I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Nicola Barber, a two-time Audie Award Winner and 2013 Audie nominee for Call the Midwife. Since 2010, Nicola has narrated over 130 audiobooks. In between narrating projects, her voice over work includes national TV for Coca-Cola, promotional videos for Pampers and Skype, national radio spots for Hilton Hotels and Verizon Wireless. Nicola graciously agreed to answer a few of my questions related to audiobook narration.
How did you get started as a narrator?
I was working as a voice over artist and I took a class with Paul Ruben to get some of the techniques I would require to narrate audiobooks, which led me to audition for my first book.
How is narrating audiobooks different from your voice over and acting work?
Narrating is a whole different technique from stage acting or screen or radio commercials. You have to unlearn a lot of habits and skills in order to narrate a story well. You have to keep the energy and pace up, but without going too fast or sounding too aggressive. You have to stay true to the text and work your way through as it happens, even though you’ve read the book already and you know what’s coming next. You have to be aware of your entire body (don’t fidget, keep your neck muscles relaxed, keep your airflow moving but without making noise, keep your stomach from rumbling), and at the same time, you have to ignore all of that stuff and just stay focused on the text.
I think audiobooks are my favorite because they are so different. Every book you record is new and all the characters are different and it gives me the opportunity as an actress to really create a character from scratch. Most audiobooks have 8, 9, 10 characters or more, and you really get to invest in all the characters and play all the parts and I love that. The variety of jobs I get as a voice talent is something I really enjoy.
What was your first audiobook?
A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert. I was cast by Paul Ruben and Paula Parker Ruben, who have been really influential in my career. They are both amazing producers and Paul also directs. That book was really challenging because I played a woman who started off very young. I played her at age 13 or 14, and then 30 and 40 all the way up to age 84 or so. For a first book, it really forced me to use my full range as an actress. I enjoyed the challenge, but it was a little bit daunting at first.
Are you still able to read purely for pleasure?
It’s really hard to read for pleasure. I find it easier to read nonfiction for pleasure, because most of my narration is fiction. Reading for me is work. When I have a book it’s because I have to work on it, so the idea of sitting down and reading a book doesn’t seem all that appealing. When I’m preparing a book to narrate I read it very quickly and pull out characters and hints (how to direct the characters, what they’re feeling and how everything should be read). I tend to read very fast, otherwise the prep time would take much longer than it already does. When I’m reading for pleasure I have to consciously slow myself down, otherwise I’m zipping through the book and missing quite a bit.
What’s most surprising or challenging about your job?
Hmmm…I’m thinking. It’s surprising how exhausting it is. What a full body exhausting experience it is when you narrate from 10 am to 5 pm. Because you’re not just reading. If you say you read for 6 hours today that sounds nice, but it’s really tiring.
The challenge nowadays as a narrator is very often you are self-directing. A lot of people are just recording and editing themselves, they don’t even have an engineer. Or they’ll record themselves and work with someone else who edits. But it’s essentially just people in a booth on their own for hours and hours. Whereas it used to be, almost every book had a director and an engineer, and I think that was much more of a collaboration. Whenever I have a director I love it. For Call the Midwife, which was nominated for an Audie, I was directed by Paul Ruben and he was instrumental in making that book what it is. He’s a genius. I think directors really help but they’re going by the wayside as everything is getting streamlined.
You’ve narrated children’s stories, fantasy, science fiction, mysteries and memoirs. Are there any types of books you don’t narrate?
[Nicola chuckles] … Yeah, I really don’t like narrating the steamy romances. When I get a romance project, I tend to search through it for words like nipple and breasts. I’ll check out the scene and if it’s just romantic but not steamy that’s fine. But if it’s too steamy, I can’t, I just can’t do it. Other than that I’ll narrate anything. I’ve never had a book that offended me.
Can you tell us about working on Call the Midwife? Were you a fan of the TV series prior to narrating the stories?
I didn’t watch the series until after I narrated the first book. I asked about that and the producer said the audiobook was its own thing, completely separate from the TVs series, two different interpretations of the written word. I wanted to portray the characters as the author had written them, to stay as true as possible to her words and my interpretations of her words.
You asked how it was to narrate those books. The second and third books were really challenging, because some of the stories are very, very sad. They are beautiful books, full of joy and laughter and babies and full of sadness and death and just normal everyday life, some of which is very painful. There were times when we’d finish a story and I’d have to stop and cry and get out of the booth. The engineer and I would take a moment, take some deep breaths and then go back in to begin the next story. It was so moving. As a narrator you have to be right inside, really deep inside it. Sometimes it would be so emotionally raw, I’d have to take breaks from it. So that was challenging but also rewarding too, because what a beautiful piece of literature.
What are you working on now?
This week I’m recording Spirit Animals Book 5: Against the Tide by Tui T. Sutherland. Next week I’ll narrate the next title in that children’s series from Scholastic: Spirit Animals Book 6: Tales of the Great Beasts by Brandon Mull, Nick Eliopulos, Billy Merrill, Gavin Brown and Emily Seife. And I just finished Swimming Home by Deborah Levy, a fantastic, rich, wonderful book by an amazing British author.
Many thanks to Nicola for taking me a bit deeper into the world of audiobook narration. I loved learning more about all that goes into an audiobook and I’m curious about some of the other roles Nicola mentioned. Look for interviews with audiobook producers, directors, and engineers in future posts. Happy listening!
Enjoy this clip from Call the Midwife: Farewell to the East End by Jennifer Worth, narrated by Nicola Barber, Highbridge Audio, 2014.