(This post is the second in a series that I’ll be doing interviewing the people who helped me research and produce my latest novel, The Winter Over, a psychological suspense thriller set at the South Pole)
When I was told Brilliance Audio was handling the audiobook narration for The Winter Over, I was thrilled: Brilliance is known for their clean, true-to-the-book recordings and meticulous detail. Then they sent me an audio sample of Karen Peakes, the voice actor they had in mind, and I was blown away.
Karen was good enough to take time out of her truly busy schedule (see question #13, below) to answer a few questions about audiobook narration, acting, and what it was like to work on my novel.
1. How did you get started in audio book narration?
I’d always thought audiobook narration would be “fun”, but never really pursued it until after I had my son (who’s now 8). I am a theatre actor, primarily working onstage in the Philadelphia area, and I was looking for a job that would still let me be creative and use those skills, but could help pay the bills during those stay-at-home times between shows. I am lucky enough to know several very accomplished narrators, who put me on the path toward Brilliance Audio. Through the amazing help of narrator Emily Durante, I sent a demo and, almost a year later(!), I finally had my first book.
I still consider myself somewhat new to the scene, so it remains an absolute thrill to be honored with a book.
2. How do you organize your work, i.e., do you do it by chapter, by scene, or as long as your voice holds out?
If I am recording at home, in my own studio, I stop after each chapter, save the file, and take a breather. If I’m recording at Brilliance Audio, it goes much faster – since I’m not having to also focus on the editing/engineering part of it – and we can go for a few hours with only short breaks here and there and a lunch break. The day at Brilliance Audio is usually 8:30 – 5:00, with an hour for lunch. A lot of talking!
3. What’s the biggest/funniest mistake you’ve made narrating?
I wish I had some interesting, hilarious story to tell! I can’t think of any huge mistake – since anything I might be doing wrong is caught so quickly – but, I will say it is sometimes difficult (depending on my level of silliness that day) to get through the narration of passionate (explicit) love scenes! Most of the time I can get swept away and they come out just fine, but, occasionally, a word or phrase will just hit my funny bone and I have to stop to allow myself to giggle like an embarrassed teenager.
4. Do you develop a picture of the protagonist as you narrate a book? If so, how does that inform your narration? How did you see Cass Jennings?
I absolutely develop an image in my mind for each character. I am an extremely visual performer and learner, so that’s often the first thing that happens, without me even realizing it.
Sometimes, it’s just a few features that cement themselves, other times it’s actually picturing a well known actor who reminds me of the character. In the case of Cass, I pictured a cross between Jessica Chastain and Princess Leia – beauty and toughness all the way. She was feminine with an edge.
5. Do you think audio books of the future should aim to emulate other media (movies, video games) by adding soundtracks and special effects, or should the narration say it all and leave the rest to the listener’s imagination?
I guess I’m a bit of a purist. I can see the appeal of a fully produced audio book with music and sound effects and the whole thing, but I’m really a fan of the imagination. I think the listener is more invested and more moved by a book in which he or she is an active participant. By leaving some things to the imagination, the listener is providing the missing links and becoming a part of the story.
6. Do you do accents? How do you study to get them right?
Yes – I do accents! Accents can be the most fun and the most frustrating part of the job! I’ve always loved doing different voices and accents, and, as a theatre artist, have had to use many of them onstage over the years. Audiobooks, however, have certainly stretched my experience.
I would DEFINITELY never get cast to play anything other than Caucasian characters onstage (nor should I) but, occasionally, those different ethnic characters come up in narration and I am suddenly trying my hardest to sound authentic and not offensive and stereotypical.
I try to listen to as many audio clips as I can find of people speaking with the accents – Youtube.com “Accent tag” series is really helpful in this as are online tutorials – and I find movie clips, if applicable, that have genuine sounding accents. I learn by mimicking, so I say the words over and over until I feel it sounds as accurate as it can – knowing that the listener also understands it is not my native accent and will (hopefully) go with me!! My main goal is to give the flavor of the accents without them being too jarring – which would pull the listener out of the story.
7. Was there anything that made The Winter Over different than other books?
The Winter Over was the first book I’ve done where the setting was almost like another character. The frozen landscape and the claustrophobic living conditions informed the characters’ behaviors and their voices to some degree. I tried to find ways to differentiate between the indoor, “warm”, scenes, and the outdoor, “freezing cold” scenes. There’s a certain breathy, clipped quality voices take on in the cold that I tried to emulate.
