Monday, November 5, 2012

Conversation, Cookies and Magnificence Giveaway with Audiobook Narrator Xe Sands

I am so delighted to welcome audiobook narrator Xe Sands to the blog today to kick off a week celebrating her 50th audiobook, Lydia Millet's Magnificence. Xe's narration portfolio includes B.A. Shapiro's The Art Forger, Heidi Julavits' The Vanishers, and Rebecca Rasmussen's The Bird Sisters, among many other notable novels. Not only does Xe have a lovely voice, she's a lovely, insightful and gracious person - one of my favorite people to have gotten to know through blogging. Today she is giving away a copy of the audiobook version of Magnificence and some fabulous home-made cookies (yes, cookies!) - all the info you need to enter to win this magnificent literary/culinary duo follows our conversation.

Xe, many congratulations on Magnificence, your 50th audio book!

Thank you! And thanks so much for hosting this kick-off of a week of audiobook and cookie debauchery…er, I mean giveaways. I'm thrilled that you asked me “over.”

How does the experience of recording your 50th book compare with your first project?

What a great question! Recording my first professionally produced audiobook was fraught with insecurity and stress, frankly. The learning curve was so steep in every respect. Like many narrators who record from home, I had no director, so had to act as my own sounding board. I was still learning to use my recording set-up, and trying to figure out how to record without extraneous noise (page turns, mouth noise, CARS!). I was also still working a full-time job during the day, so had to record late into the evenings and then get up early for the day job, do the parent thing, etc. And I didn't have some of the very dear collegial relationships I am now blessed with, so didn't have as extensive a support network while going through the process.

Fast forward two years to my experience with Magnificence and man, what a difference life experience makes. Sure, every project is stressful in its own way, but I'm comfortable with the equipment, have had quite a bit more training and direction, and worked extensively on my delivery and performance since then. The (super secret) reality is that I'm a somewhat obsessive and neurotic person by nature, so amazing projects like this one will always give me pause…'Can I really do this justice? Am I accurately channeling the author's intent or am I just "acting" ', etc. But having two (sometimes hard) years of bootstrapping, experience and training, as well as support from colleagues made all the difference.

Magnificence sounds like an extraordinary story  - from the publisher:
This stunning novel introduces Susan Lindley, a woman adrift after her husband’s death. Suddenly gifted her great uncle’s Pasadena mansion, Susan decides to restore his extensive collection of preserved animals, tending to “the fur and feathers, the beaks, the bones and shimmering tails.” Meanwhile, a menagerie of uniquely damaged humans—including a cheating husband and a chorus of eccentric elderly women—joins her in residence.
- what first attracted you to Magnificence, and would you share a favorite moment, or passage? 

It is. It's not for everyone – it's disconcerting at times, absurd at others...but a pretty amazing journey, really. Like most worthwhile literary fiction, this is not an “easy read;” it asks as much from you as you ask of it. Reading it is like sharing in a complex relationship – which is the only kind I find satisfying...What can I say? I'm a sucker for poignant and messy, and if there is absurdity and inner processing thrown in? Food of the gods. Early reviewers have commented on the moments of humor in the novel, of which there are many. But this isn't "Dave Barry" type humor - rather humor akin to the darkly amusing thoughts that plague us when we are stuck in a bit of misery or untenable situation.

There are also passages in which Millet's skill and ability to evoke just shine, like this one:
Apprehension crept over her, a fringe of blackness she could almost see rising slowly from the foot of the bed, covering her feet, her legs, her chest, her shoulders, coming to smother her chin and her mouth like earth. Hal’s death and her own were gathered wretchedly in the shadows, hunched down with teeth showing, sharp teeth and the talons of bony fingers. A heaviness made her heart beat hard with fear—a leaden certainty that her selfishness had killed him. There was no buoyancy at all, no river to drift on.
That particular passage occurs during one of my favorite sections of the book, in which Susan is just trying to figure out how to sleep or eat or just exist in the home she shared with her husband. How do learn to co-exist with all those years, all those memories, especially when you feel such guilt? Her struggle in this short scene was very prescient to me. As were the scenes with her daughter.

(click the "play" button below to listen to Xe reading an excerpt from Magnificence:)

Voices are as unique as books. How do you gauge if an audiobook project is a good fit for you? 

