I now listen to audiobooks now with heightened respect for whoever has done the reading. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn’s audiobook diary: plentiful bananas, dry mouth and self-doubt

Recording your own book is an unexpected feat of endurance.

I love an audiobook. I listen while I’m walking and find that thrillers are a particularly good spur to exercise. With a Tana French, Jo Nesbø or Gillian Flynn on the go, I’m desperate to find out what happens next, so I pound the streets, headphones clamped on, lost in the plot.

I’ve got my preferred readers, too, as the narrator can make or break a book. My favourites include Sam West reading The Day of the Triffids and his dad, Tim, reading Trollope; or Patricia Hodge bringing Nancy Mitford to life. Katherine Kellgren, who I encountered via Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather, has a voice of such beauty that it is a sensual pleasure to have her murmuring in your ear. Tina Fey and David Sedaris, for their part, have both recorded audiobooks that are even funnier than the versions printed on paper.

You might think listening to a book is easier than reading, maybe even cheating, but it requires concentration. No flicking back, going: “Who’s that again? Have we met him before?” No sliding your eye over boring descriptions of landscape or weather. Listening is unabridged – you hear every word – but a skilful narrator makes the actual job of reading sound like a breeze, and, as I now know, this is not the case at all.

I’m in the studio this week reading my new book, Naked at the Albert Hall, and as I learned last year when recording Bedsit Disco Queen, it is a feat of endurance. You start in the morning and spend the first hour in your sealed, soundproofed booth getting warmed up, clearing your throat, and being told to slow down. In hour two you settle into a kind of rhythm and things start to flow, although at that point you begin to notice things about this book you’ve written. Reading aloud highlights every flaw, every clumsy construction; you hear how you could have phrased it better. Occasionally you think, hang on, is that true, is that what I really meant?

By the third hour it’s getting towards lunchtime and your stomach starts to rumble. This picks up on the mike, so the producer interrupts you after every growl to reread the last sentence, until after a while you have to stop and have a banana. Hour four flies by. You look at your watch and can’t believe the time, but your voice is getting husky and so you have a cup of something, preferably not tea or coffee, which will speed you up.

Hour five, your tongue starts to become clumsy in your mouth, as it does when you’re drunk. The saliva is drying up, so your mouth opens with a click every time you speak. The remedy for this is a green apple, so you eat a green apple, whether you want it or not. God, the amount of things you’ve eaten and drunk so far, just in order to read a book. Who knew?

Day two, you do it all again. You realise that the hard part isn’t the vocal tiredness but the concentration; the way in which – however slowly and clearly you try to read – the words seem to be speeding up on the page, rushing and rising towards you like the road in an arcade driving game. You stumble and falter. You have another banana. You hit a word you don’t know how to pronounce, someone’s name, maybe, which you’ve casually written but never said. You realise what a pretentious idiot you’ve been for writing a book that refers to Gramsci and Tannhäuser. But then again, it turns out you’re not sure how to pronounce “privacy”, or “inherently”, or “Deborah Kerr” either, so really you shouldn’t have written a book at all.

All in all, it’s hilariously exhausting, for something that sounds so easy. I listen to audiobooks now with a new sense of awe and heightened respect for whoever has done the reading. As I stagger to the end of my third day and finally turn the last page, I realise I am lucky to be able to escape and I can’t help thinking of Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, held captive by the crazed Mr Todd, forced to read over and over again the complete works of Dickens. It’s always struck me as something of a nightmare ending for a book, but now – brrrr – it seems even more so.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge