The Epistolary Style of Creation

The Epistolary Style of Creation

By now my friends and co-conspirators have become inured to my tales of transferring my written works to #Audible. I have discussed the idea of performance versus narration and the fact that what works in writing may not respond to verbal presentation. Yet, there is one more item which we #InspiredByAusten writers, a solitary bunch to be sure, need to address when we begin a collaboration with a voice artist—that we are no longer the only creative person involved in the process.

At this point, I must briefly divert from my planned post to acknowledge two of our comrades here in Austen Authors: Renata McMann and Summer Hanford. These two remarkable writers have offered up brilliant (and seamless) collaborations that have elevated #Austenesque fiction to a new level.

There are actually two paths one can follow when submitting a written work to a performer.

First, you could go all Erich von Stroheim and become the Teutonic film director. Ziss is how I wrote it…you vill do it zo! And, certainly, von Stroheim…or John Ford…had the uniquely singular creative vision that demanded players who fit the character as composed. This does not detract from Gary Cooper or Grace Kelly’s acting chops. They were able to mold themselves to Ford’s ideas. But, try to imagine Meryl Streep working for Ford.

On the other hand, an actor like Streep…or Daniel Day Lewis…reads the character as written and finds the internal drivers that inform the created being. They use the written word as a framework and then proceed to fill in and out all the empty spaces that when completed offer up a believable person. This is driven by communication and mutual respect. The director believes in the talents of the actors, and the actors are committed to offering up a nuanced performance that fulfills the underlying vision held by the director.

I find that I work with voice artists in the second manner. Both Barbara Rich (Lessers and Betters) and Amanda Berry (The Bennet Wardrobe) are interpretive performers. They dive deeper to find the motivations underneath the characters I have created. As such, questions must be asked and answers must be given. While the end result may not be readily apparent to listeners, these discussions do, none-the-less, create packages that should elevate the listeners’ experience. And that means LETTERS!

That has led to interesting correspondence chains that explore the factors that ultimately bring an audiobook to life. Please see the following message chain, which has, I assure you, no particular spoilers, but should offer proverbial breadcrumbs upon which to ruminate.


From: Don Jacobson
Sent: Wednesday, August 1, 2018 9:50 AM
To: Amanda Berry
Subject: Re: Voice of Thomas Bennet in KEEPER

Good morning….

First; I have been a bit remiss in reviewing Mary.  Aside from travel on Saturday, there were a variety of family events on Sunday (funny how they stack up when you are out of town for 10 days). Then a doctor thing on Monday, the finishing of a root canal (no, not done yet…have to visit the dentist today to get the temp filling removed…and maybe a new crown…ah the wonders of prefluoride teeth).

So, I did not get to listening to a few chapters (10, 11 only) until yesterday afternoon.

Have had the chance to digest things overnight.

Generally, all is good. I do like your Mary…a lot.

However, I have now had time to consider my note written to myself yesterday on Thomas…and I agree with myself.

The Thomas we hear in Ch 10 does not sound like a 51 year-old (in 1811). He is sort of ponderous…more akin to an older (elderly?) fellow who sits as a high court judge. Yes, I do understand that a 51 year old was getting up in years in an era when 60 was ancient….but, while Mr. Bennet is a man who tends to ignore that which is not pleasant (Lizzy’s “I prefer to remember the past only in so much as it brings me pleasure” may have come from him) and has withdrawn into the bookroom (but since you have read Lizzy B, you know why), he is not sloth.

True, he has a degree from Cambridge…and had hoped to become a fellow there…but his language does not become quite like the read you are giving.

I tried to visualize this Thomas Bennet. What I got was an almost gouty sort of fellow (more like Mr. Hurst, the man who married Louisa Bingley in P&P. Hurst is characterized by Austen as a man who loved his food and drink…in essence the epitome of gluttonous Regency male—see the Prince Regent); heavy, ponderous, slow of word and mind…and old, even as a young man. This Bennet seems “high in the instep” as if he is looking down on all around him.