In a perfect situation, I'm given time to review a book and decide if we're a good match for each other. I look first for an easy connection with the story/characters. And if I'm constantly stopping because I'm blown away by a passage, turn of phrase, bit of dialog or interaction, that's a great sign. That said, just because I *love* something and the beauty of it resonates with me, it doesn't mean my voice is necessarily appropriate for it. Sometimes I have to accept that I'm not the best voice for the project and move on.

Of course, all that goes out the window most of the time, because I am rarely afforded much time to thoughtfully consider a project! What's been wonderful about working with Dreamscape (publisher of Magnificence) is that I am able to look ahead at upcoming projects, do some research, reach out to them if something really grabs my attention, and even have a few days to read through the manuscript (if available) before working up an audition.

Now all that said, sometimes those unexpected assignments and opportunities yield amazing results I would never have reached for on my own. As primarily a lit fic reader, I can tell you that when I first got into narration, never in a million years would I have thought that I would be able to offer the romance listeners anything of value. Honestly, I would have laughed at anyone who suggested that. Yet it appears I have a facility for voicing those deep-voiced, tortured heroes, so just goes to show that you have to remain open to what life flings in your direction.

Which has been your most exciting project? Your most challenging project? The one you are most proud of?

Most exciting project? Hmm, that's a difficult one to answer... [b]ut I'm going to go with The Silence of Trees, by Valya Dudycz Lupescu. This project was exciting in the sense that I was so in love with this book, the prose, the Ukrainian culture and language in it, and the main character and the tragic turns her life took, that it was an amazing gift to then narrate it and live out her journey fully through performance.

As for the most challenging, I used to say Jacob, book 1 of The Nightwalkers, because I had to come up to speed on all books in the series very quickly in order to narrate the first, and the series features many different accents that I hadn't yet worked with... [b]ut having just completed narration of By Cecile by Tereska Torres for Audible and The Feminist Press, it's edging right in there with Nightwalkers. Many books in a series? No. Lots of sexy demons to voice? Nope. But what it does feature is French. Lots and lots of gorgeous bits of French - words, names, public figures, places…and poetry and songs. The kicker is that I don't speak French (thanks again for not allowing me to study the "pretty" language in high school, Mom! *shakes fist*). Thank goodness that I have a dear friend and colleague who speaks French as his second language. He generously recorded every bit of French that appears in the novel, and I had the company of his gorgeous voice throughout the project, as I worked to deliver those bits as the author had intended. There were, um, perhaps moments of cursing the French for their beautiful, nonphonetic language. Maybe.

Now which of the 50 am I most proud? Oh that's so hard. Pride comes from so many different types of experience…I'm proud of Saving Angelfish because it was a such a raw and powerful piece of biographical fiction that needed telling with honesty and grace. I'm proud of successfully bringing to life one book (remaining nameless) that contained material that I found personally objectionable. And although I usually despise all my performances within a couple of weeks of completion, I have to admit that in terms of performance and the kind of book, I'm most proud of the performances of Magnificence and The Art Forger. It was a great privilege to narrate both these literary powerhouses, and I feel that they represent the transformation of the my delivery over the past year.

Over at Nice Girls Don't Read Naughty Books you tell a wonderful story about getting into character by speaking in accent to your family for several days. I imagine getting ready for a new project must be very different for each book - what are some other ways in which you've prepared? Are there certain rituals that you must always perform?

You're right that the prep does differ depending on the book. I mean if there is content that is psychologically or emotionally difficult for me to process, that requires a different internal approach than, say, a bit of light fare that goes down easy, you know? Unfortunately for my family, there is often accent work in the projects I do, which means they are subjected to me learning to speak that way - even in PUBLIC! This is much to the horror of all of us, I assure you. The best moment came when I was working with French. My daughter and I got into a tiff (she IS a teenager, after all) and by gosh, I did not drop the accent. Even more surprising, she didn't ask me to! Although she did admonish me most seriously that I was NOT to nag her with an Egyptian accent.

But I digressed there, didn't I? Certain rituals and other prep tidbits…hmm. Well, I will say that when working on a first-person narration, there is a bit more "getting into character" than for other books, as I will have to carry the whole book through the perspective of one character. For example, when working on The Art Forger, I worked in my painting overalls with a brush stuck in my hair! Hey, I'm a method narrator…so whatever it takes to channel the text as the author intended.

