One of the best things about the audiobook industry is the narrators and I don’t just mean for the obvious reasons. When I was at Book Expo America in May, I was privileged to spend some time in the community of audiobook narrators, and I do mean community. This is a group of people who support each other, and build each other up, and offer advice, and everyone I met was so committed and passionate about what they do. Karen White was no exception. A three-time winner of Best Audiobook of the Year, her talent and skill are undeniable. She’s also active within the audiobook community in promoting audiobooks, blogging and Tweeting about books and her recording experiences. I had the chance to sit down with Karen in New York and ask her a few questions about her acting experiences and what to look for from her this summer.
What would you say to somebody who’s never tried audiobooks and thinks, “Oh, I wouldn’t like that, I need to read.” What would you say to them to give audiobooks a try?
Well, two things. One is, in our multitasking world, what I know about veteran listeners, listeners who have become huge converts from print to audio, is that they can do it not just while they’re commuting, which is what most people think of, but they can do it while walking, exercising, cleaning, gardening, doing tasks that require a certain part of your brain but not your entire brain. Knitting, doing needle-work, all those kinds of things. But, the sort of caveat to that that I’ve also heard people talk about is that it takes some practice to develop that part of our brains because, I just know from my theater background, in Shakespeare’s time, they would talk about going to hear a play, not to see a play. Because there was no printing press then, or it was just starting. And so people would hear news. They would go out and this guy on the street corner would yell the news. Or they’d listen to a storyteller or they’d go hear a play. And, literally, information had a sort of pathway in through the ear into the brain. And now we are so primarily visual that you kind of have to wake up that part of your sensory lineup to your brain. I read several blog posts, and have heard people talk about it, it just takes a little time to wake up and exercise that muscle, strengthen that muscle. For me, my favorite way to listen is with my kids. Not just on car trips, although that is great. I have a great memory of driving from Virginia when it was like a hundred-thousand degrees outside and we’re all shivering because we’re listening to The Long Winter. But also when my kids were little Harry Potter was on in my home stereo for years while Jim Dale worked through the series. It’s a way to have a common activity with your kids. I still read a lot of what my kids are reading, and they’re teenagers now, but my youngest one loves audiobooks. I think it appeals to some kids more than others but there’s an entertainment value to audiobooks that can be lacking in books.
You are a classically trained actor. What are some of the differences in this kind of acting as opposed to other types of acting?
Well it’s funny because I think one of the things working in Shakespeare when I was 20-something and I was working professionally, and I love Shakespeare, and I quickly figured out that the only way I was going to get cast was if I would say, “I’ll do guy roles.” So I did. I did a lot of male roles. And I do have a deeper voice, but I think that prepared me well for having to play men. I do a lot of romance books. Romance lady listeners love their heroes to have a deep voice. So I think that prepared me. Also, I did a lot of plays where I was “woman” on the cast list, which meant that I played 12 people. Once I even played a dog. Backstage. I was the voice of the dog. And several times, little old ladies would come backstage and want to see the dog. So to me, it’s kind of like that. The main difference is that I’m playing everybody, as well as the narrator. And I think there are a lot of new narrators who playing all the characters, especially if they have a theater background, is not a challenge. Playing the narrative voice in an engaging way, in a truthful way, in a compassionate, emotional way, is the hardest thing to figure out. I’ve done directing of other actors over the years doing audiobooks and often people doing it for the first time, and I’ve found that’s where they needed the coaching the most. Because the other part of it is finding the tone. What’s the tone of this book? What’s the atmosphere of it? Because you’re the author, you’re speaking as the author. Sometimes, obviously, if it’s first person there’s the character, but it’s knowing how to match your energy and your pacing and things like that, that can be a tricky thing. It just takes experience, I think. That’s where it’s also similar to theater because—I was never very successful on camera, and I think maybe because it’s so chopped up and you have to be in this little place right now, and then you’re in this little place over here, and it’s not in order, it’s not telling the story. Whereas when you work in theater, every night you tell the story, and you go through the arc. And then the other thing you have to do with the narrative voice is take the listener on the journey of the story, build to the climax, and then have the denouement, and so even though you’re not responsible for that entirely as an actor in a play, you know the feel of it. Whereas, film actors don’t do that at all.
But that to me seems like it’s one of the challenges of audiobooks, is that you are doing that whole narrative arc but not all in one night. As passionate as you guys all are, which everyone I’ve talked to has so much passion for what you do, but it is still a job and you still have to wake up and go to it. Getting yourself back into that character and at the right moment in time for that character, because they may be in a different place than they were when you started recording three days ago. How do you get into that?
