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Inside the Audiobook Studio: Harriet Reisen


Louisa May Alcott’s biographer gives her own voice to an audiobook that brilliantly reveals the woman behind novels that have so strongly influenced generations of readers. As I mentioned in a comment on the Book Group Buzz blog about nostalgic reading memories, I had an Alcott fan club whose secret headquarters was behind the living room sofa. My friends & I read and re-read  Little Women, Little Men and the rest of Alcott’s works, along with side-trips into Dickens, imagining ourselves as Jo March. So I am thrilled to have Harriet Reisen, who has turned twenty years of research on Alcott into both a book and a film, here as my guest on “Inside the Audiobook Studio.” Here’s Harriet to tell you more…

What’s on your MP3 player?

Driving nearly three hours between Boston and the tip of Cape Cod as I often do, an audiobook – the longer the better – takes the curse off traffic and tedium like nothing else.  Oddly, I like to hear a book I’ve already read.  Sometimes I read carelessly – especially a big book – and the audiobook makes me slow down and pay attention. In the category of “re-reads” I adored Jeremy Irons’ reading of Brideshead Revisited, and two of my all-time favorite novels, Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, a big fat masterpiece about India that I read with fevered appreciation, then savored as an audiobook.   Another book I’ve read and plan to listen to next is The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed. American history will never look the same after you’ve heard about Thomas Jefferson’s other family in this National Book Award winner.

Also on my MP3 player are almost all the Morning Stories podcasts, personal accounts of five to ten minutes, each a dispatch from the heart of the human race to your own.  I like that they are a complete “earful” for a short car ride or a session on a treadmill. Morning Stories was the first podcast iTunes recommended when it set up shop on the internet. Tony Kahn, one of the twelve founders of podcasting, produced over a hundred episodes for WGBH, and carries new ones on his own website,, which was nominated for a Webby this year.

Tell us about your role in the audiobook community.

I like author’s “reads” of their books as audios– Amy Tan’s of Saving Fish From Drowning is a recent fave – so when Tantor bought the audiobook rights to my book Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, I offered myself as narrator.  When producer Ron Formica made my dream of narrating my own book come true, I danced and jumped around for joy for quite a while.  Later I asked my friend Alice Hoffman, who reads beautifully, if she’s recorded any of her books. “Oh no,” she said, sounding horrified at the thought, “that’s a very big job.” So I learned when to get it right took me 8 days in an isolation audiobooth in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, several hours away from home. By the last night the strain drove me to drink and gambling at nearby Mohegan Sun, a casino that rates a Must-See ranking for worshippers of kitsch. Louisa May Alcott would not have appreciated any of it one bit.  Actually the only money I left on the table was the price of a pizza and a beer.

What was your most interesting/embarrassing/hilarious moment in the audiobook studio?

Although I enjoyed re-reading and secretly admiring my own book for Tantor, I wished there weren’t so many damn consonants to trip over. The pronunciation of two names also gave me a hard time: “Alcott” and “Marmee,” Louisa May Alcott’s pet name for her mother. You’d think that after twenty years living with the story of “the woman behind Little Women” I’d know how to say the names of its subject and her mother, but nuh-uh.  I had started out thinking Alcott was pronounced “AL-cott,” as in “you can call me Al,” which seems to be the only way you can’t.  Some people in Concord, MA, where Thoreau is pronounced “THOR-oh,” insist upon the old Yankee “ALL-kut.”  I compromised on “ALL-cott.”  As for “Marmee,” it sounds like and rhymes with smarmy, which some readers find Marmee herself to be.  When Director Nancy Porter and I produced the first film biography of Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind Little Women (which FYI premieres on American Masters on PBS Mon. Dec. 28 @ 9PM and FYI was named by Booklist Magazine as the Top of the List video of 2009) it occurred to me that Louisa might have pronounced Marmee as “MAH-mee.”  Katharine Hepburn does that in the 1938 film of Little Women, and so do the British legion of Alcott fans. “MAH-mee” would make sense to readers like me who as little children called their mothers “Mommy,” but it sounded a bit cutesy.  I kept switching as I recorded the book, so I had to go back to make Marmee consistent.  I chickened out of my clever “Mommy” theory and went with “MAR-me,” as I had pronounced it to myself as a kid in New Jersey.

What’s new and exciting in your part of the audiobook & publishing community?

