Behind the Voice: An Interview with Audiobook Narrator Peter Kenny
It’s no secret that we at The BiblioSanctum are fond of audiobooks and the many narrators who work on them. We have talked about our favorite narrators in past years, again and again, and we’ve also had the great honor of interviewing some of these amazing individuals. Today, we’re thrilled to bring you a conversation with none other than Peter Kenny, whose work in the world of audiobooks has achieved great critical acclaim in recent years. Sci-fi & Fantasy fans and audiophiles should be no stranger to Mr. Kenny; his voice has brought to life stories written by authors including Iain M. Banks, Claire North, Neil Gaiman, and of course Andrezj Sapkowski, author of The Witcher novels (the audiobooks for the series are a favorite around here!) I hope you’ll enjoy our Q&A!
Hi Peter, welcome to the BiblioSanctum! Thanks for letting us pick your brain today and grill you about the audiobook narrating process!
Hello BiblioSanctum-a-philes! A pleasure to be here, I hope I have something interesting to offer your followers.
To kick things off, can you tell us a little about yourself? Your profile says you first got started in theater and acting, how did that journey ultimately lead you to audiobook narrating?
After working for many theatre groups including the Royal Shakespeare Company, I was invited to join the BBC Radio Drama Co. This is a dedicated repertory company run by the BBC, with a mix of Drama graduates and experienced actors. We recorded mostly radio dramas but also abridged books or short stories for radio broadcast.
I recorded my first short story, Ansell, by E.M. Forster in December 1993; bizarrely it was recently re-broadcast on BBC I-player… I didn’t recognise myself! Boy! How voices change!
A year later, I ran into a BBC producer Matthew Walters, who had moved into the charity sector and he invited me to record unabridged audiobooks for the charity Listening Books. My first unabridged book, was Junk by Melvyn Burgess… my fifteen year-old niece thought I was SOOO cool! Thereafter I recorded a large range of books in the charity sector including for the RNIB for whom I still record, before being approached by commercial studios in 2003 when I started recording books for Libraries and Audible upload.
Are you a listener of audiobooks yourself?
Absolutely! They make car journeys fly by! Sean Barrett, Martin Jarvis and Scott Brick are among my Audio Gods. All of whom, I can personally vouch, are totally delightful and inspirational human beings, as well as being brilliant readers and teachers.
How do you prep for each narrating project? Do you often read the book in advance, or work with the author before recording?
If I have the time (I don’t always have the luxury) I like to read the book at least three times first, so that I am as familiar as I can be, plus I’m as sure as I can be that I understand what is actually going on. Some of the sci-fi’s and fantasies are incredibly complex and it can take a while to get inside the story. Contacting an author is unusual. Most authors are very busy folks and almost none write a story with an audiobook in mind. Occasionally if I’m really stuck I’ll email the publisher and they will relay messages to the author. I have been fortunate that many of the authors I work with have been happy to initiate contact directly, which is rare, and that can sometimes throw up real surprises. One of Iain M Banks’ characters in Feersum Endjinn, is written almost phonetically in text speak; I had always assumed (as had many readers) he must have a Scots accent, however, Iain was adamant he should not and so we settled on a south east UK “Essex” kind of accent, whilst preserving the word pronunciations as written in the txt speak Iain had created.
Can you describe for us a day in your life as Peter Kenny, Audiobook Narrator?
I have to admit first off I’m a bit of a Luddite! I still prefer to work with a paper script. I will usually sit in a cafe or some other public space to work on a script, as I find working at home too distracting, and the white noise of a cafe with conversation buzzing around that doesn’t involve me is less intrusive than the silence filled with thoughts about business email or gardening that I would face at home. Also sometimes if I’m struggling to nail the voice for a character, I get inspiration from the voices I can overhear around me. If the book is say perhaps a three day record I will spend (again time permitting) three days prepping. I have a special notebook into which I jot down all the character notes and place or name pronunciations I have to research, as I prepare the script. Once in studio, we usually record from 9.30 for an hour and a half then take a short break, another 90mins, then lunch, and the same for the afternoon. That’s roughly six hours a day in an enclosed space, speaking aloud! Try it sometime… it’s tougher than it sounds! 🙂
In your opinion, what makes a good narrator? And what advice would you give to narrator-hopefuls?
The best narrator’s all share the same three qualities: Passion, Empathy and Generosity… I would also add Stamina. With regards advice to anyone interested in becoming a narrator, see the previous answer: If you think this may be something you are interested in doing. Try shutting yourself in a cupboard or small room and reading ALOUD, non-stop, some of your favourite books. Record as you go and listen back, if you haven’t gone insane after an hour and a half, then this may be for you!
As you know, we here at The BiblioSanctum are very big fans of your work on the English translation audiobooks for The Witcher novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. The popular series has spawned a ton of other media, including movies, shows, and games. When you found out you were going to be narrating the books, did you reference any of those at all, or did you prefer to approach the process with a blank slate?
Thank you, I’m seriously delighted you are enjoying them. When I was first approached it was a two book deal, starting with The Last Wish and Blood of Elves, however, I was unaware of the following the Witcher had as a game. The publisher was keen that the books should stand alone, as although newly translated into English they pre-dated the games, so I was given a free hand along with the fantastic Producer, Kate Jones. My journey with any book I record is to just read it first so I experience it like any reader, my job then is to interpret it as best I can, remaining as faithful to the text and the author’s vision as I can. All decisions made about characterisations are pulled from clues within the text itself.
