Good Afternoon dear readers,
As you all know, I could not live without the company of Audiobooks, so it is with great pleasure that I receive Harry Frost, the narrator of Yuletide, for an interview today.
I feel a great fascination regarding the entire process of narrating an audiobook because I consider it a complex and difficult involving many details, such as genre voices, accents, rhythm etc. This means I absorb with great interest any information that involves the narration process, and Harry Frost satisfied my curiosity with this interview because he talked about many different aspects a narrator needs to consider. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do and if you do not have a copy of Yuletide yet, you MUST grab a copy! It is perfect for this time of the year and I’m sure you will not regret it 🙂
- When did you know you wanted to be an audiobook narrator?
In retrospect, the day when I was seven and my French teacher had me stand at the front of the class and show everyone how well I could pronounce ‘les orreilles’ (ears), with authentic-sounding French ‘rr’. Since then, it has become clear that, while I can be rather shy, I’m quite happy to perform as long as I’ve got a character, a foreign language, or a microphone to hide behind! Of course, while it would be satisfying to think I went forward from that moment determined to narrate audiobooks, in truth it’s more that I just sort of wound up narrating and only then realised that it was exactly what I wanted to do; that it was the point of intersection for all my interests up to that point and could offer just the career I had been looking for.
- How did you wind up narrating audiobooks? Was it always your goal or was it something you stumbled into by chance?
Well, the signs were all there, but they only came together down the line a bit. I studied English Lit at university, and had loved audiobooks ever since listening to Martin Jarvis read ‘Just William’ on cassette when I was a child, but it didn’t occur to me to even aspire to narrate them myself until I heard about ACX (the Audible platform through which I have so far worked). So, the motive was there from ‘les orreilles’ onward, the means had been provided a while back by technology (internet distribution, cheaper consumer hardware and digital editing software), and the opportunity just suddenly presented itself. I determined to do the absolute best I could on my first project (‘The Darcy Monologues’, also edited by Christina Boyd), while still thinking of it really as an interesting experiment-slash-hobby. Then, when it was released, I was just blown away by all the wonderful feedback I got from the community. If even a few people enjoyed it—despite all my anxieties about it not having been good enough, and despite the fact that I had largely winged it through the technical side of things—and if I enjoyed doing it, then what else was to be said? I drew up an Excel spreadsheet, decided the game might be worth the candle, and opened my wallet for some better hardware. So I guess the final answer is that I did stumble into it by chance, but that, having done so, it was hard not to suddenly see all the jobs and interests and hobbies I had pursued beforehand as though they had been conscious steps on the road to that goal.
- A lot of narrators seem to have a background in theatre. Is that something you think is essential to a successful narration career?
I certainly hope not; I do not have such a background! But then I’m only starting my career, so we’ll see. I have been in six or seven amateur stage productions, and two student films, but no more. I have never been classically trained. Perhaps, therefore, this is a wishful rationalisation, but I think what might be called the ‘bio-mechanical’ training that stage actors get is at least partially redundant for recorded narration. They are trained to be heard, un-mic’ed, in large venues with terrible acoustics, yet condenser mics are so sensitive that coughing overloads them, and they pick up even the quietest breaths, not to mention whispered lines. It’s well known that stage actors going into film or television have to dial back their projection, as well as making their physical acting more subtle, and I think that’s even truer of narration; it’s much more intimate than declaiming on a stage, and there could hardly be less of a ‘fourth wall’ between actor and audience than when one is soliloquising through a speaker literally inches from a listener’s inner ear. So, in that respect, I think (hope?) that, on the contrary, one would have to unlearn some aspects of traditional stage acting for recorded narration.
