My background is in theater. I went to drama school. I had a year's scholarship first, then I worked in advertising for a year and a half to earn the money to do 3 more years. From there I worked in theater, I worked in tv/film. I have kind of run the gamut and came here to the US about 5 years ago which is where I got into audiobooks. I had worked in voiceover before but it was just one of those chance encounters where someone asked me to send something for narration. I didn't even know it was for books, but they were looking for British voices and then I went to Random House to meet them and read something there and then 6 months later they offered me a book and that's been it. It hasn't stopped since so I'm very lucky.
What is a typical day in the recording studio like for you?
There are 2 typical days. First one can be going to the studio at somewhere like Random House and it's like any other kind of VO job, I guess, except all your book narration is quite intense in terms of voice work. Other jobs you’re in and out fairly quickly whereas in audiobooks you’re in for 6 hr sessions. I tend to do an hour and a half at a time, some people do just an hour and take a break. You have your breaks in between and you immerse
yourself in it so it's quite intense I find at times. When I'm at home it's different because I can come and go as I please, but I tend to do a couple of hours at a time per session and then I can go off and do other stuff and come back later, so that has a little more of a loose feel to it. Either way it's an intense recording experience in general because of the characters you have.
I’ve heard some actors say that they love being alone in the booth and others say that it is the hardest thing for them to do. What is your experience?
My experience is that if you allow yourself to be immersed in it (and different people work differently), but once I'm in that zone I kind of enjoy it because I get to live out the experience, especially if the material is very good. I'm talking generally about fiction here. I enjoy that, but there are those frustrating days when it's hard to zone in and concentrate, so those I understand are not the most fun days. But in general, it really puts you in that place and you get to live the story and those lives from every perspective which is not something you get to do generally in any other medium, unless you do a one-man show on stage. It's hard work but ultimately, it's rewarding.
Do you have any special tricks you use to help you get through a recording session? For example, I would imagine it is difficult not to get a dry throat after reading for a while.
I always warm my voice up and do speech articulation exercises before I start. Vocally it's generally not a problem. I will use Throat Coat sometimes with honey if I need it or have been working all the time or having a dry day. My only other trick is sometimes using a nasal spray (that's an insider’s secret) because you don't want to sound nasally. Sometimes you sound a bit stuffy and you need a little help, but that's rare. You don't do that all the time. Those are specific tricks. The main trick is really almost like meditation for me where you zone in on the page and you connect with the
words and that's a real trick to make the most of a session in my experience. From a sheer physical perspective at this point I think I've done so much that my stamina's up. I think when I first started doing it, it used to tire me a lot more but maybe like anything you train the muscle and I can keep going all day now. That's a good thing. I've gym-trained my voice.
How did you get it?
I got the part when the publisher asked me to read a bit of it for them. They were deciding between some people. So I did, and Maggie chose me and Fiona.
Can you explain how the recording works when there are multiple narrators, as there was in this book?
When there's multiple characters you just go in separately and do your piece. The only consideration really is when voices cross over. Fionna went in first, so I had to listen to some of what she'd done, and I kind of discussed things with her as well in order to make sure we were on the same page, and then also in this day and age you can get samples, you know the studio will keep samples for you, so you can listen to how they sounded. Our difficulty was being a male and female narrator so we had to marry that up. It's more about the tone, the accent, the feeling of the person because I obviously cannot sound like Fiona Hardingham. We're two very different voices!
When I was judging on the Odyssey Committee, there were certain things we were listening for such as audible breaths, articulation, and “wet” sounds, for example. Do you think about these things when recording, and are there any particular habits you have that you need to pay special attention to or have had to learn how to do better?
Yes, I do think about certain things...articulation of course. If I think it sounds slightly fudged or just not quite clear then I'll redo it. If you're working with a director in a studio that's their job as well. Audible breaths I don't really think about because I feel that they do that in post. As long as I breathe naturally and in the right place for the words and the sentences I don't obstruct the meaning of what I'm trying to get across then I don't particularly worry about how loud they are. I just allow post production to sort that aspect out. Since I've set up a recording studio at home I'm much more attune to that and you know you get funny clicks and things I will just redo it, but saying that, that is part the editor’s job to go in and clean any little bits and pieces up like that. But the more you can do on your end to make it as slick as possible the better. And some people are different. I
mean, I've heard I'm easy to edit which is nice, so I guess I don't have a lot of that. But in order to be sure of that I drink a lot of water. I don't eat spicy foods when I'm working. Anything tangy, lemon… I avoid any kind of
thing that gets your mouth going. I just drink water or I might drink Throat Coat in between if I need it. And eat simply. I don't eat anything complex because stomach rumbles can be a nightmare, if your stomach's prone to
that, going off. A talking stomach while you're trying to narrate is not a good thing!
I recently heard an interview given by Kathryn Kellgren who talked about the amount of research she does for each book she narrates. For example, she once borrowed period dialect tapes to determine how the Pilgrims spoke in1627, and studied the sounds of marine animals to help her come up with a believable mermaid sound. Do you do research, or do you have another method of preparation?
Yes, I do. I'm sure everyone researches. I would love in this day and age the time to do what Kathryn did, and on some books you can. It depends. I will delve into things. I'm especially keen on listening to native speakers so I
can get an idea exactly where to go with things. It's more about the sounds and the understanding. It's kind of like any kind of character piece, for example if I don't know what this person does, I will look up what that thing is. If it's an obscure kind of job or something. But often well-written pieces give you an awful lot because they are painting the picture for someone who's reading it. Therefore you have a ton of information once you read the book to determine things. I do agree with her though and I can see why she'd do these other things. Absolutely. And if I needed to know how someone spoke or the dialect was from a particular time period I would look into that. I like that she looked into marine animals. That's a nice trick to use. I'm less concerned with getting an accent spot on than I am concerned with conveying the character as the author has intended it to be, which I'm sure is the objective of every audiobook narrator. So the other stuff helps in that, but I wouldn't get myself hung up on a particular sound or a vowel I have to get right for, say a Canadian vs. American character. So I think more important is that the true essence of the book and the person and the character comes through.
What do you see as your job as a narrator of an author’s book?
My job is to enable somebody listening to this book to experience the book, the characters, and the life that's on the pages as well as I can with what the author intended, the same as film, TV, theater. It's a collaboration
between me and the author and the director, if I'm not working by myself at home. I am the ultimate vehicle for conveying this into a version of the material people listen to. It's my job to bring that to life like any kind of
acting. That's how I see it. Bringing it to life from the author and the page to somebody listening so they can truly immerse themselves in the experience.
Do you have a favorite character you’ve narrated? How about a book? Why?
I have a bunch of favorite characters. I do a crazy American lady, I don't know how old she is. I play her as 68. That's in my head. It's never been divulged but it's for a series of murder/mysteries by Martha Grimes that I've been doing for the past year and a half. I do one a month. It’s the Richard Jury series of novels with him as the central character and the lady is called Lady Agatha Ardry. I don't know if she's the audiences’ favorite, but I enjoy her because she is slightly ridiculous and her voice is fun to do. One book I've enjoyed a lot was "The White Devil" which didn't really get seen over here for certain reasons. There was a UK version made and a slight technical mix up so our book was released as an exclusive only because the other one had already been out. I loved that book. It's by Justin Evans. This was several years ago and it always sticks in my head because I had a sort of visceral experience with the book. I think it was one of the first books where I had such a strong experience and I was working with a
brilliant director named Jill Whitesides. It's about this young American guy who goes to England and has to go to Harrow, the famous school. It gets intertwined with ghosts from the past and Byron and a young supposed lover of Byron at the school and all these things were brilliantly unveiled. It was a gothic thriller. That's one that sticks in my mind a lot. In general, favorite characters I often love are those quirky English, regional, crazy, West Country farmer type (again those Martha Grimes books), a villager that has this particular way of speaking, and anything comedic that allows you to push the boundaries a bit and still be believable. Those are the ones I really have a lot of fun doing. And characters who say outrageous things that you probably wouldn't get away with in real life. I love that too.
I may be partial to children’s books, but my favorite book you narrated is "The Knights’ Tales Collection" by Gerald Morris. I loved the Weeping Queens! Will you be narrating more books for younger readers anytime soon?
I would love to. I've done a bunch of young adult stuff. I don't know how publishers work out where they put you but I am lucky as people tend to offer me a broad sweep of everything. But I don't get masses of kids’ books and it may be because when I started narrating books my milieu was the darker, thriller, horror genre, because I have a deeper voice and I guess it lent itself or maybe my style did. So, as times gone on I've gotten more opportunities. But I would love to. So, any publishers who are reading this, feel free to send me your kids’ stuff because I absolutely have a ball doing it!
(Steve, incidentally, won an AudioFile's Earphones Award for his narration of "The Knights' Tales Collection.")
If you could tell an author anything when they were writing their book that would be helpful to a narrator, what would it be?
From a practical perspective it's always good to have more information about a particular character, not necessarily their vocal style, but their characteristics. You'll see a lot of authors will have one character sum up
another character. Say your main character talks to somebody and he'll say, "He was tall and dark and had a brooding look about him, more soft spoken than I expected." They often throw a lot of that in. That's always very helpful because it allows you to understand what they want as well. Difficulties is often when there isn't a lot of disseminating factors so you get a bunch of people the same age, or a lot of women all in one group, or from one region, and you're like, "I have to make these people different". The only thing I would say is that sometimes when we're in a rush and we don't get to finish reading the book before we start recording it, which with today's deadlines happens, when the author tells you something important about the character's voice towards the end of the book! That's a bit of an "Oh, damn!" moment. And you sometimes start and then realize "Oh bugger that character, she's just said he's from the north of England and I thought he was southern." So that’s a technical sort of thing to deal with when deadlines are tight.
Is there anything that is nearly impossible to voice?
I haven't come across it yet. I'm sure there is but I think that the beauty of doing this job is that you get to play with so many different things vocally, and it's enabled me to do some really brilliant characters and work
around stuff and solve stuff with my voice that I wouldn't get to do elsewhere. I'll let you know if there comes a day. When characters are multi-layered that becomes more challenging. I've had characters that were, say, born in an eastern European country, moved to Great Britain, and then traveled. So authors will say, "there was a strange influence of something, or an American accent with the cut-off vowels of blah, blah, blah," so that stuff gets tricky to make that work and make it believable. I did have one guy I really enjoyed doing, he was a character in the "Tudor Secret" and the sequel "The Tudor Conspiracy." At the end of the first book we thought he died but he managed to escape and he had burnt half his face off. Massive scars down his face. He was Scottish and he had a very intense voice to begin with and it now had to be marred by this injury. Also, I know the author didn't want people to know it was him at the beginning or at least for half or two-thirds of the second book, so this same character had to kind of be disguised but you also had to believe that once it was revealed in the book that it was the same guy. That was probably my most tricky one because on top of that you also had to make him understandable. It said in the book that his speech was slurred and impaired, so making sure it was still him yet you didn't immediately think that it was him and that it was someone else and plus the injury and still having people understand him and that he was Scottish on top of that was tricky but I think it worked out great in the end. Nothing is impossible, just tricky.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can share?
I’ve just finished the Martha Grimes books, so we’ve recorded 15 or 16 and the entire collection will be out in the next coming months. There are a couple of great Harper books I enjoyed. One is called 'The Guilty One' by Lisa Ballantyne and another one was called "Fallout" by Sadie Jones.
I have another book coming out called "The Steady Running of the Hour" by Justin Go which is a love story through the ages with a dramatic element, maybe a Love Drama you’d call it? with a young American guy
trying to find clues to whether he's related to this fortune worth hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions, and the journey he goes on, and the flashbacks to the original people he might be related to, and their love story and whether there was an illegitimate child that became part of his lineage.
Summer I will be recording a sequel to "Cold Killing" which I did last year and I loved that. "The Keeper" by Luke Delaney. So that will be out this summer. About a British detective with a nice dark, gritty plot. Look out
for information on that.
