"Once upon a time…"
"Oh sing to me, my Muse, of The Man of twists and turns, who travelled long and far when old Troy fell…"
"Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin…"
"It was a dark and stormy night…"
"'Great Sultan!' cried Scheherazade, daughter of the Vizer, 'I will tell you, if I may, the tale of The Rich Merchant and the Genii. Long ago, as the merchant rode upon his horse, he saw a walnut tree…'"
The journey has begun. To another time. Another place. And, for the listener, that means a way into the heart and mind of another's life… for we have entered The World of Story. And who is it that takes us there? The Storyteller. How? Simply with the human voice... and our spoken word.
It's hard to imagine what Homer, with his timeless romance of THE ODYSSEY, or Scheherazade, with her tales of THE ARABIAN NIGHTS, would have made of our modern audio books. No campfire. No sumptuous palace. No accompanying music on the four-stringed phorminx. No shared looks with the attentive listeners or gestures of excitement for those moments of drama. Perhaps though, as Story is a Universal World, they would have understood the themes and concerns of our time, but what, we must wonder, would they have thought of our ways of telling them…
There are essentially three audio book styles and let's call them 'The Reader', 'The Narrator' and 'The Storyteller'. Each technique has its own strength, its own place in audio books and ultimately its own devotees. There's no right or wrong, just different approaches.
First then, The Reader.
The key to The Reader's style is to let the words do the work. Usually The Reader will take an even-handed approach, stay neutral, and, to a degree, remain detached. The Reader will always sound as if it's someone else's book they are reading and not their own. Which, of course, is mainly the case. The characters in the story might be given a slight change of tone or pace in their speech to differentiate them but on the whole their lines are delivered in the voice of The Reader. It's a style that keeps it simple and never imposes itself.
Next we have The Narrator.
The approach of The Narrator is to give the narrative voice a certain distinction. An outlook or way of thinking will shine through and there'll be more of a feeling of connection with the text. Such narrators may well sound as if it's they who have written the books rather than the names on the covers. There'll be more of an intimacy and the listener will learn to trust them, even if they turn out not to have been telling the whole truth. And when portraying characters in the novel they'll likely make alterations in their voice and delivery, perhaps a different tone or pitch or accent that will help you distinguish one character from another. Maybe even the odd vocal foible or quirk will be thrown in. All in all, the aim will be to engage the listener with their slightly heightened style and so entice them into the tale they are narrating.
And then we have The Storyteller.
Here the tale will be given a clear intention and purpose. If it's comic, make it funny. If it's horror, make it frightening. If it's emotional, make it sad or joyous. A specific character voice may even be created for the narration to suit the story's mood or theme. The Storyteller will become your friend, your intimate, your confidant. As for the characters in the book itself, these will be brought to life as individuals, and their wants and needs, the driving forces of drama, will be right there in all their exchanges. There'll be a distinct sense too that even if the story was written in the past tense, what matters is that the telling is now. The listener will have a real sense that this story will never be told in the same way again. And that's a style very much in the Homeric tradition – with or without those musical strings.
It's not that the simple style of The Reader, or the engaging style of the Narrator or the more dramatic style of The Storyteller is better or worse, one from the other. With audio books there's no right way or wrong way of telling the story. Much of course depends on how you listen, in the car, in bed, while doing the washing up. But whatever way it's ultimately a matter of choice and the personal preferences of the listener.
Steve Nallon's audio book style is very much that of The Storyteller. And unashamedly so. It's a rarer approach, it's true, and considered by some to be unconventional, against the grain of the more common Reader or Narrator methods. That said, it's a style that's proved popular and refreshing with many.
But why so?
The special attraction and charm of Steve Nallon's audio book approach is essentially threefold. First, Steve has a real feel and understanding of genre and narrative style; second, he can command an unparalleled range of voices to play the many characters of a story; and third, his attention to detail and careful research when putting each project together helps to often clarify and enhance the writer's meaning and intent.
First then, genre.
The look and feel of a Horror film isn't that of a Romantic Comedy or Sci-Fi movie, and the same is true of the spoken word for an understanding of the different genre styles should be the starting point for any audio book story teller. Yes, the narrative voice must draw the listener in but how that is done will differ greatly between, say, ANIMAL FARM, a dark political fable, and THE CANTERVILLE GHOST, a light satirical comedy. Orwell's much admired style of plain and simple English prose needs a direct and unfussy vocal approach and for that reason Steve chose his native Yorkshire accent. With Steve's telling of ANIMAL FARM you get the feeling the narrator could be a member of the rural community who might indeed have even known Mr and Mrs Jones and the goings on at Manor Farm. Wilde's narrator though is far more gentrified and, in truth one suspects, a bit of a gossip. And so for this ebullient chatterer Steve has 'borrowed', as it were, the voice of Sir John Gielgud. The person telling the story of the Canterville ghost is never given a name, but he seems to have known the family for he notes at one point, 'The subjects discussed, as I have since learnt from Mr Otis, were merely such as formed the ordinary conversations of cultured Americans of the better class'. This very personal aside gives a certain authenticity to the tale and, from the somewhat supercilious observation that then follows, one might now add to 'gossip' the character trait of 'English snob'.