Now, I do realize that someone like Kitty would view anyone over 30 as being with one foot in the grave. But, not so Mary…who has a more practical view of life…and the experience which life brings.  She sees her father as a fount of knowledge…the man who would be her teacher. She finds vitality in him…perhaps more than he has felt in years.

I am not suggesting that we craft Thomas in relationship to Mary, for he is his own distinct character. We are meeting him here for the first time.

For an educated gentleman’s sound (although I think even the 46-year-old CS Lewis is a bit too snooty in the following audio…but his “Loves” does play a central role [as well as the idea of the Wardrobes] in the Bennet Wardrobe stories).

C.S. Lewis audio

However, since we are allowing our listeners to IMAGINE what a Regency gentleman would sound like (as opposed to replicating one), I find that someone like the late John Thaw offers a classically trained actor (Royal Shakespeare) in a more modern and accessible package. Here (from a radio program in 1990) he is at age 48. This would be more like what Thomas sounds in my head.

John Thaw audio

>>>>>>> (One Chapter later)

On Aug 2, 2018, at 9:26 AM, Don Jacobson wrote:


I will suggest that he does seem to be moving toward a more open sound as we move away from that first introduction. Starting in 13 and moving through the teens chapters, he is more accessible. I think he will work.

We could consider that Mary is changing him as much as she is changing herself.

Perhaps we can look at making him more like I was thinking as we move into Exile 2 (He is not there in 1). Then he will be 5 by 5 for Avenger.


From: Amanda Berry
Sent: Saturday, August 4, 2018 11:50 AM
To: Don Jacobson
Subject: Re: Voice of Thomas Bennet in KEEPER

Hi Don,

So, I’ve uploaded all the chapters and will be working on your critiques and suggestions shortly, though what is up now doesn’t contain them.

As far as Thomas goes, I can definitely make him brighter as he gets younger. I am loath to change him too much (making him brighter and younger is fine) as I’ve established him already in the other books. Wanted to say also though that I certainly don’t see him as sloth or gouty. Not ponderous but rather ponderING. Of course, I want to make sure the listeners get that as well. Just so you know what I was going for was educated, certainly, and sort of like the archetypical patriarch. The ur-Dad. Although, (even though it changes throughout the series) initially distant and very thoughtful. Just wanted to reassure you that I think we do see him similarly! Just that my voice wasn’t conveying it the way I wanted.

As for Fanny – you’re saying I went over the top with her? I mean, I’m glad you got that because over the top is exactly what I was going for. ha-ha.  I will say I don’t believe she’d have to be SO that way in every interaction she has, but in this book, I will argue that she merits it in the few scenes we have with her. For contrast, I would not treat the scene you sent me the same way by any means. I certainly believe there’s something worth loving within her; she just doesn’t show it much until little Eddie shows up. But let’s discuss!


From: Don Jacobson
Sent: Saturday, August 4, 2018 3:05 PM
To: Amanda Berry
Subject: Re: Voice of Thomas Bennet in KEEPER

Hi There!

Note that Thomas will not be getting any younger.  In fact, the youngest we “know” him is at 51 in Keeper.  He does not speak in Lizzy B…but then he would have been 41.  We will see him at 51 again in the beginning of Exile Part 2.

He seemed to evolve. I just did not want him to sound stodgy…especially as we move into The Avenger…where he will age from 54 to 59…but actually as his health begins to fail… In avenger he sheds much of his indolent trappings and begins to act as a younger man.  That was why I suggested John Thaw.

As for Fanny…you got her just right early on.  The change point was the introduction of the babies There she becomes more grounded and centered as she does not have to fear being thrown into the hedgerows. Obviously, she will evolve more in The Avenger where she becomes eminently sensible as the Fifth Love (the love that makes us seek to become the best version of oneself) comes to play. So you hit it just right.

