I realised that I would probably feel uncomfortable about Julia being able to see my face as I worked.
I am an actress and in seven years of narrating audiobooks there had never been an author present at any time. Recently I have been asking to have all the lights turned off in the studio so I could turn the iPad screen up to its brightest, but this made my eyes blur after about seven hours so now the lights are on again. And this meant my face would be lit. So I placed myself rather carefully at the microphone on the day I invited Julia to the studio.
The Salt Stained Book is a wonderful adventure story with a strong theme of sailing and with references to Swallows and Amazons. I was very happy to be the narrator for the audio version as I knew the author Julia Jones, and had already read and loved the book. But I had not really anticipated how anxious I would be about her listening to me interpreting her work.
I had already phoned her to check up one or two things about how some of the characters might talk and so I asked her to come to the final recording session. I knew that I would have settled into the character’s voices by then and that hopefully she would like what I had done. I didn’t want her to ask for changes because this would have incurred expensive extra time in the studio. Profit margins are very tight in the audiobook world, costs are estimated by the minute; we work fast and carefully, and the producer/engineer is a highly skilled multitasking person.
Actors have different ways of preparing books. My way is to read all of it out loud, marking it up on the iPad and noting down separately any clues the author has actually written about the characters such as “Jane’s strident tones rang out across the library” and any clues that I notice about them. For instance where they were born and how long they lived there (traces of Welsh), habit of patting her hair and touching her mouth (generally anxious). It is crucial to read it right to the very end as disaster can strike. Once in the last chapter of a thriller the main character - a mean, slimy type - was suddenly described as having a “throaty Scottish burr”. I had prepared him with a Londonish accent and a rather high nasal voice. So I had to go back to the beginning and speed through to all his speeches to rehearse them differently. I also check any difficult pronunciations with online pronouncing dictionaries and sometimes ring up tourist offices to get place names correct.
With Julia settled on the sofa behind the glass wall with the producer, I knew she could only see me side on and I could not see her face at all. I could not bear the thought that I might catch sight of her grimacing with dislike when I thought I was being terribly funny.
I do imagine my listeners sometimes, I think of them doing the washing up or driving somewhere but mostly I like to fall deeply into the book and in my mind I see the situation the author is describing.
I became very fond of the characters in The Salt Stained Book. Some were wonderfully individual like the Mother who could only sign (how to create a voice for a signer?), the obviously quite posh Granny who was strong and down to earth in coping with very straitened circumstances, and I loved doing the crooked social worker who could not hide her self-regard and the patronising female vicar who turned out to be a real trouper. The central character, Donny, is a 14 year old boy and beautifully drawn and I had worked out his voice after talking to Julia. His friends, three teenage girls, proved to be a bit more of a problem. All around the same age but all very different and two of them sisters. It was interesting to me that the character Julia had had the most difficulty writing was the one I found hardest to bring to life.
Sometimes the story was so sad I almost cried as I was recording it but I have learned not to do that, I don’t think it works for the listeners, but I hope I am able to put across the character’s distress and then maybe they will have a little weep, in the kitchen or the car.
In the end both the producer and I really enjoyed having Julia there. I had worried she might be bored. We are very used to working together and dealing quickly with stomach noises, mistakes and just sometimes “oh whoops I don’t think he was exactly like that 4 pages ago, can we just go back to the start of that para”? But in fact it was fun to have her see what we do, she was fascinated, and even more fun to read ‘The End’ and then all go off to the pub.