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Author Maia Kobabe and Producer Nick Martorelli on GENDER QUEER

In today's bonus episode of our Behind the Mic podcast, AudioFile's Michele Cobb spoke with author and illustrator Maia Kobabe and audiobook producer Nick Martorelli from Penguin Random House. It's a special conversation about GENDER QUEER, Kobabe's award-winning graphic memoir, and how they adapted it into a full-cast audiobook production. GENDER QUEER is Maia Kobabe's very personal story about gender identity, and it makes for an excellent audiobook. Listen to their conversation to hear more about Kobabe's personal relationship with audiobooks, how Kobabe and Nick Martorelli worked together to adapt the graphic memoir into a script for audio, and what it was like for Kobabe to narrate eir own work. 

Partial transcript: 

Michele Cobb: So tell us about your own personal relationship to audiobooks.

Maia Kobabe: I love audiobooks; I am a very passionate audiobook listener. It started when I was young. I'm very dyslexic, so I didn't learn how to read until I was about eleven years old. So all of my experience of stories up to that point was either my parents reading to me or audiobooks. And I wanted to be consuming stories constantly and all the time, and there were a few that we had on cassette at my house that I basically listened to and until the tapes were worn out.

We had the first couple of Alanna books in the Alanna series by Tamora Pierce, and Trini Alvarado is the narrator of those books, and I got to know her voice and her name very early on. We also had the Unicorn Chronicles by Bruce Coville, those were another fave in my childhood. And we also just had things like collections of Arthurian myths and collections of fairy tales or mythology from around the globe, and I just listened to these constantly as a child, sometimes to the point where if my parents came home and they found me listening. They'd be like, “this again?” and I'd be like “yeah!” Then I kind of took a break from audiobooks after I learned to read when I was in high school and college. I really didn't listen much until I graduated from college and then was starting to work as a freelance illustrator and suddenly working from home and had all of these hours where I was drawing and I was like, I want stories. So I actually went back and re-listened to a bunch of my childhood favorites initially, because I thought, well I already know the story. So if I sort of zone out a little bit in the middle while I'm working, it won't it won't matter if I miss a plot point because I kind of generally know the story. And that kind of kickstarted me back into listening to audiobooks again as an adult, and now I listen to them constantly. I think I listened to somewhere between 25 and 30 audiobooks last year, and that's a pretty normal consumption for me.

MC: Excellent, well, thank you for being a power listener. Nick, let's turn to you. How did this particular project germinate, and how did you actually pitch the idea to Maia?

Nick Martorelli: Sure, this project got assigned to us at Penguin Random House Audio, and I volunteered, I jumped to work on it because I love the process of turning graphic novels into audio. I think it's the most fun thing that we get to do. And assembling a full cast and putting all this immersive sound design together. I knew the book and I was very excited to shepherd GENDER QUEER into the world to a new audience. And so the first step I always take is to read the book and try to figure out and really think about what the mood board is going to be, what is the vibe of this thing. How is it ultimately going to feel, and how do I want the listeners to feel when they listen? And that is always, always based on the writing and the art.

Maia is trying to evoke certain things in the work, and it's my job as an audio producer to try to figure out how to evoke similar things. So, once I had an idea, we all hopped on a video call together and I pitched what I thought the audio should feel like, very personal, very stripped back in design. This wouldn't be fully realistic. This would be more like a stage play, a single person on stage sort of taking the audience through, and the lights would subtly change, and actors would step forward in different hats, and it would have this very nebulous dreamlike quality to it, because eir work doesn't really have that many starts and stops. It's very narrative; we're telling a story, and the more we could tell that story in audio without stopping to make sure that we knew where we were, I thought that was going to be our way into it.

MC: Well, I think you definitely did a lot of that. I will say I didn't look at the graphic memoir when listening, and I didn't feel like I was missing anything!

Maia, you have this experience with audiobooks, did that make you a little bit skeptical about the adaptation, and if so, how did Nick and his pitch help you get over that?

MK: Nick's enthusiasm was definitely one of the things that made me want to try this out. He was so generous and so excited and had such a clear vision in even that first meeting, and I loved his description of it as almost like staging a play, and the scene almost being shifted behind a central narrator and actors stepping forward. I was like yes, this is a very cool idea. Obviously, I'm a visual artist, and so there was a little bit of fear of, oh, I spent so much time on the visuals, and I spent so much time building these visual metaphors, will the story stand on its own without them? But also, I think the fact that I love audiobooks and I know that audiobooks make stories accessible to a whole new segment of readers, including people who can't read yet or people who might need the audio sort of to guide them through the story, people who are busy, people who are low vision, just a whole bunch of different people who, for whatever reason, audio is more accessible. That was also something that really attracted me, just making this story something that new readers, listening readers, could encounter.

Listen to the full interview on our Behind the Mic podcast


AudioFile Magazine is your #1 source for audiobook reviews.

Photo of Maia Kobabe by M. Ruddell. Photo of Nick Martorelli courtesy of Penguin Random House.

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