For our second Audiobook Q&A, Listen Up is proud to sit down with Simon Vance. Over his long and illustrious career, Vance has narrated hundreds (thousands?) of audiobooks, won major awards, and even negotiated a peace accord with a supernatural web cam. We sit down with Vance to chat about social media, the perils of bad writing, his latest project, and what he does to prepare before recording an audiobook.
1. Before you were an audiobook narrator, you read the news for the BBC. How did that experience help prepare you for audiobook narration? And how did you make the transition from newsreader to narrator?
I was always a pretty good sight-reader, so being a BBC newsreader probably helped me hone that craft. Although we usually had a few moments before the bulletins to read through the scripts, there were often quite lengthy stories thrown at us while we were on the air. Also, as a radio presenter, you commonly have to deal with people speaking into your ear while you’re talking on the air, and I’m sure that helped me to be able to think on different levels — a definite requirement for a self-directed narrator. My shift pattern at the BBC was quite strange, and I found I was often free some days during the week. A friend introduced me to the Royal National Institute for the Blind Talking Book Service and I volunteered time. After an audition, I was accepted and for about eight years spent an afternoon a week narrating … I look on that as my unpaid apprenticeship.
2. You’ve been narrating audiobook for over two decades. You’ve won numerous awards. What’s your proudest profession achievement as an audiobook narrator? And why?
Yes, it’s nearly 30 years now … scary. Proudest achievement? That’s very hard to say. I think my first Audie award was quite thrilling (2006 – Market Forces by Richard K. Morgan, Sci-Fi Category). But I’m proud every time one of my narrations is well received. In fact, now I come to think of it, I was somewhat overwhelmed when an author I respect (Orson Scott Card) wrote a blog complementing my narration of David Copperfield — he was quite effusive; crediting me with helping him see the quality of Dickens’s writing. Helping someone who “knows” writing see the value of another great writer… that’s quite an achievement!
3. After narrating everyone from Charles Dickens to Steig Larsson, what’s next? Do you have a dream project? A book or author’s work that you’d love to record?
Charles Dickens and the classic authors are always out there, but you never know when the next Stieg Larsson might arise. I was very lucky in that instance, but the next new discovery may fall to someone else to narrate — I’ll keep my fingers crossed. As far as the classics go, I’ve done so many of them already. I’ve found, these days, that I often get more joy out of the newly discovered writers than the old classics, even though I often find the classics an “easier” read.
4. I read somewhere that you don’t pre-read the books you narrate. Is that true? How can that be true? Why don’t you pre-read? And what do you do to prepare before going into the recording booth?
I’m pleased to put the record straight here: I think this misunderstanding came about because of a phone interview a couple of years ago. I was either misquoted, misunderstood, or — perhaps more likely as I trust the writer concerned — I thought I’d said something in a certain way, when in fact I said the opposite … Anyway. Here’s what I do:
If the story is fiction, especially a mystery or thriller, then it is essential I read it in advance to know, amongst other things, who’s doing what to whom, who are the important characters, and what their motivations are. If the book is a classic such as Dickens or Trollope, I will be much less likely to spend the time to read it in detail as I already know the major players and the course of the story. Sometimes I have relied on CliffsNotes as a cheat — why not! — to ensure I’m as familiar with the story as I think I am. Non-fiction may not require a pre-read if I know the subject — British history, autobiographies, and so on. I’ve already said I’m a good sight-reader, so the other thing I take into account is the style of the writer — if I’m familiar with it, then I find it less necessary to pre-read the entire book. Of course, in some circumstances, time is not on the narrator’s side, in which case a very quick perusal of the pages will have to suffice. If a publisher needs a book by a certain time, you’d better deliver!
5. What’s the biggest challenge to narrating an audiobook?
The answer to that is probably found in the previous paragraphs. Bad writing is possibly the narrator’s greatest enemy, with publishers’ deadlines coming a close second. You might think the complexity of the storyline might be an issue, but if the writing is good, finding your way through the maze of characters and motivations can be the thing that brings the greatest joy. I should add here that the formatting and style of the text on the page can hugely influence the ease of narration. It’s not often an issue, but I’ve just been faced with a particularly badly formatted script — lack of punctuation, line and paragraph breaks in odd places — and it’s been something of a nightmare.
6. Are you at all involved in the audiobook production process after the recording is completed? I find the editing and production stages of audiobooks somewhat mysterious. What happens at that stage of the process?
My main focus is on the actual recording and although I have, in the past, played some part in the later stages, I rarely do so now — beyond recording any corrections. What happens after I’ve finished is quite straightforward, though rather boring, and I’m no expert. But I believe the two most important things that a publisher has to take care about in the production of an audiobook — beyond the interpretation and skill of the narrator — are whether or not the narrator has read all the words (comprehensibly, correctly, and in the right order) and whether there are any extraneous noises that need to be taken care of. To this purpose a proofer listens to the recording and makes notes. A list of retakes is compiled for the narrator who will return them as soon as possible — deadlines looming. Those will be placed in the recording by an engineer who, at the same time, will be removing any extraneous noises previously noted by the proofer. The recording may then go through a further quality control phase of listening to be certain there are no further errors and that all the earlier ones have been taken care of.
