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Saturday, December 20, 2008

BEDTIME STORIES: My love affair with audio books

My name is Tananarive Due, and I am addicted to bedtime stories.

I have grown so accustomed to listening to audio books as I go to sleep at night that it’s now very hard for me to sleep without the steady burr of a voice in my ear. Common sense tells me it’s a bad habit, like leaving the TV on all night, and yet I can’t take off my headphones.

When I was preparing a lecture on Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred last year and couldn’t bring myself to open her book—her loss was still too raw—I found that I could listen to the audio book instead. The storyteller gave me a bridge back to Octavia.

Now, it has become a full-fledged dependency. I just finished listening to the unabridged version of my novel Joplin’s Ghost. Barack Obama’s self-recorded version of Dreams From my Father, which I listened to during the primaries, was a revelation.

Fiction is my favorite, but college-level lectures make great bedtime stories too. (I listened to several great theology courses from The Teaching Company while I was researching Blood Colony.)

Rewinding is a constant fact of life—after all, I’m bound to lose my place when I fall asleep, and sometimes I’ve found myself listening to the same 10-minute patch night after night because I can’t stay awake longer—but that seems a small price to pay.

Now, my habit has followed me to my car, where I hook up my iPod, tape recorder or CD player through the car’s sound system. Or the supermarket, where I listen while I shop. Or in the kitchen while I’m cooking. I now officially spend more time listening to audio books than I do actually reading.

At Recorded Books, there are also audio versions of My Soul to Keep, The Living Blood, The Good House (which I also recently listened to while revising my screenplay version) and Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. Tantor Media also released an audio version of Casanegra.

Wish I could tell you that my audio books would make great stocking stuffers, but the Recorded Books versions are expensive—more designed for libraries than purchase: Joplin’s Ghost, for example, is listed at between $61.75 to $113.75 on the Recorded Books website. But they do have a weekly rental rate for about the cost of a hardcover novel.

I loved actress Lizan Mitchell’s performance of Joplin’s Ghost (2005) for Recorded Books. I’m revisiting that novel because I’m ready to start brainstorming on a screenplay adaptation, so I got over my shyness about my own prose long enough to listen to the story.

Lucky me! I had forgotten enough that I was able to listen as if someone else had written the book. And while I couldn’t help making silent edits in my head, I never outright winced. I’ll just be honest: I was captivated. It was scarier than I remembered, and I enjoyed the love stories in both of the novel’s timelines. There were also strains of Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” at the breaks, adding a new dimension. What fun!

Although My Soul to Keep and The Good House are both in film development at Fox Searchlight, voice actors are my only taste of how an outside artist would interpret my work thus far. In fact, with Lizan Mitchell’s performance fresh in my head, I did a much more convincing rendering of a scene between Scott Joplin and a country conjurer when I read from Joplin’s Ghost at Antioch University Los Angeles this week.

If you haven’t read Joplin’s Ghost, here’s the plot: An R&B singer at a crossroads in her career encounters the ghost of ragtime composer Scott Joplin at the Scott Joplin House in St. Louis—and he follows her. I came up with the idea after meeting the site’s former curator, who has since passed away…and he told me he had seen a ghost in Scott Joplin’s parlor.

Phoenix, my singer, is at a crossroads because she’s trying to record conventionally “black” commercial music instead of the music she hears in her head. And Joplin himself, who died in 1917 after debilitating syphilis and heartbreak because he wasn’t taken seriously as an opera composer, also struggled with the constant tug-of-war between art and commerce.

I wrote Joplin’s Ghost because of my own balancing act as a full-time writer—my writing has to sell, but I also want to write what’s in my heart. That is a battle that is becoming more pronounced for writers as tough times descend on the publishing industry.

I have also been saddened, over the years, to see the decline of instrumental music among black artists, when previous generations of black artists pioneered ragtime, jazz, funk and rock and roll. (I remember the days in elementary school when the music teacher rolled a cart from classroom to classroom so that students could choose the instrument they wanted to play in the school band. Those days, sadly, are long gone in most schools…)

The audio book brought Joplin’s Ghost to life, just as all audio good audio books do.

But just as when we turn the last pages of a book we have carried with us everywhere for days, weeks or months, there is a sense of loss when the story is over. The characters vanish. The world of the book disappears.

And I can’t let a night go by before I have chosen another.

This time, I have Stephen King’s short story collection, Just After Sunset: Stories. I’m a Stephen King fan from way back--and, like King, I think novelists should also keep their short fiction skills sharp. I want to publish a collection of short stories myself, so I’m eager to see where King will go.

Am I worried about having Stephen King’s stories romping in my head as I try to go to sleep at night? Maybe a little. But I prefer a storyteller’s fancies to the whispers about real life’s sorrows past and future that sometimes burrow into my head when I try to sleep at night.

Now...excuse me while I put on my headphones.

Wish me sweet dreams.




It’s a time of great joy in many of my circles, but also great uncertainty…so my thoughts and prayers are with you during this holiday season and throughout 2009!

Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa and Happy Holidays, everyone!


This is an announcement my editor, Malaika Adero, sent me in conjunction with a program being planned in my honor in New York this March. I promised I would pass it along:

We Need Your Support….
Join Up South, Inc.
in partnership with Medgar Evers Center for Black Literature
as we celebrate


One of America’s finest contemporary authors of fiction and nonfiction

On Sunday, March 29th, 2009
In New York City
(venue to be announced by February 1st, 2009)

Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, and other special guests will read excerpts from her award-winning and bestselling fiction, participate in a discussion with the audience of her extraordinary career and life as a writer. A reception will follow the performances.

Please make a contribution today: $25 or more will secure you a seat in the audience and an Up South International Book Festival t-shirt or tote bag. Go to and write for more information.

Please send checks or money orders payable to:

Up South, Inc.
310 Convent Avenue, Suite 2A,
New York, NY 10031.

Your contribution allows us to present this and other extraordinary writers, artists, thinkers—especially book authors.

Up South, Inc. is the producer of the annual Up South International Book Festival, held in New York City in the Fall.

We are a nonprofit organization, 501 (c) 3, accepting tax deductible contributions.


Bailee said...

Fantastic!! I'm big fan of audio books...

etc @ said...

I, too, love audio books. Living in L.A. they're a great way to get through traffic and I actually look forward to long drives when I'm listening to a good audio book. I actually listened to My Soul to Keep on audio and I loved it. Then there are books like the Twilight series that just fall apart when actually read a loud. I think all authors who are lucky enough to have an audio version of their book recorded should listen to them, just so they can see what needs improvement for their next outing.