Welcome narrator Brittany Pressley!
Can you walk us through your prep work for a narration project? Do you prepare any notes to help decide the tone and voice to give a character when there’s not a clear description of their voice in the novel (when they do not have a distinct accent)?
For every book I start by just reading. Sounds pretty simple right:) However I immediately “hear” the book and I’m acting it out in my head. I guess I’ve always done this (maybe everyone does?). I know sometime actors will read through things flat without inflection just to absorb the content but I’m performing from the first sentence (at least in my head). So if you were to see me sitting on a park bench reading you might notice me making facial expressions or even slightly moving my lips. So basically I will look a little insane but do not be alarmed! As I’m going through I’m highlighting every new character as they are introduced. For books with more than 10 characters I will keep a written list as well. But under 10 I can usually keep them straight without written notes. The voices will come to me based on their personality. I like to have a unique voice for every character. Again, if there are more than 10 and/or there a bunch of characters of the same age and gender this can be tricky due to basic vocal limitations. So in those cases I develop a “posture” for the character. I imagine how they stand or carry themselves. I envision their facial expressions and mannerisms. This gives me a sense of their voice and demeanor and while it may not completely transform my voice it gives them a distinct identity that differs from the rest. Once I’m about halfway through and I have a good understanding for the “world” I will start to skim a bit more just for content and events so that I’m prepared for any potential big plot twists that could inform my narration. However I also like to keep it a little bit fresh so that I can also have a sense of discovery in my narration. Especially if there is any element of mystery to a book. I want the narrator to be experiencing the journey at the same time the reader is so as not to give anything away.
You have worked a few dual narrations projects. How is that process different than a solo project?
The prep process is essentially the same other than taking the time to listen to the other narrators voice. I will then try to compare notes and ideas with the other narrator to make sure our character depictions are consistent.
I once read an interview with another narrator who referred to a scene with many male characters as a conference table scene and how hard it was for him to make all the characters have their own voice. How do you keep the female characters different during your performance?
As a female I always prefer there to be more female characters than male because as I mentioned before there is only so much range and variation the human voice is capable of. Male characters are already outside of my normal speaking voice so keeping them varied without putting excessive strain on my vocals is always a delicate balance. I’m fortunate that I think due to my background as a singer I have a pretty expansive vocal range in terms of pitch and timbre. So if there are a lot of female characters (who are of similar age) it goes back to identifying each individuals personality and really connecting something specific to them. I did a series of books about 5 sisters (twins and triplets ages 16 and 18!) Yet each character had a unique personality that made it easy to distinguish them. I find it easy to switch back and forth between voices during dialogue even amongst a large group of characters because I’m visualizing them as they speak. When the characters are prominent in the story it’s not a problem. My issues arise when you have random characters who pop up for maybe only one scene. You still need to honor them with a unique voice but it can be hard when there isn’t much information. So sometimes I will just make up a backstory which gives me a visual that I can connect to in order to create the voice.
You narrate a wide variety of novels. How do you decide which books to perform?
I’m incredibly fortunate to make my living as an actor. However I learned that in order to do that I had to adopt a “Say yes to everything” attitude in life. I’m a bit of a workaholic. In addition to books I do commercials, animation and other voice projects like learning tutorials or ESL. If I’m not stressed out about work, I get stressed out because I don’t have enough work! That said, I don’t really turn anything down. I don’t do a lot of the “naughty books” as I’ll call them. I have no judgment about them…they just make me blush a bit! Fortunately I’m not cast in them too often, so its not much of an issue.
Since you spend so much of your time reading novels for work, do you enjoy pleasure reading in your spare time? If so, what types of books do you enjoy? And, do you find yourself thinking how you would narrate those books while you’re reading them?
Unfortunately, it has been so long since I read something for pure entertainment. I average 4 books a month, and I’m a slow reader ironically. So it doesn’t leave much time for non work related reading.
I was a psych major in college, so I actually really enjoy reading non-fiction texts or case studies about psychology or sociology or health and sciences.
Name one book/series/character that you’ve read that you wish you could narrate?
Like almost everyone who read it, I devoured Gone Girl. I would have LOVED to narrate that book. The character was so complex and layered. I think it would have been an amazing experience to be able to take on someone so cunning and twisted. The challenge would be to maintain her facade and keep the audience/listener unaware of her true intentions. She is sinister yet you have to maintain her likability to a degree in order to make the story work.
What narration job are you currently working on?
This week I’m in studio recording for Penguin Random House, The Address by Fiona Davis. I’m particularly excited about this dual narration because my co-narrator happens to be one of my best friends, the very talented Saskia Maarleveld! We have always wanted to be paired up together, but we tend to be cast in very different styles. This book tells the story of 2 different woman in 2 very different time periods (The 1800’s for her and the 1980’s for me) and how their lives intersect in a mysterious way.