People can’t get enough of audiobooks these days so it’s no surprise the medium is enjoying year-on-year double digit sales growth. But who are the people behind the voices? Where do they start with all the different characters and voices? And how do they bring them alive? I put these questions (and more) to professional actor and smooth-voiced narrator Alex Wyndham, who has worked on two of my novels (The Neighbors and Her Secret Son), to get the details.
Audiobook narration is a fascinating and complicated endeavour. It can sometimes be nightmarishly difficult stuck in a hot booth in hour six of day ten, but then you have wonderful moments where you get into your flow, disappear into the story, and the pages and hours fly by. I do love audiobooks; they end up being much more personal and you get to stretch yourself like no other medium—playing men, women, children not to mention dragons, ghosts and sundry creatures.
Compared to screen acting, voice work is often very relaxed. There are so many compromises on a set—a rushed schedule, a camera in your face and all the added pressure of it being all of you being captured rather than just your voice. It can often be a very stressful existence, especially TV. Always chasing the light and never having enough time for more than a couple of takes. And, of course, you’ve got someone telling you what to do. When it’s just you it’s very peaceful. Having said that, working with other people certainly can take you to another level.
When it comes to the process of narrating a novel, first you schedule! And break it up into manageable daily chunks of narration. Then you read and create the voices—and give yourself enough time to settle into the author’s rhythm and style of writing. Mind meld. Coming from an acting background (and a lot of great narrators don’t, actually) voices and accents were always something I was going to enjoy doing. More of a performance rather than a reading of a book. It’s exhausting but it’s too late to change that now!
I tend to lean a lot on my instincts and let them do most of the work. So, it’s more a process of letting go and having the courage to just go for it in the studio. I think most people would be surprised how many characters they have hidden away. The trick is letting them out. In terms of consistency and keeping the characters sounding like themselves, it’s a bit like muscle memory: after a couple of chapters the character makes a place in your brain and you can return to them with ease. Honestly, if you gave anyone a book to read their kids at bedtime, they’d do it all automatically. Put on a voice or an accent and just tell a story. As I said once you’ve done the prep, it’s really about responding to something and trusting yourself.
Every genre certainly has its challenges, whether that be trying to find a voice for an elf or demon or trying to narrate an explicit sex scene without grossing yourself or the listener out. With crime, I think it’s about not taking your foot off the gas and keeping the energy right there, so you can channel the peril or mystery effectively. But at the same time not going over the top—it does have to be done very delicately sometimes as you don’t want to make the twist and turns sound melodramatic or cheesy with an overblown performance.
The author’s feedback is super important—you’re trying to channel their vision. So, it’s mouth closed, ears open. It’s great to collaborate to get on the same page with the characters. I’d always encourage authors to engage with their narrators as much as possible. You have to learn how to take criticism and confidence from people’s responses where appropriate and ditch the rest.
My advice for aspiring actors/voice actors? Don’t take it lightly. Everything that looks great and seems easy is the product of countless hours of blood sweat and tears. And . . . find your voice and learn to trust it!
(c) Alex Wyndham, Hannah Mary McKinnon
An Oxford University and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art graduate Alex has starred in several BBC and HBO shows, including the Emmy winning Little Dorrit and Rome, and in various films and BBC 4 radio plays. He has voiced everything from Apple iPad campaigns to fertilizer instructions and provided voice and motion capture performances for numerous triple-A video games. He has voiced everything from Apple iPad campaigns to fertilizer instructions and since he started narrating audiobooks in 2014 he has not stopped.
Hannah Mary McKinnon was born in the UK, grew up in Switzerland and moved to Canada in 2010. After a successful career in recruitment, she quit the corporate world in favor of writing. Her Secret Son (May 2019) is her third novel. She lives in Oakville, Ontario, with her husband and three sons, and is delighted by her twenty-second commute. www.HannahMaryMcKinnon.com
About The Neighbours by Hannah Mary McKinnon:
Abby looks forward to meeting the family who just moved in across the street – until she realizes they’re the one couple who could expose her deepest secrets.
After a night of fun back in 1992, Abby is responsible for a car crash that kills her beloved brother. It’s a mistake she can never forgive, so she pushes away Liam, the man she loves most, knowing that he would eventually hate her for what she’s done, the same way she hates herself.
Twenty years later, Abby’s husband, Nate, is also living with a deep sense of guilt. He was the driver who first came upon the scene of Abby’s accident, the man who pulled her to safety before the car erupted in flames – the man who could not save her brother in time. It’s this guilt, this regret, that binds them together. They understand each other. Or so Nate believes.
In a strange twist of fate, Liam moves into the neighborhood with his own family, releasing a flood of memories that Abby has been trying to keep buried all these years. Abby and Liam, in a complicit agreement, pretend never to have met, yet cannot resist the pull of the past – nor the repercussions of the terrible secrets they’ve both been carrying….
Order your copy of the audiobook here.
About Her Secret Son by Hannah Mary McKinnon:
How far would you go to protect the ones you love…when they may not be yours to protect?
When Josh’s longtime partner, Grace, dies in a tragic accident, he is left with a mess of grief – and full custody of her seven-year-old son, Logan. While not his biological father, Josh has been a dad to Logan in every way that counts, and with Grace gone, Logan needs him more than ever.
Wanting to do right by Logan, Josh begins the process of becoming his legal guardian – something that seems suddenly urgent, though Grace always brushed it off as an unnecessary formality. But now, as Josh struggles to find the paperwork associated with Logan’s birth, he begins to wonder whether there were more troubling reasons for Grace’s reluctance to make their family official.
As he digs deeper into the past of the woman he loved, Josh soon finds that there are many dark secrets to uncover, and that the truth about where Logan came from is much more sinister than he could have imagined….
Tightly paced and brimming with tension, Her Secret Son is a heartbreakingly honest portrait of a family on the edge of disaster and a father desperate to hold on to the boy who changed his life.
Order your copy online here.