On the other hand, breath control and the knowledge of how to warm up the voice are absolutely essential, and I have definitely felt that lack of classical training in that respect, and have had to teach myself (and even take up singing lessons!) to compensate. Then, of course, the main point of intersection is being able to inhabit characters and switch between them quickly, all the while acting as they might act (remembering, too, that the writer’s prose style itself, not just directly reported speakers, must be counted as a character in need of interpretation). I’m certain dramatic training would help a lot here, too, but I also believe that much of just ordinary social life involves trying to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and perhaps ‘rehearsing’ the conversations they might have with us, or that we might have with them, and how they might behave in so-and-so a situation. Hopefully, because of that, there’s something to be said for simply ‘leaning by doing’.
- What about YULETIDE compelled you to take on the project?
The editor, Christina. Not everyone has the best things to say about working through ACX, but I was lucky enough to have an amazing experience producing the audio version of another of her Austenesque anthologies, and it was all thanks to her and her wonderful authors. The whole ‘JAFF’ community they work within is great; an all-too-rare mixture of high-brow literary tastes and open, enthusiastic, mutually-supportive creativity. I was only too keen for another project, and this time armed with a bit more confidence, and far, far better equipment. It also felt lovely coming back to the same characters I had worked out my ’takes’ on for the earlier project; particularly dusting off the old ‘Darcy voice’. There have been certain situations in my life where talking the way I do (very English, rather ‘posh’) has made it hard to fit in and put me at something of a disadvantage. Voicing Regency-inspired comedies of manners in a near-perpetual drawing room setting is not one of those situations. That said, I also love the opportunity to push myself and try some of the modern and non-British settings; it’s a fantastic challenge, particularly when such strong characters are a given.
- What types of things are harmful to your voice?
I wish I knew more thoroughly! That’s where the classical training would come in, I suppose. So far it doesn’t seem to be good news: I’ve determined I can’t drink alcohol within 36 hours (I know…) of recording, because it dries out my throat and tongue and leads to ‘mouth clicks’. Then, of course, one can’t go about shouting and screaming as much as one might have been accustomed to do, though serendipitously the not drinking helps with that. Colds, rather than being an annoyance, now mean a week without recording, which makes me even more aware of hand-washing and nose-breathing than ordinary prudence dictates. The world (the internet; same thing) is full of ‘helpful’ tips on what food and drink is good or bad for voice, and so far I can confirm the following: chocolate does seem to clag up the throat and so is to be avoided, dairy does seem to thicken the saliva so ditto, and slippery elm bark (lozenge or powder) helps sooth your throat if ever you overdo it and talk yourself hoarse (I think P.G. Wodehouse calls this ‘clergyman’s throat’).
- Who are your “accent inspirations”?
BBC USA did a series called ‘Killing Eve’ (adapted from books by Luke Jennings of which there are audio versions on Audible, incidentally), and the lead was a British actor called Jodie Comer, playing hired assassin ‘Villanelle’. The character is a sort of terrifying, psychopathic chameleon, who can change her entire outward appearance on the fly so as to evade capture or complete her missions around the work. That meant, of course, that the actor had to, too. Quite apart from her wider performance (outstanding), I’ve never heard such perfect voice work as she achieves in that show. So accurate, with such instantaneous shifts: Russian, French, German, English of various types, UK and US, and never resorting to pantomime clichés, but always as naturalistic as though she’d had a full-blown professor of linguistics on retainer for each one. Or maybe is also a full-blown professor of linguistics herself; I would hardly be surprised. Then I watched her on a chat show, and her ’natural’ accent is Liverpudlian—perhaps Britain’s third most conspicuous accent—and I’d never had any idea. So, she is a real inspiration, but not an aspiration, because even I know when I’m setting my sights too high.
I’m also very inspired by the audiobook work of Steven Pacey, who I first encountered reading Martin Amis’ ‘The Pregnant Widow’, but who I only recognised and started following properly after hearing him read Joe Abercrombie’s fantasy series ’The First Law’. He demonstrates perfectly how narration style and prose style can come together to really elevate a story as in no other medium. His characters are great, but it’s his standard narration that’s really brilliant; the pace, and that combination of repeated and varied patterns of emphasis that avoids either boring you or jarring you away from the story. He is, of course, inimitable, but I hope that might be a more reasonable aspiration for me: I can see what he does and most of how he does it, so that while I might not be able to do it myself yet, I can imagine one day being able to.
