The novels Angela Dawe will never touch
“So this may surprise you, but, in general, narrators do not get to read a book before agreeing to narrate it,” Angela says. “We get the title, the author, a brief synopsis, and the dates for the book, but we almost never get a look at the actual manuscript, and even if we were able to, I don’t know a lot of narrators who’d have the time to read an entire book just to decide whether or not to narrate it. We tend to have our hands full with the books we’re already committed to narrating!
“The result is that there have been a small handful of times when I’ve already signed a contract to narrate a book, only to discover there was something in it I didn’t especially love. I’ve never broken a contract, but when I work with authors directly, I always ask them if there are any instances of forced sexual contact between characters who end up ‘happily ever after.’
“That kind of thing comes up a lot in hetero romance novels, and it always turns my stomach. If the answer is yes, I respectfully pass.”
From words on a page to narrator magic
The actual process of turning a book into an audiobook can vary greatly between narrators. For Angela, it starts with getting her hands on the manuscript and figuring out her characters.
“I’ll read the whole thing and make notes about characters and accents,” Angela says. “I’ll look up any pronunciations I’m not sure of. I’ll give some thought to the tone and arc of the story. And then I get in the booth and try to let go of all that and just be fully present in whatever’s happening on the page.
“And of course there’s a bit of stopping and starting, because nobody can read out loud for hours without making a mistake here and there—except maybe Dick Hill, a narrator whose skills are legendary and who is now retired, unfortunately for everyone but him.”
Setting the scene—Angela lives in East Lansing these days, and her home office contains a sleek glass desk with a bronze nameplate reading “Boss,” a kick-ass black executive leather chair, and a sunlight lamp to combat those dark Michigan winters.
She also has a cozy (in the real-estate sense), Harry Potter-bedroom-sized home studio that includes a computer with a screensaver of Angela and her sister, circa 1988, “rocking out like pop princesses (I still play a mean kazoo).”
Plus, Angela shares digs with Mabel, a cute, allegedly “space alien dog” which looks suspiciously like a Chihuahua and which may or may not assist in audiobook creation proceedings. Well, more “may not”, as it turns out.
“I have something called a WhisperRoom, which kind of looks like a TARDIS or a phone booth on steroids,” Angela says. At the moment her “home” studio is in an office building, but she’s also kept one in various apartments and houses she’s lived in over the years. “It’s about four feet by four feet by seven feet tall, and it has been quite the conversation piece in multiple apartments over the years.
“Mabel the space alien dog does like to hang out in there with me, but she has a shockingly loud snore that rarely adds to whatever story I’m telling, so most of the time she hangs out outside the booth.
[Actual recording of Mabel snoring]
“And sometimes I can hear that snore even from there! I do bounce character ideas off her from time to time; she’s very opinionated.”
Of course there’s more to narration than the sound booth, space dog, nice voice, and opportunity for all-day pajamas. Having an acting background has been “very important” to Angela’s skill-set.
A narrator’s best tool — acting, acting, acting
“I think it might seem like all you need is a pleasant voice and a love of reading, but narration is a lot more than just reading aloud,” she says. “Voice acting is acting! And in an audiobook, you’re acting every single role.
“I also have a background in improv, which I think has been invaluable to me, because in improv you may find yourself playing all sorts of characters you’d never be cast as in theater, and that happens in audiobooks, too. Even for nonfiction, an acting background is incredibly helpful, because it gives you an understanding of how to present an idea in a conversational way, without sounding robotic or monotone.”
Hearing voices — aka Angela Dawe and all those accents
One of Angela’s standout abilities is her ear for accents. In Breaking Character, for example, she employed at least nine different accents, including half a dozen different English dialects, as well as voicing a New Zealand actress and an eccentric Frenchman, on top of all the American voices. Her impressive, tongue-twisting calisthenics on this project sparked much fan acclaim, but the question most asked is: Did that book almost kill her?
“Hahaha! No, it didn’t, not at all. I loved it,” Angela says. “I have a facility for accents that makes them more fun than challenging for me most of the time. I found it relatively easy to keep track of the accents in Breaking Character. I think a lot of that had to do with the writing, to be honest. When characters are drawn really distinctly by the author, it’s easy for me to switch back and forth, because they’re so distinct in my mind.
“If I recall correctly, I gave some of the characters in Breaking Character regional British accents that hadn’t even been specified. (Hope that was okay!) Sometimes I do that, to help listeners keep track of who’s speaking — it’s a handy way to keep characters recognizable without relying solely on vocal inflection and pitch. And sometimes I just do it for fun.”
Keeping characters straight… so to speak
However, some accents Angela encounters are more challenging than others. And some characters require a lot more work to keep them straight in her head.