All updates may be found on: https://www.facebook.com/SteveWestAudiobooks
Or, you can talk to Steve West on Twitter at @SteveWestActor
by Justin Evans
17-year-old American Andrew Taylor is sent to the Harrow School in London to finish his secondary schooling following some behavioral issues, including drug and alcohol use, at his school in the states. Andrew is trying to stay on the straight and narrow to please his father, but immediately finds himself in the middle of trouble when he discovers the body of a schoolmate, his first friend, outdoors on a dark path, dead of a previously undetected condition. His school peers think Andrew murdered him, but Andrew is beginning to think it may have to do with the legend of the Lot ghost that is supposed to reside in his school house.
In charge of his house is newly hired, Piers Fawkes, a renowned poet, who has been given a commission to write a school production about Lord Byron, a former Harrow School alumnus. Andrew is quickly cast as Byron due to his uncanny resemblance to the famed Scottish poet. But there is more - there seems to be some sort of connection between Byron and himself, and the ghost won't let him alone. Andrew, along with Fawkes and the library archivist Judith Kahn, find themselves in a race against time to identify the ghost and find out why he is attacking those close to Andrew – the boy who lives in the next room and Andrew's new girlfriend Persephone are the latest victims when they become sick with tuberculosis. Is there really an outbreak at the school as the authorities believe, or has the ghost made the others as ill as he was before he died?
The audiobook is excellent. Narrator Steve West manages the many and various accents of the characters, as well as voices of both sexes, with seemingly little effort. It would seem he has picked up on every nuance and emotion as the author intended delivering a performance to this fast-paced story that quickly sucks the listener in and hopes won’t end. The White Devil (the name comes from a play that the ghost acted in while attending Harrow centuries previous) is highly recommended for those who enjoy mysteries and ghost stories. Due to mature themes of premarital sex, alcohol, and homosexuality, it is most suitable for older teens and adults.
by Maggie Stiefvater
Slow moving, but satisfying story that centers around the yearly November Scorpio Race on the mystical island of Thisby. Puck Connelly is the first girl to attempt the race, much to the disapproval of the men on the island. But with her parents killed by the Capaill Uisce, bloodthirsty water horses that want to either drown their riders or eat their flesh, and her older brother moving to the mainland, she desperately needs the winning purse in order to reclaim her family home. 19-year-old Sean Kendrick is a local horse trainer, working for Benjamin Malvern, whose dream it is to own his own stables one day, preferably with his favorite horse Corr. He's won four of the past six races and odds are in his favor to win again. If he can pull it off, he will have enough money to buy Corr outright. With the narration alternating between the perspectives of the unlikely pair, the atmosphere of the island abounds as preparations for the Scorpio Race consume the story, while leaving room for this new relationship to build. This is similar to Hunger Games in terms of there being a deadly competition in which only one person can win, and it is a love story, though the romance is minimal. This will appeal to Young Adult and Adult readers who enjoy a story that takes time to set up in order to become familiar with the characters and the setting, and provides not only a satisfying ending, but an emotional one. It will likely also appeal to fans of mythology to a degree. Highly recommended. This title won a 2012 Odyssey Honor Award for audiobook.
by Gerald Morris
Comprised of four books, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great, the Adventures of Sir Givret the Short, The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True, and The Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated, the audiobook compilation is among the best narrations I have heard in a long time. These retellings of the King Arthur legends are perfect for the younger audience, and narrator Steve West had me laughing throughout. The clever stories are full of notable characters like Sir Lancelot and King Arthur, which kids will recognize, as well as damsels in distress, dragons, sorcerers, and dwarfs. West makes the most of every word, providing wonderful accents, sarcasm, and humor. (The weeping Queens in the first book had me weeping with laughter). The short stories are excellent, with good morals and lessons to live by, like giving your word and not going back on it, manners, and how to treat friends. Full of very individual characters, West depicted each with varying accents (English, Scottish, French) and depicted the voices of the knights, damsels, and dwarfs so that no two sounded alike. The books are also available as individual stories and include black and white illustrations providing much detail that children will enjoy pouring over. The A.R. level ranges from 4.5 to 5.0 between the books, and would be great for reluctant readers since they are small and thin (and include illustrations) and are not intimidating in the least. The stories are so fun, kids and adults alike will enjoy this collection. Highly recommended.