Of course the style of the narrative voice should never distract or appear intrusive, yet even here there are exceptions. The 'biographer' in Virginia Woolf's ORLANDO is one of the most invasive narrative voices in modern literature and not to reflect that would do a disservice to the book. The subject of ORLANDO is obviously Orlando herself/himself but you could argue the book's dominant theme is the process of writing itself, not only Orlando's own attempts at poetry but also the biographer's ongoing efforts to capture his subject. Put simply, it's writing about writing. And in this the narrative voice ranges from the playful to the ironic and gently mocking. Choosing then to play the narrator of THE CANTERVILLE GHOST as someone with a decidedly superior view on class who perhaps stayed at the house on a few occasions, or the story teller of ANIMAL FARM as one who was himself a farmer and knew Jones, or the biographer of ORLANDO as someone attempting but not always succeeding at his job, gives each narrative voice a certain distinction and attitude that could never come from just a straight read. And to these you might add the intrusive 'biographer ' of ORLANDO.
These examples though are not typical and with audio books such as THE INVISIBLE MAN and STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE Steve takes a far more neutral approach. Yet even here there are shifts of tone within the stories, notably in the farcical scene where the Vicar loses his trousers to the invisible man and in the sudden, horrific description given by the maidservant of Hyde's murder of Carew. The story teller must be able to recognise these shifts in mood and subtly alter the narrative style accordingly.
Creating character voices is at the very heart of Steve's professional life and has been now for nearly fifty years. Uniquely among audio book narrators, Steve has an unparalleled 'stable of voices' to draw upon, whether it be actors such as James Mason and Alec Guinness or Beryl Reid and Joan Hickson or simply characters he remembers from his schooldays. The key term here is 'draw upon' for the way Steve works isn't about using a standard impression but rather finding the right vocal trait or tone that best fits a character in a novel. The likelihood is the listener wouldn't recognise it as John Hurt or Katherine Hepburn, it's just that certain aspects of those voices turned out to be perfect for Mrs Otis in THE CANTERVILLE GHOST or Squealer in ANIMAL FARM. One exception though is having Steve's Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, for it was the iconic Sim himself who truly lived that role in what is now regarded as the definitive film version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL in 1951. It was perfect casting in those days, so why shouldn't it be perfect casting now? To sum up then, listeners to Steve Nallon's audio books will find an eclectic range of voices that truly inhabit the characters of the story and the exchanges between them will truly bring them to life in way that feels as much like an audio drama as an audio book.
'Never ignore a footnote' is Steve's golden rule when it comes to preparing an audio book, for often it's the small details that reveals how a word or phrase should be best delivered. Take the nineteenth century text STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE where Victorian slang and terminology abound. Who would know today that sawbones was a disrespectful term for a surgeon? Or that the phrase strong smell of kernels suggests bitter almonds and the presence of arsenic. The narrator cannot of course explain what these terms mean but the words can be spoken in a way that transmits understanding by a change of emphasis or inflection. A certain disdain can be added to how sawbones is said or a sense of foreboding could be there in the voice when talking about the strong smell of kernals as the presence of arsenic to a Victorian readership would ultimately indicated suicide.
When prepping a novel the best narrators, like good theatre directors and actors, are always asking questions such as 'What exactly is going on between these two characters?' or 'What sort of mood must a person be in to say that?' Sometimes the text itself only offers the odd hint. Take THE INVISIBLE MAN and the husband and wife team who run the pub in Iping. Steve took the view from the tone of H.G. Well's descriptions of the couple that their marriage was more one of convenience than romantic fulfilment and that it was Mrs Hall who most definitely wore the trousers. These characterizations are central to the plot, but it's such choices that can really lift Steve Nallon's version from the run of the mill. Likewise the scene where Mr Marvel first meets the invisible man. Was Marvel perhaps a bit hung-over from the night before? Steve took the view that playing Marvel a little worse for wear would enhance the scene without imposing itself too much on the actual plot. The story teller has to make these sorts of decisions on every page, sometimes every line, and with Steve's background and experience as an actor as well as a theatre director he knows how important such choices are to get right.
The authors take time and effort to create their stories and so it's only right and fair audio book narrators should do the same. And with a Steve Nallon audio book not only will you be assured of a truly engaging and entertaining experience with unrivalled characterization but also a determination to get right inside the tale and convey it to the listener as if that's the way it has always longed to be told.