A contest! Tantor Media, publisher of the Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women audiobook, and I are looking for your opinion on the pronunciation issue. I’d love to hear how you think Louisa Alcott (AL-cott/ALL-kut/ALL-cott) pronounced Marmee (MAR-me/MAH-me/MOM-ee) and why. Best rationale scores a prize – their own copy of Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, courtesy of Tantor Media. Leave your thoughts in comments below & be sure to include your email address. And give a listen to this clip from the audiobook to see what you think:

What future trends or changing perceptions or technologies do you think will have the greatest/worst/revolutionary impact on the audiobook production field?

I was stunned to see that the audiobook came in two versions: one edition of 11 CDs suitable for loading into the state-of-the-2001-art player in my car’s glove compartment, the other edition comprising just two MP3 discs, which held all 13.5 hours.  These are “iPod ready” and “downloadable” to your MP3 player.  They can also be played on a computer,  which is how I confronted the result of those eight days chained to a microphone by some lovely people in Connecticut who edited my audio act so well that I can hold my head up if I ever get to meet Amy Tan.

I’m not much of a prognosticator, but was surprised to learn that Henry Holt and Company, the print publisher of my book, asks authors to deliver a three-minute book talk for their salespeople.  I picture them driving to far-flung bookstores in compact rental cars – I have no idea if they do this – getting psyched up about their wares with audio clips like mine, which can be heard here:

Also slightly futuristic: Nancy Porter and I commissioned a “vidlit,” an entertaining print-inspired clip to promote the film and book called “5 Things You Don’t Know About Louisa May Alcott” which you may watch below and online at, where you can find clips from the film and many more things you don’t know about Alcott.

Wow! Thanks so much for being my guest, Harriet! I now have a mad desire to pull out my well-worn childhood copies of Little Women & Little Men, cozy up on the couch with some hot chocolate, and revisit the March home on Christmas morning. And I can’t wait to see the results of our first contest here at Audiobooker 🙂



About the Author:

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus (OH). An enthusiastic audiophile, she has served on all four of ALA's audiobook award committees as well as the Audies. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @mburkey.

10 Comments on "Inside the Audiobook Studio: Harriet Reisen"

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  1.' Margo Jantzi says:

    Please enter me in the contest for the free audio book: Louisa May Alcott.

    The video clip stating the five things we don’t know about Lousa May Alcott has peaked my interest in her biography.

    Margo Jantzi
    Library Media Specialist

  2.' Jay Wise says:

    Mary, I have decided that Marmee should be pronounced half-Connecticut, half-Canadian, “MUH-MAY,” as if Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump were from Vermont. You may now virtually kick me in the shins, but when I heard Forrest pronouncing this, I could barely keep from laughing out loud.

    As for Alcott, I will safely go with “Ahl-cutt.”

    Thank you for providing such an enjoyable blog and all that you do to raise awareness of the benefits and joys of listening to audio / spoken word.

    Best to you this New Year!

    Jay Wise
    Youth Services Coordinator / Teen Librarian
    Chillicothe and Ross County Public Library
    Chillicothe, OH

  3.' Cate says:

    Oh, for that time machine that will transport me back to Orchard House so I can do a quick listen and then report back in confidently. Since my first and so far only visit to Orchard House two years ago and the SHOCK of finding out that Louisa’s life was NOT Jo’s I am now fascinated with the say it however you will Alcott women and how they managed to survive in spite of their husband/father. I’m dashing virtually over to Barnes & Noble to get your book to find out more. Cate

  4. WILDMANS@LIVE.COM' shannon wildman says:

    love alcott! mar mee its obvious how it is pronounced.

  5.' alice daniels says:

    I too would like to enter the drawing for the free audiobook, and I think it’s pronounced “mar mee” as well (at least I hope it is!)…

  6.' Kristine says:

    I think Maahr-mee with the emphasis really on the mah, just a little r and the mee, so sort of like mahrmy ? I think that’s how Winona Rider did it in her movie. But I think I like KH’s version better. Oh well, just please enter me in the contest !

    Thanks-the American Masters program was wonderful, but I think I do prefer the book !

  7.' Melanie says:

    I’ve always imagined it be as Kate Hepburn would say it, “Mahr-may” (in her lovely New England accent).

  8.' Christy says:

    It was pronounced like “Mommy” because of the accent of the time/place (19th century New England/Boston area)

  9.' fiona says:

    Didn’t even know there was an audio book of A Fine Balance. Must get it immediately!

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