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5 Questions with Audiobook Producer Kerri Kolen
We talk Mary Oliver and more
I wrote a few weeks back about how reading Mary Oliver’s Devotions helped me work my way out of a reading slump. Coincidentally, as I was reading it, I heard about Wild and Precious, a nonfiction audiobook exclusive about Oliver’s legacy, from Pushkin Industries.
Wild and Precious features audio of the poet reading her work and reflections from a delightfully diverse group of people, including authors(a former student of Oliver’s and the writer of Oyster Wars) and , celebrity chef Samin Nosrat and actor Rainn Wilson of “Office” fame.
I was lucky enough to chat with Wild and Precious producer Kerri Kolen. Kerri is the editorial director of audiobooks for Pushkin Industries, a new audio production company. In her role, she develops, produces and edits audiobooks. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When I started listening, I expected Wild and Precious to be a biography, but it’s really a celebration of Mary Oliver. Why did you decide to take that approach?
It was intentionally not biographical. We had a lot of conversations as we reported and did interviews. People would mention details about Mary’s life that were poignant, but we would end up extracting it from the tape or cutting it from the narrative because we wanted to paint a picture based on the experience of Mary Oliver, not the biographic information about her life. There has been and will be more about her and her life, and I’m going to leave it to those people. I know some of the people writing those books – they’re wonderful and smart and will tell the story in a way that as beautiful and meaningful, but that wasn’t the point of this project.
Instead, you focus on what Oliver’s poems mean to a wide range of people. How did you go about deciding who the right voices were?
People are very outspoken about their love for Mary Oliver.
For people like Rainn Wilson, Susan Cain and Carmen Maria Machado, who are in the public eye, it was easy to do a quick search on people who have talked about Mary Oliver at the time of her passing or over the years have talked about a poem they love. It’s all over social media or it’s in their newsletter or they mentioned it in an interview.
We went through to see who these people were and how they would fit into our story. We didn’t want to have a dozen people saying the same thing. They each said Mary Oliver was an important part of their life or work, but the reason was different.
We also felt it was important to bring in the experience of people who knew Mary Oliver. Her students, for example and there was also her neighbor in Provincetown who had insight into Mary’s everyday life.
Then we wanted to find faith leaders who are experts in their field to talk about the universality of Mary’s work. Not the faith component, but the spiritual component. I think too often people view religious beliefs as divisive or strict. Mary’s poetry was spiritually focused, but not faith-based. We needed to honor that without making it religious. That’s what we have a Buddhist priest and Buddhist teacher. Rabbi Dany Ruttenberg talked not about Judaism specifically but about universality and commonality.
I think this is how Mary thought about it: we’re all coming for the same thing, no matter what we believe. So, how do we find solace and community in that?
What are some of your favorite Mary Oliver poems?
I love the nature and spirituality works, but the dog poems are my favorite. I love Dog Songs, the whole book.
But, I also really love “When Death Comes,” because it’s a poem about death that’s actually about life. It’s poem that’s about living in the moment and not harping on what may or may not come. It offers the possibility of eternity, but not in a faith-based way. It ponders it more as an ocean of possibility as opposed to a finite opportunity that we have in our lives. It’s more like ‘today is your day.’
Everybody loves that. ‘What will you do with your one wild and precious life?’ That’s why we called the book ‘Wild and Precious.’ It’s a thing people really do hold on to. It’s not so much about the looming process of death, as the constant opportunity of life.
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Switching topics, what do you see as the big trends in audiobooks?
There’s a growth in original audio. Before, it was simply converting a book on the page by putting someone — often not the author — in a studio, and just reading it. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a huge audience for it and many of those audiobooks are beautiful.
With the podcast boom, though, there’s been a desire from listeners to have an immersive sound-rich experience. Part of the reason people love podcasts is that they can get lost in them. There’s almost a parasocial relationship with hosts of a show.
At Pushkin, we feel like you can create that same experience in audiobooks. The big difference is the listener has to feel it’s worth paying for. And, its long form. All audiobooks have a beginning, middle and end. They’re not episodic.
We’re not the only ones doing this. The big five are making original audiobooks and so are other audio companies. It’s all good for listeners and book lovers.
Finally, any books you want to recommend?
I just finished Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Malibu Rising. I love her. It’s so fun and transportive — it just took me away.
Thanks to Kerri for chatting. You can purchase Wild and Precious from Pushkin or wherever you get your audiobooks.
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