When the APA hands out the prizes at its annual Audie Awards Gala on May 29, actor and narrator George Guidall, who has given voice to more than 1,100 audiobooks, will receive a Special Achievement Award. We spoke with him about his distinguished career.
Congratulations on your award.
Thank you! Every time I hear “lifetime achievement” attached to an award, I always imagine there is a finality to it. But it’s lovely to be recognized.
How did you first break into the audio business 30 years ago?
I was working on Broadway at the time and one of my fellow actors, the marvelous Frank Muller [who died in 2008], kept leaving rehearsals early. I finally asked him where he was going and he said, “I record books.” The idea of that was very appealing to me as something to do between plays. At the time I only knew of Talking Books, which made recordings for the blind and physically handicapped, and Caedmon, which was known for doing wonderful recordings of authors reading their classic works and poetry. I sent a demo to Talking Books, and followed up with letters and more demos, but received no answer. Then, when I was doing a play called Chapter Two on Broadway, Bill Howell of Talking Books came backstage and asked if I’d be interested in recording. He was who I was sending my demo tapes to! I considered giving him a piece of my mind, but thought better of it. He gave me several westerns and I began to work pretty steadily. About two and a half years later, Recorded Books was auditioning actors to read Tony Hillerman’s books, and that was the beginning of an amazing relationship with Recorded Books. I convinced them that I could do lots of other things in addition to genre titles, and I was soon branching out. From that point, Recorded Books offered me a contract on an exclusive basis.
What do you consider some of the greatest achievements in the body of your audiobook work?
The achievement is never thinking that I know better than the listener. It keeps me in a humble position. People expect a certain quality of work from me and it keeps me loyal to them. It puts them in the booth with me, and I feel like I’m talking to them. When people listen to one of my books, they experience the same event, and they end up having a relationship to each other. They also have a relationship with me, and it’s one that I cherish.
Are there any particularly memorable in-the-studio anecdotes that you can share?
You’ll have the occasional bloopers or errors. I remember one time I was reading a book that described the physiological process when a feeling becomes a thought. It was very dense and complicated, and when I finished, I asked the director, “What the hell did I just read?” He responded, “I don’t know but it sure sounded like you knew what you were talking about.” The proofer had a good laugh listening to that, which accidentally ended up on the recording.
Some of the best things to happen come from my mail. I got a letter from a man in Montana who told me that he was driving on the freeway listening to Crime and Punishment and he was so engrossed in it that he missed his exit. He then backed his car right into an 18-wheeler. He was writing me from the hospital thanking me, because now he had enough time to finish listening to the book!
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the audiobook world since you did your first recordings?
The industry has grown so fast. There are so many people who want to be narrators now, and think they can. There’s a wider market and wider demand, but I think there is also more mediocrity. There’s not as much craft as imitation among narrators. I’ve seen a lot of people go through the motions and just read out loud—and it’s so much more than that. Some people even have studios in their homes. I can’t do that. I need someone on the other side of the glass to talk to. If I did it at home, I fear I would be a prisoner.
What is your favorite thing about being an audiobook narrator?
I was at the doctor’s office the other day and I got my wife a coffee while we were waiting. I came back and told her, “They ran out of cream,” and a woman said, “I know that voice!” It’s nice to be anonymously famous.
People often ask me if I have a favorite recording that I’ve done. It’s almost impossible to choose, but I gravitate toward the classics: Proust, Dostoyevski, Cervantes. And I loved Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True because it was so beautifully written. There are some books that are so well crafted, you never want to leave the studio.
Is there a great secret to your longevity in this line of work?
I have no idea if there is. I just hope that when my head hits the mike, I finish the book before it. I think about a poem by A.E. Housman, “To the Athlete Dying Young,” which basically says that you want to go out when you’re on top. So, I guess I’m okay with getting the Special Achievement Award now!