In the first of an occasional series of interviews between writers and the actors who record their books, crime writer Maureen Carter sits down with Frances Barber (who recently recorded the first in her Bev Morriss series, “Working Girls”) to ask about the art of audiobook narration...
Frances Barber is an Olivier Award-nominated actress with a long and distinguished stage career. She is also a well-known face on British television, having been seen most recently in Dr Who, Silk, and Great Expectations.
Maureen Carter has worked extensively in both print and broadcast journalism. As well as being a reporter, Maureen co-presented BBC’s flagship Newsnight programme and went on to become one of the first women news producers outside London when she edited Midlands Today. She is now a freelance writer and narrator.
Maureen Carter: How much preparation do you do for an audio book, Frances?
Frances Barber: I always read the book at least twice. First time just to read it as a punter would getting lost in the story and I tend to read quite quickly, so it's usually a pleasure (with your books it's always a pleasure, Maureen).
For the second reading, I use different coloured pens to delineate the main characters and as I'm marking the script I also highlight any characteristics they might have - i.e. speech impediments, accents, tone of voice, what age they are, what sex they are. Are they angry, depressed, stupid, smart, slow, quick witted, etc.
MC: Do you visualise the characters?
FB: I totally visualise the characters. Hair colour, size, thin faced, fat faced, pinched, pretty, weather beaten... I try sometimes to imagine voices I know, people I have met whose voices are distinctive, that might work for the characters on the page.
MC: How do you find the right ‘voice’ for the main players?
FB: With the above in mind, I then practice a few voices on my iPod for the main players so I can get a handle on them before recording and I attempt to make them sound different from one another.
When there is just one main accent (as in Working Girls) it's important to find the little differences in each character to help the listener know exactly who is talking to whom, particularly in long dialogue passages, and especially if there are more than 2 people involved in the conversation and the author doesn't necessarily say who it is talking each time.
MC: What do you think of lead detective, Bev?
FB: I love Bev. She's a great creation. Flawed, human, difficult, tetchy - but ultimately a heroine of sorts. A prosaic crusader for the rights of the underdog and in this story such a champion of women whose circumstances, but by grace of god and good luck, she could have ended up in herself. A great character.
MC: Do you have a favourite character in the book?
FB: I think Bev is my favourite character for the reasons I’ve just said, but I also had a soft spot for the older prostitute, who's been there, done it, seen it – and looks after the younger ones as best she can, but is ultimately powerless in that industry to have much sway. She is more than the tart with a heart, more complex, deeper, more rounded. She looks after number one herself, and despite her best intentions can only do so much out of fear.
MC: Do you warm to characters as you get to know them?
FB: Yes, I totally warm to them and begin to feel very protective. Each time one of the girls appears at risk, I want to whisk her away from danger, rather like wishing a lone woman would not walk down a dark corridor in a horror film !
MC: Do you ever want to change the words?
FB: I never want to change the words. One legacy of starting my career in new plays with the authors in the rehearsal room is utmost respect for the writer. I am a new writer’s dream, really, as I never even change a comma. I know how much thought and effort has been employed to get the rhythm of a sentence right and wouldn't dream of altering it without the writer’s permission.
MC: What’s the most challenging aspect of narrating a book?
FB: I guess the most challenging aspect of narrating is tiredness. I have done enough now to know that I always work best in the mornings. I like to get as much done as possible in the morning shift and have a shorter lunch, as by 3/4pm I start to see double on the page and begin tripping up over simple sentences. However, it's all worth it if you can bring something you have loved reading yourself to life for an audio audience...