“I always take a deep breath and know I’m going to have to do some refresher research when I encounter a Welsh character. Same for Dutch. And I live in constant fear that my Australian accent sounds like Crocodile Dundee with an incongruous splash of Kiwi. (Please don’t confirm if that’s the case, let me live in ignorance!)
“Also, there are a few accents that sound really similar to my American ears, so sometimes I end up doing a lot of listening back to make sure I’m not slipping into the wrong one.
“As far as how I keep them all straight, for me it comes back to knowing the characters really well. Their accents are an integral part of them in my imagination, so as long as I have a handle on who they are internally, it’s relatively easy to keep track of what they sound like externally.”
The process of assigning a character a distinct voice also varies from book to book, depending on what’s written.
If all else fails, it’s the vibe…
“Sometimes the author has written a very clear description of a character’s voice right into the text of the story, so in those instances I just try to follow those orders,” Angela says. “But I’ve always been someone who hears the words in my mind when I’m reading silently, and I often ‘hear’ character voices as I’m reading to myself. So I just try to sound out loud the way the characters sound in my head.
“Occasionally, if I get stumped, I’ll try to imagine what actor I would cast if the book were a movie or play. That helps. It’s not that I then get behind the mic and do my best Dame Judi Dench impression, but it gives me a sense of the character’s vibe. And then I’ll try to channel that vocally.”
But how does Angela shift gears so fast between voices? One second she’s an old woman, with an ancient voice like drizzled honey, next she’s a frightened young girl, crying over a sick friend. It’s so instant. Or is it all really snappy editing?
“Hahaha, it depends on the day! But much of the time I am able to switch back and forth fairly easily. Again, it comes down to really being clear in my mind about who the characters are and really being present in the story as I’m telling it. The more immersed I am, the easier it is to switch back and forth.”
Speaking in tongues…and getting noticed
Angela’s knack for accents was what got her into narrating in the first place.
“I did a made-for-TV movie where I played a German woman, and the aforementioned (narrator) Dick Hill saw it and reached out to me to suggest I give narrating a go, since audiobooks often require narrators who can do multiple accents,” Angela says.
“Dick and I were friends from the theater scene in Michigan, and I always thought he had the coolest job on the planet, but I hadn’t ever considered that I might be lucky enough to have that job myself. He and his wife, Susie Breck, who is also a phenomenal narrator and director, actually helped me put together my first demo. They’re incredible people.”
Having so many voices and accents skidding around in one’s head must be like trying to ride a bucking bull. You’d be hoping they don’t just fly everywhere in day-to-day life. Sure enough, Angela finds there’s definite accent leakage when she’s out with friends.
“I’m afraid they do (leak). Fortunately, my friends and family are a forgiving bunch. It was nice when I started getting paid for it.”
As for her real voice, that appears to be a subject of debate.
“Well, I think my real voice is the one I typically use for third-person narration, but occasionally a friend or family member will say to me, ‘Why are you talking in your narrator voice?’” Angela says. “So apparently, I’m deluding myself. All I can really tell you is that I’m a mezzo-soprano, except first thing in the morning, when I’m a baritone.”
Playing favorites — the genres and characters Angela loves
Having narrated so many books, Angela is extremely well read. Of all those titles, does she have a favorite genre and type of character?
“Ooh, very tough questions! I don’t know that I could pick just one. But I do get excited whenever I’m asked to narrate YA (Young Adult) titles. They tend to be really thoughtful and relatable in a way that adult fiction sometimes isn’t, at least to me.
“One casting director I worked with theorized that since YA authors can’t rely on sex or violence to fill pages if their story is flimsy, they have to create more complex characters and stories. Of course, that’s a huge generalization, but I think that casting director may have been on to something.
“I love narrating villains or characters who live in a moral gray area. I think maybe I feel more license to be playful or surprising with those characters, since they’re often a bit unpredictable overall.
“I think my favorite character I’ve ever narrated was Sadriel in Followed By Frost, by Charlie N. Holmberg. Sadriel was basically Death, but he was incredibly complex and inscrutable. I found him to be infuriating and heartbreaking and I daresay even a bit sexy!”
So what makes a book easy versus hard to narrate?
“Well, from a nuts-and-bolts standpoint, things like foreign phrases or technical words definitely make things tougher on paper (no pun intended),” Angela says. “But the truth is, for me, it’s mostly about the writing. A well-written book full of crazy, unfamiliar words is going to be much easier for me to narrate than a poorly written book with nothing to research. If the writing is engaging and flows well, I can really get into a groove, and the time flies.
Narrating the naughty bits
Authors often find sex scenes incredibly challenging to write. Do narrators suffer from the same curse when turning them into audiobooks? Or, Angela, specifically?
