Meet Tara Ochs, the “voice” of The Conditions of Love

As a writer I’m preoccupied by “voice” —Tara Ochs the diction, syntax, and emotional registers of my characters. I hear them before I know who they are and what stories they want to tell me. Immediately upon hearing the audio recording of The Conditions of Love, I became smitten with the voice of Tara Ochs, who so effortlessly modulated her reading to give different expression to each character. And she did this for sixteen hours!

Then last month something magical happened. As the credits rolled at the end of the movie Selma, the name Tara Ochs popped out from the screen. I had been watching “the voice of TCOL” play Viola Liuzzo, the white Civil Rights activist who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan!

Thus began a correspondence with Tara that has evolved into many exchanges which I’d like to share with you. I’ve often wondered how an actor goes about embodying a character and developing a “voice.” Finally, I had someone I could ask. And you’ll get to meet her because she videotaped two of her answers.

Liuzzo Viola portrayed by Tara Ochs

How did it happen that you became the voice of the audiobook for The Conditions of Love?

For The Conditions of Love, I auditioned with a five-minute sample from the book. I don’t know what happens after that — who chose my sample — but I’m REALLY glad they did.

How does preparing to read an audiobook different from preparing for an acting role?

They are completely different. For me an audiobook is more like singing. I’m choosing the voices for each character as if I were matching a tone. But the tone is something I pull from my personal observations about what a voice communicates about a personality. To prep a book, I use the text to inspire me and I combine that with voices I’m familiar with in my life, and hopefully they are strong enough choices that I can keep them consistent throughout!

Did you find anything especially tricky about reading The Conditions of Love?

It’s always challenging when a character ages, because you want them always to sound real and honest, but also to incorporate that changing register while keeping it believably the same person.

I really love how you gave Eunice, my narrator, a strong, sassy and resilient voice. How did you decide how she’d sound?

viola liuzzo marchingUsually the main character, especially if she is the narrator, is a voice as close to my own as possible. That way I can maximize my range, be the most honest I can in different emotional situations and not wear out my voice!  Beyond that, I simply try to adjust my attitude based on the character’s perspective. In this case, Eunice had an unusual set of influences growing up, but she is such a strong and aware woman as a result — that is what I wanted to deliver. Essentially who I would be if all that had happened to me.

The audiobook of The Conditions of Love runs more than sixteen hours. I’m sure the recording took even longer. How many days does it take to record a book of this length? How can you sustain the same voice over that span of time?

I average about two hours of work for every one hour of recorded material. That includes my “brain breaks,” maybe a short lunch, a moment to take a phone call or use the restroom. I narrate about six hours a day, and that gets broken up by my other work — acting jobs, auditions, etc. I have to be very careful about how I use my voice during the time I am recording. I tend to avoid smoky areas and alcohol and get lots of rest. It’s not hard to blow out your voice when it’s being worked so constantly so I usually spend those days not talking to others very much!

I love how you do Mr. Tabachnick’s voice in your reading. Do you enjoy doing accents? Do you specialize in any one in particular?

Viola Liuzzo real gravestoneHa! Yes, I LOVE anything related to the Russian accent — Jewish, German, all those accents are in my wheelhouse. I love doing accents because the musicality is so universal to our untrained ears. I tend to have a decent ear for accents, but sometimes I have to do a little extra work to make sure I’m not drifting towards a different country!

Is there anything you especially liked about your reading of The Conditions of Love?

I think I may have liked finding Mern the best. Something about her voice spoke to me of how Eunice remembered her more than she may actually have sounded. I liked that idea. . . .That she became larger than life in retrospect.

You’re currently getting a lot of well-deserved attention for your role in the movie Selma playing Viola Liuzzo, the wife and mother of five children who left her family in Detroit, Michigan to join Martin Luther King in March, 1965 in registering black voters in Alabama and marching for Civil Rights. Shortly after arriving, Viola was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. How did you get this amazing role?

As a fiction writer, I hear the voices of my characters, but they are imaginary people and I’m free to make them sound as I like. When you’re preparing for a role playing an historic person, do you try to sound like that person and replicate their tone and pitch? Or do you try to convey more of the emotional truth of that individual through his or her voice?

We had a dialect coach on set (Elisa Carlson) to help us properly match the voices that were recognizable, and to have the correct accents for anyone else. But there isn’t any audio recording of Viola, and sources say she had a southern accent from childhood, but that it was likely that was mostly fading from her time living in Detroit. And of course, I had very few lines anyway, so I simply stuck with my own voice and accent, as that would be the most believable. Beyond that, I prefer to approach a vocal choice from an internal place first.

Other than affecting an accent, most of the work needs to be grounded in my own voice or it’s an impression.  Which I also enjoy doing, but it disconnects you from the emotion then.

In your blog you describe visiting Viola’s grave during the filming of Selma. How has playing Viola changed your life?  

I really love your Lucky Star” blog posts about Selma. Do you enjoy writing?

I really do love to write, when I have something to say. I’ve always had a mind for being a writer of some sort. I even took postgrad courses at UCLA in journalism, but the truth is I don’t have the day-to-day work ethic. I only write when inspired, and as I’m sure you know that means about three times a year.

What’s next for Tara Ochs?

The MILLION dollar question. I don’t necessarily see my career taking a radical course change because of Selma. But I AM going to be working more with Viola Liuzzo’s story and her family. That’s one story I hope to always be sharing.

