established a portfolio, a Catch-22 for sure. I’m thankful to Hachette Audio for giving me that first series, because five years later, I’ve added over fifty more titles to the list, narrating for some of the smartest, most kick-ass women writing in the genre, nearly all indie or hybrid authors. Together we’ve won Audie Awards* and AudioFile Earphones and Best Voices of the Year designations**.
When discussing my work in online forums or in-person events, with listeners, authors and colleagues alike, the same question comes up over and over. It goes something like this: Wow, you narrate erotica? [and then in a whisper:] What’s it like to read those explicit sex scenes out loud? [sometimes followed by] “I could never do that!”
I usually demur. Say something glib. Change the subject. Ask the questioner a question. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Move along.
It’s not that I’m shy or embarrassed. It’s more that, for me, the hardest questions are the ones with dozens of possible answers. Ever see the last toll plaza in Jersey before the Lincoln Tunnel, how 16 lanes go down to just a few and everything grinds to a halt? That’s the backup in my head when I’m trying to think of how to even begin to answer.
In that traffic jam are all kinds of thoughts and counter-questions. Why is the person asking? How does the topic relate to their fears and boundaries and secrets and fantasies? What do they assume (if anything) about me having given myself permission to do this work and what it means about me personally? Long answer or short answer? Also in the mix: flashbacks to books I’ve narrated. Flashbacks to my own memories, from my first kiss at summer camp all the way to more recent experiences, all of which are between me and the other person who was there, but which (sometimes) connect in some useful way to a scene I narrate. Privacy and boundaries.
So much easier to say “Oh, you know…” or “Pretty much how you would imagine it to be.” Since the editors at Frolic have given me this opportunity to explore the answer more fully, though, here goes:
It is delicious. A privilege. And it has enriched and expanded my work, my relationships, and my life immeasurably.
The actual process of narrating an erotic scene is identical to the way I approach any other scene in an audiobook in any genre. Every part of every book is there for a reason. It’s my job to understand each scene’s function, what happens in the scene’s subtext, how relationships change from before to after, the significance of characters’ actions. I go into the booth, turn on the microphone, and do everything I can to focus on the story and connect to each moment the characters are experiencing, wherever it leads.
When that connection takes hold, it allows me to bring all of myself into my work. I try to stay emotionally and physically open to whatever might come up, free of judgment, to see where the words lead my imagination and my body. After all, it’s not really about me, it’s about the characters. I imagine them in the midst of their situation: their arousal, their joy, their curiosity, their shame, their fear, their vulnerability, their surrender, their transgression, their love. If something holds me back, it’s almost as though the characters look at me disapprovingly…”do you mind? This is our story, keep going!” So I have to figure out how to get out of the way and tell the story.
Actors in any medium know that judgment—whether of self or material— kills connection. It undermines the performance and keeps the audience from connecting to the author’s (or playwright’s or screenwriter’s) creation.
That judgement, that holding-at-arms-length, causes ripple effects in the body. The breath shifts and gets shallow. Our muscles get tense. Our communicative apparatus shuts down: jaw tense, tongue tight, shoulders up. We say no with our whole bodies. The actor’s job is to say “but what if?” How would it feel to go forward, go through this? To breathe, to relax, to connect, to say the words. To go there. To get out of the way and let the listener go there.
The audiobook medium is very intimate to begin with. I’m not on a stage enacting these moments in front of hundreds of people; it’s just me and the listener. Together with the author, we explore all kinds of territory. And it’s not all decadent escapism. It gets deep. Can two married people expect absolute intimacy and transparency (Marriage Games* and Separation Games by CD Reiss)? What might infidelity feel like (Lost in the Affair by E.K. Blair)? How does a woman navigate a minefield of sexual power games that overlap with her professional life (Dirty Filthy Rich Men by Laurelin Paige)? How can couples communicate openly and playfully about their sexual desires and fantasies (Meghan March’s Dirty Girl** duet)? What happens when a member of the clergy confronts the choice between spiritual vows and human desires (Priest by Sierra Simone)? And perhaps most importantly, would you know how to climb a tree to escape the zombie invasion (Flesh / Skin by Kylie Scott)?
Joking aside, what I want to say when people ask me what it’s like to narrate the juicy parts is this: because of our often fraught relationship with sex as a part of life, sexual questions often lead to profoundly important life questions. How can I be a better partner? A braver person? More true to myself in my actions? How can I claim my power in the world and find a partner who is not afraid of that power but rejoices in it? How can I learn to trust again?
What I want to say to you is this: the next time you get to the good parts, read them out loud and notice what happens, where you stop, where you blush, where you laugh, what catches your imagination, which words for parts of your own body, your partner’s body, you’ve never said aloud. You’ll start to understand what it gives you to take a breath and send these things out into the world on your voice.