Interview with a Narrator: Susan Boyce

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Susan BoyceSusan Bolyce has recorded over 130 audiobooks for industry leaders including Dreamscape, Tantor, Audible, and Blackstone since 2009. Boyce has received 4 Earphones Awards from AudioFile Magazine and was included in Best Audiobooks of 2016 for How Women Decide by Therese Huston. She is praised for her smooth, spot-on delivery, flawless phrasing, and nuanced tone palette. Her years of live performance, singing, and a degree in theater from the University of Rhode Island, with experience in Chamber and Reader’s Theater provide all the tools for an excellent result. She is a member of Audio Publishers Association and an independent contractor through her partnership company Rosewood Productions.

In her time away from the booth, she enjoys nature, her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Vivian, and her beautiful seaside city of St. Augustine, Florida. Train travel, swimming, gardening, and early American popular music are her favorite pastimes.

Since 1979, Boyce has been half of the song and dance team, Jones & Boyce, with partner Brian Jones. They have toured New England, Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, and even Paris with unique two-part a cappella arrangements of songs from everywhere, tap dance, ballroom dance, and comedy.

Susan has a degree in Theater from the University of Rhode Island, with minors in Biology, education, and speech.

How did you get involved in performing audio books in the first place?

I read an article in a local paper about an actor friend who was also an audiobook narrator. My spouse badgered me for days, saying “You should do that,” “You could do that,” “You’d be great at that.” Reluctantly, I contacted the studio and asked if they were auditioning talent. They were. So, I did. Two months later I got an offer to record a book. It was a romance novel for BBC Audiobooks America, and they just happened to be using a studio about 10 minutes from my home in Rhode Island. I was nervous. It was intense work but had a lot of familiar parts to it.

Your original background is in classical theater. How does live theater compare with audiobook narration?

My theater training has helped me enormously with audiobook work, from character development and breath control to concentration and stamina. Reading books aloud, though, is a single marathon performance that you only do once, unlike a live show that you rehearse and rehearse until it’s just right, and then you do that same thing over and over again. There’s a whole bunch of things going on in my head while recording an audiobook, but I’m sitting very still in a tiny room all by myself. There is nothing like singing and dancing with a theater full of people. My mission in live theater was always to spread joy. In recording an audiobook, there is none of that. But, there is a very personal satisfaction that comes from telling a story well aloud and hearing from the author who says that they are SO pleased with my performance or that I brought their characters to life or that they don’t know how I knew just what they wanted.

What skills from your theater career have been most useful in translating to the audio world?

Specific things like breath control, focus, consistency, tempo, and intention were all skills I learned in school and honed in live performance. They are all vital to reading aloud in such a way that I hope the result is pleasant, exciting, intriguing, and amusing for the listener. I wish I had learned more business skills in my career, but I did get to narrate Tap Dancing To Work: A Business Biography of Warren Buffet by Carol Loomis. I tried to pick up a few good business tips there.

You have worked for all the major audiobook publishers. What kind of control do the publishers exercise over your reading of your books?

Typically, the publisher wants the product on time and well-recorded technically. I had the very good fortune of getting to work with some excellent directors for my first few books. I had a flexible schedule and could accept work often. Those early books I recorded with a director and an engineer, so there were expert ears listening to my every word and breath. These days, I still have an engineer who helps keep me on point, but the publishers simply provide the book to me with a due date. We sign a contract and I deliver!

How do you keep yourself from laughing or crying when you get to especially funny or sad parts during your narration?

Not laughing at funny parts comes easily to me. It’s about nailing the timing, and comedy is in my blood. The sad parts can be very tough. I recorded Sgt. Reckless by Robin Hutton. In it were vivid descriptions of the Korean War. My Dad served there, and while recording certain parts, my throat would start to tighten, and I would have to stop and take a sip of tea and breathe and then go on. Sometimes, I let myself get right to that edge of falling apart to deliver a particularly painful moment a character might be experiencing. A few places in This Is Your Life! Harriet Chance by Jonathan Evison had the main character lost, angry, sick. I just went where she was going, and as long as the words kept coming out, I kept reading.

