Nan McNamara is an Earphones Award-winning audiobook narrator and garnered the “Best Audiobook of 2016” distinction for Mister Monkey by Francine Prose (with Kirby Heyborne). Her narration has been described by AudioFile Magazine as “richly observed,” “heartbreaking” and “smoothly shift[s] to whatever character, time, or emotion she is portraying.” Nan has narrated fiction and non-fiction titles in many genres for Penguin/RandomHouse, Christian Audio, HarperCollins, Oasis Audio, Skyboat Media, Dreamscape and Audible. For her work on stage, Nan received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award and L.A. Weekly Award for her performance as Vivian Bearing in Wit. Other favorite stage roles include leading roles in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, 33 Variations (Ovation Award, Best Production) and A Walk In the Woods (Ovation Recommended). Among Nan’s many appearances on television, she played high-powered attorney Bonnie Pearl on Major Crimes, enjoyed a recurring role on Switched At Birth, worked with Emmy-winner Tony Hale on the feature Not That Funny, was killed by Jamie Kennedy in the opening of 4Closed with Marlee Matlin and was reunited with her two kidnapped children on Criminal Minds. In addition to her work in audiobooks, she has recorded radio/television commercials, video games and network promos too numerous to list. Originally from St. Paul, Minnesota, Nan received a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre with Honors from St. Cloud State University.
How did you get started with your audiobook performances, and what were your first days like?
I started narrating audiobooks in 2013. My first book was a romance novel by Barbara Bretton. It was such a pleasure to create the rich characters she had written. I even got to utilize an Irish accent for one of the male characters. I narrated the book, proofed it, edited and mastered it myself. So I really had a full-immersion first experience! It was difficult, but I loved the performance part so much. And I knew the technical side of things would get easier. And it has. Plus, I now have the luxury of recording some books at studios here in L.A. I remember thinking after that first book, “I hope I get to do this again and again!”
You have received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award and the L.A. Weekly Award for your stage acting. What made you decide to turn to audiobook narration?
Well, audiobook narration allows you to tell the whole story – I get to play all the roles! Performing in a play on stage allows you some collaboration, if you have a great director, but you are essentially responsible for one aspect of the story – even if it’s the lead character. In performing audiobook fiction, you get to dissect all the characters and make your own choices. And in narrating non-fiction, there is always a new subject that you are learning about. I also love the flexibility when I record at home. And I love to read.
The other aspect of audiobooks that I like is that there is relatively little ageism. It doesn’t matter what I look like. I can perform men, women, young, old, and everything in between. It’s a great challenge as an actor and allows me to constantly be working to keep my acting muscles strong and nimble.
How do you prepare to record a book? Do you have any tricks to make doing it easier?
Preparation is so important. I read the whole book beforehand on my iPad (the publisher sends me a PDF of the book for recording purposes). And I have an application called GoodReader that lets me mark up the page with any notations I might need – I write out pronunciations, sometimes I’ll even make a note about tone, and I indicate if the story shifts around. If there are characters that require an accent, I’ll usually brush up on that. And if there are numerous characters, I will chart all of them out in a separate document, making note of any descriptive words the author might use, so I can make a choice about attitude. For me, it’s not about making men’s voices lower or women’s voices higher, but rather, asking myself what is the way this character sees the world? Am I playing someone who is judgmental? Someone who is care-free? Someone who is afraid of life? I want that viewpoint to be reflected in my narration – subtly – so the listener has the best experience possible in hearing the story. Of course, sometimes you have really broad characters, and that can be fun too. But they each have a point of view that I try to embody.
<>I love your performance of Karen Cantwell’s books, starting with Take the Monkeys and Run. You take a series that could be otherwise ridiculous and make it seem not only believable but super fun. How do you turn the audio of this series into something so credible and energetic?
Well, thank you so much for saying that! From the moment I read Karen’s work, I could clearly envision the characters. Her beautiful writing just flows – which makes telling the story flow, as well. The protagonist in her series of books is my kind of woman – smart, funny, not without some doubts, but essentially very strong. She grounds the story. And then Karen places all these delicious characters around her, so it’s just so much fun. When the lead character is grounded in truth, I feel like the audience will go on the journey with you – whether it’s an Italian mafioso or a British ghost. So I try to keep that in mind as I move through the book.
