Secrets of an Audio Book Narrator
Hi, Sharon here. One of my favorite things in all the world is hearing people’s stories. Maybe it’s why I consider myself a storyteller first and a writer second. The idea behind the Spoon River Anthology, the author going grave to grave and telling (making up) the stories of the townsfolk and their interrelationships sounds like my idea of a great week—though, apparently, Spoon River was a depressing place to live!
In any case, when I did briefly work as a bartender, the best part of the job, hands down, was hearing people’s stories. (Sound familiar?) From the beginning of time, we humans have loved hearing stories. Reading them is wonderful, and now watching them is a great pleasure. But hearing them can be a special treat. So I was thrilled when it was time to turn my latest books, The Bartender’s Guide to Murder, into audio books–and thrilled again when actor/director Abbie Pfaff was chosen to perform them. Listening to each of them, Death in Tranquility, Death By Gravity and Death Among the Stars, I am happy to report, they’re great!
Curious to find out what goes into recording an entire novel, I got Abbie to answer some pressing questions.
How did you decide to produce and narrate audio books?
A friend of mine in Chicago is a Talent Agent, she told me during the 2020 beginning of the pandemic that I would probably enjoy narrating since my background is in Directing and Film. She was absolutely spot-on.
What parts of your theater education came in most handy?
Script analysis was crucial; piecing together every scrap you can find about a character and making them as round and squishy as possible. Directing instincts kick in when setting a scene, such as keeping track of the environment around the characters and how it affects them. And then, also bringing the scene that has just happened into the next by carrying the emotions or lack thereof.
What goes into the process that normal listeners might not realize?
Staying up until 4 or 5am recording to avoid the neighbors’ lawnmowers being in the background [if you have your own home studio]. Or the amount of thought that goes into which characters will be afforded a lower resonance. I’m not a big masculine creature, but I sure try to sound like one every once in a while.
What were the most enjoyable parts of the Bartender’s Guides to Murder to record?
The climactic scenes where Avalon is in the thick of it, practically stepping on the murderers. Those scenes carry themselves in Avalon’s emotional state and anxious thoughts.
What parts were most challenging?
Most challenging of all, would be the beautiful art of pronouncing words, specifically alcohol brands. I worked as a bartender in Chicago for multiple theater venues and even with that, I can say with certainty, I was not prepared. Challenging, yet very rewarding to learn.
Which characters did you enjoy voicing?
The way Investigator Spaulding somehow both takes charge of a room and then also cares so deeply for what Avalon has gleaned, he was absolutely enjoyable to play opposite of Avalon’s curiosity and playful nature. Glenn MacTavish has my heart in the recording booth, he is a teddy bear of love. Sally, she was a blast, a firecracker personality I’ve met many times in the theatre world. Alma Eddings, for her terrible discomfort with visitors. Isobel Lester, the woman could side-eye. To name a few.
Any that were harder?
Accents were a struggle at times. Glenn MacTavish’s thick Scottish accent, as well as Avantika’s soft Indian accent, were difficult to get right. Eventually, with enough takes, I was able to hear their personalities shine through.
What is your usual process for working?
Read the book, script analysis, highlighting, and plan the voices. Record for a few days, edit files for a few days, repeat. Proofing multiple times for any mistakes. Communication with the author throughout.
What is your prep work? What percentage of the process is the actual reading?
It is a huge chuck of the process, at least a week goes into reading/rereading and analysis/notes. I place time “beats” and emotion based “beats” in the script to make the recording smoother later. I highlight character dialogue and character thoughts, this creates a quick signal in the booth to prepare for vocal shifts so that I will not need to stop. I research accents, research specific people’s voices, and pronunciation research. Luckily, I find joy in paperwork and zen in small details, otherwise it might have not been such a great career switch.
Is there a time of day you prefer to work? An amount of reading you can do at one time?
I am a night owl. My workday begins around 3pm when editing and ends before midnight. With breaks, of course. On recording days, I start at 11pm and end sometime before 2am, preferably. Though, sometimes it is necessary to record up to when the birds wake up. I’ll go as long as I can, depending on how rough my vocals sound. I take a 10 minute vocal break for every 50 minutes recording.
Any thoughts for someone who might be interested in audio book narration?
Tell the story. Whatever you can do to help the words come to life in a way that benefits the narrative, do it. Your author matters, they know the meaning of each sentence they have written. They are a valuable resource that you should respect and communicate with.
If you are listening to a well performed and produced audio book, what do you know to appreciate?
Their silences and pauses. The way the spit sounds and click sounds are edited out. How they use their breathing as a tool. How they are able to not annoy people even after hours of hearing them speak.
Since each of the Bartender’s Guides to Murder features the recipe for a cocktail or mocktail after each chapter, it seems we should ask, what’s your drink of choice?
Amaretto Sour is my natural go-to. However, I made a deal with myself that once I finished narrating the Bartender’s Guide to Murder series I would make some of the drink recipes from the books. “Waffles and Sympathy,” from chapter 10 of the first book, is at the top of my list.