I really am enjoying your performance of Jenn McKinlay’s Cupcake Bakery series. You are very expressive in the voices you give your characters. How do you decide what voice to give each character and which inflections to use? How do you remember what voice to use for each character?

Thank you! In the Cupcake series, which was a great pleasure to record, I found great energy in the writing. The characters were all vividly drawn by the author, so it seemed right to create vividness with bright and bold choices for the characters. It’s easy to “remember” who everyone is, because I really do know who they are. I read the books in advance of recording of course, so we’re all good friends up there in my brain. I have recorded many books by Charlotte Hubbard, who writes wonderful wholesome books about Amish communities. There is a warmth to her writing, very descriptive about what people are feeling, struggling with, what they are seeing, eating, smelling. For those books, character voices are more subtle, warm, and vulnerable.

When I listened to you in Lynn Cahoon’s Guidebook to Murder, I didn’t even recognize your voice at first because you had such a different sound. Other narrators have a same set of voices that they use in each new book, but you evidently don’t. First, how do you make the book sound so different? And second, how do you determine what tone to take with the characters in each book?

It is what the writer writes, and how they write it that tells me things about the characters, whether it’s the point of view (lead) character or an incidental “cameo” appearance, there are clues. As I read the book the first time (before I record) I sketch out the characters with descriptive words. Sometimes those descriptors are the name of someone I know or have known, or a character some other actor has played or a relative. Even something as simple as “her perky bob haircut”, what food someone orders in a restaurant or his “letting the door slam as he shuffled in the shop” descriptors, allow me to know more about that person and that allows me to create them vocally.

I was just about to write “just as all the people you talk to in your day sound a little different and you can tell it’s them by just their voice…” then I thought, wait a minute, I’m quite a bit older than a lot of people in this audiobook industry. Maybe that has something to do with my ability to imply so many different characters, I’ve been around a while!

And lastly, I studied theater and music and dance. Studying these arts gave me powerful tools in the form of live performance experience, character intention, timing, balance and stamina and a billion other things that help me do this work.

I guess there is one more thing I always try to do. I believe what the character is saying.

How do you prepare, as far as reading through the book before starting to record? Do you read the whole book out loud first to practice? In one whole or piece by piece?

I always read the entire book before I record. I will read some scenes aloud in advance, and I will occasionally mark up pages a bit to help me know who is talking, or if there are foreign words or phrases that need to be said and I need pronunciation reminders. I recently recorded What My Body Remembers by Agnete Friis, and there were a whole lot of Danish place names spoken by different characters. Getting place names correct is an important thing. I did a series, The Needlecraft Mysteries by Monica Ferris, and a few months after I recorded the first one, I received a very complimentary note from a listener who carefully added at the end of her letter that I did not say the name of a town correctly and she told me how they say it. I thanked her very much, and after that I have made it a point to always check how the locals say those words. Oh, and I recorded The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov and had to hunt forever to find a recording of Mr. Nabokov saying his own name. I had to be right with that one too.

 

How much say do you have in the selection of what you read?

None at all. Sometimes a publisher will ask me if I’d like to be considered for a title, and sometimes I get the job, sometimes I don’t. Audiobook casting directors are amazing people. They have a very specific set of skills. I don’t know how they do what they do.

What about audio narration do you enjoy?

The very best thing about this job is that I get to learn new things. More than I ever knew about parenting, war, introverts, American history, confidence, trauma, grief, religion, pets. The joy of learning will be my own book someday maybe.

http://Susanboyce.com
@boycevoice

Click here to read my review of Sprinkle with Murder

Click here to read my review of Buttercream Bump Off

Click here to read my review of Death by the Dozen

Click here to read my review of Red Velvet Revenge

Click here to read my review of Going, Going Ganache

Click here to read my review of Guidebook to Murder

Listen to Susan Boyce read from Buttercream Bump Off

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