What attracted you to this story?
I loved Betty MacDonald’s “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” books when I was a kid, but I didn’t realize until I was an adult that she had started out as a humorous memoir writer. Her first memoir was The Egg and I, about her years spent homesteading and chicken ranching on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State in the 1920s. When it was published in 1945, it was a runaway bestseller and made her a global celebrity. I loved The Egg and I — it was hilarious, beautifully written, sardonic, thoughtful, hysterical. Then I discovered her three subsequent memoirs (which had also been bestsellers). First was The Plague and I (1948), about Betty’s year spent in a tuberculosis sanitorium in Seattle in the 1930s — a chillingly medieval experience that she manages to recount with a combination of pathos and humor. Next, she wrote Anybody Can Do Anything (1950), which is an extraordinary book about barely surviving the Great Depression, and finally Onions in the Stew (1955), about her years in a cabin on an island south of Seattle.
Even before I finished drama school, I was dreaming of getting Betty’s books into audio — and narrating them myself. I looked for years for a producer who would take a chance on them, and finally, I found that producer in the person of the wonderful Carlyn Craig, owner of Post Hypnotic Press Audiobooks. I’ve worked with Carlyn to co-produce them, and I achieved my dream. We just released Onions in the Stew, the last in the series, so they’ll soon be available as a set.
How do you prep for the different voices and/or accents in the stories you narrate?
Part of being a professional actor is constantly training — doing classes, workshops, home practice, and private coaching to hone our accents and characters. The timeline is often short for a book job, and so you want to be ahead of the game with accents and not have to take the time to get coaching when the clock is ticking. Ideally, then, when I get cast in a title, I will already be comfortable with the accents in it. But sometimes I’ll hire a dialect coach, even just for one private session, to help me with a tricky one.
I have a repertoire in my head — and in audio samples I make, and in clips I keep from past books — of all kinds of characters with different voices and personalities and accents. It’s one of the first things you learn in training — to collect voices, to expand your repertoire. There are various techniques we use for distinguishing characters voices: rhythm, mouth placement, pitch, expression, etc.
Actually, if you want to learn more about this, I’d highly recommend an indie film called In a World, written and directed by (and starring) Lake Bell. It’s pretty true to what life is like when you are a voice actor. In the movie, Lake Bell’s character has some funny scenes built around the fact that she is always sneaking around with her digital voice recorder to “collect” accents and voices she likes.
Can you tell us a little about AudioEloquence?
Pronunciation research is a huge part of audiobook production. You would not believe how many words even the simplest romance can sometimes have that we need to research how to pronounce. You can’t wing it in high-end audiobook productions — you have to have definitive, accurate pronunciations for every character’s name, every foreign phrase, every place name, every corporation name — everything for which there might be the least uncertainty. In fantasy and sci-fi, our producers have to work with the authors to supply us with pronunciations for all the made-up character names and languages. In nonfiction — let’s say a medical self-help book or a history — there might be 200+ terms we need to be sure of.
My colleague and narrator friend Judith West and I decided a number of years ago to help the industry by compiling all the pronunciation sites we could find onto one meta-site so that narrators and audiobook researchers could quickly find what they needed. If you go look on AudioEloquence.com, you’ll see what I mean. There are some really cool pronunciation sites on there for everything from composers to French cuisine to native town names in British Columbia. People are often suggesting new sites to us, and we update AudioEloquence often.
When you are recording audiobooks, do you record fewer longer sessions, or do you prefer multiple shorter sessions?
I’d love to be able to do shorter sessions — it’s better for your voice and your stamina. But usually it’s not possible. Once you accept a book, the clock starts ticking. I might have two or three weeks (sometimes less) to prep the script (pre-read and plan my performance), do pronunciation research, talk with my director, and then record it. Once I’m in the studio recording, it might take me anywhere from 16 hours to 50 hours to record a book that is 8 hours’ final listening time. (It really depends on the type of book.) I usually spend 6-8 hours a day in the studio. On the rare book jobs where I have more time, I’ll try to limit each day’s session to 4 hours. I had this luxury with the Betty MacDonald series because I co-produced it.
What are your upcoming projects?
Onions in the Stew, Betty MacDonald’s fourth and final memoir, is about to be released by Post Hypnotic Press, which means that the whole four-book series of these classics will now be available on audio for the first time ever! I’ve been dreaming of this for years and working on the project for the past couple of years. I’m pretty excited about that.
[Also: From the Heart event in December — I will supply this info when it is announced on Monday 11/21.]
If you can only have five books on your bookshelf, what would they be and why?
I bet all of us book-lovers ponder this question often. My list changes all the time, of course, but today, I’d choose The Riverside Shakespeare, the collected poems of Robert Service, The Collected Works of Mark Twain, Betty MacDonald’s Anybody Can Do Anything, and — hmm . . . probably Traveling Through the Dark (one of William Stafford‘s collections).
Heather Henderson is the narrator for the re-release of The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald.