Converting any book to audio is an exacting endeavor. When the book is written by a celebrated author known for his expansive, experimental style (think: footnotes, endnotes, digressions, jargon, acronyms) the process is that much more challenging. And when the book is an unfinished, fragmentary, posthumously published novel, the task looks almost impossible.
The decision to publish the unfinished work at all was not taken lightly. "There were months between when [Wallace's wife] Karen Green and I found the manuscript on David's desk in his office to when [Wallace's editor] Michael Pietsch came out to Claremont, where Wallace lived, to when we made the decision to publish," says Bonnie Nadell, Wallace's longtime agent. "We felt that David wanted to see the book published."
At Hachette Audio, associate director of production Michele McGonigle and her team—who have handled the successful audio versions of Wallace's Girl with Curious Hair, The Broom of the System, Consider the Lobster, and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—set their sights on The Pale King, a novel about a trainee named David Foster Wallace working at the tedious IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Ill., releasing the audio version in April 2011.
"There are many challenges to creating an audiobook," says McGonigle. "Does the material translate well? If not, how do we make it work? How do you capture nuances that appear in the formatting of the print book in audio? How do you handle footnotes and endnotes in audio? With Wallace's titles, many times, what he has written is difficult to capture in audio."
For Hachette, it was vital to address those difficulties—and the best way of handling them—long before anyone set foot in the recording studio.
According to Megan Fitzpatrick, senior manager of marketing and publicity at Hachette, the audio and digital department at Hachette had countless pre-production meetings and discussions—often drawing on the expertise of Bonnie Nadell and the editorial and publicity teams at Little, Brown—in an effort to honor the author's legacy and produce the very best and most appropriate audio product possible.
"I think that any work we do on the David Foster Wallace audio program is imbued with the knowledge that not only is the work important in the literary scheme of things, but that it belongs to a man who was beloved personally. Thus it is handled with the utmost sensitivity," Fitzpatrick says. "We thought long and hard about offering the David Foster Wallace program in audio, [and] it became clear to us, through our discussions, that it was the right course for many reasons."
Fitzpatrick says that producing Wallace's audiobooks required balancing many concerns: sensitivity to the text's primacy, the artistic interpretation of director and actors, the creation of a listening experience that is both enjoyable and challenging, as well as budgetary issues.
In order to adapt the complex written text, Fitzpatrick says some difficult decisions had to be made. Would the endnotes and footnotes be recorded? Would long digressions make it hard for listeners to follow the main narrative? Would the audiobooks be cast with various actors? Would different voices make the story lines harder to follow? Would multiple actors make scheduling long recording sessions difficult?
"David Foster Wallace's titles tend to be much more dense and literary than many of our audiobooks. With his long, circuitous sentences and lack of attribution for dialogue, our narrators had to be especially sensitive and immersed in the work as deeply as some scholars of his writing."
For all of these reasons, Fitzpatrick says, it was vital Hachette find the right narrator, producer, and director for the audio version of The Pale King. In the end, they did just that, with McGonigle hiring Robert Petkoff—who also narrated The Broom of the System—and producer/director John McElroy, who worked on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and The Broom of the System.
"Robert Petkoff is an amazingly brilliant and versatile actor who gracefully draws you into the worlds David Foster Wallace has created," says McGonigle, adding that McElroy was her first choice for The Pale King. "John has a calming, reassuring way about him, providing support and guidance to Robert that allows him to delve unhindered into the multifaceted worlds Wallace constructs."
McElroy and Petkoff worked together to employ a variety of vocal cues, pauses, and other techniques denoting Wallace's style. She notes that for some of Wallace's titles, Hachette recorded the footnotes as they appear in the material; for others—like The Pale King—the footnotes were excised to maintain the dramatic flow of the story, but included in an accompanying .pdf.
McElroy, who says he became a David Foster Wallace fan while working on the audiobooks, cites the author's reputation for stylistic difficulty as the first obstacle he had to overcome. Still, McElroy says he prefers to view Wallace less as self-consciously avant-garde and more as a kind of realist: as a writer "trying to find an adequate way to represent a strange, emergent order." This, McElroy says, was a valuable point of departure for the production of the audiobooks.