Also, there were scenes in which one of the characters was speaking only over a shortwave radio and scenes where it is mentioned that characters are speaking through their warm weather gear. For those scenes, I experimented with the sound, using different household things, until I found what worked best for me. I used my own sweater over my mouth for the muffled sound – and a toilet paper roll to create the shortwave radio effect! Never done that before!
8. Over the course of narrating The Winter Over, do you think you got to know Cass, or is there something you still don’t know about her?
Cass was a lovely, well drawn out character, but no, I don’t think I fully got to know her – and I think that’s not a bad thing. She clearly has a past that was fully lived and ultimately traumatic, and I think we are left filling in some blanks about what she was like before. I’m not sure what her future holds at the end of this book, but I like to think she finds some peace.
9. How do you approach a project: do you read the entire book first before narrating, voice it as you go along, something else?
When I am preparing to narrate a book, I read the book in its entirety first. If the book is a particularly challenging one, with lots of characters, I will highlight (using iAnnotate) each character in a different color and write notes to myself – reminders of what the voice is (i.e. Gruff, old man, raspy, breathy…). I also make notes on pronunciations if there are words I’m unfamiliar with, and notes on the mood of a scene. That way, as I go along, I have to stop less frequently because I can see what’s coming and quickly shift as needed.
10. Do you record at home or do you use a studio? Which do you prefer?
I just recently began to record at home, after having recorded at either Brilliance Audio, in Michigan, or Baker Sound Studios, in Philadelphia. I have to say, there are pros and cons to both. I love recording away from home for the fact that I can fully and completely concentrate on the narration alone, and I have hours set aside for just that. At home, I often have only an hour or two to squeeze in time, and I have to fix my own mistakes and focus on the recording as well as narrating.
However, working at home also allows me to be home more often for my family, and also gives me the freedom to be more of a perfectionist. If I want to go back twenty times until I feel a voice sounds right – no one is telling me I can’t.
At this point, I can’t say which I’d prefer. I’m just so grateful to have both.
11. How do you get yourself in the right mindset or work mode?
I can’t say I have a particular mindset or method of getting ready to record. I make sure I have a giant bottle of water and that I’ve eaten something substantial, yet mild (stomach gurgles are the bane of my existence!). If I’m recording at home, I also turn off everything, including the heat (!) in my home, since my studio isn’t quite as soundproof as I’d like. I try not to let myself think about other things that need to get done and I don’t look at my phone unless I’ve stopped for some reason – as few distractions as possible. I dress comfortably and just settle in for a long day.
12. Male narrators seem to get thriller and mystery roles by default, while women only get those books if the protagonist is female. Is this a simply because most protagonists in these genres are male? Should the gender of the protag in a novel matter when picking the narrator? Is the industry changing at all to give women more roles?
I can’t say that I’ve given a lot of thought to the gender of the protagonists as being the reason for casting male or female narrators. That being said, I can fully understand the reasoning behind this. The main character is the one driving the story and it is likely easiest to get swept up in a story if that character’s voice fits naturally and comfortably with the narrators own sound. That is NOT to say that a woman can’t narrate a successful book with a male protagonist! Women can, of course, do anything, because, well….we’re amazing. So, there’s that.
13. What projects are you working on that you can tell us about?
I’ve just finished recording a book called “The Halo Effect”, by Anne LeClaire. It was a duel narrator book and I recorded my chapters at home. That was an interesting experience because the other narrator also recorded at his home and we sent samples to each other to make sure we were in the same world. It was challenging and fun.
In my other life, I’m currently performing in the studio space at The Walnut Street Theatre, in Philadelphia, in “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers” – a Neil Simon comedy. I am playing three characters, normally played by three different actresses, so it’s a huge undertaking and really fun. We go on a national tour with the show from February 7th – March 15th. After that, I go into rehearsals for a show called “Hetty Feather” at Delaware Theatre Company that runs until May 14th, and involves circus elements like silks and trapeze – again, new challenges and fun!
My most exciting project that I’m constantly working on, though, is being Mommy to my awesome, funny, smart, sweet boy, Owen.