Narrator Chat: Cassandra Campbell & Paul Boehmer take on Truman Capote and THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE

Truman Capote was known as many things—a brilliant writer, a brilliant gossip, and indeed, an iconic voice (both on and off the page).

Bestselling historical fiction author Melanie Benjamin is back, and has brought listeners her most glamorous and intriguing cast of characters to date featuring legendary writer Truman Capote and the colorful company he kept. Pack THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE audiobook in your vintage valise and time travel to 1950s New York with some truly memorable, larger-than-life characters as your companions.

As VP Editorial Director of Ballentine Bantam Dell, Kate Miciak, playfully warned—in all caps—in her ‘Dear Reader’ letter that prefaced the galley of THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE, “CAUTION: ONCE YOU START READING…YOU’LL BE GOOGLING EVERY CHARACTER WHO APPEARS IN IT.”

We were thrilled to chat with extraordinary narrators Cassandra Campbell and Paul Boehmer to hear their take on this character-driven delight and how they brought it to life on audiobook. And be sure to listen to clips of their performances below. THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE is available now.

What was your relationship to Capote and these characters before you began recording THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE?

Paul BoehmerPaul: This book was a particularly exciting one for me. I have always been a fan of Truman Capote. I have read both In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s and, of course, A Christmas Memory with the wonderful character of Sook—would that we all had that wonderful woman in our lives! I have also seen the films based on each of these books.

Cassandra Campbell Cassandra: I confess that when I began reading THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE, I hadn’t ever heard of Babe Paley or Slim Keith. Nor had I read La Cote Basque 1965. As the characters and relationships began to unfold, I started trawling the Internet in search of the world of Truman Capote, populated by his elegant swans. Who were they? What did they look like? I soon discovered they were gorgeous, all. And glamorous. They inhabited a world in New York I’d only glimpsed from time to time. (I did meet Bill Paley once, during a brief stint working for the Museum of Television and Radio where he served on the Board of Directors. He was a powerful figure.) It was fascinating to immerse myself in this circle of stylish, rich women.

Did you read, watch or listen to anything in particular to prepare?

Paul: Truman Capote exemplified in his writing something truly relevant, while at the same time remaining elusive and ephemeral. He demands a reader’s absolute involvement in his narrative; a task that I feel Melanie Benjamin matched in her telling of this story. I will tell you that recording the character of Truman Capote was a daunting task indeed. I had seen a recording of Robert Morse as Truman in the Broadway play Tru in which he tells us, as Truman, about the events surrounding “Answered Prayers.” I had also seen both films about him surrounding his writing of In Cold Blood. All wonderful. And I watched the interviews he gave on the Dick Cavett show. (Thanks, YouTube).

Cassandra: Capote is, of course, such an iconic figure and recently immortalized so beautifully by both Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones. I watched Infamous again (I’d seen it when it first came out) and studied the performances of Jones as Truman and Sigourney Weaver as Babe. I was especially struck by Juliet Stevenson’s interpretation of Diana Vreeland and Hope Davis as Slim. I listened to Capote talking to Dick Cavett. As the book took over in my imagination though, I began to hear Babe as a much softer voice and Truman became a mix in my head of both his own recorded voice and that of Paul Boehmer, who I knew would be playing him.

How do you approach taking on such an iconic voice as Truman Capote?

Cassandra: A word here about my dear friend Paul. He is the person who first introduced me to Dan Musselman at Books on Tape and to the world of recording audiobooks which has since become the mainstay of my performing life. We’ve collaborated on a number of projects, and I was thrilled we would be together on this book!

As we prepared, we spoke on the phone a few times, mostly discussing Truman. The producer for this audiobook, Orli Moscowitz, wisely advised us about how to approach the character of Capote and the care we should take not to over do or make a caricature of him, an obvious risk in playing a big personality. Paul and I discussed this with each other and then in turn with our director, Art Insana.

LISTEN TO A CLIP OF PAUL:

Paul: I think at once our lovely director Art Insana and I decided that trying to do a Truman impression was out of the question and would be considerably distracting to a listener. We wanted to give the idea of his sound and let the listener do the rest. I hope we have been successful. The other major characters for my end of the recording were Bill and Babe Paley. Those were considerably easier. I imagined William Holden as Bill and then simply imagined the lovely and talented Cassandra Campbell as Babe. I hope that I have done good service to this book, it deserves that. This is a great book both hearty and lovely. It was a pleasure to record and one that touched me deeply.

Any helpful advice that you keep in mind?

Cassandra: In the studio, I recalled the advice an old theatre teacher gave me: you must push through the archetype and make the character real. As they emerged through the speaking, I tried to create a cast of characters who are real in the context of the wonderful novel Melanie Benjamin has written. As Dan Musselman and I discussed early on in my audiobook career, the characters don’t reside in your voice, they reside in your mind. I could see them and their world clearly. I tried to keep the rest simple and let the story tell itself! I hope the listeners enjoy it!

LISTEN TO A CLIP OF CASSANDRA:

Why did you love working on this particular project?

Cassandra: In her book, Melanie Benjamin cuts right to the underbelly of that glamorous world. To be sure, she lets us wander through the beautifully decorated rooms, peek into the closets loaded with fabulous clothes, even dine at the finest restaurants. But we don’t rest there. We experience the real lives of these woman as she imagines them. As full of heartbreak and sadness, humor and love as all the rest of ours. The relationships and personalities are complex and layered.

Paul: I love recording audiobooks. I have been doing it for nearly fifteen years now. It is a wonderful accompaniment to my acting career, which also keeps me quite busy. I love the theatre, for at its core is the written word and the idea. It is perhaps a true expression of our humanity both relevant and ephemeral. My favorite books are those that transport me out of myself and into another world and in some cases so much so that I feel I have been inserted into the very story. THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE was that kind of book for me.

Thanks to Cassandra and Paul for this great peek into their process when recording a historical fiction novel on audio!

Want more “behind-the-scenes” SWANS drama? Don’t miss Melanie Benjamin’s short story, RECKLESS HEARTS, also read by Cassandra Campbell. In this enchanting prequel to THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE, New York society and Hollywood royalty collide during the doomed and decadent life of Ernest Hemingway.

Click here to view all audiobooks by Melanie Benjamin.