Lately I have been spending my days in a cave. As a child did you ever throw a blanket over a table or some chairs and crawl into the dark mysterious space that was created?   My cave feels a bit like this. Its walls are grey soft blankets, especially designed to absorb sound. The space enclosed by these blankets is just big enough to enclose my desk, which is covered by a thick felt U-haul moving blanket—also to absorb sound. There is a carpet on the floor. Suspended over the desk is a microphone that can easily “hear” a pin drop if there were a hard surface for it to land on. On the desk is a computer. This cave is my recording studio in which I have begun to produce the audio book of The Restless Hungarian.

The walls of the cave hide the familiar space that is my writing room, with it’s shelves of reference and history books, a bulletin board covered with photographs and mementos from my travels while researching my father’s story. In the absence of these familiar talismans, it seems as if I have entered and alternate grey reality in which the only sound is my own voice.


I approached this audio book project with mixed feelings. On the one hand it made sense to read my book aloud. I have narrated quite a few documentary films so I am not a stranger to voicing commentary. Also The Restless Hungarian is about my process of making sense of my father’s life and the first person pronoun appears intermittently throughout the text.

On the other hand reading my own book and recording my own voice is daunting. On the technical side, despite the ubiquity of recording devices in our lives, making clean resonant sound for a film or a book is not as easy as it may seem.   In the film editing process there is a point at which visuals are “locked” and no further changes are made to the video content. At that point I have always entrusted my work to a professional mixer who cleans up, sweetens and mixes music, voice and sound effects. Audio professionals have always seemed to me to be wizards with special knowledge and mysterious powers, too esoteric for me to aspire to. Therefore, it was with great temerity that I approached Paul Zahnley, a man who has mixed many of my films, to guide me through the audio book editing and mastering process. What a relief that he did not laugh in my face, but cheerfully agreed to help and has been patiently talking me through the finer points of equalization, compression, peak limiting, RMS, and constant bit rates.

The technical side is challenging but it can be explained. Performance is an entirely different kettle of fish.   A good narrator in a documentary is neutral. They should present the facts without allowing the tenor or inflection of their voice to comment emotionally. They should not “tell” the viewer how to feel about what they are seeing and hearing. This is not true for reading a memoir. To be sure there are “objective” passages, facts and historical background that should be read objectively, but there are also subjective passages where I tell you how I feel about something or where someone else is speaking (usually a quotation from a diary or a letter), revealing an experience charged with emotion.   How to do that person justice when I read their words? How to feel into their experience? How not to act the person but be them?

The curious thing is that reading my book aloud, slowly and painstakingly,  leads me to experience people and events in a new light. I thought I knew absolutely everything I could know about the people in my book, but speaking their words aloud conjures them in a way I did not experience them on the page. They are somehow more alive and I feel a great tenderness towards them.

This is what I have been doing in my cave.