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 David Foster Wallace's The Pale King in any form 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.
"It allows us to sideline a handful of concerns and focus instead on what's being said, who's speaking, how one voice differs from another, and how various narrative strands interconnect or don't," he says. "Those are the necessary data for the performance."
When recording any audiobook, Petkoff says, his challenge is to make the narrative clear, to give it a distinct voice and an emotional core that is honest and simple, and to provide different and distinct voices to the characters so the listener can follow the story as clearly as a reader would. With The Pale King—and Wallace's work in general—this was not always easy.
"David Foster Wallace's books are much more difficult to record than anything I've done to date," Petkoff says. "The recording sessions are complex, intense, longer than most, and I seldom have to read with a dictionary as close at hand as I do with these books. But precisely for that reason, they are also some of the most rewarding at the end of the day. John McElroy and I would finish recording a chapter and have lengthy discussions about what had just transpired in the book. I really enjoyed those moments."
One challenge, Petkoff says, is that most authors make it very clear which character is speaking, whereas Wallace sometimes withholds that information. While recording, each character has to be identified and defined for listener clarity—a process that sometimes forced Petkoff to make "executive decisions" about which character was speaking, when, and to whom.
"In The Pale King there is a scene in an elevator with what seemed to be at least four men and no attributions," he says. "I labored for a long time to try and decide who was speaking and make that clear. I'm still not certain there wasn't a fifth man in that elevator."
Petkoff says another unique problem that came up while recording The Pale King is the novel's exploration of boredom—something audio narrators generally want to avoid at all costs.
"The challenge for me there was to convey that without actually becoming too monotonous as an actor," Petkoff says. "Yet, as I say this, I realize there were times that I felt David Foster Wallace wanted exactly that, so I would embrace monotony with the idea that the listener needed to endure a bit to really get what Wallace wanted them to feel."
While McElroy says that Wallace's work draws attention to the weirdness of the contemporary moment, the wild excess of information, and chronic distraction, he is also quick to point out that the author is a great storyteller.
"Infinite Jest is centrally the tale of the Incandenza family and Don Gately and the other characters," he says. "Is the structure byzantine? Sure. But to risk sounding like a philistine, I'd say this: it's a good yarn, a detective story, in some respects."
McElroy adds that the audio version of Infinite Jest (slated for release this fall) reveals how approachable the novel really is: "You're drawn immediately into pure story—satirical, allusive, stylistically difficult from time to time, but a damned good story."
Despite the abundant problems, it's evident that listening rather than reading a Wallace novel offers its own pleasures—and perhaps a quick route to the material's humor and heart.
"I actually think David's work lends itself really well to audio," says Nadell. "His prose is so full of a love of language and the conversations between his characters can be so funny that hearing someone read it brings new meaning to the work. Having just heard actors read sections of The Pale King last week in Los Angeles and hearing the audience laughing and murmuring approval just shows how much his work can be heard in a new dimension on audio. The jokes and stories come through in an entirely new and surprising way."
Fitzpatrick agrees and adds: "Fans will enjoy listening to the books after having read them, and perhaps come to an even deeper understanding by experiencing the storytelling in an entirely new way, with different senses engaged. One of the strengths of audiobooks is that [the author's prose] rhythms can come through even more clearly. I think listeners will really enjoy encountering Wallace's gorgeous use of language in this way."
The team at Hachette remained cognizant of the author's devoted fan base, a "smart, discerning crowd," in McElroy's words. "They should enjoy one of the least conventional writers of the recent past in an unconventional format," McElroy says. "One way or the other, they'll have plenty to respond to. I hope they'll be pleased."
The Pale King has received almost uniform raves, a reception that the team finds bittersweet. Says Nadell, "David always responded to his readers, and to see so many people loving the book and finding meaning in its words is really important. It does not make his death any less painful, but it does mean that this book and his other work are finding an ever larger and appreciative audience."