Audiobook Month Interview with Narrator Susan Ericksen
June is Audiobook month (JIAM 2013)- hooray! The audiobook community is giving back by teaming with the Going Public Project by offering a serialized audio story collection. All proceeds will go to Reach Out and Read literacy advocacy organization. Throughout June, 1-2 stories will be released each day on the Going Public blog and on author/book blogs. The story will be free (online only – no downloads) for one week. In collaboration with Blackstone Audio, all the stories will be available for download via Downpour. The full compilation will be ready June 30th.
The full schedule of the story release dates and narrators are at Going Public. Engineering and Mastering are provided by Jeffrey Kafer and SpringBrook Audio. Graphic design provided by f power design and published by Blackstone Audio. Project coordination and executive production by Xe Sands.
Today I’m excited to welcome veteran audiobook narrator Susan Ericksen to the blog! For this project, the Audie Award winning narrator reads Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to you, My Lad, by M.R. James. You can listen to the story below for a limited time, and purchase this story and others in the Going Public…In Shorts collection at Downpour.
I interviewed Susan via email and she answered a lot of my burning questions about audiobook narration. She is a lovely person and great sport.
Susan, thank you for being my first audiobook narrator interview! Since I’ve started listening to audiobooks I’ve had so many questions about the narration process & I’m thrilled to get the opportunity to chat with you.
How did you get started with audiobook narration?
I was so lucky to get into this business on the ground floor, as it were, and I didn’t even realize it until much later. I am a classically trained actress. I was working at a repertory theater in Holland, Michigan right out of Grad School (I got my MFA in Acting), and some of the people who ran Brilliance Audio in Grand Haven, Michigan came to the show I was in. They really liked my voice and my performance and asked me if I’d like to come in and do a multi-narrator piece of Studs Turkel’s book, Race. I said “Sure, that sounds fun” and did it. And it just went on from there. The whole audio book business grew like mad soon afterwards (a connection to my involvement? I can’t be sure and now, 300+ books later it’s my main form of performance work.
What a happy accident! It’s neat how your career took off in this new exciting direction.
Since you’ve narrated over 300 (!) books, I’m sure your process has evolved over time. What advice do you wish you had when you were first starting out as a narrator?
Interesting question. When I first started recording in the early 90′s, they were still using tape instead of digitally recording. And some of the companies would compress the recording in order to fit more on fewer cassettes. It felt like you should talk quickly to help them out, and so I sometimes did. Then I realized I had no control over what they did with the thing anyway, so I should just pace the book appropriately and let them do what they would. To compress an already rushed book did nothing to help the product. I guess that’s something I’ve really developed over the years- I really trust my own taste and judgement. I try and narrate a book the way in which I’d like to hear it. These days, most of the things I record are self-directed, so happily I can do that without offending anyone.
What is the recording process like? Do you work in a studio or from home? How long does it take to record a 16-hour book?
You get a copy of the book, usually as a digital download these days, and you start prepping it. For me, now, that means reading it the same way I would as a regular reader- trying to get swept away by the writing. The first impressions you have of a book tell you about the tone of the book, the pacing, the places within it where you’re surprised or the book takes a turn. I always hear the characters voices in my head as I’m reading it, so I’ll of course pay attention to any descriptions given of them, and the over all “feel” they create in the book and with other characters. I have such a long background of analyzing texts/plays as an actress, and literature as an English major that I think I do a lot of that unconsciously at this point. You also start a list of anything you might need to look up- any unusual words or pronunciations.
When I was first starting out, I used to highlight the characters in different colors and write all these notes in the margins. I never highlight now, and sometimes when I’m recording the book, just saying the words and having the characters words in my mouth will reveal much more clearly how they’re supposed to sound. The author has put their character into the word choices they make, and the length of sentences they speak in, it the clarity of their thinking, etc. They do things unconsciously that they don’t even know unless they speak their words out loud themselves. (All very mysterious!)
