Samuel Johnson observed, “A writer only begins a book. The reader finishes it.” With an audiobook, a voice is added to that mix, one that can profoundly affect the reader’s experience of the story. Audiobook narration is an art and craft that’s long fascinated me, and June Is Audiobook Month, so I’m very excited to bring you this interview with Karen White, who has been the voice for an amazing variety of best-selling authors ranging from Sue Monk Kidd to Naomi Wolf. For Dear Author readers, Karen has picked a trio of favorite contemporary romances that she’s recorded: Love Irresistibly by Julie James, A Girl’s Guide to Vampires by Katie MacAlister, and Animal Magnetism by Jill Shalvis:
Karen, tell readers what you love about these books and authors:
The thing I love about all three of these writers is 1) above all, the humor in the books and 2) relatable, flawed, but not victimized heroines. And 3) relatable, flawed, but not overbearing heroes.
For Katie’s book A Girl’s Guide to Vampires, I also loved the unique way that she combines contemporary romance with the paranormal genre. There are vampires here, but the down to earth romance takes center stage and the heroine spends far more time resisting the existence of vampires than actually dealing with them.
With Julie James’s books, the heroines, though having fabulous fashion sense, great taste and great bodies – which I can’t relate to so much – have real life struggles with balancing career and relationship. And that I find very relatable.
Jill Shalvis’s female characters are very relatable – fun and sexy and smart, but they often struggle with self-image like we all do. Although I’ve loved all of the books in her Animal Magnetism series, I think the first is my favorite. Heroine Lilah is a bit of a screwup, but only because she takes on too much, and she takes on too much because she can’t say no to an animal (or human) in need. Bad-ass seeming Brady, our delectable hero, has a tough-on-the-outside, broken-on-the-inside quality that I find so wonderful to take on as a narrator. You have to have the “low-pitched, authoritative voice that brooked no argument” that I go for in this sample:<a
But you also have to find the places to let the vulnerability come through, where he doesn’t even know how hard he’s working to cover things up.<a
But I know as a performer that the need has got to be there underneath it all, because eventually he is ready to let her in:<a [note from Alison: Don't skip that last one! Too good!]
How did you get started in audiobooks?
I am an actor by training and I worked professionally on stage and on camera for quite a few years, but when I got married I was concerned about the demands of that work when we started a family. A friend had suggested that I look into recording audiobooks. I used our industry journal, AudioFile to find out where I might work in Los Angeles, but the pickings were slim. (The vast majority of audiobook work at that time was in New York.) Somehow I talked my way into a job editing recording sessions for Dove Audio, a Beverly Hills based company that worked primarily with celebrities recording abridged books.
Then my boss there was hired to open a Los Angeles studio for Books-on-Tape, brought me along where I started narrating as well as casting and directing. It was a great learning process! I stopped working full time when I had kids but was able to keep a hand in, doing a few books a year and proofing sessions (listening to the recording while reading the text to check for errors) which I could do from home; also a great way to learn. Now my kids are a bit bigger, so I’m working almost full time recording, mostly from a home studio.
Before I listened to many audiobooks, I suppose I thought of it as the easiest gig ever–show up and read! But it takes just one well-done audiobook to prove that can’t be true. So how do you prepare?
I do approach a manuscript pretty much the way I would a play. That is, I read to learn as much as I can about the characters and take notes on as much detail as I can for each – not just specifics on their voices, but all physical characteristics and anything else that seems to define them. This I organize into a character list, which I use to help “find” each character in my body and voice. Sometimes I’ll use a little phrase as that person’s “hook” – a little thing they say and/or a gesture that can hook me into their voice and attitude. I also make note of words that I don’t know how to pronounce and then look those up and make another list. And as I go I also underline attributives that describe how a person delivers a line ( as in “she said uncertainly”) if it comes after the line of dialogue. If it is before, I leave it alone as I’ll catch it as I go.
I work from an IPad now, which I love for the tree-saving reasons, but also because I can do a lot of underlining and highlighting on the first read. Then when I skip through to type up the notes I’ve made, I take out the notation except those underlined attributives. I find it’s distracting to have a script that is over-notated. I like to prepare as much as possible, and then read as freely and impulsively as I can, making choices by instinct that is shaped by my research.