Up through chapter 34.  Have a few fixes…tomorrow will send.


From: Amanda Berry
Sent: Saturday, August 4, 2018 7:50 PM
To: Don Jacobson

Subject: Re: Evolution of Thomas

Thanks so much for the pointers! And yes, as I believe I did mention in the last email I sent you, I definitely believe he changes throughout the novel. I mean the first conversation with Mary in the library is the first time he’s been open with her. So I definitely see him as more guarded and thoughtful as he considers her future and his past behavior with her. That being said, he can be more thoughtful AND brighter/younger at the same time, and as he ages, moves more toward the gruffer sound I was using.


From: Don Jacobson
Sent: Tuesday, August 7, 2018 8:45 AM
To: Don Jacobson
Subject: Re: Voice of Thomas Bennet in KEEPER

After listening to the whole book, Please do not change our Papa.  When you get into Exile Pt. 1 and 2…Consider making his style a little more accessible. Consider that in Avenger (Book 5) He has translated to 1947…and lives in post-war Britain (same for Fanny) until 1952. This is where I see a need to make his voice most open and not ponderous.

The 2005 P&P (Kiera Knightly, Matthew McFadden) really, I think, miscast Mr. Bennet. Using a 70 + Year old actor (Donald Sutherland, a gem) was a mistake. No matter what you might think of the overall package, a man Sutherland’s age was far too old to have 5 daughters ranging in age from 15 to 21. Consider that Regency Gentlemen tended to marry after they inherited their estates (the Darcy model, 23 years old…seen as full young…as the well-written exception…and seen as placing an undue burden on a young man’s shoulders) in their late 20s, Bennet would have likely married Mrs. B somewhere around 1789-90. With Jane at 21 in 1811…Bennet should be somewhere between 47 and 51. I set him at 51.


From: Amanda Berry
Sent: Monday, August 6, 2018 6:23 PM
To: Don Jacobson
Subject: The Exile Pt. 1 Questions

(On 8/7 Don replied…see Red comments)

1 – I’d like to talk about Maggie’s accent. I’m so upset I missed it, frankly, in Lizzy B. You gave clues after all, I just didn’t pick up. However, I would love to give her a potentially softened cockney accent that can soften further as the story goes on, so the “oi’s” and the clearly written dialect is addressed. Potentially, her accent can mirror her elevation in society. What do you think? This would obviate the need for the explainer you put in the prologue as well. I had initially tried to carry through her accent…but it becomes near impossible to write. Thus, I quickly moved her to “straight” English, as that is how Kitty would have eventually perceived her speech.  Maggie will not significantly change in Exile 1, but I think we could move her to a softened accent…reflecting that she had been speaking French exclusively for about 8-9 years…also, her exposure to Kitty could only alter her tongue since she would be forced to speak English even though Kitty, by this point in Exile, would be fluent in French having spent 4 years at a Swiss finishing school. So, I think your instincts are spot on. Know that she is only modestly elevated, although the far end of the book has her in the parlor of the Renoirs and speaking with the Earl of Matlock.

4 – Chapter 3: the line reads: “…beyond the goings-on of the _________shire militia.” How would you like me to read that? Same with Henry’s line later in the same chapter, “…have taken in the likes of the Duke of _________shire and the Compte de _______.” This is following JA’s convention. This is obviously something that works only in Print.  Let’s use…Warwickshire Militia,  the Duke of Wilton, and the Compte de Anviers.

5 – Chapter 4: Lydia’s letter: do you want me to read the portion of the letter that is Lizzy‘s in her voice?  OK…this is difficult. Recall that Kitty only had Lizzy’s voice from when she (Lizzy) was 20/21 and Kitty was 17 at the time of the weddings. If you are to do that, you need to use the Lizzy voice from early in KEEPER. This is an instinctively good choice. If you feel it will work, this is the direction you would have to go. My question is: would the listener “get it?” But, then again, does it matter? This is the inner truth of the lens through which 17-year-old Kitty…just 3 weeks into her 1886 sojourn…would have. To her, she heard Elizabeth speak only 3 weeks prior. She would not imagine what her sister would sound like at the age of 45 (so, while we have a Lizzy voice at 42-43 in KEEPER, would not logically fit).

