A Few Thoughts on Narration

I’m on the eleven-hour train ride from New York to Montreal, re-reading a book written for ages 9 and up. It’s about as normal as a day of work gets for someone in my profession, but this particular book terrifies me.
Maybe I should backtrack a little bit: I’m an actor. Specifically, I’m a voice-over actor. I went to school to act, I did years of voice and speech training, and now I lend my voice to commercials, video games, in-house instructional videos for corporations, and audiobooks.
I love audiobooks. I love books, really, audio or otherwise. My reading habits range from pulpy sci-fi to impenetrable novels from the 18th Century.
When I read a book, I like to ask myself questions about what the author thinks of her characters. Or how her characters think and express themselves. For certain authors, a character might be a transparent window into the author’s feelings, or an idealized version of the author. In other cases, the author might set a character at a certain distance, and express a completely different way of thinking about the world. Then there there are deeper, more abstract questions, like what kind of reader the author imagines as she writes, and how she imagines that reader reacting to her characters. Needless to say, it gets a bit complex.
With an audiobook, though, someone’s already answered most of these questions.
An audiobook is one person’s interpretation of a book. It’s the audio narrator’s attempt to answer these questions about character and text. It’s one of the reasons I have the perverse habit of listening to the audio edition of a book I’ve already read. As with all acting, there’s no “right” way to do things, but there are always several “wrong” ways. When I get an audiobook to narrate, I spend as much time as I can thinking about these questions, but this one book has me scratching my head.
A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from a producer. They have a book for me to narrate. It’s just received a Newbery Honor and they want me to narrate the audiobook. I got excited, as I always do with audiobooks, and the next day I picked up my copy.
The first time I read an assignment through, I make a list of character names and any words that I might not know how to pronounce. These might be foreign words, or maybe even words I’m already familiar with, but maybe I’m not 100% certain how to say because I’ve only ever read them. For instance, a few years ago I did a book about animals, and the word “narwhal” came up. Now, I thought I knew how to pronounce this one, but it turns out I was absolutely wrong. It’s true! We had to stop the recording and check with the research department at the publisher before we could even continue. After that, I’ve always erred on the side of asking about what might be an obvious word, rather than having a recording go out to the world where I’ve made a mistake.
Anyway, on this particular first read-through, I brought pen and paper with me (I never write in books, ever) and knuckled down to read it. It wasn’t a very long book. Short enough to read through in about an hour. My girlfriend and I went to a cafe in our neighborhood in Brooklyn to have a little work date. As I turned each page and jotted down every Russian name I came across, the chocolate croissant I was eating as I read slowly turned into a hard stone in my stomach. The book was tremendous, but it was also enormously unsettling. When I was done, I was in a daze. My girlfriend looked up at me from across the table and said, “Are you done already?” “Yeah,” I said, “this book is a killer.”
I’m supposed to record the book in just a few days, and it’s still giving me the willies. Despite that, I’m going to take every opportunity I have this to read through this book, to get familiar and comfortable with thoughts and ideas which couldn’t be more alien and disturbing to me. After answering these questions, and putting someone else’s words into my mouth, I’ll find myself changed by the experience. And change never comes easy.
Mark Turetsky is a voice over artist based in Brooklyn, NY. His voice can be heard in audiobooks for all ages, including the forthcoming Breaking Stalin’s Nose, by Eugene Yelchin.