Author Julia Spencer-Fleming And Narrator Suzanne Toren on “Hid From Our Eyes”
In “Hid From Our Eyes,” New York Times bestselling author Julia Spencer-Fleming returns to her beloved Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series with new crimes that span decades.
Read by Suzanne Toren, the audio edition of this book takes this captivating story to the next level brings the suspense to life.
What follows is a conversation with Julia Spencer-Fleming and the narrator Suzanne Toren about Hid From Our Eyes, the research behind the book and the nuances of narrating an audiobook.
Question: Julia, you’re an audiobook listener herself, right?
Julia: I am. I always have an audio book going in my car. And I often have one that I’m listening to at home. You know, whenever I’m doing something and I can’t be sitting down and I, you know, I’m scrubbing or dusting or brushing the dog or something. I like to have an audio book on.
Q: Have you listened to your audio book? How has listening changed your experience with your work?
Julia: It was really interesting. So Suzanne had recorded I think three or maybe even four of my books before I screwed up enough courage to listen to them.
I don’t know, I didn’t know what it was going to be like. And first off, it is as close as an author can get to having the work be fresh. When I read a page, it’s like a palem set, I see the final copy. And then I remember all the versions and the edits and the changes that I made to that. So it’s not it’s not a clean one off effect. But when I listen to Suzanne performing, I’m hearing her interpretation of my words. And so that makes it very fresh for me. And and I love it. I love to hear what she does.
Suzanne: Thank you.
Q: Suzanne, you have read the entire series. Has anything changed in the way you voice the characters?
Suzanne: Not the main ones. I try to not have that change actually. That’s that’s the challenge is is remembering and listening to audio from prior books. But this this particular book, the one that we just finished, that takes place in three different time periods.
So that means the main characters, Russ and the other cops were very much younger in the 30 years ago, and that was a challenge too, but I, I am I got a hint at how I could voice Eros in particular, from the way you described him Julia as a return Vietnam vet who was angry and belligerent, and he was he was fighting and he just had that attitude.
So I just tried to put that into my voice and pacing, hoping that that would delineate the young Russ as opposed to the older guy who you know, kind of has a husky voice but he couldn’t exactly sound like this when he was 20. So, so that was a that was a challenge.
Julia: I’m looking forward to hearing what you do. I was actually aware of that when I was writing I remember thinking, these are people at really different same the same people but at different stages of their lives and, and how is that going to happen? And we have had one character through the book that you have aged his voice up a little bit, and that is Kevin Flynn, the young cop because in the very first book, he is like, just 21 and he’s like a great big Labrador puppy and by hid from our eyes, he’s, I think, 27 or 28. And he’s a very changed person, as most people are between those years. Mm hmm.
Suzanne: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
Q: Considering this novel spans three different time periods. Did you have to do research for the different decades?
Julia: I absolutely did research on the different decades. Some of it was just practical matters. I have people coming and going on trains and buses and figuring out when the bus service to that area started up and when the train service stopped, and some of it is language people. There’s a chunk of the book that takes place in 1952.
And people spoke differently in 1952. One of the scenes that I enjoy the most about that is when the then police chief, Harry McNeil, and a very young jack little who we see go from a young man in his 20s to a mature man in his 40s to an old man in his in his late 70s. Over the course of the book, they meet up with young Margie van alstyne, who is pregnant and of course, in 1952, polite people didn’t say pray. Out Loud on the street. So it was kind of fun getting into the headspace of folks from that time. That’s right.
Suzanne: I appreciate I think it did an excellent job doing that. And I also appreciated the the different dresses that the three murder victims, the women who were murdered, that they were dressed according to their appropriate period. And I thought that was really well, well done and well researched as well.
Julia: I absolutely did research on the different decades…There’s a chunk of the book that takes place in 1952. And people spoke differently in 1952.
Julia: Oh, thank you.
Q: Suzanne, which audio book has been your favorite to narrate?
Suzanne: That’s always such a hard question. And I don’t really think I have a favorite. I think that the very first one was was a soccer because because the characters are so different from your normal crime books, you know, a small town police chief okay. But a, an Episcopal priest, and they’ve both served in the army and she just came back and she’s a helicopter.
I mean, See she has so many incredible qualities and she Southern. So I really I like that and I also liked her in the first book that she wasn’t intimidated by. Russ is basically saying Get out of my way this is my investigation. Don’t buddy and she kept butting in and then of course the in the later books when they finally when it becomes apparent that they’re falling in love and that they will get married that was that’s tender. I like that.
And now they’re having a baby.
Julia: I have to say I I particularly love the way that you voice Claire. Your performance of Claire is what I hear in my head now when I write her oh and and i i love the way that you you get she is both a tender and very caring person but she is also tough. When needs to be, and she has a lot of different moods and a lot of impulses. And you really convey that so well, I just I just love your performance.
Suzanne: Thank you. I get it from you. I just get it from the text. So, so it’s you originally who made her that way.
Q: Julia, you mentioned hearing Claire’s voice. And I was wondering, do you imagine the voices of your characters while you are writing? Do you hear all the characters the same way Suzanne says them?