You recently made the most amazing Hunger Games cake for your daughter's birthday, which might make you the awesomest mother ever. I also have a daughter (and Hunger Games fan) - aside from a handful of novels, Young Adult is a genre that didn't really exist for us when we were growing up. What were your favorite books as a child or teen, and what are you excited that your daughter has the opportunity to read that you didn't?

Ha! The cake! I forgot all about the cake (likely intentional amnesia on my part). I'll have to tell my daughter that you've suggested I might be the most awesomest mother ever and tell you what she says…

photo credit Xe Sands
You're right that YA as a separate genre didn't really exist the way it does now…but I think it did exist. I mean when I think of the books that shaped my childhood, they were predominantly written for the preteen-teen set: The Dark is Rising, The Chronicles of Narnia, the works of E.B. White, Peter Pan, Cricket in Times Square, and of course all of Judy Blume's work, including Are You There God? It's Me Margaret and Forever. They are all still with me and I've shared them with my daughter over the years. What was missing then, I think, were the genres within YA – this focus on one particular "kinder, gentler" version of adult reading material, such as urban fantasy, paranormal romance and even literary fiction. I can't imagine reading the work of Laurie Hulse Anderson (Wintergirls, Speak, etc.) or John Green as a teen, but how amazing it would have been!

Then again, perhaps the reason that we're seeing such an explosion of such work now (aside from the marketing potential, of course, especially within the YA Urban Fantasy subgenre) is that like us, these authors grew up without having these stories to think about, fall back on, draw strength from - and they are seeking to give that to a new generation of readers. Just a thought. For my part as a parent, I am thrilled that my daughter has books such as Wintergirls and Will Grayson, Will Grayson to read, to ponder, to discuss - because she sees herself or her friends in them and she knows that she (and they) are not alone. And as a teen, at the end of every day, isn't that most what we need to know - that we are not alone in whatever experience we're having? And that someone else made it through whatever personal hell we're going through? Sometimes fictional characters can provide a more credible source of that solace than real people in a child's life, and these books are an accessible source of that solace.

What projects are you looking forward to in your next 50? If you could choose any dream project, what would it be?

I've got a standard answer to that - because it held true for two years! What I would most like to narrate are the novels of Kristina Riggle. To voice Mira from Real Life & Liars as she struggles with mid-life cancer while trying to keep her family from imploding, or Cami and Anna from The Life You've Imagined as they both face familial demons, or any of Riggle's exceptional novels…that would be heaven.

ossi di morto cookies
Finally, please tell us about the cookies!

Ah, the cookies! Well we all know that the way to a listener's ears is through their taste buds :) I figure it's food as an “associative experience" - a bit of culinary camaraderie. Maybe when Claire is wallowing in self-loathing and ethical crisis in The Art Forger, a chocolate chip cookie will be *just* the thing…or maybe when Susan is trying to reconcile herself to the reality of living in a house full of taxidermy in Magnficence, reaching for an ossi di morto (bones of the dead) will be an act of solidarity. Or when Kayla is trying to escape from Norgard's lair in the bowels of a chocolate factory in Hearts of Darkness, a piece of Theo's chocolate will spur the listener on. OK, I'm being a bit silly but still…don't knock the food + listening experience. As for what cookies, well, how's this sound: a selection of classic chocolate chip, chewy oatmeal cranberry with white chocolate chips, and ossi di morto (bones of the dead)?

Sounds delicious! And thank you so much for joining me on the blog today, it's been such a pleasure.

*   *   *

UPDATE (11/9/12)
The drawing is now closed - congratulations to J.A. Pak, winner of cookies & audiobook of Magnificence! Many thanks to everyone who's come by to check out the interview with Xe, 
and for all the fabulous comments/book-cookie pairings!

HOW TO ENTER TO WIN a copy of the Magnificence audiobook and Xe's excellent cookies:

Please leave a comment below (along with an email address, twitter handle, or other way to contact you), and perhaps share a thought about an all-time favorite book or a book that has made a difference in your own life... and what kind of cookie one ought to eat while reading it! The winner will be chosen by the most technologically advanced method known to humankind... er, that is, everyone's names will be put in a hat and the very impartial Mr. Books Personally will draw a winner at noon (Eastern) Friday, November 9th. We'll announce the winner here on the blog as well as get in touch via whatever contact info you've left in your comment.

