27th July 2018
Liam Gerrard and I have recently finished work on the audio production of my historical novel, The Hidden Village. For me, it was an exhilarating and thrilling process to be working with a professional actor and hearing the way he brought the words I’ve written brought to life. Now that my audiobook is a reality, I’ve taken the opportunity to catch up with Liam to find out more about his life as an audiobook narrator.
But first, some background. When I started my search for a narrator, I was fortunate to be introduced to Catherine O’Brien at Essential Audiobooks. After reading my novel (and loving it!), Catherine was enthusiastic about the possibilities to turn it into an audiobook and recommended Liam Gerrard to take on the narration. I didn’t need much convincing after looking at his website, but all the same, asked him to audition (which made me feel rather important!). It was a great way for Liam to get to grips with how I wanted my story delivered and for me to see how he interpreted my writing.
Liam, I’m interested to know what your thoughts were about taking on a WW2 novel set in Holland.
Thrilled, genuinely. I am a real history buff. I love reading history and non-fiction; and the fiction that I prefer reading and narrating is historical but rooted in fact. So to have a book like The Hidden Village come along was perfect. I’d recently done a book called Dangerous Skies which was a WWII novel told from a 10 year old boy’s point of view growing up in the London Blitz. This seemed like a perfect pair to add to my canon of work. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect book to work on.
As this was the first time I’ve worked with an audiobook narrator, I’m intrigued to know how you approach a new project. Do you read the book all the way through or take it chapter by chapter?
Without doubt read first. Sometimes multiple times. With non-fiction or academic books, reference books etc I might read it once carefully, making careful note of the pronunciations, language translations etc and making a pronunciation chart.
With fiction, it’s a lot more complicated. Every character has their own audio character file that I can reference back to 200 pages later – it can get quite complicated.
I’m currently narrating a book where 3 characters who haven’t met until page 300 meet up and have a 3 way conversation. I need to create a musical soundscape; all these 3 characters are cockney London but need to have their own individual sound. If I’d not read the book and given them a cod cockney accent the conversation at the end wouldn’t make sense; it would all sound like the same character. So I not only have to give characters a voice that is true to them and try to tell their individual psychological character arc, as well as trying to tell the narrator’s story. I need to work out what characters speak to each other and do those voices all work together in a way that is clear and not confusing to the listener. I make a chart which can get quite complicated by the end!
The cast of characters in The Hidden Village includes a boy of 11, several boys and girls in their teens and adults of different nationalities. Did that pose any particular problems?
Yes and no. Not in that they are 11, or quite young, but more in working out the accent ‘rules’ of the book. For me, it’s always about getting under the skin of the characters. Once the characters start to be fully formed in my mind their voices come naturally. What’s more challenging is working out, in a book like this, who exactly has an accent and why. Because I have a British accent, and many of the protagonists are Dutch, it would have been distracting for the listener if I’d done Dutch accents every second line.
So, if you remember, the two of us decided a ‘rule’ for accents. The main protagonists would have a British accent (but their own individual voice, so 11 year olds would sound like 11 year olds…) and the external supporting characters could have their own accents, such as the American, Nazi accents, the British and the Russian character. The soundscape that I created I felt was pleasing to the ear, but without (hopefully!) being too distracting. It also gave a sense of the ‘world’ we were in as a listener.
There are also a number of Dutch and German words and phrases and Dutch names. Were there any that you found challenging?
All of them!
It certainly didn’t seem like that when I heard you read them back! Admittedly, we did have to go back and forth on some of them and I remember listening to your first attempt at the word “Vught”, which sounded rather rude…!
Besides the foreign words, were there any scenes that you particularly enjoyed narrating?
Particularly the scenes with Jan and Don, I loved the mix of voices in those scenes but the two characters both shared a childlike innocence. I also really enjoyed the final scenes of the Village being discovered – they were harrowing, but very challenging in an artistic way.
How did you find the overall experience of narrating The Hidden Village?
Thoroughly enjoyable. It is exactly the kind of genre of book I like to read for enjoyment, so to be able to work on a book such as this is very fulfilling.
What I loved most about (The Hidden Village) was that, in my mind, it wasn’t a war novel. It was, as all the best stories are, a story about people, and interactions between humans. The backdrop, or setting, if you like, was war, so that was the discourse through which the narrative has to push through. If it was purely a ‘war’ novel that would be boring.
Like all the best war-time stories, the war setting is the background against which the central characters have to struggle against. It is THEIR stories which play centre stage; WWII is the backdrop.
Liam, thanks so much for sharing your methods with me and for narrating my novel with such sensitivity and intelligence.