As an extension to the last question, how do you go about “casting” the voices you use for the characters? Do you draw inspiration from anywhere for certain characters, or to determine what cadence, accent, tone, or any defining mannerisms and traits etc. to use for each voice?
To answer your question I’ll use The Witcher as an example. After I’d read The Last Wish, I had to make decisions about vocal qualities for each of the races/species and after discussion with Kate, we chose the regional differences based upon references in the books themselves. So the dwarves: short doughty miners, fond of beer and song? That fitted the Welsh, thus they have Welsh accents in my recordings. The Elves an exotic “elder race” are described as sometimes having a strong wild-elf accent or neutral, I made connections between them and the Dryads as spiritual creatures with strong earth connections, almost cousins; the Dryads are described as having voices like the wind rustling through trees so I made them breathy with a similar “exotic” vaguely central European accent as the Elves. I’m often asked, “Why does Ciri have a Scottish accent?” My answer: In The Last Wish, where I/we first encountered Ciri’s family, they are introduced through Calanthe, her grandmother “The Lioness of Cintra” as the ruler of a proud warlike coastal race controlled by the Chieftans of feudal clans, with a scatter of Islands off to the west, and they wore kilts and plaid! …I suppose I could have gone Irish!
Aside from The Witcher audiobooks, you’ve also narrated a number of other titles, including novels by Iain M. Banks and Claire North. Which were some of your favorite books to narrate and why?
Of the twenty-nine books Iain (M) Banks published, I was privileged to record twenty-three, Iain’s writing is phenomenal and will always hold a very special place in my heart. We largely owe the vastness of concept in contemporary sci-fi to his influence; a genius taken out at the top of his game… I miss him terribly. Claire North is a very exciting new voice; edgy, emotional, personal… her writing gets right under your skin… you feel her characters’ journeys. Fantastic. From Banks, perhaps start with The Player of Games. However, the first book of the “Culture” series, which is mind blowing, is Consider Phlebas, this lays out the concept of The Culture and the universe they inhabit. Each of the books are standalone and have only one instance of character crossover, so they can be read in any order, though Consider Phlebas is the earliest in the timeline of the series and sets out important cultural references, which help with understanding later books.
Claire North’s first sci-fi The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, is an extraordinary take on time-travel/multiple lives, a real thriller too. Her second novel, Touch, is, however, my favourite of her stories. I wept a lot! It’s hard to pick out a stand-out favourite as all the writers have such different voices, bringing their own sensitivities and sensibilities out for us to share. I have huge respect and admiration for them all.
Yeah, I had a really great time with Touch too! To my great shame though, I still haven’t yet read anything by Banks, but both A Player of Games and Consider Phlebas are on my TBR. Speaking of favorites, I think my favorite book narrated by you was Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski, especially for the story “A Little Sacrifice” where Geralt and a mermaid converse in the Mer “language”, which has to be spoken entirely in singsong. I just have to ask! What was your thought process when you read that scene?
Thank you! I’m delighted you enjoyed it. Ahhh yes the Mermaid! Well, the producer and I debated long and hard about that one, we tried it with me just speaking the lines but it wasn’t clear in audio when she and Geralt were speaking ordinary speech, and when they were using the “Mer-tongue”. As I used to be a singer, and more specifically a counter-tenor/mezzo-soprano, we decided to just go for it! One reviewer described it as Sean Bean out on a drunken night of Karaoke! However, I’m a great believer that if the writing is gutsy, I, as a reader have to be… apologies to those who hated it!
Great, now you’ve gotten this image in my head of a drunken Boromir singing Karaoke and I can’t stop laughing! What, if any, are some of the challenges you’ve had to face so far in audiobook narrating, and are there any interesting moments or stories you’d like to share from your experiences?
The toughest of challenges I have faced? I have hinted at one earlier; sometimes if a book has a huge emotional arc for a character, it is very hard to step back as a narrator and not be too emotionally drawn in. It is not for me to be moved it is for me to read the words aloud and let the listener follow their own journey… there are sometimes many long silences in the studio as I struggle to regain my own composure. This is doubly so if the story is based in truth. There is a powerful book in my audible list by St John Green, called, “Mum’s List” a true story about a family struggling with their Mum’s breast cancer… the most difficult book I ever had to record, but actually despite the subject matter, extremely uplifting. The only other difficulty, which seems to be more frequent since the release of Fifty Shades, is the now almost inevitable sex scenes… Yuk! Not fun to record at all! But hey! I’m just the voice; I don’t write them! 🙂
Wrapping up, are there any projects you’re working on currently or in the near future that you can talk about?
I have just finished recording a first novel by a very exciting new writer, Robert Dickinson; The Tourist is a speculative present/near-future/far-future sci-fi. Very deep and complex; I had to read it at least twice to get what was going on… well worth it; due out in October. I have also just picked up the script for Part 2 of Ken MacLeod’s series The Corporation Wars: Insurgence… I start prepping that tomorrow… (rubs hands with glee!). 🙂
Oh cool, I’m actually really excited for The Tourist because of how totally wild it sounds. Now you’ve given me another reason to look forward to the audio.
On behalf of the BiblioSanctum, I’d like to thank you again for stopping by! It was nice chatting with you, Peter! Where can folks go to find out more about you and your work?
I’m always happy to answer questions about the work. And of course my twitter feed: @PeterKennyVoice
Thanks for the great questions! 🙂