Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Makings of an Audio Book, with Katherine Kellgren

RHYS: When I heard that the first Royal Spyness book was going to come out in audio I was apprehensive.  American actors have not always been successful with British accents (think Dick Van Dyke and “Oye say, Mary Poppins”) But then I got an email from Katherine Kellgren, telling me that she was going to be reading the book and asking me how I wanted various things pronounced. Then I heard the first recording and I was thrilled.  She got it absolutely right. Other people obviously thought she did too, as the audio got nominated for an Audie award that year.
Since then Katy has been the reader for each book in the series, receiving another Audie nomination for Naughty in Nice. Not only does she get Georgie’s upper class English voice right but is deliciously accurate with all the other characters—Georgie’s waspish sister-in-law Fig, Queen Mary, and the cockney grandfather.
As I celebrate the audio release of the latest book I wanted to introduce our readers to Katy and to show another side to the book publishing industry and one that is growing by leaps and bounds.
So welcome Katy, I’m so pleased to have you as our guest today. Let’s start off with your background. You have to be English to get all those accents so right.
KATY: Well, I was actually born in New York City, but spent a hefty chunk of my life living in London. I was there for 12 years and did quite a bit of my schooling there, including 3 years spent training at The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Hence I record books in both English and American dialects, though I would say the majority of them are still English. I even did a book all in Welsh dialect last year, which was utterly terrifying!

RHYS: Did you always want to be an actress?

KATY: I would have to say yes. When I was three years old I remember lobbying to play the Big Bad Wolf in a school production of the Three Little Pigs because I thought that part would present the greatest opportunity to display dramatic range, not to mention have the most stage time!

RHYS: What brought you back to America? 

KATY: An important factor in my final decision to move back to the States was that my father was ill back in New York. In the year before I left the UK though, I recorded my very first audiobook because of him. He was a great fan of the mystery author Freeman Wills Crofts, and at his request I got Crofts' 1929 novel The Box Office Murders out of the library and recorded it for him myself using a hand-held tape recorder. Although I had been working in audio doing numerous radio plays, it wasn't until I moved back to New York that I recorded my first professional audiobook. The idea of really pursuing that line of work was largely spurred by reading to him, both in person and on tape!

RHYS: So how did you move on from reading for your dad to becoming the star book-reader that you are today?

KATY: You are really being too kind saying "star" reader (though my actor-ly ego thanks you a thousand times)! It's fair to say that I spent a large part of my teenage years (and ever since then, come to think of it) listening to truly huge stars on audio. I was quite obsessed with old Caedmon recordings of John Gielgud, Edith Evans, Ralph Richardson et al reading plays, poetry and prose, and would spend hours at a time closeted in my room listening to them. When I was older and started reading to my father because he will ill, I began thinking about my ongoing love for those recordings and how important they had been to me growing up, and I determined to try to find work doing audiobooks, - which slowly but surely (with luck) I managed to do. Incidentally, one of my absolute favorite recordings as a child was The Importance of Being Earnest featuring Edith Evans giving her legendary Lady Bracknell, so when you wrote in The Twelve Clues of Christmas that Fig's mother, the formidable Lady Wormwood, utters certain words "in the same tones Lady Bracknell used regarding a handbag in the Oscar Wilde play" the thundering syllables of Evans instantly leapt to mind. Such bliss!

RHYS: What preparations do you make before you read an audio book? What is the hardest thing about doing it? (I was once asked if I'd like to do one of my books. I've read a short story for a pod-cast and that was quite enough for me. It's hard not to let my attention wander, then feel that I want to cough, swallow or choke). 

KATY: After carefully reading through the book at home (during which time I make elaborate notes about any descriptions the author has given concerning the characters' voices / dialects, flag words whose pronunciations I must look up & etc.) I go back through the text and highlight the dialogue of each character in a different color of pen. My recording script for The Twelve Clues of Christmas ended up quite rainbow-hued indeed, what with all the various guests at the house party chatting with each other! Then I think about the character voices, trying to get as close to how I imagine the author envisioned them as I possibly can. I draw on all sorts of sources for help and inspiration. For The Twelve Clues I kept up a pretty constant listening diet of Noel Coward recordings since he is a character in the book (luckily I already had lot of them, as he is an old favorite of mine) but of course came to the immediate conclusion that his diction is a thousand times more exquisite than mine could ever hope to be in that regard, so I would just have to make do and hope the listener will be forgiving. I often work with a dialect coach if I feel I need to brush up on anything (I'm working with a brilliant man right now who held my hand through the German and Romanian in A Royal Pain and Royal Blood). Then I'll go through and find the tunes to any songs the characters sing. This happens more than you might think - I do one series that always involves at least a dozen sea shanties per installment! In the case of The Twelve Clues it was easy, as I already knew the Christmas carols in question! I generally do as much specialized research as I can, and each book is different - a while ago I had a single book in which I had to speak in Urdu, French and Italian and sing in Spanish, this year opened with a book in which I had to reproduce the warning cry of an ostrich (actually that was quite fun). The hardest thing about doing audiobooks is also part of what makes working on them so exciting, you don't get to rehearse, and when you go into the studio if you're not ready or you let your concentration waver for a moment it will show in the finished product. I try to do everything I can to prepare, then when I go in to record, I know I have to take a leap of faith and let go and allow the author's words carry me along.

RHYS: Being so much in demand for your audio readings, do you still find time to do acting work?