6 – The Mr. Wilson we meet at le chateau, he’s the one who was with the General, yes? Liverpudlian? No.  This is 1892. T’would be Wilson’s Grandson…and the father of The Silent Assistant (a Mystery Title if I would ever write one) murdered by Moriarty’s men and the Twin Towers…Liam and Sean. This Mr. Wilson is a Cambridge educated son of a Cambridge educated man. The servants of the Five Families flow from the servants in the Canon…and those I have made up. Thus (as you may find in one of my footnotes in EXILE 2) Liam’s sons…David and Henry…are sent to school by The Countess…David to University of Chicago where he works with Fermi and later Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project…and Henry to Edinburgh where he becomes a specialist in infectious diseases—an expertise that will ultimately fulfill his father’s promise to Lizzy B…you remember Sir Percival?

7 – German names – would you prefer “Junius” or “Yunius”? I will say von Winterlich as “von Vinterlich”  but do you want me pronouncing Winters as “Vinters.” Idea: when it’s Astrid and Junius, speaking with one another, go with the more Germanized pronunciations, but the English use the more Anglicized? What do you think? Again, I would wonder about our audience.  Americans and Brits pronounce the “hard” J. I would stay with that mode.  As for the German last name…fun-vinterleesch…as they are Swabian…nearly Austrian… “ch” becomes “shhhh” like you are trying to silence someone.  “Ich” (North German is IK like you see something nasty on your shoe) becomes “E-sshhh.” Und so weiter.  Winters, however, is an Anglicized name…so go with the seasonal bent. YES on your thinking on Astrid and Junius speaking with each other. And, you can keep some German tonality in their speech with the English. A bit more Continental and exotic.


I hope this brief insight into the letters exchanged between artists is illuminating. I look forward to your comments.

8 Responses to The Epistolary Style of Creation

  1. Wow! I never realized making an audio book would be so involved! It sounds like you’re doing a great job, Don. Also, you made me blush wit your kind words for us (that’s nice just a figure of speech. I blush easily and am terrible at accepting compliments). I don’t know how I missed them (well, I do… this whole puppy thing is so much harder than I thought. It seems like I can hardly think anymore. Yesterday, I couldn’t recall the difference between orzo and risotto. It’s like my brain has turned off since we got a dog), but I’m sorry that I did.

    It looks like your audio book is doing well, so you must have sorted out all the nuances. Will there be a CD or MP3 version as well? 🙂

    • Hey CK…Thank you for you note. I often wonder if folks like “inside baseball” or not. Although we have, at the Chicago Humanities Festival sat through many exciting presentations by authors and playwrights. Packed houses, too.

  2. Good post! It is fun to read the back and forth between authors and see the flow of ideas come together.

    • I really envision the move to an audio presentation as another format of the work. Much as a book designed for print (my big problem is still the Bennet Family tree at the front of the e-books–it works wonderfully in print–may not translate to an e-book, so too, we have discovered, there is much to address in moving from written to sound. Thank you for your reply. BTW…”The Keeper” should be out in a week or so.

  3. Thank for sharing the correspondence. It was interesting to read how the collaboration between author and narrator happens and how it is a collaboration and not just a narrator reading the text with no input from the author which is how I always imagined it happening.

    • As you probably have figured out, I am a visual writer. I imagine how the scene will look and sound as much as it will read. Perhaps that comes from being married to a director. But, having worked with voice talent for years, I perceive that these artists have an intuitive sense of what their instruments can accomplish. Both Amanda and Barbara offer this level of creative support. Thank-you for your comments.

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