Tara marching with students MLK weekend

Dinner with friends

Dinner settings for Sappho Woolf_600x315


Writers are often asked where they get their ideas, and that’s a good damn question. As far as I can tell, memory, imagination, dreams, bits of history, overheard conversations, observations, and popular culture combine in unpredictable ways to fuel a story. The past is always awake telling us where we’ve been and what we’ve known. The future alights in reverie or dreams, at the blurred edges of our vision, offering glimpses of what might be possible. Imagination bundles up rag-tags of this and that and pushes them into consciousness where a whole new thing takes form. None of this is analyzed by the writer, certainly not this writer: when the muse arrives with a full suitcase, I welcome her like a queen.

But here’s my latest answer to that perennial question of where a writer’s ideas come from — they come from the brilliant minds of others! On that note, when recently asked by a friend what writers I’d invite to a dinner party, the following list popped into my head. And what a list! Can you imagine what a vibrant, eclectic, and profound conversation might ensue?

Jane Goodall
Virginia Woolf
Muriel Spark
Marie-Louise von Franz
Toni Morrison

All women — at least this time around.
Two poets. Three novelists. One primatologist/anthropologist. One Jungian archetypal psychologist.
One Greek. Two Brits. One Scot. One Kashmiri. One Swiss. One American.

It would take pages and pages to adequately praise the work of each of these brilliant women, but one thing they have in common is their uncommon courage as writers and thinkers. Each has changed the way I see and think about the world, each has astonishing stories to tell.

LalleshwariThe fourteenth-century mystic poet Lalleshwari, also known as Lal Ded, lived at a time when Shaivism, Sufism, Buddhism, and Hinduism were alive and entwined in a rich amalgam of religions merging in Asia. I’m told that though she was ridiculed and taunted, Lalla, lit by divine inspiration, danced naked through the Kashmiri valley singing her ecstatic poems. Here is her voice, translated by Coleman Barks.

I didn’t trust it for a moment,
but I drank it anyway,
the wine of my own poetry.

It gave me the daring to take hold
of the darkness and tear it down
and cut it into little pieces.

Jane Goodall. I reach for one of her books when I need to remind myself to honor my instincts and rekindle my sense of wonder. When doubt (something I’m examining a lot these days) blunts my energy for taking a step forward, I reach for Jane — a role model for me of a writer who has documented the courage and passion necessary for her work.

jane-goodall-615Among other esteemed achievements, Jane Goodall is credited with changing how scientists study animals in their natural habitats. In 1960, without any formal training or advanced education, she left England to study wild chimpanzees at the Gombe project in Tanzania under the tutelage of the famous anthropologist, Louis Leakey. In her own words, she was then “a naïve young English girl,” but one who’d always held a fascination with wild life. Now, decades and many books later, she’s an international treasure. Here’s one of my favorite passages from her book Through a Window.

There are many windows through which we can look out into the world, searching for meaning. There are those opened up by science, their panes polished by a succession of brilliant, penetrating minds. Through these we can see ever further, ever more clearly, into areas that once lay beyond human knowledge. Gazing through such a window I have, over the years, learned much about chimpanzee behavior and their place in the nature of things. And this in turn, has helped us to understand a little better some aspects of human behavior, our own place in nature.

But there are other windows; windows that have been unshuttered by the logic of philosophers; windows through which the mystics seek their visions of truth; windows from which the leaders of the great religions have peered as they search for purpose not only in the wondrous beauty of the world, but also in its darkness and ugliness. Most of us, when we ponder on the mystery of our existence, peer through but one of these windows onto the world. And even that one is often misted over by the breath of our finite humanity. We clear a tiny peephole and stare through. No wonder we are confused by the tiny fraction of a whole that we see. It is, after all, like trying to comprehend the panorama of the desert or the sea through a rolled-up newspaper.

Marie Louis von Franz with JungMarie-Louise von Franz is probably the least recognizable name on my list. Like her mentor and colleague, the depth psychologist Carl Jung, Ms. Von Franz can be credited with helping modern thinkers understand the psychological and symbolic dimension of fairy tales. At my imaginary dinner party, Marie-Louise turns first to Sappho and then to Toni Morrison and asks each their favorite fairy tale. Are you a Cinderella? Rapunzel? A bewitched crow? she might inquire. Can you imagine the lively conversation that would follow? Most of us are driven by the unconscious myths we carry about ourselves, and these motifs, these archetypes (the orphan, the seducer, the wise old man) with which we identify shape our lives. Think about it! What fairy tales haunt your mind?

Space prevents me from quoting more than two writers who’ve inspired me to speak the truth and given me faith in my own process. But to circle back to my specific choices, I see now that these invited guests share certain qualities that in turn reflect my own biases and interests. They are observers, rebels, pioneers, seekers, original thinkers, and I think also, each is in her own way, sassy and determined.

May you too find nourishment in their books, and may you too be awakened to new wonders. Here’s a place to start.

Sappho                                Sappho: a new translation Mary Barnard
Jane Goodall                        Through A Window
Virginia Woolf                       Moments of Being
Lalla                                    Naked Song, translated by Coleman Barks
Toni Morrison                       Beloved
Marie-Louis von Franz           Shadow and Evil in Fairytales
Muriel Spark                         The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Woolf Morrison Spark_600x428