7. What advice do you have for aspiring audiobook narrators?
Every aspiring narrator is different and I find it very difficult to offer general advice. I grew, as it were, with the business and I didn’t have to fight my way in. But I also spent nearly ten years serving that “apprenticeship” (at the RNIB) and I know anyone wanting to get into the industry now isn’t going to be happy doing that. I suppose the main thing is to find a way to record at length and to be critiqued. I suggest offering your services to any of those organizations for the blind or partially sighted that require “readers.” There’s also a site called LibriVox for which you can volunteer, and you’ll be able to see the responses of people who have listened to your offerings. Once you think you are of a good enough standard, then use the resources offered by AudioFile or the Audio Publishers Association to find the right people to send your demo to. Beyond the ability to actually read and sight-read well, I would say an aspiring narrator should have, or be willing to learn to have, and actor’s sensibility … I could go into that in more detail here, but it would take many pages — read Paul Ruben’s Blog for some of his thoughts on that subject.
8. I’ve talked to a lot of narrators who describe the long hours in the recording booth as “grueling.” Is that sometimes the case?
If a narrator calls the job he’s doing “grueling” on a regular basis I’d have to suggest he’s taken the wrong career path. It can be “grueling” very occasionally — see above concerning terrible writing — but 90 percent of the time it’s just a joy to be able to be paid to read! Even apparently boring and stodgy material can be enjoyable to read if it’s written fluently.
9. Do different genres demand different skills from you? Are there particular genres you enjoy recording or find more difficult?
Every genre, every style, presents it’s own challenges. Discovering how to handle those challenges is part of the pleasure of narration. Some days any type of material can be “difficult” — other days you don’t have to think, it just comes out right. Either way there’s a sense of achievement when you finish a day and you’re happy with what’s been completed.
10. How does the process of solo narrating an audiobook differ from a collaborative, multi-narrator project? Are different skills required? And do you prefer one to the other?
A lot depends on the type of multi-voice production: There are some that are almost radio plays; some that have a main narrator as well as multi-voiced scenes (I’m thinking of Dune here); and finally there’s the type where the book is split into, say, three parts between three narrators. For the latter there’s absolutely no difference between this and solo narration. The others will require the narrator to work much more closely with a director. As far as what skills might be required for the first two types, I would say that the “actor’s sensibility” certainly becomes very important as the narrator is acting off, and reacting to, other people, and must find that authentic voice. It’s also vital that pronunciation lists are shared so that there are no glaring inconsistencies in the way names and places are pronounced between narrators, whatever the type of multi-voice production. Do I have a preference? Not really, no — but I have enjoyed listening to some of those books where narrators each have a separate section (Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby come to mind). I like that kind of variety.
11. How much interaction — if any — do you have with the authors whose work you record?
Contacting the author is something that has to be handled very carefully, usually in concert with the publisher and the author’s agent. On the occasions in which I have been in direct contact with the author, I’ve had a very pleasant and helpful experience … and I often find authors reassured that their book is in good hands. But I’ve heard of opposite reactions too, and situations in which the author wanted to narrate their own work and resent anyone else assuming the role – hence the suggestion that care should be taken!
12. We’ve been loving your June Is Audiobook Month daily videos. How did that idea come about? How has the process of recording a daily video been for you? Were there any challenges or surprises along the way?
I upgraded my office computer at the end of May and — I think on May 30th – was installing the webcam software when I noticed a button to upload directly through [my] Twitter to YouTube … hmm, this looks like fun, I could just record a quick 30 seconds every day for June Is Audiobook Month … I think, if I’d had more than a day to think about it, I might have backed down, but I love a challenge (when I don’t think about it too long) and I went for it. It seems to have been well received and, in combination with Grover Gardner and Scott Brick’s daily contributions, just shows how committed narrators are to the future of the industry and getting the message out there. I generally don’t think too hard about what I’m going to say, beyond a single idea for the day. They’re certainly not scripted — can you tell? If I flub in the first few seconds, I’ll start again, but if I get past the minute mark that’s probably going to be the one that goes out that day — assuming I haven’t made a complete fool of myself, and that assumes I’m aware of it, if I have …
13. You’re pretty active on Twitter. How has social media changed your job/the way you approach your job?
Social media hasn’t changed the core of my job, or my approach to it in any way. It’s just added an extra few unpaid hours to my work week … It’s also added a more direct line between the listener and me, and I like that. I can’t always respond, and I’m often overwhelmed by the appreciation coming my way — few insults so far — so I don’t interact as much as others, but I enjoy it when I do. Narrators have to accept that in the most basic terms we are a “brand” – but this is not about inventing some kind of “persona” for the public, in fact it’s the opposite. It’s about reinforcing the real person behind the voice and giving the listener a better connection to the audiobook. The listening experience is a very intimate one, and the listener needs to trust us if they’re to come back again and again. What better way than using social media to show that we are real people with real lives. That said, I just don’t “get” Facebook yet … maybe one day!
14. What are you working on next?
What am I working on next … Another book — surprise! It’s a thriller by the South African writer Deon Meyer. Lots of African and Afrikaans words, lots of action, and a jolly good story– I’m looking forward to it. I’m also occasionally auditioning for other projects — film, theatre.