Then I go up to my home studio, set up the session on the equipment (Pro Tools is the program I use) and record away. Depending on my schedule, the state of my voice, the chaos in my house, and the due date of the project, I’ll work for a few hours at a time or all day long and then come back and proof in the evening. Depending on how complicated the writing is in the book, the straight recording of a book will take you 1 1/2 – 2 hours of recording time for every finished hour. So a 16 hour book could take you anywhere from 24-36 hours. But then, depending on the contract you have with the producer of the audio book, you may have to do the proofing of the book (find the mistakes: wrong words, mispronunciations, vocal snorts or whatever, plane sounds outside, etc. that need to be corrected and fixed) and then DO the fixes. That can take as long or longer than recording the book. Then you usually upload the book files along with a copy of the text that has all the punch-in locations notated by time, and hopefully you’re done with it.
You wear many hats as a narrator – I’m impressed!
What is your relationship with the book author in the process? Do you talk to them about the book, characters, or pronunciations in advance?
I have had very little contact with any author I’ve recorded. The usual way they might be involved is that they might have voice approval rights for the narrator. So the audio book company will submit a couple of voice samples and then they can choose. I think the authors don’t have much time to get involved and also, they trust the publishers and audio book companies to do a good rendering of the book.
It’s the actor’s responsibility to get the pronunciations, etc. and one should never assume you know how to pronounce an odd word or name. Nothing is worse than getting a note back from the editors that the character was supposed to be pronounced “Lee-uh” not “Lay-uh”! And then you have to go back and fix all your stupid unnecessary mistakes – ARG!!!
I can imagine! One of the benefits for me as an audiobook listener is that the narrator has done the homework on the pronunciations
You’ve read a great variety of books from series like J.D. Robb’s In Death to Kristin Hannah’s books to the classic Jane Eyre. What is it like narrating a long-running series? Do you feel protective of the characters and more invested in the story since you’ve stuck with it from the beginning?
It’s WONDERFUL to do a series. In the In Death books, I know that world and those characters like the back of my hand. And I have a strong sense of ownership about them after 40 or so books. I often feel like J.D. Robb may be the biological mother of these books, but I am the adoptive mother. I think that deep sense of knowledge about the books really adds a depth to the recordings, because there’s so much background and tone and history that I bring to the character’s interactions. Also, I think I really understand the style of the books, and the world wherein the stories all take place. The slightly futuristic world- it’s not abstract for me, I’ve “lived” in it for years now. Very cool. I have a similar feeling about the Sara Paretsky novels (V.I. Warshawsky) and the Meg Gardiner books.
What audiobook that you’ve narrated are you most proud of?
Impossible question!!!! These are my “children” you see. But, certainly, you do ones that capture you, of course. I loved doing Urrea’s book, Into the Beautiful North, and last year I fell in love with a wonderful book by Joyce Carol Oates called Mudwoman. Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books of all time, so it was a joy to record. In this business, one gets asked to record books along a wide “quality of writing” scale. I have a “love the one your with” attitude. When I’m recording them I may recognize that this book is not Pulitzer material, but I can give people a really good ride for a few hours. (It’s like you don’t marry everyone you date, but you can enjoy dating a vast array of people anyway, right?)
What book that you’ve narrated did you connect with the best?
The books I like the best are the ones that take you on a journey of some kind. You are somewhat different for having moved through the world of the book. Sometimes it’s the plot that drives you and sometimes it’s the characters. I guess I respond best to a really good story. I’ve found myself deeply moved by romances as well as literary novels. Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah surprised me over and over again reading it. I’d have to stop recording because I was crying so hard. I did a neat collection of short stories called Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff, that added up to a really complex, wonderful journey. I think one of the reasons I’m rather good at what I do is that I find a way to fall in love a little with every book I do, and as a result invest a lot of myself in it.
Are there any scenes that are uncomfortable for you as a narrator to read? Are there any accents or character voices that are challenging for you?
