Ears on the Odyssey

Interview: Fiona Hardingham

Copy of FHardingham Headshot

Fiona Hardingham is an award-winning actress and audiobook narrator whose credits include work in film, television and theatre. She is the recipient of several Audiofile magazine Earphones Awards and an American Library Association Odyssey Honor, and was listed in YALSA’s ‘Top 10 Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults’ three years in a row.

How did you get started in audiobook narration and how does it compare to voice-over or other kinds of acting?

Lets go a ways back. Every summer as a family we’d take the 9-hour drive in the car to Scotland to visit my grandparents. Without any handheld electronic devices to dull the “are we nearly there yet?!”, we girls (I’ve three sisters), being of varying ages, got bored fast of playing I Spy. Fortunately Mum would find excellent audiobooks that managed to keep us quiet. That and the threat of losing the ice cream promised at halfway. I’d get lost in the story. I’d often think about the narrator. Where would s/he be reading this story? Is this actually a profession? My child brain never thought it was something one would be allowed to do as a career. That would be far too wonderful.

Flash forward to 2010 and my comedy partner Violet Mathieson and I are gigging on the Los Angeles comedy circuit. She was already working with a company in LA who were seeking British voices. I auditioned and the first title I was given was a steampunk adventure novel. I remember it so clearly. I was given a bunch of notes from the author, one which read, “The Lady has a slight French, South African, Russian type accent.” Yes, that was the note! Fortunately I’d been playing with accents all my life. A common way of communicating in my family home was to adopt a barmy accent when one needed attention. This skillset was reinforced throughout my comedy career which required all kinds of voice tricks. Straight away, I felt narrating books was right up my street!

I’ve had the pleasure of working in different voice over arenas, animation, commercials, documentary narration, ADR.  Off the ba,t the major difference between audiobook work and the rest is the length of time one focuses on the entire piece. The narrator is responsible for the telling of the whole story, voicing all characters including the main narration. You’re committed to every word, every character, every emotion that needs conveying. The story has come from an author who has nurtured their idea over and over to the point that it’s ready for the audience to enjoy. It means an awful lot to them and in turn means a lot to the narrator. Not that all the other styles of work aren’t important. Of course they are. I feel a real sense of responsibility to execute the audio version in a way that the author would have imagined it in their head. It feels like a secret unravelling. Every page unfolds more and more of the tale and as the narrator you want to carry the audience along with you. For them to get lost in their own imagination. The end product is a unique collaboration.

What do you wish librarians/ reviewers knew about the process of audiobook narration?

I think librarians are pretty savvy to the ways of the audiobook. But for those that may not know the mechanics behind recording an entire book, it’s a long process. Each book is researched, often comes with author notes or at the very least, the narrator has communicated with the author and publisher about tone, characters, accent choices, back story, etc. On Day One, the narrator has everything they need to tell the story. Sometimes a listener didn’t imagine X character to sound a certain way, and it spoils their experience. If that happens, it’s hard for the narrator to stomach because of all the work and discussions that took place before pressing record. It’s not a case of walking into the booth and opening page one and starting to read. The narrator has gone through the book in its entirety at least once, picking out questions and characters and notes on locations and all the nuances of this particular story. We’re like detectives, gathering information so that when we begin, it’s all built-in to us, and we’re able to share this book with the listener to the best of our ability. I think it’s important to add that it’s also a lot of fun! Yes, people should definitely know that, too.

How do you choose which audiobook projects to undertake?

Do I choose the story or does the story choose me? Ha! I am certainly drawn to female characters that are on a journey of self-discovery. Be that in their relationships, day-to-day life or on the battlefield. I love going through my character’s journey. Walking their walk. There are always lessons to be learned within each book. What resonates with me is meaning, when a story moves me. A book can really affect your state of mind, can stretch your imagination, make you laugh, make you cry, and can encourage you to be fearless. These are the types of books I want to put a voice to. The type of story that shares a unique perspective, makes the audience think, and leaves the listener with a sense of hope.

Can you describe the process of finding a voice and style for your audiobook narration, especially with titles for young listeners?

It’s certainly a fun process. In regards to style, once I’ve read through the entire book I’ll have gained a strong sense of the writer’s rhythm, which helps me define how I’ll voice the tale. What kind of energy is needed, whether it’s told in the first or third person, what year and where is it set. All of this information helps refine the style. It’s important to keep the energy flowing when voicing any type of book. The narrator can’t checkout whilst voicing the story, otherwise you’d lose the listener. For example, in YA titles often there’s epic battle sequences that one has to wrangle and articulate clearly so the listener understands what’s going on.

Regarding finding a character’s voice, I start taking notes from the top, jotting down all personality and physical traits, noting a characters arc, as well as vocal abilities. For example the last book I narrated had a family of polar bears in it. What would a speaking polar bear sound like? I tend to play around with character voices before I start to record. It helps to define them before day one in the studio so that when two or more are talking, I’m able to jump back and forth between the voices seamlessly. Once the characters voice has been dialed in, it tends to stick. Generally a voice comes to mind pretty quickly. At the risk of sounding a bit woo-woo, characters let themselves known, believe me.

As an audiobook narrator, what is your relationship to the producer?

I am so lucky to work with producers that really know the stories that gel best with my voice. Casting a book is so important. It’s the make or break of how well the audio version is received. I’m so grateful to the producers, publishers, authors and listeners that champion my work. I absolutely love storytelling, it’s opened a world of books up to me that I may never have picked off the shelf. It’s given me the opportunity to play all kinds of roles from female warriors to crime fighting children to Irish nuns to mad professors to ghosts and ghouls.

Why are you so talented and lovely?!!? Thank you!

“Er…Thank you. And thank you for being lovely.” Bumbles the blushing Brit as she sidesteps back into the booth.

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