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    The Book Pages: Making audiobooks with Henry Winkler and John Stamos
    • November 10, 2023

    Audiobooks get more popular every year. But that wasn’t the case when Dennis Kao started out.

    Back then, he recalls, they were still available on cassette tapes. And some narrators didn’t want it publicized that they were recording books in case it harmed their careers.

    “When I started at Time Warner Audiobooks in 2000, audiobooks were definitely not cool. Most people called them ‘books on tape’ … At parties, people turned away from me when I told them what I did for a living,” says Kao, who spoke by phone and a later email follow-up from his Sherman Oaks studio. “But I really loved my job: Getting paid to read, abridge, cast, and record audiobooks didn’t really seem like work.”

    Kao recalls coming under the spell of stories early on. “My grandfather told me something once when I was probably 5 years old that I never forgot. He said, ‘Someone can live an incredible 80-year life and have extraordinary experiences, and they will put all their wisdom into a book and all you have to do to absorb their wisdom is to read their book,’” says Kao. “Me and my cousins would jump in his bed every night before bed and he would tell us stories.

    “He was a great storyteller and we would sit there with our mouths open,” says Kao. “That’s the magic of storytelling.”

    Literati Audio’s Dennis Kao talks about his career of producing audiobooks. (Photo by Alessandro Gentile / Radium 88 Productions / Courtesy of Literati Audio)

    Kao got into the audiobook business on a fluke but stuck with it – he recalls turning down a potentially lucrative offer to sell bonds – and it has developed into a lifelong passion. After working for publishers, he started his own company in 2008, which has studios in Hollywood and Sherman Oaks, and he has made audiobooks with Mel Brooks, Viola Davis, Jack Black, Cheech Marin, and Sarah Silverman as well as authors such as Michael Connelly and more.

    “I’ve seen the industry evolve over the last 20-plus years, and I’ve had the pleasure of recording a lot of interesting people. This year, I recorded such notable authors as Henry Winkler, John Stamos, Kerry Washington and Rainn Wilson,” says Kao. “The BTS biography was fascinating – learning about the Korean idol factories. Every week, it’s something different; you are constantly learning, and that’s the best part of the job.”

    So what was it like working with Winkler, who praised Kao in the New York Times, on the Macmillan Audio version of “Being Henry: The Fonz … And Beyond”?

    “We’ve done several books now. So we have this rhythm,” says Kao, who, along with the recording, aims to provide what he calls, “author care,” such as having warm tea on hand – or even a breakfast burrito – to put a narrator at ease.

    “Henry talks about his dyslexia,” says Kao, who had the text of Winkler’s book converted to a font better suited for dyslexic readers before they started. “It’s easier for people who are dyslexic to read.”

    “I like to work with actors in person, building chemistry. It becomes more of a team effort to get to the end, and the relationships you develop make the project more rewarding. … I see Henry Winkler now and he’s asking about my daughter and I’m asking what’s going on with his grandkids.”  

    Kao also enjoyed working with Stamos on the actor’s memoir, “If You Would Have Told Me” (Macmillan Audio).

    John Stamos, at Literati Audio, reads his audiobook “If You Would Have Told Me: A Memoir.” (Photo by Alessandro Gentile/Radium 88 Productions & Courtesy of Literati Audio / Macmillan Audio)

    “John Stamos, by the way, is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met,” says Kao, adding the actor took him to In-N-Out for lunch the first day of recording and invited Kao and his wife to a Beach Boys concert where Stamos performed for some very adoring fans. “They were screaming, ‘I love you, John!’”

    (My friend and former colleague Vanessa Franko can attest to Stamos’s nice qualities. Check her out making fasolakia with John Stamos at his house.)

    While this all sounds like fun, Kao – without naming names – will admit there have been the occasional challenges: The actor who screamed, “I have to read all these words?!” before slamming down the headphones and storming out. Or the performer who didn’t appreciate pronunciation corrections and complained that no one laughed during the recording of the funny parts.

    Then there was the time Kao sent a limosine to pick up an actor for a recording session – and the actor redirected it to the airport and flew out of town instead.

    “I was sitting at the studio for a couple of hours before they told me,” says Kao, laughing.

    As for the future, Kao says there will be challenges – whether it may be recordings being done overseas or the use of AI to save money – but he hopes to keep doing this work.

    “I love my job; I still do. I’ve always loved my job because every week it’s something different, no matter if it’s fiction, nonfiction. memoirs. Every week, I’m learning something new. So I always tell everyone it’s like being paid to be in grad school. Like, literally, it’s the best job because you can learn every week,” says Kao.