Is it typical for a narrator and author to confer on the recording? Do you ask for the author’s input on how to portray characters?
That mostly depends on the author. Some are open to it, some not, perhaps depending on schedule – if it’s a simultaneous release of print and audio they are usually quite busy when we are preparing to record. I like to talk to an author to get input on character name and place pronunciations. Julie James always includes hot Chicago restaurants and fancy wines in her books and she’s great about telling me how to say them. I can also learn a bit about the author’s voice – hearing her literal voice is helpful in pinning down the narrative voice of the book. I usually rely on what they’ve written for character portrayals, though. When the writing is good, it’s all there.
Once you’re at the recording stage, what’s the process? How much do you read in a session, and how long will it take to finish a book?
Rule of thumb is that it takes 2 – 3 hours to record a “finished hour” (how long it is once it is edited). I work on my own mostly, and I’m very particular about having a clean read (no noises, few errors) so it takes me a bit longer than most, but I also end up having less to do in post-production (re-recording to correct errors). I like working from home because I can get life stuff done on my breaks (pick up my kids from school, ride my bike to the store, walk the dog, do laundry). So I’ll record for 1 ½ hours, then get something done for half an hour. It means for a longer work day, but it’s productive overall. And I can be active in between sessions of sitting still. And since I just read that sitting is the new smoking, that seems even more important!
What is the biggest challenge in narrating an entire novel?
Honestly, it’s much harder to read part of a novel! (I’ve directed and narrated books where it’s split by chapter, usually when the first person narrative is split between characters.) It requires some tricky collaboration to share a book that way, because generally you don’t record with the other person but you have to figure out a way to match styles so that it’s not jarring to the listener.
But I think a challenge for new narrators is to discount the narrative in favor of creating a bunch of fun characters. The latter is important, but if you neglect to find the narrative voice as well as its emotional throughline, you disconnect from the listener for what can be the majority of the book.
Speak to authors interested in seeing audio productions of their books. What advice would you give them?
Sometimes it just takes prodding an agent to get the audiobook rights sold. Because of listener demand and lower production costs, a much higher percentage of published books are being produced in audio than were even five years ago. There are self-publishing routes, but I’d highly recommend going with a professional narrator and an established audiobook publisher if possible. For one, the product will be more consistent and polished, but you’ll also have more marketing efforts behind you. It’s a great deal of work to sell self-published work and the payoff doesn’t usually match up in my experience.
Julie James had an interesting experience with one of her backlist titles. Practice Makes Perfect was her second book. Her first Just the Sexiest Man Alive, was her first audiobook, but it was published after PMP came out in print. Then, Tantor Audio picked up the rights for her FBI/US Attorney series and we’ve recorded them over the past couple of years. Julie contacted me this year to find out about self-publishing PMP, but I said, why don’t you see if Tantor is interested – they might not even know it exists. And that was the case, as soon as they found out it was out there and audiobook rights were available, they snatched them up and it came out May 27.
I’ve heard amazing narrations by unfamiliar readers, and very ordinary ones by celebrity/public figure readers. Is it annoying that the spoken-word Grammy almost inevitably goes to the famous narrator? ;)
It’s hard to make judgement across the board – not every good actor (celebrity or not) is cut out for narration work. Someone who is fantastic at animation voiceover may be terrible in audiobooks (kind of sprinter vs. marathoner) and there are celebrities (Kate Winslet comes to mind as well as Samuel L. Jackson) who are fabulous narrators. I think there is value to the audiobook industry as a whole when celebrities win Grammys in the field as it raises awareness. However, there are many many non-celebrity (what I call the middle class working actor) narrators who should be recognized in some way for the high level of their craft. And honestly, audiobooks wouldn’t exist without them, because most budgets can’t afford a celeb.
What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?
I know when I was 12, it was Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. That was a life changer, and I remember that book making its way around my sixth grade class. When I was 10, it was probably the Black Stallion series by Walter Farley (as well as any other book written about an animal; I was obsessed). My girls at that age were devouring Harry Potter, of course.
Karen is giving away your choice of the audiobooks she discussed today; leave a question or comment to enter. And she also does lots of giveaways through social media, so follow her website, Twitter, and Facebook. Karen, thanks for the interview. I loved learning about the care and attention you take with your work.