Just over a week after being published, The Bone Season became a New York Times bestselling novel. It debuted at #7 on the hardcover fiction list and #11 for eBooks. It also became a #9 Sunday Times bestseller. It's such an incredible honour to be in those lists. Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to everyone who has taken the time out of their day to buy it. You are all absolutely wonderful.
I'm very excited to welcome Alana Kerr to my blog today. Alana is a Northern Irish actress with experience in TV, film, theatre, radio, and even puppetry. She recently narrated the audiobook for The Bone Season, which was released alongside the print and eBook versions of the novel on 20 August. At the end of this post you can find out how you could win a free download of the audiobook – but until then, Alana has been kind enough to stop by and answer some of your questions. (And mine.)
Q&A: Audiobook narrator
Alana Kerr is originally from Belfast. She graduated from Trinity College, Dublin with a joint 2:1 in Drama and English, and trained at the National Youth Theatre (NYT), National Youth Music Theatre (NYMT) and as a soprano at the Leinster School of Music. She is the founder of the Belfast Actors’ Studio, a group dedicated to the development of actors’ skills and ongoing creative growth. Alana is the narrator of The Bone Season audiobook (Audible) and played Eleanor in Lucy Caldwell’s award winning Girl From Mars (BBC Radio 4).
What kind of writing do you like? What are your favourite books?
I’m not usually one for definitive favourites but if I had to choose a favourite novel I’d have to go with one introduced to me by Dad, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. I’m also a big fan of Toni Morrison’s writing.
How does one become an audiobook narrator? What’s the auditioning process like?
First of all I had to audition to be with Deyan Audio, the production company who record and edit the audiobooks on behalf of publishers such as Audible. For that I had to choose a short piece from any novel and come to their studio and record it. I chose to read from the first novel in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Northern Lights, which coincidentally also heavily features Oxford as a location. I was asked to audition a few months later for The Bone Season and was sent the first two pages of the novel. I then had to come into the studio and record it with one of the engineers. A few days later I was asked back to read another section of the novel, one more heavy in dialogue where I had to play different characters. A few days later I got an email to say I’d booked the job and I was over the moon!
How many books have you narrated?
One! This was my first audiobook narration job, but I had previously recorded the lead role of Eleanor in Lucy Caldwell’s award winning play Girl From Mars for BBC Radio 4 and was also very experienced in TV and radio advertising campaigns.
On average, how many hours does it take to narrate a book? Is it done in one sitting or broken up into fragments?
The usual rule of thumb is for every hour of finished audio it should take two hours in the studio. This is then judged by the word count and a rough estimate is drawn up. We thought we might be able to record The Bone Season in five days of seven hour-long sessions, in reality it took seven and a half. Several factors came into play. Not only was this my first audiobook recording but because the novel contained so many new words with very particular pronunciations (think Rephaim, for example) we often had to stop to clarify things. I also had the challenge of playing many characters with very specific accents. Some came more naturally to me than others and therefore demanded more time to perfect (read: I messed up some more than others and it took longer to get them right!)
Do you ever get emotional while reading a particularly 'heavy' scene?
Thankfully Samantha’s material never became too ‘heavy’ but I imagine this could be possible if you come across a passage that really affects you in that way.
Did you get nervous about how the author might feel about your interpretation of the book?
Yes! I felt a lot of pressure, most of which I heaped upon myself. I always try and do things to the best of my ability but this was new territory for me, especially with all the accents. I can only imagine how important this novel is to Samantha and I wanted to do her work justice. I also wanted to do Bob and Debra Deyan proud. Thankfully everyone seems to be really happy with the final result, not least of all my Dad who is listening to it as he goes on his daily walk. His last one took him out for nearly two and a half hours as he was enjoying it so much! (Now that’s a compliment Samantha!)
How do you tackle action scenes?
This is a really interesting question. It is, of course, important to be clear when narrating an audiobook but never more so than when things are moving along quickly. A narrator must provide information but with a level of excitement appropriate to the scene. I’ll never forget reading about Quidditch for the first time in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone. I was lying on my bed at home as a teenager in Belfast and can remember a rush of adrenaline as my eyes scanned the lines as quickly as I could. The excitement of the scene drew me in so completely that I couldn’t stand to put the book down when I was called by my Mum for dinner. I would hate for this to be lost in the audio format and so it was my goal to describe the scenes clearly but with the appropriate energy.
How do you go about doing the voices of characters of the opposite sex? Do you consciously change your tone?
This was something I thought about. I didn’t want to imitate a man’s voice as that would just sound silly. I felt it was more important to convey the sense of character than imitate the resonance of a man’s voice. At times I did feel it was appropriate to lower the tone of my voice and it helped that many of the characters had different accents but I still think that a sense of the individual character came before all of that.
How do you differentiate between character voices?
I had a digital copy of the novel and a wonderful app that allowed me to annotate and highlight the text however I wanted. Ordinarily I’m old fashioned when it comes to paper verses digital copies but this was much more practical under the circumstances. It was of course more environmentally friendly and also meant that there was no sound of swishing paper as I turned the page in the studio. I was therefore able to highlight dialogue and give specific characters different colours. This helped not only give me a bit of warning that dialogue was coming up but also helped me to distinguish one character from another. I would also make notes in the margin that referenced the particular accent or underline words that I needed to check for pronunciation. Clues were also sometimes given by the author about the character’s tone of voice or particular delivery of a line. These would all help to inform what I already knew about the characters through their descriptions, behaviour and dialogue.
