Oscar Wilde called theater “the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be human.”
As a novelist, I would say books share that role! If I’ve done my job, I’ve created that kind of communion with my readers, handing them a palpable world in which to immerse themselves. Well-spun, authentic dialogue, descriptions of landscapes or characters’ quirks—these things should be incantation and oxygen for readers’ own imaginations and empathy.
But to hear a written story narrated by a gifted, empathic actor—whose voice can modulate to enliven an entire ensemble of characters, to capture a scene’s fast-action urgency or more meditative tone, and to bring to life even minor characters’ emotional response to a situation? That delivers an additional, visceral potency, just like a live theater performance. Being told a story taps into such a deep-seated sense of human fellowship, a ritual of storytelling that started in caves, listening to elders, and continues on to our own toddlers curling up, rapt, listening to us read picture books.
That’s the power of audiobooks, which are the fastest-growing segment in the book industry today—skyrocketing from 5,000 new titles in 2009 to last year’s 71,000.
For actors, narration is proving a wondrous complement to stage work financially and to expanding their overall craft. The performance art of narration is far more complex and demanding than simply soundproofing a closet and turning on a microphone. It pushes an actor to find more voice subtlety and versatility, to metamorphosize from performing one persona into being, in essence, an entire orchestra, playing multiple instruments simultaneously in the symphony of dialogue, themes, action, and points of view that is a novel.
“In many ways,” says veteran narrator Elizabeth Wiley, “narration draws on so many aspects of my artistic life and the craft required of each—my vocal work, my acting, my work as a storyteller, my directing at William & Mary, and, of course, my teaching—that it may be where I have felt the greatest degree of consummation as a theater professional.”
I’ve had the enormous gift of Liz narrating five of my novels—the latest Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves, out this month with HarperCollins. Her work on them bespeaks her extraordinary range. She’s tackled WWII air battles, Nazi interrogations, and hushed, agonized moments of snatched friendship during war in Under a War-torn Sky (winning Voice Arts and AudioFile Earphones awards); the pageantry and poetry of Renaissance Florence in Da Vinci’s Tiger; McCarthyism’s suspicions in Suspect Red (also an AudioFile Earphones recipient); and, in Walls, the tense subterfuge facing teen cousins on opposite sides of Cold War Berlin when the infamous Wall was raised. (Listen to samples of her narrations below.)
Despite my having written the story and knowing precisely what comes next, Liz’s performance still keeps me on the edge of my seat, makes me weep, leaves me breathless during chase scenes, heartbroken at goodbyes, and gooses me to laugh in surprise. She elevates narratives with her own interpretations and text analysis—deftly shining a momentary spotlight on the small brushstrokes of themes, of character growth, and hints of what’s to come scattered throughout to lead up to a convincing denouement. She delivers those moments with her singer’s sense of pacing and rhythm and her exquisitely nuanced acting—a brief, subtle hesitation, a beat of beautifully spoken irony, or shy affection, or disappointment. A little nudge of, hey, think about this for a second—for which any author would be forever grateful. I honestly discover new things in what I’ve written, thanks to her insights and reactions, a marveling display of the living thing a story is as passed from one teller to the next.
So, I’m thrilled to ask Liz about how she achieves her storytelling magic and the ins-and-outs of audio narration. (I should share that we’re friends, meeting years ago when she directed The Rover and my daughter, DC director Megan Behm (who’s currently directing Avant Bard’s Ada and the Machine).
L.M. Elliott: How did you become a narrator?
Liz Wiley: I’d always wanted to do narrative work and entered a contest hosted by one of the industry’s best, Scott Brick. He sent winners to his publishers, as introduction. I got third place, recording a sample of a Terry Pratchett novel I was reading with my then 11-year-old daughter. I have a richer, deeper voice that speaks of more experience than what publishers typically cast for young adult or middle-grade titles. They want someone who sounds like a 17-year-old. But look at Golden Voice winner Jim Dale, a one-time standup comic who is the voice of Harry Potter books. The only difference in YA narrations is a slight shift in mindset. The intended audience is more receptive to a broader range and larger emotions in characters. But it doesn’t matter if it’s a high schooler in the Cold War, or a young girl on the WWII homefront grieving her brother’s death in Louisa June, or a grown woman being courted by a Medici compatriot—as an actor, I need to find resonance in those human experiences, so the listening audience feels that authenticity in the characters.
What’s your process for preparing a narration?
I read the whole book first, to see what story the author is telling, through whose point of view, and does that shift? What are its themes and arcs in character and plot? I mark things to research—concepts, cultural ideas, an era, places. Understanding the milieu, the world the characters are living in—socio-politically, culturally—and how that affects their challenges and choices, helps me put myself inside a character, to know his or her thought process in a scene. Even in the tiniest moments.
For instance, why is he going to that friend’s house? Is it to simply hang out, or to borrow the car, or because he needs help, or in the case of Walls, because he’s heard trouble inside that apartment next door? Having analyzed that in the text informs my voice inflection, tone, or breathy urgency as I read, “Is Bob home?”
Knowing that inner monologue, that throughline of intent, what gets a character from one line to the next in a play, is critically important to both acting and narration. That and empathy.
Often my research has to do with pronunciations of names and places, accents, or foreign phrases. It’s so important that I get those as accurate as possible, to keep the listener immersed, not pulled out of the story thinking “that sounds weird.” One of my subfield specialties at William & Mary was coaching dialects. So, I am particularly sensitive to that. I’m comfortable with German, having narrated a number of WWII books now. I studied French. But in Walls, for instance, a Russian officer enters. It’s important that dialogue be in Russian because it gives the reader/listener a sense of the confusion our teen protagonist feels, not being able to understand what this threatening character is saying.