Oh, let’s see…? Just how many raunchy sex scenes can one do in a book? Sometimes I feel like I need to stop and have a cigarette!
I love doing accents and dialects, and my training gave me great tools to handle just about anything. That said, Australian is HARD! I had an extensive Aussie character in a book once, and found I kept having to go back and listen to the dialect tapes, if I was away from him for more that 5 minutes I totally lost him! But it was a blast and I loved the challenge. South African voices are hard too: Afrikaans and the many tribal dialects with all the clicks and things. Sometimes you and your producer have to make a choice to do something well and consistently, but perhaps not completely authentic, rather than doing something badly or something that’s so unusual and complex that it pulls the listener out of the story.
LOL about the sex scenes! That takes some time for the listener to get used to as well!
Funny you mention Australian accents- I’m listening to an Australian audiobook right now, and I chose to listen to the book to help me get the right accent and flavor of the book. I’m sure I’d mess up the pronunciations in my head.
Since accents are so important for your job it’s a plus that you love doing them! It sounds like you’ve found a great process that works for you.
Do you read reviews of your audiobooks? What sort of reviewer feedback is helpful to you as a narrator?
I want to be called the Sun God or nothing at all! ( I read the reviews when I remember to, but I always do so with a grain of salt. It’s just one person’s opinion, and I trust my training and my instincts.)
In your free time, how do you like to experience books – do you listen to audiobooks or prefer to read print books? What are your favorite types of books to read, and do you have any recs for us?
Free time? You mean when I’m sleeping? I confess I don’t listen to many audio books these days, besides those of my husband, narrator David Colacci. (He’s really good!) I’m just too busy recording them. When I do have time, I read books in print, not electronically. I like the feel of them, and it feels like I’m not working. That said however, I truly enjoy listening to audio books. The power of storytelling is trying amazing. There is a reason rulers and governments have been nervous of actors and minstrels throughout history- they can sweep you up and carry you away! It’s like an incantation- a story told to a person can and will change them forever!
Audiobooks really do carry you away! When I’m caught up in a good book I’ll go for a walk or do extra household chores so I can keep listening.
You narrated a ghost story, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to you, My Lad, by M.R. James for the Going Public…In Shorts project. Tell us a little about the story and behind the scenes production info.
It’s a wonderful, spooky Gothic ghost story. A mild-mannered Cambridge professor goes on a golfing vacation by the seaside. A colleague has asked him to check out the ruins of a Knights of Templar temple which is reported to be nearby. He does so, and discovers while digging about, a strange metal artifact, clearly ancient. It has markings on the side and appears to resemble a dog whistle. He takes it back to the hotel, cleans it up and tries it out! And what follows takes him to the brink of madness and death! Way cool! I won’t ruin it for you, but it’s a really fun story. I recorded it by candlelight. Not really, but I felt like I did. Spoooooooky.
Ooh very atmospheric visual! This story was new to me and a treat to listen to.
Thanks for the chat, Susan! I’m honored you could stop by. I can’t wait to check out some of your favorite audiobook recordings. I’m eyeing Winter Garden.
And I forgot to ask you where you keep your Audie Awards! Congrats on all your success.
The pleasure was all mine. I hope you get swept away!
Susan Ericksen is an Audie Award winning narrator who has recorded over 300 books including the highly acclaimed In Death series by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts), the V.I. Warshawski novels by Sara Paretsky , and Meg Gardiner’s Jo Beckett series. The winner of multiple AudioFile Earphone Awards for both fiction and non-fiction, Susan is also a classically trained actress and singer. She has performed in New York and in regional theaters across the country. This summer she will be performing the role of Margaret in The Light in the Piazza. Upcoming audiobooks include Burn Marks, by Sara Paretsky, and A Woman Entangled, by Cecilia Grant.
Susan Ericksen recorded Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, by M.R. James for the Going Public project.