Not long ago my betrothed and I moved to the norcal coast to pursue a quiet, retiring life of birdwatching, needlepoint and Grand Prix racing on Highway 1. We soon learned that nothing makes the trip over the mountain more enjoyable than listening to a classic story read by a master storyteller. So one day we were listening to Dickens's Bleak House, as read by Simon Vance, and realized that this one guy could somehow embody not only the voices but the personalities of a staggering number of characters. We continued listening, now hyperaware of the changes in tone, accent, inflection...wondering "how does he do it?" How, indeed?
Just a minute. You've never heard of Simon Vance? Born in the fifties in Brighton, UK, Mr. Vance has narrated or co-narrated over 450 titles. He is the proud winner of 10 Audie awards and 43 Earphone awards, which he keeps in a mini-storage locker in Concord, CA, his home for the past 25+ years. If you listen to audiobooks a half dozen times a year, chances are you've heard Simon Vance. (www.simonvance.com)
Here's what Simon the Magician had to say about his amazing "sleight of voice":
JH: What is your process for determining the voice for any given character?
SV: My first anchor will be the information given in the text by the author -- Dickens is particularly good at painting the picture of a character, giving me some idea of his/her physical characteristics and social status even before they open their mouth. Often, if there's nothing spelled out I use my intuition based on who the person is, what they want and how they interact with the other characters. There's usually something I can hook onto.
JH: Do you have a "library" of voices that you've created that helps you match voices to characters?
SV: I have "types" of voices that I return to depending on the background of the character... I don't think in terms of exactly repeating a voice, I hope that my motivation for speaking for one character might be just different enough from another even though I might use the same root sounds for both.
JH: Laura Miller wrote in a Salon interview: "To my ear, he [Simon Vance] strikes exactly the right balance between distinct characters and the unified sensibility of a third-person omniscient narrator. When I crave the pleasure of being entirely enveloped in the imaginary world of a long novel, I want Vance to read it to me." Is there a "standard" Simon Vance voice that you'll use for a third person, non-character narrator?
SV: Er.... My own? I've never thought about adding or subtracting from my own voice for a standard narration unless the book specifically calls for that. What might affect it is the mood of the piece, but it'll still basically be me... as far as I'm aware.
JH: Do you work out of a home or local studio, sharing files with directors/producers remotely? Or do you still need to be "on-site"?
SV: I am on my own when it comes to books I'm narrating although I sometimes talk to the authors to see if they have any thoughts on how the story should be presented. I have my own studio at home and I send the files to an engineer where they are mastered and checked for errors.
JH: Your voice must take a beating. How many hours a day can you perform? How do you keep all those voices healthy and happy? Jolly Ranchers? Ricola drops? Tequila?
SV: I tend to stay around three to four hours maximum performing a day and generally I simply use water with a lemon slice in it... If things get hard I boil up the lemon, ginger, cayenne mix with a little honey in it...mmmm.
JH: When you were getting started did you have a coach or mentor that was particularly influential in shaping your art?
SV: When I was news reading on BBC Radio 4 I used to attend occasional classes at The Actors Centre in London. One day I did a workshop with Prunella Scales [Sybil in "Fawlty Towers"] After giving a sample reading she told me she'd love to hear me read Dickens one day... Little did I know that that was where my future would lie.
JH: What advice would you give to folks just getting started in audiobook narration?
SV: Really, you want to sit in a dark closet sized space for hours on end reading to yourself? Are you crazy? You're going to have to really love reading....
Seriously, it's become a very crowded profession recently and I'm lucky to have established myself some time ago. One must bear in mind that it's not just the hours spent behind the microphone... I spend a lot of time pre-reading and researching pronunciations, plus their are the technical aspects of running a home studio. But if you're dedicated, who knows? Plug yourself into all the audiobook groups in social media and absorb as much as you can. Listen to the respected readers and try to discover what it is they bring to a narration that the less successful clearly do not. I think, as a very basic requirement, you need an actor's sensibility... it's not just about a pretty voice.
JH: Do you have any favorites?
SV: When I think about it my overall favorite long term experience narrating books has been the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brien starting with Master and Commander (21 books in all).
JH: Ah..and finally: what are you working on now?
SV: About to get into Rules of Murder by Juliana Deering who just left a message on my website today saying she was excited about me narrating her "cozy mystery"... I like that kind of encouragement.
For the complete unabridged interview visit the Mill Valley Literary Review.