Julia: I think increasingly, you know, for the main characters who as Suzanne said, when we were first talking, she tries to keep the same. I do hear their voices. Now the way that she says them, there are secondary characters or people who appear for the first time in the novels.
And sometimes I’m surprised with the choice that Suzanne make, which is one of the delights of hearing it performed. You know, it’s it’s It’s a book is a, an art form that requires two, it’s the writer and then the reader. And then the audio book is an art form that requires three, you know, you need the writer, you need the performer, interpreting the text, and then the listener. So as as just a listener, it’s really delightful to hear the surprises that come up.
One thing that I have done, excuse me, I’m gonna have to cough. Sorry. One thing I have done going forward since I’ve been listening to the audio books is I’ve been aware of trying to write a little bit more with an eye or an ear toward audio performance. I have been looking for characters that I can realistically make in the geographic setting, be of doing different ethnicities and different backgrounds. Because Suzanne accents super with a hole.
So, you know, I’m actually looking for things like that. And I find I also try writing. When I’m using dialogue tags he said she said, I really work to clean that up more because when you hear it, you notice it’s almost like a little annoyance. When Suzanne have to say has to say he said, because we can hear he said it to you. We just heard him say it. So I think it’s helped me to to diversify my cast and to also to clean up my my language around people speaking a little bit.
Suzanne: Thank you. That sounds wonderful. Because one of the greatest challenges I think, not just for me, but for every audiobook narrator that I know is when you have several people in a room who are of a similar age and a similar gender How to distinguish them?
Julia: And I feel guilty at times because I have written scenes, especially at the police station, where you’ll have the two older cops, Russ and Lyle, and then you’ll have, you know, two younger cops, and they’re all male. And they all have to be there. But sometimes I think, oh, man, I am not making it easy.
Suzanne: It’s always the challenge, but I think I think in the end, it gets it’s clear, I think, I hope.
Julia: Yeah, no, I think it I think it is. I think that, you know, there are a lot of scenes that have Russ who’s the chief of police and Lyle, who is his second command and, and his sort of confidant and sounding board, and they’re talking together and that’s difficult because they’re both men of a similar generation. They’re maybe eight or 10 years apart. And from a similar you know, the same Part of the world and I think you do a good job. I can hear what you’re doing because you’re changing you change lives pacing.
Suzanne: That’s exactly right. Yep. Yeah.
Julia: And that distinguishes their two voices, even though they’re both these adult men from this part of upstate New York.
Q: I’ve one last final question for you, Julia. Before I let the two of you speak to each other, if you had to narrate one of your characters yourself, who would you choose?
Julia: Oh, gosh. I don’t know if you caught me when I started. I probably would have said Claire, but now I’m older. I’ll say Margie. I feel like I could do an older voice a little bit better now. Oh, sweetie, why are you always chasing after these criminals?
Suzanne: There you go. That’s her.
Julia: So I have a question for Suzanne. Yes, not having ever seen the project. Have an audio book which will tell our listeners something you know, there are two entirely different different aspects of putting up a books. I’m curious as to what what is your process I send in the manuscript and you get it and I know occasionally I get questions about pronunciation. But how do you take the manuscript and then process it into something that you can perform?
Suzanne: I just think of it as a it’s, it’s like a play. So all the narrative stuff is setting the scene. And then the dialogue is just embodying the, the people. So I figure there’s always a reason because you’re such a wonderful writer. There’s always a reason that the the descriptions that the non Dialogue stuff is in there to set a mood to set a tone to give us a place.
And so I, I take that seriously, I kind of I don’t know, I guess I’d like to paint that picture for the listener, the picture that you’ve painted on the page, I’d like to paint in their ear. And then the dialogue is just, you know, getting inside each of those people. And it again, this is something that other narrators I know and I myself do, which is that we don’t even though we have to be quiet in front of the microphone, we don’t actually sit perfectly rigidly Still, we move our arms we make expressions with our faces.
And that helps literally to embody each character. And, and so to distinguish the characters, it’s not something you can Here, but it’s something we do. I, my body becomes a different shape when I do one person as opposed to a different person. And that helps me change the person.
Julia: You know, that’s, that’s fascinating because I do that sometimes when I’m writing.
Suzanne: We don’t actually sit perfectly rigidly Still, we move our arms we make expressions with our faces. And that helps literally to embody each character.
So here’s the thing. I don’t know if you know, but I actually trained as an actor. I went to school for a BFA in acting was a, an equity apprentice, and I wound up not making it my career, obviously, but I found my training has been extremely useful as a writer.
But there are times when I am working out scenes or figuring out what people are doing and I literally get up and I’ll sort of, you know, stand and I’ll move my arms and I’ll I, you know, try to as you say, embody the character and figure out where they are physically and emotionally. You know, in that moment, And so then I can sit down and and write it out
Suzanne: That’s fascinating and that’s why it’s so such a pleasure to do to read your books, because it feels pretty easy to slip inside a character’s skin. And that’s why so thank you.