You also have more chances to win: Xe's celebrating all week long with more audiobook and cookie giveaways - don't miss her upcoming guest appearances:
  • Tuesday, 11/6: World-building: When Setting Becomes a Character – with author M.V. Freeman at Southern Romance Magicians. Will be discussing Hearts of Darkness by Kira Brady. Giveaway: Hearts of Darkness audio + chocolate from Theo's Chocolate Factory
  • Wednesday, 11/7: The Nightwalkers Family Tree: Jacquelyn Frank's Growing World at Audiogals. Will be discussing how Frank has branched off from original Nightwalkers series, and offering giveaway of new release, Forbidden audio + Complete Set of Nightwalkers in audio + cookies. 
  • Thursday, 11/8: Under the Influence: When Books Inspire, at Literate Housewife. Will be discussing The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro, and how a good book can both inspire and reward. Giveaway: Print and audio of The Art Forger + cookies.
You can find Xe at her blogon twitter, and at SoundCloud

Happy listening!


  1. This was a fascinating interview!! I don't think I've ever read an interview with an audiobook narrator -- so fascinating -- I'm a bit envious you got to pick her brain! (That she read The Art Forger makes me esp happy as I just finished and loved that book!) I love the idea of a 'method narrator' (and why not, she is acting/interpreting!).

    Also, Ms. Sands has my undying adoration for lifting up the delightful ossi di morto -- talk about a culinary experience!

    Okay, now for my book suggestion...if I thought about it too long, I'd have to give you a list, and that's just bratty. So, kneejerk/first response to favorite life changing book will be Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. Gah -- adore that book. One of my desert island ten, for sure. The cookie to eat while reading needs to be something thin and crispy, like an almond lace cookie, good with tea.

    Thanks for the fabu interview and lovely giveaway -- will be following this tour closely!

    audra (unabridgedchick at

    1. Thanks for the interest! And we'll see how the ossi di morto turn out...hoping NOT to send out something that tastes like it sounds - LOL. I've never read Rebecca, but your comments have me intrigued. Love the cookiebook pairing - sounds perfect for the mood and genre :)

    2. Audra, you KNOW I heart Rebecca... and almond lace cookies - perfect!!!! (The Art Forger is def. on my to-read list as well) Thanks so much for popping over!

  2. As a blind person, I am and have been a big fan of audio books for a long time. I especially like when the narrator can almost make me forget she's there, because I've been so swept away by the characters. I've not yet had the pleasure of listening to one of Xe's full-length reads, but I've definitely enjoyed what she posts to Soundcloud. And from what I know of her onlime, she's approachable too.
    As for my favorite books growing up? I loved Charlotte's Web, but was so sad when she died. My fourth-grade teacher also got me way into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by having us sample chocolate in various stages of production, some of which had us lined up at the trash can as she cackled. She also had a great reading voice, and the book fit my overactive imagination.
    I guess the easiest way to get in touch with me initially is via twitter: @blindtravel

    1. Oh John, you are always such a delight! Glad you found your way over here and entered .Charlotte's Web makes me cry to this day! And your tale of the chocolate-tasting has me smiling because the same thing happened while tourinig our local chocolate factory :)

    2. John, what a great story of the chocolate tasting! Love how she inspired you. Thanks so much for checking out the post today. We'll post & contact the winner on Friday.

  3. Wonderfully interesting interview! Thank you!

    1. Thanks so much for checking it out today (and for all the retweets and shares, much appreciated!)

  4. Thanks, J.A.! Appreciate you stopping by!

  5. How did I miss that cake? Wow.

    I have been following along with #goingpublic for some time. I have only just started listening to one of your full length book projects, though. It's Object of my affection, and I hope to finish it later in the week, when I take a little road trip to see my siblings.

    Now, for the book and cookie question. I have to admit that reading Harry Potter with cookies nearby is very appealing. Its easy to believe that they were made by Mrs. Weasley. Ideally, they are chocolate chip and walnut. I imagine she'd stick something else in there, too. But as I've never actually had her cookies, I couldn't tell you what that would be.

    1. Haha! I really did block the cake from my memory - although it was by far the best cake I've ever made. My daughter "squeeed" good and proper when it was unveiled :)

      If I had to "hand-sell" one of my recent narrations to you, I'd pick The Art Forer for you, although I think you'd love the lyrical nature of the languag in Magnificent.