Your husband, Lindsay Schnebly, also performs other voiceover/acting. How are you able to support each other in your careers?
Lindsay is an amazing voice actor. We actually met at our voiceover agent’s office! (William Morris Endeavor). And although Lindsay doesn’t do audiobooks, it is so wonderful to have a partner who understands what you are going through in terms of acting/voiceover. He has a strong background as a writer/producer, and I often ask his ideas about marketing. We have gotten to work together a few times, mostly on ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording) work, and that’s always a blast, working with your best friend and business partner. He likes to remind me that he is my biggest fan, and that is HUGE (and I am HIS biggest fan). The entertainment business is not an easy road and we lean on each other a lot during challenging projects. And we cheer each other on during the peaks. When you are married to someone like Lindsay, you are incredibly blessed. He is not only a man of great talent, but great character. And incredibly loving. What more could you ask for?
You do voice over work for the video game series Gears of War. Tell us what you do and how it compares and contrasts with audiobook performances.
Oh, I am so fortunate to have been involved in the Gears of War franchise. Anya, the character I played, is such a strong, resilient woman. Video games are a different animal entirely. In my experience, you don’t know the full story – because there are so many layers to a video game. And although you have dialogue with other characters played by other actors, you normally never interact in the same room. So it requires a lot of imagination. And a lot of vocal range. In particular, there are usually a lot of “efforts” required – which means sounds that occur when you are under stress, duress, physical harm (hits, gunshots, etc.). It’s all about the imagination. As an actor, that’s what we need to rely on. And actually, no matter what the genre – audiobooks, stage, TV or video games – it all involves using your imagination.
You have directed The 40’s Radio Hour that got you many awards. Tell us about this show.
Oh, wow. That brings back fond memories. But it was also a lot of work! The story is set at a radio station in the 1940s during World War II. The audience is essentially watching a live broadcast of a radio show, complete with musical numbers, sketches and commercials. And while it is very upbeat, it has serious undertones, since it is set during the Christmas season and people are heading off to war. The music is of the big band era, with a live orchestra playing on stage and lots of dancing (Linda Kerns was the amazing Musical Director and Julie Hall was the choreographer- they were both wonderful collaborators). It was one of the most difficult things I’ve directed because there are so many elements to it. I was honored to direct this production in 2011 because it kicked off Actors Co-op’s 20th anniversary season – a theatre company I have been a member of for many years.
You have taught acting and voice performance at Azusa Pacific University and Vanguard University (my undergrad alma mater!) in Southern California. What is the most important pieces of advice you give to your students about acting and voice work?
Great question. There are so many things I could say, but I think the biggest and most important thing is something my acting teacher, Diana Castle, taught me. Acting in any form is all about empathy. The actor’s job, in any form of acting (voice, audiobooks, stage, screen), is all about being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. When you empathize, you can then see the world through someone else’s perspective. And that allows for the truth of the story to come through. Build the “muscle” of empathy in your life. It will make you not only a better actor, but a better human being.
You perform quite a few self-help style books. What draws you to them (or them to you)? And how does performing them compare to narrating books like Karen Cantwell’s?
I was just talking about this with one of the publishers for whom I narrate. I commented that I seem to be hired to narrate a self help book on the very topic that I need to learn about in my own life. It never fails! And what a gift that is. I’ve been told that my voice has a natural warmth to it, so it pairs well with self-help books. Narrating this genre is very different from fiction. It’s a different kind of engagement. Non-fiction requires a great deal of curiosity. You need to keep the audience interested by sharing your interest. And narrating fiction, like Karen Cantwell’s books, requires more specificity. Characters need to be clearly drawn, points of view need to be exact, and the tones of the books need to be clear as well. But in both genres you need to find the author’s voice. And be able to communicate that to the listener.
What narrators have particularly inspired you in your own narration career?
Barbara Rosenblatt, Barbara Rosenblatt, Barbara Rosenblatt. And Nancy Linari. Nancy helped me get started in audiobooks and I still will go over ideas with her when I am working on a particularly “character-heavy” book. Nancy is an amazing actress and she has such great instincts. We help each other out with on-camera auditions, too.
To learn more about Nan, check out her following websites: