THE HALVES OF US Audiobook Tour: Interview with Sydney Paige Richardson and Narrator, Rocky Taylor
In tandem with the audiobook tour for The Halves of Us extending September twenty-seventh through October third, I took the opportunity to speak with both Sydney Paige Richardson, the author, and Rocky Taylor, the audiobook narrator, to get their thoughts on the process of collaborating to create this beautiful audiobook. We dive into the ins and outs of character development, narrative tone, and the nitty-gritty of the process from both perspectives. Let’s dive right in...
MALORIE NILSON: Hi, Sydney! Thank you so much for sitting down with me (metaphorically speaking) for this interview. I hope you are doing well. We are so excited about the release of the audiobook for The Halves of Us, and I am sure you are just thrilled! Can you tell me a little about your writing process? Do you write full time, or do you balance it with other things in your life?
SYDNEY PAIGE RICHARDSON: I wish I had a writing process. Really, I write when I can. I have a full-time job as a contract manager. I have a fourteen-year-old foster son who is doing virtual school that we have to work with on assignments closely. And I have two artistic passions: fine art photography and writing.
So, during the evenings I try and alternate when I can (work on photography one night, writing
the next). And I write in 1-3 hour spurts, depending on what is going on with my family that
Weekends I can get more writing done. Recently, I have been setting the mood: a dim room,
some candles, my Spotify Writing playlist… I get my best work done on the weekends!
MN: Is this your first audiobook project? Is it a nerve-wracking process bringing someone
else into your creative vision?
SPR: This is my first audiobook project – but I don’t think it was nerve-wracking. I guess I love
working with different people and bringing things to life. With my photography, I am working
with friends and models that help me bring life to images in my head. So, I think I view the
writing the same way. I love working with artists, narrators, book designers, etc. in bringing
something that was once just words in my head to life. I know I couldn’t do it on my own. Rocky
was great – she wanted to know anything and everything. So, I sent her e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g! I
recorded myself saying the types of races, character names, locations, objects – I had so much
fun with that, to be honest. I even sent her the song I wrote (my grandmother wrote the music,
and my cousin sings it) for the book. It’s a lullaby Aura sings to Adie to help her go to calm down
and go to sleep after her nightmares.
MN: What did you look for when choosing an audiobook narrator? Did you have an idea of
what you wanted going in, or did you wait for a voice to speak to you (pardon the pun)?
SPR: You know when you hear some music and you get the chills? Or you see a painting and you
forget words for a second and fall into the scenery? I think that’s the only way I can describe
what I look for in an audiobook narrator. I heard Rocky’s voice and I got the chills. I heard her
tell me the story and I fell back into a tale that I have read hundreds of times. That’s how I know.
MN: Were there any specific voices or accents that you wanted for your characters? Did your narrator, Rocky Taylor, bring any ideas to you that gave new life to certain aspects or gave you a new perspective?
SPR: I gave Rocky lots of information about the characters. Personality traits, goals, things they struggle with, etc. I never really had any specific voice or accent in mind for my characters in The Halves of Us, really. But I feel like Rocky completely captured them by reading the information I sent and the story – she got to know the characters and got their voices down pat–so much better than I think I ever could have on my own. I love that about her and really hope to work with her on future projects.
MN: How involved were you in the whole process? Did you go chapter by chapter, or did you take a more holistic approach?
SPR: At first, I was sent samples of Rocky reading the first chapter or so, and like I mentioned above I knew it was the right fit. I think I took a more holistic approach after I handed over everything to Rocky. I knew I could trust her to bring everything together and breathe new life in it.
MN: Was there a scene in Halves of Us that was your favorite prior to recording? Was that scene your favorite once recorded, or was there a surprise favorite that jumped out at you?
SPR: I have always loved this scene that is one of Adie’s premonitions. In it, she dances with skeletons across an icy floor. It is based on a nightmare I had, and it felt so real. Putting it into The Halves of Us was almost cathartic in dealing with my nightmares. I couldn’t wait to hear Rocky narrate it. And so.many.chills.