      And what a great cookie/book idea! Oh I wish I had tought of that when reading them originally. Now you've got me pondering: what WOULD that other ingredient be...

    2. Chocolate chip & walnut are the perfect Mrs. Weasley cookie! Maybe with a pinch of magic. Thanks so much Cassandra for popping over to check out the interview :D

  6. Thank for the interview (very interesting) and the wonderful give away. There have been so many books in my life and I think that just the fact that I read so much has changed my life. As I get older I am branching out and reading many different books and finding that I didn't know what I was missing and wish I'd realized sooner. As far as the cookies go--you can never go wrong with macadamian cookies from Subway!!! :) Beverly (

    1. Thanks so much for reading! And oh....macadmia nom nom!

    2. Sounds delish! And thanks so much for coming by to check out the giveaway (we'll post & contact the winner Friday!)

  7. Oh, I love this interview Xe!

    You asked about what book made a difference to me when I read it, well. There are three:

    First was: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (chocolate chip cookies for this one) Loved that teen angst. The only book taken away from me in school

    Second: Anthem: By Ayn Rand -Sugar cookies, plain, but has something indefinable. (This book I read again and again, fascinated by how it was written--if you haven't read it, try it)

    Third: is an Audio book: On Thin Ice, by Anne Stuart, read by Xe Sands (Yes, you *can* voice those lovely tortured, deep voiced heros!). What drew me to this story--was the dialogue, the suspense and how it was so unique (I like heros that are tough and are unapologetic about it. It encouraged me in my writing). For this: a short bread and tea.

    Again, lovely interview. :)

    1. Thanks so much for coming by, M.V., and for your very kind words...oh that Finn! Shortbread and tea for him, huh? You know, I can actually see that for him, as he's far more refined and subtle than he lets on.

    2. Oh, remember loving The Outsiders! Can't wait to check out the conversation tomorrow over on your blog, MV! Sounds like a great topic.

  8. Did I read that right? 50 books in 2 years? That's impressive especially given the amount of prep work that's involved (which I had no idea about). A book that made a difference in my life was The Diary of Anne Frank - it opened my eyes to so much when I was a teenager. Cookies to eat with it? Pfeffernusse.

    1. Yep, 50 books in two years :) Was a little shocking to me when I figured it out. And what a life-changing book!

    2. Wow, great book choice, and perfect pairing. Thanks so much, Lisa, for checking out the interview!

  9. Really enjoyed learning more about Xe and the audio book process! I've only recently started listening to works on audio, but it's opened up a whole new world. And makes my work commute infinitely more enjoyable.

    A favorite recent read would be Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins -- it's descriptive and vivid and lovely. And as it's set in Italy, I'd have to pair it with one of my favorite cookies: pizzelles!

    Meg :) (writing.meg [at]

    1. Oh Beautiful Ruins is an excellent choice from all reports - and great pairing! Thanks for stopping by, Meg!

    2. Oh I loved Beautiful Ruins too! Made one want to jump right in a little fishing boat and sail along the coast of Italy. Pizzelles- delicious!

  10. I can't say The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield was life altering but the audiobook version was a stunning combination of story and narration for anyone that feels a connection with books.

    The book was Gothic and always twisting so I'm choosing light and easy jam thumbprints as an accompaniment. ;)

    1. just hit on my very favorite audiobook! It was a powerhouse of a performance, along with an exceptionally good story. Nice choice!!

    2. Ooh, thumbprints, yummy! Thanks so much for popping over! Terrific conversation with Xe over on your Audiogals blog today, hope everyone goes to check it out:

  11. What a fascinating interview--I loved learning about Xe's process as a narrator, and am really impressed that she's accomplished so much in just 2 years!

    It's really hard to pick just one life-altering book, but I will say that Chris Cleave's Little Bee is one that I think about constantly. I remember reading it with a warm cup of chai (and I should've added a few Milano cookies while I was at it).

    Twitter: @NataliaSylv

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Natalia - and your support! And I'll confess that I haven't read Little Bee, but perhaps I'll need to remedy that...with some Milano cookies at the read ;)

    2. Book, chai and milano cookies sound like a wonderful combination! Perfect for a chilly day. Thank you so much for checking out the interview.

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