Find out the secrets of audiobook narration in this interview with one of Dead Ringer‘s narrators, Nathalie Buscombe.
You’re also a talented artist and writer, in addition to being an actor. How does audiobook narration fit into your schedule and why do you enjoy it?
I have separate agents for Acting and Voiceover and my schedule is often in their hands: if they call to let me know I have a job or audition, then everything else – painting and writing – gets put on hold. Since audiobooks take a long time to prep and to record, this ‘hold’ time can be quite long. Sometimes that can be a real curveball – say, if I’m really hitting my stride in writing or painting – but it’s always wonderful to get that call.
The toughest thing is that, even though I just talked about ‘my schedule’, I don’t really have one. My diary changes on a daily basis so planning ahead is nigh on impossible. I just have to prioritise deadlines and find time to squeeze everything else in as and when I can.
But, as with all things freelance and creative, there are always ups and downs, times when I’m busy and times when I’m not, and it’s in those times when I’m less busy with acting, audiobooks, and other voiceover work, that I paint and write. I’m not very good at sitting on my arse watching daytime TV – during the week anyway. On the weekends though, I am the first person to suggest a Netflix binge!
There are so many reasons why I love doing audiobooks. Firstly, I love books. I have always been a big reader and there’s something really exciting about being able to read something before it hits the shelves and, even better, to feel like you’re an important creative piece of the publishing puzzle.
The best thing is how freeing it is to narrate an audiobook. I am no longer boxed as an actor: it has nothing to do with what I look like, where I’m from, or how old I am, or the fact that I’m a woman… I can play characters of any age, male or female, from all sorts of backgrounds with all sorts of accents, and I can tell their stories. Telling characters’ stories is why I love acting and narrating audiobooks gives me amazing scope to do that in a different way.
Do you have a routine for getting to know a book you’re going to narrate?
Yes. I read the whole thing twice on my iPad – once in my head, and once out loud. It doesn’t matter whether I’m only doing part of the book (as with Dead Ringer), or the whole thing – for me, it’s extremely important to read the entire manuscript so I get a sense of all the characters and what’s happening and how everything relates. I think some people wing it but I want to do the best job I can and quite honestly I think winging it is a dangerous policy… There have been so many times when I’ve got three quarters of the way through a book and suddenly there’s a random new character with a completely off the wall accent and… Let’s just say, discovering that in the recording booth would be less than ideal!
While reading, I annotate the manuscript – making notes of different accents, difficult pronunciations, names of places that I need to check online etc. There are a couple of excellent websites that help with pronunciation – howjsay and forvo – which can be invaluable, especially when you’re doing a book set in another country with places you’ve literally never heard of, or language that you need to get your mouth round and used to.
And if an accent does come up that I haven’t done before or I haven’t had much practice of, then I will spend most of the rest of the time I have leading up to the audiobook recording annoying my boyfriend by speaking in it as much as possible.
Are there any words or phrases you always have trouble with (in the same way Stephen Fry famously has trouble saying “Harry pocketed his wand” in the Harry Potter books)?
No, there aren’t any particular words or phrases that I have trouble with. Every so often, something will come up that’s a horrible tongue twister, or a sentence will be ridiculously long and it’s hard to find a place to breathe, but there’s nothing specific that comes to mind. Then again, sometimes, if it’s towards the end of the afternoon, and I’ve been on mic for hours and my brain/mouth is starting to frazzle, totally normal words can somehow become staggeringly tricky.
What helped you inhabit the character of Jem in Dead Ringer so effectively?
Reading an audiobook and inhabiting a character isn’t really all that different to other acting work in the sense that, if it was a play or a film instead, I’d be reading the whole script before beginning the work, mining as much information about the character as possible out of the lines and stage directions. To get the most out of a script, you can’t just go on the words of the character herself: you have to look at what others say about her too. It’s the same with an audiobook, and that’s why preparation is so key.
I think with Jem I found it particularly fun because I have met several actors and women who are quite like her – entitled and, on the surface at least, a bit of a bitch. But the thing is, Jem has a lot going on – she’s not only entitled and spiky. There’s a reason for her being the way she is – her upbringing and her current family situation – and I really wanted to make sure that I put that across in the emotion of certain scenes. It would be a real mistake to make her sound two-dimensional when that’s not how she’s been written, and indeed that’s not how anyone is in real life!
There are layers of deception in Dead Ringer, with the characters often pretending to be someone else. How do you approach that?
Well, I’m pretty used to inhabiting different characters and getting into the headspace of pretending to be someone else – it kind of comes with the acting territory, so that bit wasn’t too much of a stretch. I do think it’s especially interesting though when you’re playing one character that is lying and pretending to be another – the psyche behind that fascinates me. I suppose I just pretend I’m the character and, based on what I know about her and what she knows about the other character, I pretend to be her pretending to be the other character – if that makes any sense?!
For the record, I don’t do it based on how I would behave in that situation in real life. While I have always harboured secret aspirations of being a spy (in a cool female James Bond way, not in a real dangerous way), I am the world’s worst liar (my voice goes weirdly high and I go bright red), so it’s not a good idea to base it on me!
Are you aware of having a doppelganger yourself?
People often say I look like my mum, but other than that – not as far as I know!
If you could narrate any book in the world, which would you choose?
This is a really difficult question because there are so many books that would be a real honour to narrate. I’d love to take on at least part of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (if I wasn’t allowed to do the whole thing). Anything by Jane Austen or Nancy Mitford would be so much fun to narrate. And obviously there’s Wuthering Heights… But Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a book I have returned to time and time again, so if I could only choose one and you had a gun to my head, it would be that.
Tell us something people don’t realise about audiobook narration?
Tummy rumbles! I never knew how loud my stomach could be until I spent a whole day (or several) in a recording booth where every single sound gets picked up. When we’re approaching lunchtime, everyone knows about it because my stomach will pipe up and say hello, feed me. You literally have no need for a watch.
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