The idea seemed a simple one.
“Audio is the fastest growing sector in publishing,” my agent told me ahead of the 2019 London Book Fair. “And True Crime is one of the most successful genres of the past 24 months. What we need to do is combine the two.”
So I did. Over two frenetic days I sketched out the idea for an audiobook series. It was to be called Stories From the Margins, and it would detail my experiences with cases I had gotten involved in as a journalist and author. The first book in the series, Bleak Alley, told about a group of kids I came to know who were all members of a youth gang, and outlined how that involvement was causing their lives to fall apart of lots of different reasons.
To my great delight, Audible bought the series. And they wanted me to do the narrating.
I agreed, thinking I was up for the job. I mean, I’ve worked in the audio medium quite a lot over the years – I’ve presented shows on both local and national radio; I’ve made lots of radio documentaries (and been involved in editing the last couple myself). I’ve even narrated the audiobook version of the last in my child protection series, The Boy They Tried to Hide (and done the editing and sound engineering for that one as well, which was no small feat, let me tell you!).
But I had never gone into a professional studio, with a topline audiobook producer, and taken on the task of recording one of my books.
To say I was nervous would be an understatement.
I was particularly worried because, on my first visit to Audible head office, which is almost directly across the road from the Barbican building in London, I found myself in a space with no small number of very well known actors, all of whom were recording books, podcasts and audio-dramas in the exact same studios where I would be working.
These were people I knew from TV and film, people who are at the top of their profession. I happened across one of them playing a role in a rather popular Netflix series about a certain royal family over Christmas (and he was fucking brilliant in it), which only added to my anxiety.
I’ve talked about Imposter Syndrome before, and I was being visited with a hefty dose of it – who was I to think I should be considered on the same level as these amazing professionals? There was just no way my feeble croakings could ever match their polished delivery. I was bound to make a complete botch of it.
I arrived into London on New Year’s Day, to find the area around the Barbican quiet and mostly closed. I had dinner and went to my hotel, spending the evening only half watching TV and going over my notes for the following day.
My biggest fear was something that I’m sure will make you laugh: it was the transition between pages. I knew I’d be reading from a tablet (or perhaps even something like my Kindle Fire), and on my device moving between pages requires tapping (or sliding) the screen. When you’re reading a book on your own, this is all pretty fluid, but I had a worry that it would leave a small, but perceptible gap mid-sentence that would be problematic for the person editing. When I recorded The Boy They Tried to Hide at home, I got around it by printing off all the pages in the chapter and sticking them to the door of my office, so I could read them all without needing to change pages at all.
But I doubted that was the way it happened in the hallowed halls of Audible UK.
So stressed was I that I barely slept that first night in London. I had recurring dreams where I lost the power of speech and could only squeeze out choking gasps. By the time morning came around I was a ball of nerves and was pretty certain my lack of ability would be sniffed out by the producer as soon as we started.
This had all been a huge mistake.
It took less than 10 minutes to walk from my hotel to Audible HQ. I arrived a little ahead of time, but an intern showed me to the studio where Ben, my producer, was already getting set up. We shook hands, he got me to read a few lines while he set levels, and then we had a cup of coffee and he talked me through how he likes to work – basically, we would start at the beginning, I would read, and he would stop me if I made a mistake or needed to slow down or enunciate anything more clearly. And that was pretty much it.
As we began the recording proper, I had a look at the tablet I would be using, and to my joy, I saw that the ‘page-turning’ issue was moot: the device they had given me scrolled the pages as if the entire book was all on one, massively long page – so there was no ‘turning’ required.
I immediately relaxed. With the elephant in the room sorted, what else could go wrong?
Famous last words.
It all went swimmingly until about midday, when I hit a phenomenon Ben called ‘the lunchtime rumbles’. I have never noticed my stomach being particularly noisy before, but Audible uses a system of two different stereo mikes, each of which picks up a different noise band (see the photo below), so even if a gurgle isn’t perceptible to the human ear, it will be to one of the electronic ones.
“We’ve got a bit of a growl there,” Ben would tactfully say, and I’d go back to the top of the paragraph and do it again.
Five minutes later: “Bit of a gurgle again there Shane.”
I’m not going to lie – I was beginning to freak out slightly. Now that we had the technology sorted, my own body was betraying me!
We finally stopped for lunch. But it didn’t solve the problem. Now we had the ‘after-lunch rumbles’ – satiated, my gut was now happily growling away as it digested the midday offerings. I was appalled.
I did the last hour and a half of recording on Day 1 with a pillow held over my abdomen to mask any further digestive noise-making.
It was the last thing I expected would be an issue, but Ben just grinned and told me that every narrator has their own little things they have to learn to deal with – this, it seemed, was mine.
Interrupting bellies aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my first couple of days working in Audible studios. It being the start of the New Year I had the place to myself (there was just the team working on Stories From the Margins in the building, which meant I wasn’t faced with Stephen Fry every time I went out to get a coffee, which would have resulted in wonderful conversation, but probably wouldn’t have done my Imposter Syndrome any good!).
Once we had ‘rumble-gate’ sorted, we sailed through the rest of the text, and we were finished by midday on Day 2. After a meeting with the promotional team I took the tube into Southwark and spent a few hours wandering around the Tate Modern, which was as mind-bogglingly wonderful as it always is.
Now that my bit is done, the sound engineers will edit out all my rumbles and stumbles, and the music I have also recorded will be woven in, to create the world of Bleak Alley.
I can’t wait to hear it.
It’s out on February 6th.
(c) Shane Dunphy
About Bleak Alley:
True crime within the dark heart of Irish gangs.
He seems like a typical 16-year-old boy, except that Mikey is walking the knife edge of crime. He’s tough and good with his fists, but when journalist Shane Dunphy is offered the chance to write his story, he discovers a lost, vulnerable child, in danger and desperate for help.
Shane descends into the perilous underworld of organised crime and discovers that the glamour of gangland life is riven with brutality and murder. Far from providing a means of survival for boys from broken families, the price they pay is often with their life.
With skill and empathy, and no little courage, Shane attempts to rescue Mikey from the clutches of warring gangland leaders and to restore the love and harmony of Mikey’s family which has been shattered by poverty and bad blood.
For fans of Peaky Blinders, Bleak Alley is the first in a series of true crime stories from the heart of Irish gangland life. The author provides extensive historical analysis of the rise of Irish street gangs and their outlaw Celtic culture, as well as original Irish folk songs.
Bleak Alley examines serious issues of social deprivation, state indifference and lawlessness with the pace and intrigue of a high-class thriller.
Order your copy online here.
Behind the Bestseller: Sam Blake talks to Shane Dunphy
From critically acclaimed non fiction that has spawned a movie in production, to bestselling fiction, and now an exciting audio adventure, Shane Dunphy’s career started with a book he needed to write. In this episode of Behind the Bestseller, Sam Blake delves into Shane’s path to publication, his experience as a child protection worker and the issues surrounding using real life, extremely sensitive stories, to his fiction writing process and his top tips for anyone starting out. Tune in to Behind the Bestseller to find out where and how Shane writes and how this contributes to his million book sale success.