I think that’s where, at least for me, the hardest part is actually starting. I put it off and put it off. I start pretty much every day by 9 o’clock. Somewhere between 8 and 9. But when it’s the first day of a book, it’s 10 o’clock and I’m Twittering and I’m on Facebook and I’m looking stuff up. Starting to me is the hard thing. Especially when a book is well written, once you’re on the train you can stop and just get back on. That’s not so much of a challenge. But I also never break for the day, or even for lunch, unless it’s at a chapter break. And sometimes you know how writers will stop a chapter but there’s still stuff going on, so I try to really break at a real break. I wouldn’t stop in the middle of some dramatic thing and try to pick that up again the next day. So that is a conscious choice on my part. You lean on the writing a lot. The writing carries you. You’re just the messenger. If I was making up a story that would be really hard for me, to start and stop. That’s why I’m not a writer, though.
What advice would you offer to non-actors who still have to read in front of an audience, like say an author who’s doing an author reading, or perhaps a young mother whose son keeps picking Daddy to read to him?
Well, I think for an author reading in front of an audience the challenge is standing up in front of a group of people and speaking. For the majority of people, there’s a greater fear of that than things like heights and snakes. It’s like second to death or something. So the main thing there, I think, is to talk to one person. Even if you’re looking at a crowd, one at a time, talk to one person, as if you were just sitting there talking to one person. Again, especially since they’re reading their own book, not just giving a talk, but trust the words. Just trust the story. I think for moms, I mean kids are so critical. Even my kids. I think it’s also letting yourself go on the journey of the book. Not trying to act it out. Not making up these crazy voices, unless that’s fun for you. And for some people that’s fun. But instead, emotionally, go with it. Let yourself feel what’s happening and that helps build the excitement when it’s exciting. It helps make you slow down when it’s somber, be goofy when it’s goofy. To me it’s just all about going on the ride, like it’s a roller coaster. It’s a letting happen, rather than a making happen.
Have you ever gone back and listened to any of your work just for fun? I don’t mean QCing, but later, after it’s done?
No. I wouldn’t even QC it. I wouldn’t do a good job because I would miss the same things. … But I love to talk about them.
What have you recently finished up that you want to talk about?
A beautiful book that I loved doing called Here and Again by Nicole Dickson from Blackstone [Audio]. It was just very beautifully written but also kind of a cool concept, set in the Shenandoah Valley and I’m originally from Virginia and North Carolina. Even though I had my accent trained out, I had to find it again. So that was a good part of it for me. But also, it’s about this family-owned farm and it’s going through a crisis and this guy shows up with a Civil War uniform on, and the main character assumes he’s a re-enactor. But then he keeps showing up and she finally realizes he’s actually a Civil War soldier. So the book is about time. It’s not like a ghost story. It’s more about reality sort of overlaps or something and I love how she deals with that concept. But also how their stories, and even what happens, it’s just a great story. I loved it.
In the romance genre I have several things going. Julie James is a writer that I’ve worked with for several years now and I think she’s just one of the best. She’s one of the best romance writers in contemporary fiction that there is. I just did her latest, It Happened One Wedding. What I love about her is she has such a great sense of humor. If I could write, her style of writing is what I would write. So when I read her it’s so easy because it’s like talking, it feels natural. I mean the narrative voice, as well as the banter between the hero and heroine is like how we all wish we could be funny. But realistic at the same time. Her heroines are all really smart.
Since you have done so much in romance and it seems like you enjoy it, it’s not just what you do because it suits your voice, I think there’s often a lot of stigma around romance, so what do you get out of those books? What would you say to someone who says, “I’m not going to read romance”?
Well it’s not for everybody. Honestly, if that was all I did, I think I would get sick of it. But this past year I did a non-fiction book about dog-training, I did a non-fiction about herbal medicine, I did one on religious clients in law history in this country. Anyway, really thick writing that is challenging to get through and not because it’s badly written but because it’s not necessarily written to be read aloud. I think the best of the romance writers are almost like playwrights, in that their writing leaps off the page. It just moves. And then there’s a happy ending and that’s always nice. The only books I really don’t like to read are the ones that give me nightmares because they’re so gory. … For romance, I think it’s often just such great storytelling. And also, again I like to go on the emotional roller coaster, and you get a really big roller coaster in romance. Even the sex scenes, I have been praised for how I read sex scenes, but I think it’s because I don’t focus on overplaying the words. I’m playing what’s going on between the people, which is good acting. Because of that the emotion, the feelings, come through between the people, the vulnerability, the intimacy. And that’s fun to do. It’s what actors like to do, is play those scenes. A lot of romance writing also has a lot of dialogue, which is fun to play, rather than interior monologues. But again, I think it’s like dessert, I like it because I don’t have to do it all the time. I think good writing is good writing. That’s what I would say to people who are, perhaps, suspicious.
Thanks to Karen for spending some time with me. Enjoy the clip of Here and Again below and let us know what you think in the comments!
Here and Again by Nicole R. Dickson. Performed by Karen White. Published by Blackstone Audio. Available now.