Voice of Gold: An Interview with Award-winning Narrator Simon Vance
It’s no secret that we at BiblioSanctum are fond of audiobooks and the many narrators who bring those stories to life. It’s also no secret that one of our favourite narrators is the amazing Simon Vance, whose award-winning work encompasses almost a thousand different books over the past 30 years. We are thrilled that Mr. Vance was able to take time out of his incredibly busy schedule to give us a peek into his work as an audiobook narrator.
Tell us a bit about how you got started? Did you receive any advice from or been influenced by other narrators in the industry at the time? Any words of wisdom to share with aspiring narrators now?
It was never my plan to make my living as an audiobook narrator. Pure accident. I was a BBC Radio newsreader based in London looking for a way to fill time when I stumbled upon the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) Talking Book Service. I auditioned and they accepted me and for several years I spent about one afternoon a week recording books for the blind and partially sighted to listen to on special machines. There was a little travel money, but that was it. When I came to California I was looking for something to bring in a little extra cash as I got my acting career into gear and a member of my then wife’s family knew David Case (aka Frederick Davidson, now sadly deceased) who introduced me to Craig Black, the founder of Blackstone Audiobooks, and I found it was possible to actually get paid for reading – seemed ideal.
David gave me the technical rudiments (using a tape deck and stopping and restarting at pauses to cover mistakes) but no real ‘coaching’ as such… I just did what I had done at the RNIB. I vaguely knew there were other narrators out there but it was almost 10 years before I ventured out to meet any of them and by then I was quite established in my own style.
I have no idea what to say to anyone thinking of entering the field now other than that it’s harder than it seems and there are so many better ways to earn good money in voice over than with audiobooks… but none quite as artistically satisfying.
In your opinion, what makes a good narrator?
How many hours do you have and how many times can I change my mind?
With a little bit of effort the technical side of the business can be learned quite easily even though there might be a steep learning curve with some of the equipment and certainly with some of the software.
But when it comes to the artistic side of recording an audiobook that’s a whole different kettle of fish. First and foremost I would say you need what I call an actor’s sensibility: By which I mean the ability to become entirely emotionally connected to what you are reading – very much ‘in the moment.’
That emotional connection has to be truthful; you cannot just fake it as so many new narrators try to do. To me the inherent truth of a narrator‘s performance is far more important than whether they have a ‘pretty’ voice, and hearing that truth tells me whether or not any given narrator has the ability to become a great narrator.
Do you read the book in advance? Do you often work with the authors? How do you handle those tricky names and places? How do you determine the defining traits of the various characters, such as vocal mannerisms and accents?
The range of preparation varies depending on the book; anything from a scan of the pages to a detailed reading of every single word. But that there is some form of preparation is essential.
Obviously if I need input from the author, on anything from pronunciation of names to clarifying story points, I will contact the author through the publisher. But I trust that, once chosen to narrate their book, the author will trust my own artistic choices.
As far as choosing vocal mannerisms and accents I will use any clues I can find in the text. If there are none I have free reign to use my own creative juices as long as what I create works within the context of the story!
Please describe for us a day in the life of an audiobook narrator.
Well, some days I start with a run and some days I go straight to oatmeal…
I’ll usually preplan my recording schedule before I start reading the book so that I know how many recording sessions I need to do each day to finish the book within the deadline I set. I try to get anything between 2 to 3 finished hours recorded each day in the studio. I used to record for between an hour or an hour and a half before taking a break which could cover several chapters in one recorded file. But in this download world I now take a short break at every chapter (publishers now prefer each chapter in it’s own file). My stomach can start to grumble around 11am so I always break then and have a healthy snack and maybe a smoothie.
After those sessions I will usually clean up the files before uploading them to the publisher and I’ll break for lunch early to mid afternoon. After that it’s household and business chores and checking on the work that is to come.
I spend a lot of time in Los Angeles now as I’m trying to reboot my screen-acting career so several evenings are often spent in class or networking. At an age when many people are thinking about the retirement I’m probably busier than I’ve ever been in my life!
Finally, perhaps, a glass of wine and a little Daily Show (I’ll miss Jon Stewart) and then it’s time for bed.
Do you listen to audiobooks yourself? Do you have any favourite books or narrators?
It would be nice to have more time to listen to my colleague’s audiobooks but I honestly don’t. Over the years I have listened to several but it would be unfair to pick out any one amongst many.
You’ve spoken about Anne Rice books being some of your favourite books to narrate. Have any other books made it to the top of your list since? What is it about these books that makes them so enjoyable to narrate?
I do enjoy narrating Anne Rice’s books (just finished one today) but I had favorites before I narrated those and I’ve enjoyed many books since. I adore Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope. Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time was particularly enjoyable as was Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin series of 21 books (Master and Commander, etc.). It seems unfair to stop naming favorites now but I really could go on for hours.
Whatever the style or genre, whether it be science fiction, fantasy, romance, murder mystery or whatever, what matters to me is that it is well-written, fluent and creates a believable world where the characters act logically according to their unique philosophy. Somewhere I can forget about myself, forget about the individual words and the construction of sentences, and just enjoy the moments.
No doubt Mr. Vance is already several hours into recording another audiobook that will end up on our reading lists very soon. We at BiblioSanctum are looking forward to it, and thank you for this insight into your world!