Bruce Holsinger’s novel, The Gifted School, is a witty, captivating story that observes the drama within a community of friends and parents as good intentions and high ambitions collide in a pile-up with long-held secrets and lies. It’s a thrilling, laugh-out-loud page-turner that really examines privilege, race, class, and how they all tie together.
Recently, Bruce spoke with January LaVoy about her experiences in narrating the audiobook version of his book and beyond.
BRUCE HOLSINGER: January, thank you for accepting my invitation to talk with you about The Gifted School as well as your experiences as an audiobook narrator.
JANUARY LAVOY: I’m so glad you asked, Bruce. I loved the book, and I’m thrilled to have an opportunity to discuss it with you.
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BH: So a few months ago, the audiobook team at Penguin Random House wrote to ask me to help them select a narrator. I listened to three extended samples from narrators they’ve hired, and you were far and away my first choice. I’d be happy to explain why if you’d like, but first I’d love to hear about your own selection process.
JL: You might be surprised to learn that I don’t ever get to read the titles before I agree to record them—I’m always basing whether or not I take a job on a synopsis, and, when possible, the author’s prior work. It’s always an adventure. I narrate about fifty titles a year, in addition to my other work in theatre, television, and commercial voiceover. So, to be perfectly honest, I’m not certain it would be possible to read any more than I already do! As I always tell people, narrating fifty books a year means that I read fifty books that year—twice. I read them once on my own to prep them, and then I read them aloud in the studio. I also try to read at least a dozen titles for pleasure each year, and I’m a voracious consumer of news and current events as well—so thank god for podcasts.
BH: So are there certain kinds of books you’re more drawn to? What determines whether you’ll take on a particular project, and what sorts of things do you tend to shy away from?
JL: I’m definitely drawn to literary fiction, particularly things that are character-heavy. I’m the type of narrator who loves creating extremely distinct voices for every character, so the more children, folks from far-flung locations with varying dialects, and/or creatures in the book, the better. But I also love the opportunity to voice important works of nonfiction. To that end, I tend to give preference to books that align with my personal worldview, but not to the automatic exclusion of anything. I’ve narrated a fair amount of books by folks who think quite differently than I do. It presents an interesting acting challenge, and I’m always up for that. But I would never give voice to something that I believed was an out-and-out falsehood, or any sort of hate speech.
BH: You’re an accomplished actress as well as a narrator and voice-over artist. When you’re working exclusively with your voice, as in audiobook narration, do you think of yourself as “acting” in the same sense?
JL: This is an interesting and complicated question. It’s definitely acting. It’s not just January’s natural, casual voice you are hearing. And yet, my goal is to get as close to my natural voice as possible, so that the storytelling maintains that personal level of intimacy. When I’m coaching, I’ll often say that the mindset I try to be in when I’m narrating is that I’m in the backseat of a car, it’s late at night, and I’m on a cross-country roadtrip with friends. I’m telling a story to the person next to me in the backseat, but—I don’t want to people in the front to hear. It’s just for that one person. That’s the level of intimacy I aspire to. Onstage, the vocal instrument is used in a completely different way. I’ve performed in theatres as small as 50 seats up to well over a thousand. Breath control, projection, diction, enunciation…just about everything is different. But the sense of belief in what I’m doing, the conjuring of a reality beyond the one we live in to share with the audience or the listener…that is the same act of imagination.
BH: What are some of the differences in how you use your voice in audiobooks as opposed to on the stage?
JL: I think that being a narrator has made me a much better stage/screen actor. No question. I approach text differently, I’m much more fearless. I spend 40 hours a week in a sound booth all my myself creating characters, and it’s made me quite fearless when I step into a rehearsal room. I love the sense of freedom it has given me. But always—in theatre as in narration—my first job is to serve the text, to lift the author’s intention. And I love having those parameters.
BH: Has your career as an audiobook narrator affected your approach to reading? Do you listen to audiobooks yourself, or do you tend to read physical copy?
JL: It’s funny—part of what makes me an efficient narrator is that I’m good at consuming content visually. So I would say that for me, audiobooks are not naturally the way I lean. But, as a consequence of my career, I have started listening to audiobooks, and I’ll be damned if they’re not amazing! I still personally prefer physical copy, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve downloaded a book “just to get a taste” of it, and gotten sucked into listening to the whole thing.
BH: A related question: do you find yourself assessing other narrators’ “performances” when you’re listening to audiobooks?