- How did you decide how each character should sound in this title?
It’s made much easier for me in this anthology, because everyone has an idea of how Darcy, Elizabeth, Lady Catherine etc. sound, so there’s less credit to the voice actor for interpreting, and it’s more about simple mimicry. Then again, there are certainly different flavours of those characters that different authors emphasise or de-emphasise for their purposes, and that comes down to just reading the material before diving in. My two axioms for narration, which I developed as a listener before I was a producer, are ‘Read it like you love it’, and ‘Read it like you understand it’; in that order, and both with the implicit rider ‘…because then the listener will, too’. Loving Jane Austen— I mean, who doesn’t? One would have to have a heart of stone not to. And understanding just takes spending a bit of time with the text, and asking “Which Darcy, which Collins etc., and why?”. My ’training’ (three years and several thousand pounds spent drinking heavily and reading occasionally in the sunny south-west of England) in English Literature and literary criticism probably helps me pick up on those signals and answer those questions.
- How does audiobook narration differ from other types of voiceover work you’ve done? How does narration of an anthology differ from that of a novel?
Well, on the first point, I’ve not yet done any other type of voiceover work. I know that advertisements and character work and so on are far, far better paid, but I’ve gone right ahead and specialised in audiobooks (because that’s what I love), so that I’ve not yet had any time to audition for anything else, or to think about an agent, or a showreel. On the second, the character voice question above certainly applies here. One can generally completely record a short story in a day, whereas a novel takes far longer, so a character’s first appearance can be separated from his next even by some weeks. So with novels, consistency is much harder to achieve, and I find I have to pick a sort of ’signature’ line in a character’s voice, mark it in the recording, then return to it to make sure I’ve got it right before that character reappears. That’s where a director or producer (who isn’t also me) would come in handy. Apart from that, I’ve not yet detected many other differences, except perhaps that the variety of an anthology might gratify a performer who gets bored with their material. However, that kind of performer probably shouldn’t be attempting audiobooks in the first place.
- If you could narrate one book from your youth, what would it be and why?
‘Gormenghast’ by Mervyn Peake. The writing is so incredibly dense, the sentences so long, the language so complicated that it’s nearly impossible to slog through as a reader. And yet it’s the most amazing book (series; there are three, this is the second), one of those ones that you can only spend so much time with before you have to leave it alone and sit in a darkened room for a while to calm down and let the images fade. Peake was a painter before he was a writer, and I’ve never come across a book that uses language better for visual effect. A good audio version of that is essential to overcome its deficiencies in plot and readability; it’s one of those instances where the audiobook is far better than the printed one. Now, whether or not I could manage it is another question, but it certainly needs someone who loves the book, and I surely do love it. Alas, there have been at least three versions already made (although one is abridged— boo, hiss—so doesn’t count), read by incredible readers: Simon Vance, Saul Reichlin, and Rupert Degas. There’re probably more, somewhere.
- Any funny anecdotes from inside the recording studio?