KATY: Well I consider reading a book aloud sort of like being in a play in which I get to do all the parts - a tremendous amount of fun for any actor! Though I did do theatre, some film & etc. after I left drama school, once I started doing audiobooks I became more and more focussed on them alone. As I said before, recordings have always been hugely important in my life, - I think there is an experience you get from being read to that you can get nowhere else. I know I still listen to audiobooks read by great narrators all the time and draw inspiration from them. I'm totally focused on audiobook work now, and I'm so proud and grateful to be in the profession that I'm in!

RHYS: What do you miss about England? And since this is a Christmas book, can you share a favorite English Christmas memory with us?

KATY: Principally I miss all my friends there. I try to keep in close touch with many of the dearest ones, but there's so much you miss in daily life by simply not being there. I miss my old neighborhood in Primrose Hill in North London, where I lived for a good many years. The thought of the grilled halloumi cheese at Lemonia Restaurant there often fills me with a nameless longing... The London Library, Pleasures of Past Times bookshop in Cecil Court, - oh, really too many things to mention! My most distinct memory of Christmas in England is the lazy afternoon sensation of lying on the carpet playing dominoes and eating Quality Street in front of holiday TV after a glorious lunch. Not very picturesque but very comforting.

RHYS: Thank you so much, Katy. Now we are all more aware of all the hard work and background preparation that goes into an audio book. Anything else you’d like to add? 

KATY: Only that it is a true pleasure for me to be able to record your deliciously written books - wonderful writing makes my job as a narrator not only much easier, but also an absolute joy! 

RHYS: I look forward to hearing you read the rest of the series, until Georgie and Darcy are collecting their old age pension one day! 

And dear Reds and friends—Katherine Kellgren doesn’t just read my books. I believe she received seven Audie nominations last year. So if you see her name on an audio recording you know you’ll be in for a treat.

Here’s a link to Katy’s wonderful audio version of The Twelve Clues of Christmas.


  1. Fascinating stuff! I had no idea of the work that goes into making an audio book. Thanks for sharing it with us. Very cool.

  2. Good morning, Katherine . . . thanks for the insights into the process involved in recording a book. It’s always a pleasure to listen to a well-read audio book . . . .

  3. I love this interview! Thanks for bringing Katherine over to JR, Rhys! Maybe one day she'll do a Key West mystery--though no English dialect there:)

  4. This sounds like such a great job to have. Perfect for actors to further express themselves.

    When they are done right, as the Royal Spyness audios are, they make a great compliment to the written word.

  5. Welcome Katherine,
    I LOVE audiobooks, and the way it's read absolutely makes or breaks the book for me, so it was terrific to hear all that goes into it.

    Now I'm dying to listen to your work!

    thank you so much for sharing your techniques with us.
    Truly fascinating.

  6. What a great interview. Always interesting to learn about different aspects of reading.

    (And as a volunteer at the CNIB, I record books for the visually impaired, and can relate to this entirely, especially the part about getting to play every role.)

  7. THissounds wonderful--and Hurray, Katherine, for being so diligent with your preparation. We work so hard with parallel construction, inflection and tone--and it's so disappointing when that doesn't come through in an audio book!

    I grew up listening to a 78 record series of Peter Pan, read out loud by--gosh, I'll have to look it up. I remember Wendy Darling's plummy voice, "Oh, Peetah!

    And Smee's "Aie aie, kep-tin!"

    And I'm sure it was Basil Rathbone as Hook. Can you imagine? A classic!

    (And I can't resist saying I adore my audio book, by the way . The actor/reader is Ilyana Kadushin, who read the TWILIGHT series. Very exciting to hear!)

  8. Fascinating to hear of all the prep that's done to accomplish the audio book recording. Kudos to you, Katherine, for your hard work.

    Susan D, great that you do the recordings for visually impaired. While in college, I took a part-time job recording scores for piano music for a woman who'd lost her sight. It was very demanding--to read music, note by note, including clefs, time signatures, etc. The non-financial reward was listening to her play after she'd listened to my recordings. An experience I'll never forget.

  9. Welcome Katherine. Thanks for sharing your process. Now I understand why the finished product sounds so good.

  10. Hi Katherine! Fascinating post. I'm just chatting with Gerard Doyle this week, who does a wonderful job of reading my Kincaid/James books and is preparing to record the new one. I know he does a lot of research on the characters backgrounds and series continuity, too.

    And Rhys, now I'm going to have to listen to the Twelve Clues on audio!

    Diane, what a great story--and one you've never told me:-)

  11. I'm thrilled to "meet" you, Katherine. I have been addicted to the Royal Spyness audiobooks - because of both Rhys' words and your voice. Or should I say voices? I can picture each character with your voices. I adore Darcy and your Irish accent makes him just perfectly delicious.

    I've often wondered the actors reading audiobooks do all one voice at one time or change as he/she reads the book. I can't imagine how one remembers to "stay in character" although I can understand the color coding must help.

    I finished TWELVE CLUES over the weekend and it's another perfect read. Or rather, listen.

    Thank you for your great work. And thank you for visiting with us.

  12. Rhys... I am inexcusably late and very sorry. I have to say Katy is wonderful. I was, for several years– until ereaders were lightweight and portable, dependent on audiobooks. There are many wonderful readers, of course, but there are a few standouts that make reading by audio a special pleasure. Katy is one of those audiobook readers. xo

  13. Thanks for the kind comments and warm welcome! It's such a delight to record Rhys's books! I look forward to working on each new installment just as I would look forward to opening a shiny new present on Christmas Day! Such delicious characters and sharp, funny dialogue - she really makes my job a joy!