“Maybe this is weird, but it’s not (challenging)! At least for me,” Angela says. “I fancy myself as a sex-positive person, and I think anything that consenting, enthusiastic adults do with their bodies is swell. I treat sex scenes the same way I treat any other scenes: by being present in the moment and acting the characters as truthfully as I can.”
Lesbian fiction, fans, and faves. Plus cheese
It’s not unknown for some narrators to do a hard pass on lesbian fiction titles. It’s not every narrator’s cup of tea. Angela, however, loves hearing she has many lesbian fans (“Gotta say, this tickles me!”) and did not hesitate for a second when her first lesbian fiction novel was offered to her.
“I believe my first lesfic was for Harper Bliss’s Pink Bean series,” Angela recalls. “I had no hesitation, and truthfully I’m a bit surprised and a touch dismayed that some narrators won’t do it (lesfic). I was actually excited, because I’d already done a ton of hetero romance titles, so lesfic provided a nice change. I also think it’s really important to tell stories other than those featuring cis-hetero characters.”
Which leads to her favorite lesfic title that she’s narrated—one that is anything but typical.
“I have a hard time choosing favorites in any area of my life—for example, how can a person have just ONE favorite cheese?!—but I will say I have a special love for Perfect Rhythm, by Jae,” Angela says.
“One of the two romantic leads in that story is asexual, and Jae handled that aspect of the character with such thoughtfulness and intelligence and care, it was just stunning. I’d never encountered an ace character in any of my books, and certainly not as one half of the romantic couple. I’m really proud to have been a part of bringing that story to listeners.
“As far as a favorite among all the books I’ve done, this is such a hard question. A few titles that come to mind: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, by Meg Elison, Wild Roses, by Deb Caletti, The Practice House, by Laura McNeal, Hellmaw: Of the Essence by Gabrielle Harbowy, and Hailey’s War, by Jodi Compton.”
How long is a piece of string…or an Angela Dawe narration?
A big technical question many people wonder about is how long it takes to sit down and narrate an audiobook. To narrow it down from “How long is a piece of string,” this hypothetical book is 100,000-words long and involves a straightforward romance without accents or tongue-twisty people or place names.
This turns out to be a not-so-easy question to answer.
“So here’s a bit of insider info: there’s a rule of thumb for calculating the finished length of an audiobook. The formula rests on the notion that, on average, there are 155 spoken words per minute of audio. So… 100,000 words divided by 155 words per minute equals about ten hours and forty-five minutes of finished audio. But I tend to read a little faster than that, so let’s say that book would end up being ten hours.
“If I’m recording from my home studio, I would estimate that would take me four or five days since, on top of narrating, I’m also doing my own engineering and editing and…the admin parts of my job, like invoicing and following up with publishers via email about various titles in production.
“If I’m going into a publisher’s in-house studio, I could probably do it in three days, because I’d be working with an engineer who’d be doing all the computer stuff and I wouldn’t want to waste their time while I do my ‘administrivia,’ so the recording would move a bit faster.
“But you’re definitely onto something with regard to straightforward plots and neutral accents: the content of the book makes a big difference. If there are a lot of foreign or technical words, I’m going to pause to make sure I get them right, so that takes more time.
“And if there are twelve characters from twelve different countries and they’re all in every single scene, I might get tongue-tied or accidentally get accents mixed up and need to re-do things more often than if everyone were from, say, East Lansing, Michigan, USA.”
The ‘other’ narrator who sounds just like Angela Dawe
While Angela Dawe might have growing popularity in the lesbian audiobook world and far beyond, in times gone by she also went by another narrator name—Claire Kilpatrick. Claire’s titles leaned to the steamier reads.
“Claire was created at the suggestion of a publisher when I narrated my first erotica title,” she says. “It was explained to me that listeners who’d heard me narrate G-rated titles might see the name ‘Angela Dawe’ and decide to get a book because they liked my other work, only to be shocked by the steamy content.
“That was years ago, when I was just starting out and taking pretty much any advice anyone would give me. These days I typically just use my real name no matter what.
“I get that not everyone is gonna want to hear a story about anal penetration with a stiletto heel—to be honest, that’s not something I tend to seek out myself!—but folks can read a synopsis before they buy an audiobook, and I’m happy to have my name on work that celebrates healthy, consensual sex among enthusiastic adults.”To be continued… The second half of Lee Winter’s interview is out on December 11, where Angela Dawe discusses her love of stories, her rapper name, her roots, her pet topic of consent in fiction, philosophy, and whether she is, in fact, on the lam. For more on Angela Dawe, check out her Tantor Media narrator page. * Lee Winter is an ex-journalist and award-winning author. Her new novel, Changing the Script, is available everywhere from today.