Julia: But you don’t have to. I always figured you must have to sort of like highlight everybody’s words in different language because I do have some fairly dialogue heavy patches in my books where the conversation is bouncing back and forth between two or three people. I mean, do you just read that clean on the page without getting confused?
Suzanne: No. When it’s when there’s dialogue that that doesn’t have he said, she said, then I do. Make a little initial next to the line too. So I know who’s talking But after, after this many years of doing narration, it’s, I guess my eye runs ahead a little bit. So somebody, there’s a, there’s some line and quote quotes. So that’s somebody speaking. But then in the very next sentence, it says who it is who’s speaking and somehow I can see those things at the same time.
Julia: That’s impressive because I can’t do that number three fast reader.
Suzanne: Not always so I but sometimes, and actually, more often than not, I’ll underline the name of the person in the in the line below the quotation. So I’ll so I’ll see the underlying thing and I’ll see the quote and I’ll know who’s talking. But but sometimes in fact, I do. Write you know, what, I initial The, the dialogue. But there are there are narrators I know who are very good about highlighting and colors and everything. It just seems so common.
To me, it’s like a take would take forever. Plus I started narrating before iPads. So in those days we made we made little notations on paper on a printed page you know, in the margins so I guess I just out of habit that’s that’s what I still do. But I have a question for you Julia shoe, which is I love the titles of your books. They are so intriguing. And and of course Claire being an Episcopal priest. So what’s your connection to the Episcopal liturgy and the hams and it seems like you know this stuff really well.
Julia: I do. I am a what we call a cradle Episcopalian, I was raised Episcopalian and and I am an active participant in my, my church, which is St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland, Maine. And, you know, the reason that I started out when I I first was thinking I’m going to write a mystery. Clear was the first person who came to me.
And it was because I was really interested not so much in writing about, you know, finding the bad guy and banging him into jail. But I was really interested in the community aspects of crime, what happens? How does it affect everybody, the victims, the families, the the perpetrator. And Claire’s job as a priest is to take care of community fabric, you know, it is her job to take broken pieces and try and put them back together again.
And that was what I wanted to explore. When I was when I was setting her up. And you know, they always say Say it’s a it’s a it’s a real straight up, but right which you know, right. And there are two things that I knew really well and one was being an Episcopalian. And another one was military life because I grew up as a military brat. And yeah, and my, my husband was a an Air Force veteran, and my son right now is serving in the Navy.
So I know that that military mindset in that culture so I thought with those two supports, I can spin out the rest into fiction because I don’t know what it’s like to be a priest. I don’t know what it’s like to be a chief of police. And I’ve never murdered anyone in real life.
Suzanne: I’m glad to hear it. But that’s great. I was gonna ask you also about the military. Because you you seem to know so much you’re so emotionally connected to military personnel, both when they’re in combat and then after.
Julia: I mean, It’s obviously it’s in my background, and it’s an interest of mine. And fortunately, it fits in well with this community, you know, small, small towns all over the United States are where most recruits come from, and then they go back there. So I’ve really enjoyed the fact that the setting has given me the opportunity to explore some issues in a way that I feel competent to do. For instance, in one was a soldier.
I really, really wanted to write about returning veterans. I didn’t feel competent to write about war in Iraq or in Afghanistan. Yeah, I haven’t been there. It’s not part of my skill set. But I did feel like I could write about what it was like for people to be back in their small town and trying to deal with what they had been with.
Suzanne: That’s Fantastic.
Julia: My turn I have a question, which is how do you this this in particular hid from our highs comes six years after my last book and through the evil days was I think two or three years after the book before that. How do you catch up? I mean, do you do you keep characters in your mind? You do an awful lot of audiobooks, I believe.
Suzanne: I do. Yeah. But fortunately, thanks to the wonderful digital age we live in and to the producers. Callum’s kind of kindly sending me clips from the previous books, I can just hear what I did. Six years ago, three years ago, whatever and, and do it again.
Julia: Do you d read the new manuscript and then re listen or realistic And then read the new manuscript.
Suzanne: I think I really listened first if I if I can, just to get a reminder of what Russ sounds like what Claire sounds like what some of the other characters sound like. And then when I read the manuscript, I sort of have that in my head. Then sometimes I try it out, you know, I read the manuscript, and I sort of try voicing them just to myself.
Julia: Yeah, yeah, it’s interesting, because one of the things that I have done to prepare for writing with him from our eyes, I started it a long time ago, and then had a very large interruption in the form of illness and my husband was ill and then passed away. And I needed to get back into that, that world in order to finish the book.
And one of the ways that I did that was in fact, re listening to the audio books. would drive around and sort of listening and immerse myself in rest and Claire, without having without the pressure of having to actually create anything new, just sort of hearing where they had been and what they had done and who they were. So that’s been a very, very useful discipline a paid for, for my creativity.
Suzanne: That’s great. That’s wonderful. What a good idea also to be to be immersed in the world and not feel the pressure, as you say, to have to do anything about it. Which is, which is really nice. It kind of your subconscious sort of gets involved and somehow,
Julia: yes, I’m sure St. Martin’s would prefer a bit more pressure but I am working on the next book so it won’t be years.