What does it take to be a successful audiobook narrator? We asked veteran actor and voice-over artist Ellen Archer. Archer is well known to fantasy fans as the narrator of Kristen Britain’s Green Rider series, of which the most recent volume is Firebrand. It is available via Audible and other audiobook retailers.
Unbound Worlds: How did you get involved in this business?
Ellen Archer: I had a career first as a voice-over person. I did a lot of commercials, television stuff, and radio. I was also a singer, I’m actually trained in opera. Those things kind of dovetailed.
Back in the old days, they used to have these events where you would come and pay $10 and they’d give you copy to record, like part of a book. Then you’d pick out of a hat the name of someone in the business to send the recording to, and they would tell you if you were any good. You can imagine how fun that was, but it was actually an amazing gift they gave to a lot of people.
I was fortunate. I got Sue Machowicz, who is an amazing human being. She had a company called Gizmo, and they recorded a lot with the BBC. She gave me a book immediately, Trading Up by Candace Bushnell, the woman who wrote Sex in the City, so my first book ever was 17 hours long with like 60 characters. It was like, “Wow, welcome to the world of audiobooks!”
UW: What’s the audiobook world like compared to your earlier work in commercials? Are there different demands?
EA: It’s very different, because when I’m in the studio for the campaigns I have and the spots that I do, I might be there on the outset of four hours, but a lot of that I’m sitting and listening to playback. In recording books, I found that I had to use my training as an actor, for sure, but also my musical abilities to understand breathing, and cadence.
I’ve always loved storytelling, so for me it was a natural fit. It felt like a one- woman show, which is very different from when you’re doing voice-overs — you’re not really acting, you’re selling something, and you’ve got 15 to 30 seconds to do it. With this, you have the opportunity to build characters and tell these lush stories. It definitely taps more into my acting and vocal technique than the commercials do.
UW: I’m glad you brought up acting and vocal technique, because I think there’s an idea among some people who may not listen to audiobooks that all a person like you does is sit and read. I know that’s not true.
EA: I teach, too, and I often have people come in and say that people have told them that they have a great voice and that they should be doing commercials and audiobooks. It’s really not so much about the voice, unless you’ve got a real problem with your voice. It’s more about the acting and storytelling.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a successful audiobook by someone who just sounds good. You might as well have Siri reading to you if you don’t have someone who really knows how to use their acting to tell a story. I often tell people who even want to do just voiceovers that they really need to take acting classes. Even if you’re just doing television commercials, you have to be able to lock into the feeling and connect immediately with what you’re reading.
When a writer writes a character, they don’t always give you a lot of backstory. You, as an actor, have to be able to imagine and inhabit that character. It helps you tell the story and move it along. I think it would be rather crippling, honestly, to go into this industry and not have at least have some experience with acting.
UW: What kind of acting did you do? Stage? Improv? What helped?
EA: I went to school at the Boston Conversatory, and my focus was in singing and opera, but I also took acting classes. After I left the conservatory, I ended up not doing opera. I actually ended up doing musical theater, regular theater, and one-woman shows. I’ve continued to do that forever. I’ve always done that.
Improv definitely helped, but the other thing was being trained in opera. I had to learn three additional languages: Italian, French, and German. My facility for accents and for speaking a language that I don’t actually know has been tremendously helpful.
UW: When people say they have a good voice, is there any uniform quality to them — something people identify as a “good voice”?
EA: I don’t think so. There are voices that don’t work. For example, a voice that’s super-gravelly: You could imagine using it in commercials, but I don’t think it would work for a five to 15 hour book. It would drive you nuts to listen to that for a long period of time. The voices that work best in audiobooks are the ones that don’t have distracting qualities that will pull you out of the story — that “turning up” at the ends of phrases all the time, or having that vocal fry, or not enunciating clearly.
UW: How do you decide what a character’s voice is going to sound like? Do you ever change your mind while you’re recording?
EA: What I do to prepare is that I read the whole book all the way through. I try to not to stop too much to take notes, but if a character hits me a certain way — I know that this person is going to have a certain accent or the author has given me a bunch of clues — then I’ll use those.
Like most actors, I have a very vivid imagination. I really do fall in love with the books I read, or try really hard to, and invest in them as if I was acting them on stage. I try to imagine the characters as real people, and sometimes that’s very organic: I’ll know exactly how that person should sound and I’ll record a little bit of that for reference or write a note.
The most challenging for me is when you have five middle-aged businessmen in a room together, and there’s nothing distinguishing about them. You can’t use accents, so I try to use tempo to add texture to the voice, or I’ll insert pauses.
I did a book series a couple of years ago set in England with a minor character who talked in a very high voice. In the first book, she had like four lines, but by the fourth book it was all her. People have loved her because she was such a whack job, so I did have regrets that I made her sound so insane. I toned her down a little bit. Sometimes you do make a choice, and when a character with a taxing voice returns in a series you sometimes just have to grin and bear it.
UW: How did you start working with Kristen Britain? I understand that you two have a close working relationship. How did you two meet?
EA: Kristen is an amazing writer. I’m delighted that she chose me way back in the day. I did auditions from home before I had any sort of set-up, and she really liked what I did. We ended up doing four books in a row. This was the first book of hers that was published, and certainly her first audio, so this was all new to her and I had a lot of questions.
Because it was set in a fantasy realm, I felt that she was writing with these accents in mind. I gave them Scottish, British, and other accents across that part of the world. She was very surprised and delighted. That was amazing for me, because we were really flying blind. She didn’t have much input in the very beginning. As it went on, I had more questions about little things because I wanted her to be more involved.
I happened to be in Maine when she was there doing a promotion for her latest book. We arranged to meet, and she asked me to come to this thing and do a reading. It was really delightful meeting her. She’s sort of shy, but very kind and supportive. She listens to every book, which I find kind of amazing.
UW: That must be in the back of your head that she’s going to do this.
EA: This last book that we did, Firebrand, wasn’t released as closely to the other books. I was worried: what if I lost the feel of it? I wasn’t in the seat right away, and I was really nervous in the beginning. We got in the zone, of course, and she wrote to say that she had listened to the first six chapters, and that the way that I voiced a scene was exactly what she had in mind. I breathed a big sigh of relief.
UW: Do you have any particular characters from the series that are fun to voice?
EA: I think that everyone’s favorite is Eardog, who is a slurping pirate, and he was a lot of fun to do. I loved the Berry sisters, these two old ladies who are kind of kooky. I really love voicing her characters: They are so amazing. I like voicing the Eletians. I gave them this ethereal, soft-spoken, musical quality. They’re soothing and I like to voice them, and of course Karigan and the king. They have a love and tension in their story, and I like doing their scenes.
UW: You’ve used your musical talents, as well.
EA: I did, and that was great fun. When I saw the songs and knew that I was going to write the music for them, I called her up and asked her if she could give me any clues about them. I said that I heard Gregorian chants and new age music in my mind. She told me that was weird because she wrote them listening to Enya. Isn’t that spooky? She loves that I’m singing them and I think that sometimes she writes with that in mind. I just find it a pleasure to get to sing in the books and write the music. I’ve done that before in other books, too, and it’s nice when those two things come together.
UW: Have you thought about maybe recording an album of music from the series?
EA: That would be cool, wouldn’t it? I should ask her about that. I bet she’s got some other stuff that she wrote that wasn’t included in the books. That’s an awesome idea. I’ve never thought about it.