Today it is my extreme pleasure to welcome Simon Vance to The Literate Housewife Review. He is the narrator of my favorite audiobooks thus far: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest). I highly recommend them and their narrator. If you’ve ever experienced Simon Vance’s narration, you know what I mean. This interview is for you. If you haven’t, read this review and then go out and buy one, rent one, or download one from Audible.com, where I get my audiobooks.
Be sure to check out Simon’s website. You can catch up with Simon on his blog or catch one of his four vlogs. If you’ve never heard his voice, they are a perfect way to change that.
I want to thank Audible.com for sponsoring a wonderful giveaway in conjunction with today’s interview! Three lucky readers will win VIP access to Audible.com, which will entitle them each to two free audiobooks of their choice! If you haven’t read Stieg Larsson’s series before, you can read the first two novels and find out first hand why Simon Vance is my favorite narrator. To enter, leave a comment for Simon by Sunday, June 27 at 11:59 EST. I’ll announce the big winners on June 28th.
On to the interview!
Literate Housewife: Simon, I’m very excited to have you visit with me today. I will be honest up front and say that you are my favorite audiobook narrator. In fact, it wasn’t until I listened to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that I “got” audiobooks. Since then, I’ve listened to several books other books that you’ve recorded, the complete Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, and Chemistry for Beginners by Anthony Strong. Each time it has been a pleasure. You’ve an incredible voice talent and I’m glad you choose to use share them with readers everywhere. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to answer some of my questions.
Simon Vance: It’s always good to be appreciated – I’m hope I can offer some insights into what I do… and why (I always wanted to be a pilot when I was young)! Maybe I’ll learn something myself.
LH: How did you become a narrator? What was the first book you ever narrated? Which was your most challenging? Which has been your favorite?
SV: I’ve been playing with tape recorders since I was a child – I inherited my father’s technical ability and fascination with gadgets and he gave me a tape recorder when I was about 11. I have said before: I started making noises and silly voices into a microphone at an early age and have never stopped. When I was at the BBC in the 1980’s I started narrating audiobooks for the blind in my spare time at the RNIB in London – that was where I served my apprenticeship.
Can’t remember the first book I recorded there in 1983, nor the first I recorded for Blackstone Audio in 1993 – my first Earphone Award was for Dracula, I remember that! There is a recording of me reading one of the Winnie the Pooh tales when I was six. My mother sent it to me several years ago and I’m still looking for it, if I find it I’ll put it on my website (but don’t hold your breath) – That must qualify as my first book!
Most challenging? Usually the badly written ones and I’m not going to name them.
Favorites? Very hard to say… The Larsson series was very enjoyable, of course – David Copperfield and Great Expectations were a joy to read – The Prestige by Christopher Priest fascinated me. In 500 or so books over the years I probably enjoyed reading 95% of them.
LH: How do you go about recording a book? Do you have a standard amount of time you record each work day or does it depend on the book? What do you feel are the essentials for your craft?
SV: Time spent on a book is often related to how difficult/complex they are. By which I mean, I need to ‘get’ a book before I can read it properly. Some books, like Dickens, I can get instantly (I grew up with them, almost) and I barely need to prep them. Others, like the Larsson books, I need to explore first to follow the twists and turns of the plot so that I know who the good guys are and who the bad guys and so on. So the prep time varies enormously. As I record at home I can spend as much, or as little time in the studio each day as I wish – on a working day I usually ‘schedule’ three hours finished each day – some days I do more, some less. If the book is flowing I can do up to five finished hours a day and then I have time off between books! It also depends on the health of my voice – I have to take care of that!
Essentials? The list could be endless – stamina, imagination, playfulness, a healthy voice, acting awareness, self awareness (could be included in the previous), ability to let go (surrender to the text)… and so on. You’ll notice I don’t put ‘a good voice’ – so many people think it just takes that but it’s not the case. Perhaps it might be better to say a ‘true’ voice – and I’ll leave you to work out what that means!
LH: When I’m reading an uninteresting book that I have to read, I tend to skim read or even skip entire sections if necessary. How do you handle recording books you find boring or appealing? It’s not like you can simply make it an abridged recording – or can you? 🙂
SV: I read the whole text – it’s in the contract!
As I’ve indicated above a well written book is a joy to read. When I’m reading I go beyond the text to the imagination of the writer behind it. The text is just his/her way of translating the thoughts onto the page – I bring those thoughts back off the page, but using the author’s words. If an author can’t write then he won’t be published and I won’t have to read him – though a few do slip through because the kind of story he/she writes appeals to some people/fans. I’ll read them, but I often describe reading a difficult book as ‘wading through mud’ – slow going, but I’m determined to get to the other side…
LH: Stieg Larsson’s work contains graphic language, sex, and violence. I’m thinking primarily of a particular scene between Lisbeth Salander and Nils Bjurman. It was extremely powerful and painful to listen to. You as narrator melted away, making it seem as if I was in the room as helpless as Lisbeth. I can only imagine that it would be as hard to read out loud as it was to listen. How difficult is it to record scenes like that? How do you manage it so convincingly?