JL: I have some incredibly talented friends, and I will often drop in on their work to hear what they’re doing. I enjoy that. I think that I only “assess” insofar as I try to find things I like or aspire to in their work, so that I can ask them about it when I see them. I know as well as anyone how many variables a narrator is dealing with in any given gig—early script passes or unedited text, personal sinus health, allergies, room temperature, time pressure, stomach noise, fatigue, external environmental sounds…there are so many things that can go wrong in any recording session, it’s a miracle we ever get books made cleanly! So, it absolutely takes a village to make an audiobook. Very grateful for engineers, directors, producers, editors, QC folk…the list goes on and on. Now, about The Gifted School…
JL: As someone who grew up in a community (Fairfield County, CT) that was economically, ethnically, and socially similar to Crystal, I’m interested in how you chose the archetypes of the various parents. What influenced the particulars of their racial/professional/economic backgrounds, and why? Were they based more on specific examples you’ve seen in life, or rather, characters you thought would be interesting together in a pressurized situation?
BH: Lots of answers to a complicated question, and I love that you saw them as archetypes, which they really are when I think about it: the queen bee, the recovering hippie, the workaholic neurologists, and so on. But I also wanted a cast of characters who would reflect the demographic and economic realities of the setting, which is a slightly reimagined Boulder, Colorado and its surrounding counties, one of which is vastly poorer and more rural than “Crystal.” I think all novelists take elements of their characters—personality traits, small idiosyncrasies, and so on—from people they’ve met as well as from themselves and their loved ones, though once the characters are developed these traits become part of them, and divorced in the author’s mind from real life (or at least that’s how my mind works).
JL: I was very interested in the choice to make the primary storyteller in the low-income family the grandmother, as opposed to the child or the mother. Can you speak about why you made that choice, and how that perspective affected the rest of the story?
BH: When I started writing the novel I was telling the story of The Gifted School from a single point of view: that of Rose, an upper middle class (but formerly working class) mother of one. Then I added another character—Xander, a rising sixth-grade—then another, Beck, the father of twin boys. So the novel became steadily multi-generational as I worked through successive drafts. Originally those sections were in the point-of-view of Silea, Atik’s mother—but I found his grandmother a more interesting and compelling character as I wrote, so I changed the point of view to her. Often this happens when I’m writing: I’ll begin in the head of one character, then move to another as certain aspects of a story line move me.
JL: As I recall, there is only one character in the story that is specifically Black or African-American, and it is a middle-school teacher who calls out two of the students on their bad behavior. The kids respond with pointed insults, and, subsequently, the principal tells the parents of the students that she fears the teacher will leave their school and community because of that incident. As a biracial Black woman, I have to admit that that moment gave me pause. I grew up in a mostly white community, and have worked in mostly white communities for much of my life. Any Black woman who accepted a teaching job in that type of community would have been well-prepared for the type of abuse those children were serving up—and I feel very challenged by the idea that the careless words of two white children would be enough to make her question her career choices or relocate.
BH: I’m so glad you called me on this. I suppose part of what’s behind that scene is, again, the realities of the setting (Boulder has an African-American population of less than 1%) and my own awareness while living there that nearly every one of my Black colleagues on the faculty chose to live in Denver rather than Boulder. If you think about it, though, the scene is even more questionable in the way it handles race: that single African-American character is evoked only by the high school principal, and we never meet her in person—so the exchange you’re talking about is mediated through the words of a white author (me) writing in the point of view of a white viewpoint character (Rose) listening to the words of a white non-viewpoint but represented character (the high school principal) trying to imagine the mindset of a non-viewpoint and unrepresented character (the supposedly offended teacher). That’s a lot of whitesplaining of a Black character’s reaction to casual racism! So obviously this was a clumsy way to handle the issue in that chapter, and I’m grateful for the frank correction.
JL: And I’m grateful for your layered, thoughtful response to it. This is also what’s uniquely wonderful about audiobooks and casting—as a woman of color, I got to narrate a book with a plurality of white characters, blending my perspective with yours. And have a fruitful conversation about it, as well.
One of my favorite aspects of this book is the discussion in the “town hall” meeting about the allocation of educational resources. As the narrator, I find it easy to see all sides of the argument—as it’s my job to inhabit them all—but I’m curious: do you have an opinion or theory on how we can achieve a just and effective allocation of resources to children of diverse backgrounds and talents?
BH: This is an issue I thought about a lot while writing the novel, and I talked to all kinds of experts in gifted education, public school administration, and so on to get as wide an array of perspectives as I could. There’s a continuing controversy in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I live, around precisely the subject of inequity in gifted-and-talented assessment and education. There’s a lot of lip service to the notion of balancing equity and excellence, but a big study by the Brookings Institution a few years ago showed the persistence of “ability grouping” and tracking even in school systems ostensibly devoted to principles of inclusion above all. I wish I had a solution of my own! In The Gifted School I tried to stage the issue as a point of controversy among the characters, which is perhaps a novelist’s way of flaking out…
JL: I think it’s quite brave to take on the topic at all, and I’m glad you did. Thank you for choosing me to voice your wonderful book—and for the opportunity to chat about it.
BH: And thank you for giving the novel such an extraordinary spoken voice as it goes out into the world!
Featured image: Photo of Bruce Holsinger by Tom Cogill, Photo of January LaVoy by Scott Sherratt