Kristin Kalbli is a Naples based audiobook narrator, voice and stage actor and director. She has narrated over 100 titles, including New York Times Bestseller Factory Man by Beth Macy. She is the former Casting Director at ListenUp Audiobooks in Atlanta, the southeast’s largest audiobook producer. She has trained, directed and coached new narrators and veterans alike. She is currently writing her first book, Until My Soul Is In Jeopardy, a memoir about her marriage to a closeted gay man.
How did you first become interested in audiobook narration?
Sheer dumb luck! I was an English and theater major in college, and I found myself teaching high school English by my mid-thirties, and that career was NOT for me. I was directing a play at the time and one of our actresses casually mentioned after rehearsal that she was off to her second job narrating audiobooks. My ears perked up. I asked her all about it, and as it turned out, we had an audiobook production studio right there in Atlanta. Within a week I had scheduled an audition, and was fortunate enough to get brought on board.
What did you do to achieve that dream?
Well, I got lucky and was in the right place at the right time to get into the industry. I think it is much harder to break in now, and there is so much competition in the narration space. But once I got in, I worked really, really hard to learn the craft and hone my skill-set so I could be considered a top narrator. Early on, I had no idea what I was doing, and I would say that you don’t really understand what you are doing until your twentieth book or so. But I studied accents, and practiced them. I listened to other performers working at the top of the industry to learn the trends in audiobook narrating, and I developed my own style. I like to create “theater for your ears.” I strive to not just give an animated “read.” I want to perform the book. That style may not be for everyone; some listeners want a narrator to almost fade into the background. And I agree in the sense that it’s about the story, not the narrator. But I want to perform the story so well that the listener can visualize the story in their own head!
I first heard you in Murder in the House of Rooster Happiness by David Casarett and was deeply impressed. One thing that impressed me is the way you switched between English and Thai words so fluently. Do you speak Thai? Where did you learn it?
I DO NOT speak Thai! But thank you for that compliment. I consulted with a Thai professor at the University of Hawaii. I sent him all the Thai words and had him record the pronunciations for me. Then I worked with an engineer who would play the Thai right before I had to say it into the mic. It was a team effort, but I wanted the Thai to be really, really good. I was aware that as a white woman, I needed to do the narration justice, and I didn’t want to disrespect the material or the Thai culture or language.
You brought so much energy to Murder in the House of Rooster Happiness. Is it exhausting to record a book?
Not at all. Usually when you have unique, interesting books like MHRH, it gives you energy to perform! Most of the books we narrate are not quite so original or interesting. So when we are given such great material to work with, we are thrilled.
According to your resume, you cast over 1200 titles for such production companies as Audible, Hachette Book Group, Penguin Young Readers, Nickelodeon, and Harlequin. What is the secret to matching the narrator to the book?
Yes, I was the Casting Director at ListenUp Audiobooks for two years. I LOVED casting. When I was casting, what I listened for most was if the narrator made me “see” the story in my head. That was usually an indication that the narrator was “present” to their performance, and fully engaged in it. A listener should not have to “work” to follow the story the narrator is telling. The narrator does that job for the listener. I also listened to character voices and acting choices for appropriateness. And if a narrator could make me laugh, all the better!
You host the Suzi Bass Awards (Atlanta’s regional professional theater awards). What is it like to host an award show?
I absolutely LOVE doing live announcing for awards shows. It’s a role we don’t often think about when we are watching the VMA awards or the SAG awards or the Oscar’s, but there is someone behind a mic, working hard to create the “voice of god in the sky” narration for that live show. It’s tremendous fun.
Besides all your work on audiobooks, you have spoken publicly against the homophobia that has drawn gay men, like your ex-husband, to marry women in order to hide their homosexuality. You make it very clear that homophobia deeply affects these wives like you. It takes a lot of courage to speak out on such an issue. What gave you that inspiration?