Any advice for aspiring narrators?
We live in a digital age and it is so easy to record yourself these days. I bought a relative inexpensive mic that allows me to record voiceover auditions from home and learnt how to use a very basic editing programme. Find a piece of writing you love and record it. Try different works and compare your delivery. Listen to other people’s work and learn from it. Work on different accents and put together a reel of some kind. Use any connections you have to get that reel heard by someone who could help you, a voiceover agency, recording house or even an animation studio.
The Bone Season questions
You did an incredible range of accents for The Bone Season: Scottish, Mexican, northern English, received pronounciation, and of course, Irish. I really appreciated you doing them all; it brought the characters' voices to life. Was it difficult to get those accents down? Did you take advice from anyone on how to handle them?
Ha ha, yes! This was the area that intimated me most. My mother’s a linguist and I’ve always been good at languages. I sing too which I think helps a lot. If I listen to a particular accent I can usually reproduce the sounds pretty accurately as I imitate the sounds and the intonation as I would a piece of music. I have always been told I was good at accents but I’m also a perfectionist and being ‘good’ at an accent wasn’t enough for me to break it out around native speakers. With the exception of American (General) and RP, I feel uncomfortable improvising an accent so being faced with almost 500 pages of the unknown was quite scary! I did have a bit of a panic when I realised that one of the characters was Scottish. I think I may have verbalised my panic when I found that out! Luckily, I was able to call upon a friend and had her read the character’s lines into her phone and email them to me.
Was there a character whose voice you particularly enjoyed doing? Or one you found particularly challenging?
It's always fun to play the baddie and I loved playing Nashira. I love her sense of self importance and I always tried to picture speaking to the large crowd she so often addressed, even though the booth I was in was probably a metre and a half squared! It was fun playing Jaxon too. When doing my research, I came across something that said the author would love to see Benedict Cumberbatch play the part in the film adaptation and this gave me full licence to have fun with him. Leiana Leatutufu's sketches also helped flesh out the images of the characters and I found really helped inform the sense of character. Liss and David were definitely challenging for me when it came to getting the accent right and let's not forget Zeke too (the less said the better where he's concerned!)
How did you decide on what sort of accents to give the Rephaim?
As stereotypical as it sounds I could think of nothing more appropriate than heightened RP. It carries a sense of authority I don't think any other accent does. I further justified it knowing that they lived in Oxford and arrived there 200 years earlier.
Which was your favourite scene or chapter to narrate?
This is a hard one as there are so many memorable scenes. The incident on the train, the rooftop chase, Paige caring for the injured Warden, the battle at Trafalgar Square, I could go on. There were tender moments and exciting moments and I would find it hard to choose just one.
Writers have to find their ‘voice’ when they tell a story. Did it take a while for you to get to grips with Paige’s voice? Did you read the whole book before you started to narrate it, or plunge straight in?
A narrator is usually given around a week or so to read and prep their book. Unfortunately we were on a tight schedule and I had to begin recording only two days after first receiving the novel. I’m quite a slow reader and was reading non-stop when not recording. Not only does reading the whole novel give you a better sense of the overall tone but important details about the characters, such as where they were born and raised, can oftentimes be revealed more than halfway into the book. For example, the character of Liss it transpires was born near Inverness and moved to London at a young age but this is only revealed during her second major appearance. Had I not noticed this before I started recording her earlier lines we would have had to have gone back and rerecorded them all again. Also, Paige, like Liss, is said to have moved to London from Ireland at the age of eight. It was therefore important that I neutralise certain words to make them a little bit more anglicised. Words like “now”, “face”, “surround” and even Paige’s own name sound very different in my native Belfast accent than they do in the final recording. I had to be mindful of those whilst reading and had them all highlighted to remind myself (there were a lot of them!) That was a big challenge for me initially but I quickly found a rhythm and it came more naturally as I became more comfortable with Paige’s voice.
There's a fictional song in the novel called An Ember Morning, which you read (like a poem) rather than sang. Were you tempted to have a stab at it, even though you didn't know the melody?
Yes! I actually really wanted to. I’m a singer and would have loved to have gotten the chance to sing a brand new Irish air as Paige but unfortunately we didn’t have any music for it. If someone puts it to music I’d love to sing it!
The Bone Season is told in first person. Your perspective – your voice – is locked inside Paige. It's not always easy to be trapped in the mind of one character. As a narrator, do you prefer to read first-person or third-person books?
I’m not sure I know how to answer this having only narrated one audiobook but I really enjoyed being inside Paige’s head. I enjoyed seeing this magical new world through her eyes and painting a picture for the listeners with her voice. I would be interested to try third person narration but there’s something about speaking not just a character’s words but thoughts as well that seems that bit more immersive.
I'm sure you'll all join me in saying a big thank you to Alana for answering those questions in so much detail!
The unabridged audiobook of The Bone Season is now available from Audible and Audible UK. To celebrate its release, I'm doing my very first giveaway. The prize? A free download code for the audiobook. All 15 hours, yours for free. To enter, all you have to do is answer an easy question about the book. Leave your answer in the comments section (don't worry if it doesn't appear immediately). Click the widget below to enter. The winner will be announced on 20 September 2013.
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