How does an audiobook narrator record books? How do they work out character voices? And what does a dog ordering a pizza sound like?

Paul Vates is an actor, writer and voice over artist. He has narrated several audiobooks for Listening Books, including Horrible Science and An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore. Here, he chats to Listening Books about how to be an audiobook narrator. Abigail Jaggers spoke to him about his process for narrating audiobooks:

Abbie: Can you start by introducing yourself please?

Paul: I’m Paul Vates, and for my sins I’m an actor, and I do a bit of reading out loud.

Audiobook narrating is I suppose what you call it?

Oh, if you want to call it that!

Or voice over artist! How does your background in acting prepare you for being an audiobook narrator?

I have no idea! You probably didn’t want to hear that, did you?

I did not!

It’s probably that as I’m reading aloud I’m imagining the scene occurring right in front of me, which is the process actors go through anyway. I’m bringing it alive to myself, hopefully, therefore it’s coming out through the voice.

Tell us how you start preparing to narrate an audiobook. How much in advance do you read the book before you come in to record?

It depends on the book! Some of them – the more witty or children’s books, the colourful ones – I don’t read them in advance. I skip through looking for awkward words, if it’s a factual book. But otherwise, I like to be just as surprised as the reader, and to chuckle! If it’s an actual story with quite a deep storyline and loads of characters, then you’ve got to read the whole book in depth, with the old cliché – making notes, writing down all the characters, and then a character comes back in and you have to go back in your notes and think ‘I don’t remember him – oh, him!’

When you’re going through making notes are you making notes on the kind of voices that you do?

Yes. For me – I don’t know how everybody else does it – I write down an instinctive thought, which is usually something along the lines of a cliché. Like Alan Rickman if it’s a baddie, or Julie Walters if she’s a funny woman. And then that’s all I need to read when I do that character and I instantly go ‘oh yes, pretend I’m Julie Walters!’ I’m not an impressionist by any means, so what comes out will not be Julie Walters –

I was going to say, are you going to give us your best impression of Julie Walters?

No, I won’t even go there! But it’s a clue for me to differentiate all the different characters so they don’t blend in. Of course, the problem with that is that every now and again I think I’ve got it spot on, and then the author goes and mentions the wonderful Irish lilt of the voice, and I go ‘wait! Stop! Go right back and start again! It’s not Julie Walters, it’s somebody Irish!’

Do you have to do a lot of different accents as you go along, like Irish or Northern accents?

Yes, I subconsciously apologise to everybody around the world for falling into clichédom to get it done! I slip into what I think is Scottish or Irish. Certain accents, I think, lend themselves to certain genres. So, to me, Black Country or North of Birmingham, I think is comedy. I would find it surprisingly difficult if there was a tragic character who was from that area.

Can you give us an example of a ‘Horrible Histories’ voice?


You can?

Well, see, Horrible Histories isn’t always accents. They tend to be historical characters from anywhere around the world – they can be Spanish, German, French – and the way Horrible Histories work is they just throw you in there. Suddenly you can be talking about something and it mentions that ‘the inventor of this was a Frenchman and he wrote down…’ – and then it’s all quotes! So you instantly have to go [speaking in a French accent] ‘Oh, yes, when I created this, I remember walking through the door and banging my head!’ As I say – cliché and I apologise to the French people! I’m taking my guide from the book, which is lighthearted, so actually it allows me to do that.

If you’re reading a fantasy novel you get dragon characters, and you can’t really write something down like Julie Walters or Alan Rickman – how do you work out that voice?

Well, if the author hasn’t done that – described the dragon with Judi Dench eyes! I will try and think about the character of that dragon for a start. Is it a goodie or a baddie? How to Train Your Dragon, for instance, comes to mind where dragons are nice. And I do think it does go into cliché for listeners that you think baddies tend to be deep and a Benedict Cumberbatch type, and the goodies tend to be slightly lighter in tone and do more with their voice! They go up, and be interesting! When you play along with those, that guides you along in the scene to know how to pitch it.

If you were to come across in a book a dog ordering a pizza…? How would that sound?

Well, I’d need to know what mood the dog is in and what it’s motives are!

The dog is very hungry!

Well, that’s a good motive. Why else would he be there? Or he’s in the wrong shop! Is it a comedy book or is it a serious book? If it’s a comedy book you could do a [impersonating happy dog] ‘Can I have a pizza please?’ But on the other hand, if it’s a dog who’s up to no good, then he could be sneaking in to the pizzeria and going something like [impersonating shifty dog] ‘Excuse me, could I have your pepperoni special please? Thank you!’

Yes, I can imagine that dog! Have you ever come across words or names that you’ve been unable to pronounce?


How do you go about finding out how to pronounce them?

Well, there’s Mr. Google, which is very good! For instance, I’ve just done a Horrible Geography book mentioning volcanoes.

Oh, a lot of Icelandic volcanoes in there – I can see that one coming!

The chapter on Icelandic volcanoes made me weep as I was flicking through! What’s interesting is when you type it in – ‘aadsflkhs volcano’ – there’s always a local Icelandic person who’s had enough of newsreaders mispronouncing it, and on YouTube they openly go ‘right, this is how to pronounce the name of the volcano that’s in the news!’ And they break it down for you!

That’s really useful!

It’s all out there! What is frustrating is if you come across one or two where nobody’s done that. In which case, you cross your fingers –

Take a good guess?

Take a run up and just say it! Look at the editor through the glass, and if they’re shaking their head going ‘no, no, no’, then you’ve got to do it again. But if they’ve fallen asleep and haven’t noticed, which is usually the case, then you just keep going!

If you could narrate any book in the world, past or present, which one would it be?

Comedy: all of the books in the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy.

Yes, they are very good!

Well, more than three of them!

Plus there are some good voices in those!

Absolutely! And in serious, I’ve always had a penchant for a Peter Ackroyd book called Hawksmoor. It blew me away!

It’s a great book!

Apparently it’s been done by a certain Derek Jacobi, though.

Thank you very much to Paul for speaking to us! If you want to contact Paul, you can do so via his website.

If you liked this post, check out An Interview With Our Audio Producer or An Interview With Our Copyright Manager.


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