    “I’ve never regretted not taking that job selling bonds.”

    Weekend events

    It’s almost the weekend so that can only mean one thing: More book stuff

    On Saturday, Nov. 11, The Leimert Park Village Book Fair Presents the Writers’ Symposium with Omar Epps, Eriq La Salle and Gary Phillips from 11-5 p.m. It’s the 16th year for the event, which is partnering with Malik Books, and will feature book signings, panel discussions, writing workshops and more.

    Where: Baldwin Hills Crenshaw, 3650 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Los Angeles

    For information:

    On Sunday, Nov. 12, Litlit, The Little Literary Fair returns. Focused on independent publishers from LA and the West Coast, the event is putting on a holiday market at Zebulon with vendors, DJs, small presses and more. I went last year and I really enjoyed it, so I hope this one is just as fun.

    Where: Zebulon, 2478 Fletcher Dr., Los Angeles

    For info:

    ‘Straw Dogs of the Universe’ author Ye Chun had a dystopian summer

    Ye Chun is, most recently, the author of “Straw Dogs of the Universe.” (Photo: Mira Feifei Ye-Flanagan / Courtesy of Catapult)

    Ye Chun is a bilingual poet, translator, short-story writer and novelist who teaches at Providence College in Rhode Island. “Hao,” her debut story collection, was much-praised, and she’s written two books of poetry, “Travel Over Water” and “Lantern Puzzle,” and a novel in Chinese, “Peach Tree in the Sea.” She’s a recipient of an NEA Literature Fellowship, a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award and three Pushcart Prizes. “Straw Dogs of the Universe” is her English-language debut novel, and she talked to Michael Schaub for the Book Pages Q&A.

    Q. What are you reading now?

    I’m rereading Charles Yu’s “Interior Chinatown” for a class I’m teaching. Other books I’m reading are Julie Otsuka’s “Swimmers,” Lisa Damour’s “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers,” and Noa Bellin’s “The Mindful Body.”

    Q. How do you decide what to read next?

    It often has to do with my state of being. This summer, for example, I read a dozen dystopian novels because I was interested in the genre and also wondering where our world was going. But those visions simply felt too real and terrifying, and I started to read parenting books instead. While not knowing what’s going to happen to our world, I can at least try to be a better parent for the time being.

    Q. Is there a book you’re nervous to read?

    I don’t think I want to read more dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels for a while.

    Q. Do you have any favorite book covers?

    I admire Na Kim’s work, including the cover she designed for Yiyun Li’s “Wednesday’s Child” and for my own, “Hao.”

    Q. Which books do you plan, or hope, to read next?

    I’m planning to read Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s “The Mountains Sing” and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Whereabouts.”

    Q. Is there a person who made an impact on your reading life – a teacher, a parent, a librarian or someone else?

    My mother is a retired librarian. Growing up, I spent much time at her library and had the privilege of checking out more than a couple of books at a time because she was an employee there. My father also loves books. Reading is something always encouraged in my family. Even now, my father would recommend books for me to read.

    Q. What’s a memorable book experience – good or bad – you’re willing to share?

    I came across Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” at my mother’s library when I was a college student in Luoyang. Back then, the English novels I’d read were mostly Victorian literature. I had no idea who Morrison was, but I thought the book was the most compelling thing I’d ever read. It was a revelation what literature and the English language could do.

    More books, authors and bestsellers

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    • • •

    Tan Twan Eng is an internationally recognized writer of historical fiction. His latest book, “The House of Doors,” has just been published by Bloomsbury. (Photo by Lloyd Smith/Writer Pictures / Courtesy of Bloomsbury)

    ‘Doors’ perception

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    • • •

    “Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon,” Michael Lewis’ book about FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, is among the top-selling nonfiction releases at Southern California’s independent bookstores. (Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Co.)

    The week’s bestsellers

    The top-selling books at your local independent bookstores. READ MORE

    • • •

    Bookish (SCNG)

    Next on ‘Bookish’

    The next installment is Nov. 17 at 5 p.m. as authors Sarah Blakley-Cartwright, Tess Gerritsen and David Ulin join host Sandra Tsing Loh and Samantha Dunn to talk about books. Sign up for free now.

    • • •

    Read any books – or heard any audiobooks – that you want to tell people about? Email me at [email protected] with “ERIK’S BOOK PAGES” in the subject line and I may include your comments in an upcoming newsletter.

    And if you enjoy this free newsletter, please consider sharing it with someone who likes books or getting a digital subscription to support local coverage.

    Thanks, as always, for reading.

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    ​ Orange County Register