After more than 300 recorded audiobooks, acclaimed narrator and voice-over actor Saskia Maarleveld knows that every audiobook requires something special. But what’s the difference between narrating a historical book versus a biography of a beloved icon? Comparing two of Maarleveld’s performances, The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History and Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge, offers a look into an audio narrator’s preparation, devotion and ability to roll with the punches.
Here she discusses a day behind the audiobook curtain, what it’s like to deliver Carrie Fisher’s jokes and why narrating nonfiction is so much harder than fiction.
Tell me a bit about transforming books into audiobooks. How do you prepare, and what do you enjoy about the preparation? From one project to the next, how much do you change your approach to each audiobook?
Once I have a script, I will first and foremost read it through. That’s the most important prep you can do: knowing the book, its characters and flow. Depending on the genre, there will then be a certain amount of research to do. Looking up correct pronunciations is one of the most important. I also like to know about the author and more about the subject matter, especially if it is a genre like historical fiction or nonfiction. I tend to not “overprep” a book, as for me the most fun part is having the story feel fresh in the booth. You want to know it but not have belabored it such that the words and characters don’t feel alive. Being open to what might come out in the booth is part of the fun!
What’s a day in the studio like for you?
I live in New York City and am lucky to be surrounded by the best audiobook studios and producers, so I go into a bunch of different studios to record. I always have an engineer and sometimes a director. A usual day for us is 10 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. We take bathroom and water breaks when we need them and have a lunch hour, but otherwise I’m in the booth recording the entire time! I like these longer days, as you can really get on a roll with whatever you are working on, recording usually about three finished hours or more in a session. Surprisingly, it’s usually my brain that starts to fray at the end of the day before my voice!
“It puts a lot of pressure on the narrator when you are trying to portray an icon like Carrie Fisher—you need to get it right!”
I’d love to discuss two audiobooks you recently narrated: Carrie Fisher and The Queens of Animation. What was most important to you as a narrator as you approached each audiobook? Did one pose more challenges than the other?
Both of these were nonfiction, which was a thrill as I mainly record fiction. Being nonfiction, it was important to me that I respect the stories of these people, doing thorough research before getting in the booth. For Carrie Fisher, I watched a ton of interviews with her to get a feel for her voice, personality and sense of humor. I watched a lot of clips from Disney movies to revisit the scenes I was describing in The Queens of Animation. This prep helps the words not fall flat when they are being read; there is life and movement behind what I am describing to the listener. This comes through most when I have a clear picture on my head.
It was a special treat to hear your ability to deliver Carrie Fisher’s jokes. What is it like to tap into an icon like Carrie Fisher? How is it different from tapping into a fictional character?
I loved having the opportunity to learn more about Carrie Fisher, a person I knew from on screen but now had to embody in a much more personal way. Having read the book ahead of time obviously gave me so much of what I needed, but also the interviews and clips I watched helped me with delivering the Carrie lines in ways that embodied her. It puts a lot of pressure on the narrator when you are trying to portray an icon like Carrie Fisher—you need to get it right! Whereas with fictional characters, you have much more room for interpretation and imagination.
With The Queens of Animation, our audio columnist especially loved the way you draw readers in, “like [you’re] confiding a dark secret.” Is this something you set out to do intentionally for this book?
Nonfiction can feel a little impersonal if the narrator just reads the words on the page and remains removed from them. It’s hard because you aren’t narrating as a character, so the more you can make the listener feel like you are talking directly to them, telling them the story, the more personal it becomes. I’m glad that came across in this project!
Does your work impact how you read?
I have always loved reading, so unfortunately these days it is very rare that I have the time to read for pleasure as I am always reading for work! And when I do occasionally have the time, it takes time to turn off the narrator side of my brain thinking, How do I pronounce that word? How does this character avoids sound? I should highlight this! I thought when I stopped working to have my daughter, I would have time to get back into reading for pleasure again, but with a newborn, reading is a whole new challenge!
What do audiobooks offer that a book can’t? And considering how much audiobooks are booming, why do you think we’re being drawn to this medium more and more?
Time is precious, and these days so many of us are constantly multitasking. Sitting down with a book is a luxury, something you have to focus on not only with your mind but also your body. Being able to listen to an audiobook while driving, ironing, cooking, etc., is such a gift, as we don’t have to stop the busy work our bodies are doing while escaping into the world of a story.
What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a reader of books? What is the most rewarding or coolest thing you get to bring to this experience through your reading?
I was trained as an actor, so my skill at creating characters is something I take pride in, and I also specialize in accent and dialect work. Also, as mentioned in an earlier question, I aim to connect the listener to the story in a very personal way. I want them to feel I am speaking directly to them, drawing them into whatever world we are sharing. If I achieve this, I think my job is done!
What’s one thing people might not expect about your role as narrator?
I work on many projects that I get really attached to, and it is surprisingly hard to read that last word and know my time with this tale has ended. It is a very intimate experience to share a story and embody characters, so after hours and days of disappearing into a book, leaving it behind can be very sad!