It’s brief, but it had to be absolutely correct, so I turned to a W & M Russian professor. She sent back a video recording along with everything written out in the international phonetic alphabet, so I could watch how her mouth was shaped with each syllable. Capturing such moments takes extra time, yes. But an author painting a vivid, whole sensory picture gives me so much to work with in terms of creating a rich soundscape, which is my goal. The harder books to narrate are those that are thin in that regard or have characters who are so similar that it’s a terrible challenge to find and create differentiating voice personas.
[LME: Liz’s remarkable facility with languages has been a particular boon for teachers using Under a War-torn Sky in WWII units and with “reluctant readers.” They’re relieved to not have to try pronouncing the French or German themselves in read-alouds! Also, for students who struggle to read, following the text as a gifted narrator performs it is a real gift. An eighth-grader in a rural NC county told me during a school visit that he was repeating the grade, but he’d pass that year because he’d been inspired by “that lady” (meaning Liz) “telling me the story of Henry escaping the Nazis.” The bear hug he gave me was meant for Liz.]
How do you create individualized voices for a novel’s many characters?
I look all over for inspiration. Sometimes I draw from real life, using a conglomeration of people I know. When a book references media or a public figure like JFK, I listen to his speeches to emulate his voice. With historical fiction, each era carries a language and style of its own. An author tucking in idioms of the time really drops me into that world. With Walls, set in 1960–61, I might go look at a popular TV show like Leave It to Beaver and find elements in Lumpy for the bully character.
It really helps when an author hands me little pieces of who characters are, not just their spoken dialogue. Physical hints of stature, the way he moves, her tempo of speech, even arm gestures help me make choices about a character—their energy, how their voice might sit in their mouth, their rhythm of speech, their enunciation. Describing Cousin Belle in Louisa June, for instance, as driving a bootlegger-fancy coupe and “carrying herself with a jauntiness of a one-time handsome woman who’d turned heads and didn’t care a fig about the fact she had” told me exactly who that woman was and what type of Tidewater accent to give her. By the way, there are so many gradations of that accent, particularly during the 1940s. It’s tricky. It’s easy to lean into that soft non-rhotic R and slip into being cartoony. A narrator must walk that line carefully.
I also need to be attuned to the fact there can be slight inconsistency in an individual character’s dialect as she code-switches. Louisa June would speak one way with the well-traveled Cousin Belle and entirely different with her friend Emmett, whose family might have to scrounge for meals.
In addition to listening to recordings of various Tidewater accents, I also looked up things like what pig-calling truly sounds like to avoid falling into stereotype during that crazy chase scene. It’s so interesting! You have to get your voice out there, but still get that staccato pig-pig-pig. [Be sure to listen to Liz’s performance of this at the end of the article.]
I looked up the rakes used to pull up oysters so I knew how heavy they were, how much effort it would take, that might make Butler grunt as he used them while talking to Louisa June. Oh, and the sound of a depth charge being dropped into the water versus other heavy objects.
One of the hardest things is not being able to move in a small sound booth—to not use physical gestures to get into character. You might knock the microphone! I must be careful to not wear clothes that swish because the mic picks up that errant sound. Sitting relatively still is particularly hard in scenes like the Marienfelde fistfight in Walls—I had to depict Drew being grabbed around the neck and slammed back, his breath knocked out of him. All by voice.
How do you keep characters straight as you’re recording?
I make careful notation on my iPad script! I highlight text—different colors for different characters helps me visually see and anticipate what’s coming up next. I make notes in the margins and bookmark when characters appear. I also do sound clips of the character, especially for minor ones, to establish what he or she sounds like. So that when they come up three chapters later, I don’t have to dig through my sound files. I have a little clip posted right next to that bit of dialogue, so I can hit the button, listen, and think, oh yeah, that’s what that person sounds like! And go.
I try to finish my recording day at a chapter or section break. Because when you are taking an overnight break, you might sound slightly different the next morning—maybe you didn’t sleep as well. That slight shift in timbre would be distracting in the middle of a scene, but not with a new chapter.
You’ve said narration requires seeing through a character’s eyes, internalizing his/her intentions from situation to situation—just as in acting. But in theater, an actor is typically doing this intensely for a single character. Narration requires a one-woman show, performing multiple characters. Even with your highlighting prompts, how do you switch back and forth convincingly during dialogue?
I have two answers. The first will sound like the teacher I was for 27 years—practice, practice, practice! I also stop a lot, move my cursor back on the sound wave, and record again. But I don’t record one character at a time and cut and paste. I record the text sequentially. As it occurs on the page.
My directing work really helps me with this. A director must think well beyond one specific character to understand a play’s entire gestalt. She must visualize its whole picture, what we want the audience to pay attention to, what is foregrounded and what is backgrounded, how each character affects and contributes to the whole as part of that world. Then, she must cohesively orchestrate the work’s entire arc, both in the plot and character revelations, the building of tension in a story’s crescendo, and effectively blend the give-and-take between multiple points of view.
Narration requires that kind of wide, multilayered perspective. But that’s what makes it so exciting. It carries the same adrenaline as going on stage. Even though I am by myself in the sound booth, I know I am bringing a world to life, in an incredibly intimate way—one listener at a time.
Clips of Liz Wiley performing and explaining audiobook narration
A clip for William & Mary (2016):