The ‘funny’ anecdotes of any trade often fall flat with non-practitioners, and we narrators are particularly odd, given that we spend so much time alone in darkened, airless rooms. But here goes, you asked for it…
In editing software, you can listen back to work at higher-than-normal speed, which lets you check accuracy to the text while getting through a recording quicker. You just have to put up with the high-pitched chipmunk voice. Sometimes, listening back, I think to myself, “Frost, you could do better on that line”, so I re-record it, to drop it in. On one occasion, we were at the emotional apex of a Darcy/Elizabeth scene; the moment Elizabeth realises her own pride, not to mention prejudice, and finally puts herself out there to love and be loved, and Darcy comes back with some endearingly gruff line that seals their happiness forever. Except in this case, I felt I could have done rather better with Darcy’s—more endearing, maybe, or more gruff—so up I jump to re-record. However, the speed you listen at is also the speed you record at, and I had forgotten to turn the speed setting back to normal. I realised when I came to play back the scene with the new dropins, and unthinkingly re-set it to normal, rolling my eyes at my own absent-mindedness. But of course, like something out of that movie Interstellar, for something recorded at 1.5x speed, ‘normal’ is really 1.5x slower than normal, and the opposite of the high chipmunk voice is a pretty frightening low growl. Unsuspecting, I listen with satisfaction to the lead-in—“Wow, aren’t I good; so delicate, so sensiti…”—then, when the new line hits I nearly fall off my chair. The line is there, but instead of being delivered with my version of ‘romantic lead gravel’, it’s several registers deeper, with this metallic tinge and, worst of all, this sinister, slurred, slow enunciation that completely changes the meaning of the beautifully-written sentiment. I’m instantly transported into this terrifying new scene, where Elizabeth is feigning love to escape the clutches of this half-robot-half-demon creature that she’s somehow contrived to get reeling drunk. This being the first time it had happened to me, I had absolutely no idea what had gone wrong, and didn’t know whether to Google ‘audio production unexpected slow playback’ or ‘audio production unexpected demonic possession’. A stirring lesson in what a difference tone, pace, and delivery can make to a scene with no change to the words.
As for funny…well, I guess you had to be there.
11.What was your biggest challenge with this performance?
Definitely having to attempt a New England accent for some parts of ‘Homespun for the Holidays’. It was a new one for me—I mean, I’d watched Good Will Hunting, Family Guy and The Departed alright, but hearing isn’t doing—and led down some interesting Youtube rabbit holes. I hope I managed OK; I could have given more characters the accent as the writer intended, but I took the decision that, unless I could become an absolute master in a short space of time, it would detract from the drama. So selected characters have it, with some creative biography having to suffice to explain why certain members of the same family speak quite differently!
Harry Frost is an English voice actor specialising in audiobook narration and production. He’s passionate about the power of the audio medium to bring literature to life in every sense of that phrase; to reconnect writing to the spoken tradition it never really escaped, and to turn books into true companions for life as it is lived, rather than things one must escape the world and defer responsibility to read. His studio is in rural Leicestershire, he has recently found an unlikely love of Economics, and he makes a really good Manhattan. Find samples and articles on www.bellows-audio.co.uk, and follow him on Facebook @bellowsaudio.
About the audiobook: “I went up to the Great House between three and four, and dawdled away an hour very comfortably…” –Jane Austen
A holiday short story anthology with some favorite Austenesque authors, YULETIDE is inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the spirit of the season. Regency and contemporary alike, each romance was dreamt to spark love, humor, and wonder while you dawdle over a hot cup of tea this Christmas.
Stories by Elizabeth Adams * J. Marie Croft * Amy D’Orazio * Lona Manning * Anngela Schroeder * Joana Starnes * Caitlin William
Edited by Christina Boyd * Narrated by Harry Frost
Yuletide Audiobook is going on a blog and it only started last week at Drunk Austen, please don’t forget to follow the other blogs for more news on this wonderful Christmas Anthology 🙂
4 November, Drunk Austen https://drunkausten.com/
11 November, From Pemberley to Milton https://frompemberleytomilton.wordpress.com/
20 November, Austenprose https://austenprose.com/
25 November, Austenesque Reviews https://austenesquereviews.com/
2 December, The Book Rat http://www.thebookrat.com/
The Quill Ink will offer one $15 Amazon gift card giveaway for the entire tour. You be automatically entered to win by simply commenting on the blog post. It is not necessary to comment at every blog on the tour, but each allows you more entries. The Quill Ink will choose one random winner by December 9.
Good Luck everyone!