How did you get started narrating audiobooks?
I’ve been an audiobook fan since the days of cassette tapes, and always wanted to narrate. But I live in the Midwest, and even though I’ve had my own professional studio since the early 2000s, publishers were unwilling to take a chance on a remote narrator in flyover country. Why would they, when they had plenty of wonderful actors in New York and LA to choose from? I let the idea drop. Then three wonderful things happened, which led me to actually do something about making my dream come true – 1) the demand for audiobook content began to explode, 2) Scott Brick hosted a narration contest (in which I did not win, place or show), and 3) Audible launched ACX, the Audiobook Creation Exchange. The first thing led to a production boom – publishers could not keep up with demand, so it was imperative to find more sources to produce more product. Scott Brick’s contest gave me a taste of what it would be like to narrate for realsies, and I liked it. A lot. And I started learning more about the art form itself, reading every blog I could find, joining some really good Facebook groups, taking webinars, gaining confidence that I had the skills and the talent to make this work. So when ACX launched, I was ready to dive in. I spent days reading everything on the site and watching every how-to video. And then I got to go shopping for books! Here was a forum where authors/rights holders could interact directly with actors/producers in a framework that allowed for straightforward collaboration and a ready-made distribution system. Finally something I could wrap my brain around! I will be forever grateful to Lori Handeland, the first author willing to take a chance on a newbie.
You started your career in film, radio and live theater. How did they influence your audiobook narration career?
I can barely remember a time when I wasn’t telling stories – on stage or in front of a mic. Theatre training taught me how to look at and absorb a character in relation to both the story she’s living and the story that makes her who she is, and then translate all that into a performance that touches people. Radio taught me a lot of the technical skills I use in the studio, and to think on my feet.
You just passed your century mark of recording books. How long did it take you to reach this accomplishment?
My first book was released in November of 2011, so it’s been five and a half years.
I’m especially curious about this one. What kind of recording did you for the cockpit of military jets?
That was an amazing recording day. Boeing was redoing the cockpit voice warnings for the first time since the 1970s for two (now three) of their fighter jets. The voice warnings (Warning, Engine Fire, Left! Fuel, Low! Pull up! Pull up! Pull Up! among others) provide another layer of information for pilots when they may be um, a little too busy to read the screen. They booked my entire day to record something in the neighborhood of 60 short lines, which I thought was a little extreme, but okay, I blocked out the time, and went to their studio to record. Now, usually a voiceover recording session is a quiet, low-key affair. The voice talent is locked in a small padded room behind glass (safer for everyone that way), the engineer and producer/director in the control room, maybe the client is there too. But I walk into the studio and there are like, 20 people there. Most of them fit, trim, handsome men. This is getting better all the time! Turns out they are the test pilots for these jets. They all listened to the auditions that came in, and unanimously chose my voice to keep them safe in the air. The importance of this role was becoming clearer by the minute. In an emergency situation, their ability to hear, understand, and act immediately on an audible warning could mean the difference between life and death. Those pilots knew exactly how each syllable should sound, and booked all that time with me to make sure each message would be heard. At the end, they told me I was the new Bitchin’ Betty, the cockpit voice’s nickname. I laughed
and said, “maybe you’ll want to change it to Dangerous Donna now!”
You record both fiction and non-fiction. Is there a difference between recording the two?
It’s hard to say. Every book is different. Fiction is easier for me, because I love characters and dialogue, and being immersed in the world created by the author. But I also love non-fiction. A well-written memoir can put you inside the author’s world just as completely as fiction. And I’m a total research nerd – I’m curious about so many things, and love delving into scientific and philosophical investigations. It’s a challenge to (appear to) effortlessly pronounce some of those terms, though!
How do you prepare for recording each book? What kinds of notes do you take in the text?
I probably wind up reading every book two or three times during a production. If there’s time, I love to do a first read without taking notes, just letting myself fall into the story, and feel the author’s rhythm. Most of the time, though, I am making notes about who’s who, looking for clues from the author about what they sound and look like (because that has a huge bearing on sound, too), making note of any pronunciations I need to research, and making a very general sketch of plot points. When I was first starting out, I highlighted every character in different colors to give myself a visual cue for switching points of view. That comes naturally now, so I only highlight if a scene has, say, seven characters and no dialogue tags. (I just blanched a little at the thought of a scene like that. Yikes.)
How do you decide which voices to use for each character, and how do you keep them straight in your mind as you read?
It’s less a matter of deciding what a character sounds like than simply allowing the author’s character to show up. In the early chapters I sometimes need to refer to my notes, but at some point everyone has taken up residence in my head and I just let them take over. Geez, I sound like a one-woman asylum. Or village. Mostly asylum.
How do you keep yourself from laughing or crying when you get to especially funny or sad parts during your narration?
I don’t. I keep recording through the laughter or tears (sometimes both), and then take a tiny break to allow myself to settle. More often than not, and especially if it’s a scene that made me cry, when I listen back later, that original, raw version is a keeper – as long as it doesn’t draw too much attention to itself or is unintelligible. There are quite a few blubbering, weepy or laugh-snort outtakes on my virtual cutting-room floor. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll start posting them on Soundcloud.
What is your favorite part of audiobook narration?
This is the most difficult question to distill into just a few words. How can I narrow it down? From the moment I finished recording that first book, I knew I had finally found my home as a performer. I love seeing an email from a publisher with the subject line “Possible New Book.” I love prep day for a new book. Imagine reading ALL DAY – and it’s your job!!!! I love letting all the characters move in and find their voices. And then, when it all comes together, narrative and dialogue and STORY, and the outside world falls away and it’s just me and this village full of people and their very real world, and I get to live with them for a few days. What’s not to love?