It really is everything.
The end always makes me cry. Reading it each time I edited it was so tough. Hearing someone
speak it, was even harder—but in the best way. (Yes, I cried. I am a crier).
MN: Do you have any plans in the works for audio releases for the other books in this series?
SPR: I would love to have The Reflections of Us and The Souls of Us out as audiobooks for the world
to fall in love with. We shall see!
MN: Do you have any tips for other authors or potential authors out there for publishing an audiobook and working with a voice actor or narrator?
SPR: Don’t be afraid to correct any mispronunciations. Give them all the information. Dive deep into
your characters. Physical traits. Photos. Attributes. Quirks. Personalities. And talk with your narrator. I think a good connection where you both trust each other and both know the process is important.
MN: Sydney, it has been a pleasure. Again, thank you for taking the time to sit in conversation with me. Happy writing, and stay safe out there!
SPR: Thank you for having me. Stay safe!
I then had the opportunity to sit with Rocky Taylor to get their perspective on the audiobook process...
MALORIE NILSON: Hi, Rocky! Thank you so much for joining me for this interview! I hope you are doing well! We here at Parliament are super excited about the release of the audiobook of Halves of Us by Sydney Paige Richardson and for your stunning narration.
ROCKY TAYLOR: Hi Malorie! Thank you for having me and taking such an interest in the production of The Halves of Us. I really appreciate being able to share about myself, my work, and this book. The Halves of Us was written in a way that really made it particularly suited for audio.
MN: Can you tell me a little bit about your career? I know that you have experience with performance art and theater, but what brought you from behind the scenes as a stagehand to audiobook narrator?
RT: I have been drawn to the periphery of theatre and trying to find my place in it since I saw a performance of A Midsummer NIght’s Dream in 7th grade. I had a phenomenal theatre program in high school and then spent the next 15 or so years in and out of working as a stagehand. It never quite felt like the right fit and I could never quite seem to get away from it. It was listening to my uncle read out loud and that really gave me the idea to pursue narration. I am still quite new to it, and while it is a gargantuan task to hold a listener and an entire novel with one voice for 11+ hours, there is a certain way that I feel at home with stories and turning all these characters, who are strangers, into people that I know and can share.
MN: I am sure the processes behind technical work for stage performance and voice acting are quite different. Can you tell us a little bit about your process and what drew you to make that change?
RT: There are a few different personal things that pushed me to make that change, and honestly, it was one of the only things I could think of that I really wanted to do. I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into, but sometimes the only thing to do is go forward, and this is what “forward” looked like to me. It also felt like the right thing at the right thing and a proper blend of my technical knowledge, passions, experience, and scrappy determination.
My life experience really gives me a lot to bring to the world of storytelling. I am not a trained actress, but I have traveled extensively, seen a lot of loss and devastation, and a lot of hope and joy. I think I have a strength for seeing nuance, being understanding of people where they’re at, and I have a lot of love for some pretty difficult people. I bring my understanding of people at their best and worst into what I’m doing. Good storytelling is a lot about giving manuscripts and characters the benefit of the doubt, looking for the nuggets of truth, and looking for the character shifts. Fiction carries so much truth about humanity.
MN: When I think of theater, I think of cues and specific direction for how each scene will play out. Do you work closely with authors to get this type of granular direction? Or is audiobook recording a bit more fluid?
RT: The fun and challenge of narration is being the producer, director, and performer. I like collaborating with authors during the prep stage and then I consider there to be a passing of the creative baton. From a production standpoint, it isn’t practical for an author to take on the role of director. I think it takes a certain amount of bravery on behalf of the author to trust me with their precious manuscript and having that creative freedom allows me to do my best and turn the book into something new that is a blend of artistic talents.
MN: What do you look for in a book when choosing to audition for a project? What drew you to Halves of Us?
RT: My heart lies with fiction, I have a good voice for YA and I look for books I will enjoy. Before I audition I look at authors' web presences, I want to see that an author is taking writing seriously and also that they are people. Sydney’s web presence has all these gorgeous and creative images on it, also book promo, also cat pictures. My impression was that her books would be written with the same level of craft and I am inclined to trust people who post cat pictures.