SV: I don’t know. It’s for the audience to judge whether I was convincing or not. I never finish a scene thinking ‘Well, I was convincing there’! To go a little ‘woo-woo’ for a moment – it’s as if I’m channeling the author’s imagination. There’s no denying it can be a little uncomfortable at times, but perhaps I can describe myself in the same manner as a journalist: I have a responsibility to tell the story. My own personal feelings would interrupt the journey of the facts in front of me on their way to the listener’s mind. But, of course, if I’m describing the scene from the perspective of a person in the story, rather than as a neutral ‘observer’, I’m going to allow my acting awareness to creep in and affect how the scene is being described.
LH: (My regular readers will probably be able to anticipate a question like this) Is it fun to get paid to cuss like a sailor? I think that might be my dream job.
SV: But I don’t cuss – it’s the characters in the novels I read that cuss…
LH: It seemed to me that you read the Swedish names and places in Stieg Larsson’s novels effortlessly as if you were a native speaker. When you are reading words from a foreign language, how do you get to the point where you can read them so fluently?
SV: I was brought up in a town full of foreign students in the summer – it helped to meet ladies if you could speak their language… so I learnt Swedish (a bit). I also learnt a little of a couple of other languages as well as the usual languages in school. When you do that at a young age, and also have a facility with mimicry you can ‘fake’ almost any language. That said – I do an awful lot of research when I have sentences in a foreign language – I do owe it to the language to get that right.
But I don’t think I’m always entirely accurate – I live by what I was taught at the BBC regarding those occasions when you have doubts about the pronunciation: “say it with authority”.
Regarding ‘Dragon Tattoo’ I actually don’t pronounce some people/place names authentically as it would get in the way of the understanding. If I said ‘yawterbory’ would you know I was referring to the town we call Gothenburg – written (in Swedish) as Göteborg? Have you heard of the Swedish Tennis star Björn Borey (we call him Borg). I adapt and I say it with authority.
LH: If I were to ever bump into Samuel L. Jackson and could work up the nerve, I’d ask him to say one of my favorite quotes from Pulp Fiction. Like him, you have a very distinctive voice. Have you ever been asked to say something specific for someone?
SV: Someone once asked me to record a happy birthday greeting for her husband! But not generally, no. Though my wife likes to hear me say ‘I love you’ as often as possible.
LH: When you’re not working, how do you like to spend your time? If you enjoy reading, what do you like to read just for yourself?
SV: We bought a house with a large garden at the end of last year (you can see me refer to the ‘lawn of weeds’ on my video blog from time to time) so we’re spending a lot of time deciding what we’re going to do with it. It has several raised beds and we’re learning about the hazards of growing our own vegetables, etc. – and when the fall comes and the weather turns we’ll have lots of indoor projects to work on. Of course, and you must find this, now that I’ve upgraded my website and started blogging and so on there’s a lot of time taken up with that!
Of course, I love reading! – but I honestly don’t have much time these days to read full length books for myself. For my own pleasure, outside of the books I have to read, I find myself dipping into magazines like The New Yorker and Wired.
LH: Are there any upcoming projects that really have you excited? If so, when can we expect them to be available?
SV: Some books come out within a couple of months of recording – some take longer. I particularly enjoyed recording the 12 novels that make up A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell last September/October (about 85 hours total) and they still haven’t been released by Audible (who commissioned them) – I understand they’ll be out by the fall. A recent book that should be out very soon is ‘Paul is Undead’ (the Beatles as zombies…). It’s written as an oral history with each character being ‘quoted’ and the author inserting narrative along the way. There were more than 50 people in the book; about 30+ of them are/were real people. I listened to a lot of recordings of these people to try to capture their individual styles (I’m really not an impressionist) – Ed Sullivan, Timothy Leary, Brian Epstein, Mick Jagger, for example, as well as the four mop-tops themselves. I’m sure I’ll take a lot of flak for the inaccuracies in my portrayal – but it was fun to do and I’m keen to see how it’s received.
LH: Thank you so much for spending time with us at The Literate Housewife Review, Simon. You’ve made my drives to and from work, waits at the pool while my daughters are at swimming lessons, and cleaning out my closet so very much fun. I’ll even forgive you for the times you have kept me glued to the seat of my car to the point where I’m almost late for work. In all seriousness, many of my readers and I always look forward to enjoying more audiobooks with you.
SV: You’re more than welcome!