This is my personal mission in my life right now – to bring awareness to the general public that homophobia does not just harm members of the LGBTQ community, but that the damage stretches into the lives and families of straight people who didn’t know they were in mixed orientation marriages. I am actually writing my own memoir right this moment about my marriage and divorce to a closeted gay man, who went on to marry another woman after we divorced. The Straight Spouse Network estimates there are perhaps two to four million straight spouses out there, and as more and more LGBTQ people have the courage to come out of the closet, our ranks are growing every day. Imagine finding out after 35 years of marriage that your spouse is gay or trans! Straight spouses are left confused, traumatized, and hurting. The devastation is very real, and very unique to that experience. These divorces are not “average” divorces (not that there is really any such thing!). The added dimension of being in someone else’s closet can create unimaginable trauma and suffering. It is a very psychologically disorienting experience. I am about to launch a new podcast I am hosting for the Straight Spouse Network where we interview experts as well as ordinary straight spouses about their experiences. The first episode will drop any day at www.straightspouse.org. Please tune in!
You have been a teacher of audiobook narration. What is the most important piece of advice someone gave you when you got started that you now pass on to your students?
LISTEN TO AUDIOBOOKS!!! and PRACTICE!!! I tell my students that if they aren’t sure if audiobook narration is right for them, to go into a closet and read a book aloud for two hours, and if they aren’t ready to die, then keep going and read for two more hours. And take a few pee breaks in there somewhere! That’s a bit what it’s like – reading aloud in a closet. It’s not as glamorous as it looks. But it IS very, very fun. Also, if you book a book, READ THE BOOK BEFORE HAND! You don’t want to find out on page 163 that the character of McDougal is actually French, and you’ve been doing him with a Scottish accent the entire time.
What characteristics are necessary for a person to have in order to make that person an effective audiobook narrator?
There are some foundational skills that must be in place before we can even consider narration as a career. It is not enough to enjoy reading and have a good voice (some of the best narrators don’t have “pretty” voices!). We have to have great cold reading and have stellar reading comprehension skills, so everything Mrs. Barnowski taught you in fifth grade reading class will come in very handy. Audiobook narrators have to keep a lot of plates going in the air at the same time: we have to be efficient in the booth (too many errors per page slows down productivity, and time really is money in narration), we have to be aware of pacing and story, pronunciations and character voices and accents, and we have to have conversations with ourselves switching those character voices in our heads. Imagine switching back and fourth from a Scottish doctor to Spanish captain! And we have to know that there are different considerations when narrating fiction versus non-fiction. Non-fiction is usually more research heavy: looking up pronunciations and place names, so you sound authoritative. I’ve called City Councils before to find out how to pronounce a town’s name. I’ve contacted professors and experts to figure out how to say things. I once got called out on Twitter for not pronouncing a town name correctly, and the Tweeter was a resident of that town and took it personally! And I don’t blame him, it was a New York Times bestselling book and his town was in the spotlight!
What is your favorite part about audiobook narration?
I love how audiobook narration marries my love of books and my love of performing. I am a voracious reader and a life long learner. And every time I narrate a book, my world gets a little bigger, my perspective on life expands. Also, I love that I can perform in pajamas if I need to. I’ve rolled into the studio late at night, grabbed my hot lemon tea, wrapped myself in a Snuggie (Sunggies are amazing if the studio is cold) and settled in for a lovely evening of performing – no makeup, no wigs, no false eyelashes, no uncomfortable under garments like you need for a stage play! Who doesn’t want to perform in a blanket with arms?
What is next for you?
I just finished narrating Beatriz Williams’ upcoming release The Summer Wives. Ms. Williams is a New York Times bestselling author, and this title will be released in July. It’s got something for everyone: murder, mystery, romance, glamour, culture, and Gatsby-esque characters in a Gatsby-esque setting on Winthrop Island, New York in the middle of the last century. I had tremendous fun making the characters sound like mid-century movie stars. I channeled a bit of Cary Grant and Lauren Bacall! What fun!