MN: How do you decide what vocal tone to take for a book? What is your process behind voicing different characters and lines of dialogue?
RT: Before recording a book I carefully read through and prep the manuscript. I’m looking for the overall tone of the book, the plot arc, scene changes, character shifts, pronunciations, subtext, character descriptions, emotional content… all of the structural and technical components of the book as well as the emotional coloring. By the time I get to the end of prepping a manuscript, I know what the heart of the book is about and whether it’s about hope or resilience or escaping your fate—if it’s playful or gritty, innocent or ominous or both. I look at the tone of the book as a whole and I also look at what each character cares about, what is motivating them, and use that in developing their vocal characteristics.
For the Halves of Us Sydney typed up these fabulous character sheets for me that gave me their age, social status, education level, some adjectives to describe them, and who would be cast to play them in a movie, that made my job easier. I got to familiarize myself a bit with who they were and then as I read through the manuscript I made notes on the sheets and I wrote down the first line of dialogue for each of the characters. Before I started recording I sat down with all the sheets and said that one line of dialogue until it felt right. In order to keep track of everybody and maintain consistency I made an audio clip of that one line and then I referenced it whenever I needed to. The villains were definitely the most fun to voice.
MN: The time that goes into recording is a bit opaque to many of us that have not worked in that space, and it is always surprising to me to speak with voice actors and narrators and see just how much time goes into a project. What was the longest day of recording you put in for The Halves of Us? How long did it take to complete the audiobook?
RT: Audiobook production is a staggering amount of work. There are four stages to production: prep, recording, editing, and pick-ups. Altogether it takes me about seven hours of work per finished hour of audio. When I’m recording I try to produce one hour of raw audio per day, and when I transition to editing I am also aiming to produce one finished hour per day. I don’t have my calendar with me at the moment, but that’s the basic math for how long it took. It’s quite a process and that’s why I am selective about the books I produce. Stories are powerful creatures, and I spend so much time with them. I want to feel good about my time with that story and feel satisfied with the work that I’ve done.
MN: Was there a scene in Halves of Us that you just loved working with and narrating? Was there any scene that was especially difficult to convey?
RT: My two favorite scenes were The Room of Papers and a nightmare sequence with dancing skeletons. In both scenes I could see the lighting and color, I could feel the physical movement, the swaying of the stacks of paper, the spinning of the dancers, and they were very raw moments for each of the two main characters. I dropped my voice for the dream sequences in order to carry the listener along between the inner and external world and there’s nothing I like more than a good waltz, for all those reasons, those scenes were just so fun to do.
I’m trying not to reveal any spoilers! The final scene of the book holds so much, it is just so full of tenderness and grief, and there is this palpable sense of rising power and an important shift in the character Aura. I did a few takes of that scene, playing with the tenderness and the power, trying to find just the right blend in order to capture that tension in a way that I was really satisfied with.
MN: Do you have any favorite audiobook narrators that you love to listen to or look to for inspiration?
RT: There are just so many fantastic narrators out there. Piper Goodeve is my coach and I am so, so grateful for her. Some of my favorite narrators to listen to are Cassandra Campbell, Julia Whelan, January LaVoy… I just listened to Adjoa Andoh narrate Ancillary Justice and Kristine Hvam narrate Never Forget Anything and every single word was on point. I am listening for how these narrators develop character voices, their use of pauses, how they connect to the material, manage POV shifts, how they resolve scenes… it is such an art and there are also so many technical devices to master. I really think audiobooks are special and that these artists are incredible.
MN: Rocky, it has been a pleasure. Again, thank you for taking the time to sit in conversation with me, and I look forward to listening to Halves of Us in its entirety, and your future work as well. Happy narrating, and stay safe out there!
RT: Thank you, again, Malorie. I’ll be keeping an eye on what else Sydney Paige Richardson is writing and what The Parliament House is publishing.