An Interview with Proper Job’s Narrator, Dave Bignell

My audiobook, Proper Job, is finally fin­ished! It is some­what redund­ant to say that it wouldn’t exist without my producer/actor, Dave Bignell, but without his help, enthu­si­asm, and per­sever­ance, and cre­at­ive input, I wouldn’t be as proud of the final product.

Since pro­du­cing an audiobook is a dark art, I thought I’d inter­view Dave for my blog.

Can you tell a bit about your back­ground, and how you ended up work­ing as an audio pro­du­cer and voice act­or for Audible?

I’ve worked as an act­or for theatre, tele­vi­sion, radio and film. I had the amaz­ing oppor­tun­ity to sup­ply a voice over to a National Geographic pro­gramme and host a radio sta­tion; I thor­oughly enjoyed the pro­cess which opened my mind to a whole new dimen­sion of ‘act­ing’.

I worked as a drama teach­er in London and my com­mute involved walk­ing across Hyde Park. I used to listen to audiobooks on my jour­ney and was cap­tiv­ated by the won­der­ful stor­ies and nar­rat­ors. When I heard about the oppor­tun­ity to pro­duce audiobooks I thought, that sounds great, how dif­fi­cult can that be….?!? 

What made you audi­tion for Proper Job?

Comedy is an extremely dif­fi­cult thing to pull off, espe­cially in a book. After read­ing a few pages of ‘Proper Job’ I knew that Ian Hocking was in full com­mand of a) telling a com­pel­ling story and b) mak­ing the read­er laugh. It would also be fair to say that ‘Proper Job’ appealed to my own sar­cast­ic and sur­real sense of humour.

On what basis do you decide on how to deliv­er a character’s voice? I can remem­ber being very sur­prised by the char­ac­ter of ‘Madame’! A per­fect rendi­tion, but not at all as I’d ima­gined her speak­ing…

Often I have a very clear idea of what a char­ac­ter should sound like in my head, but my vocal chords don’t always fol­low suit! So it is often a com­prom­ise of both!

In my opin­ion, the char­ac­ters must all sound dif­fer­ent in some way so that the audi­ence does not get con­fused about who is speak­ing. In order to do this I have to ensure that I can sus­tain that voice and that it does not change from chapter to chapter. 

How do you main­tain what might be termed ‘con­tinu­ity’ in TV in film, i.e. keep­ing a con­sist­ent per­form­ance across mul­tiple takes/sections of an audiobook?

The most dif­fi­cult thing is to ensure your char­ac­ters’ voices are con­sist­ent through­out; for each char­ac­ter I write a short hand for myself of how they sound — some­times they are based on people I know (you’ll have to guess which char­ac­ters are the ones I know!) The great advant­age I have how­ever is that I can of course listen back to a pre­vi­ous record­ing to remind myself of how a char­ac­ter sounds. 

Not to fish for com­pli­ments, but what was the best thing about doing the Proper Job audiobook? In oth­er words, what kept you going across all those months?

Haha! Excellent ques­tion. For me, although ‘Proper Job’ is a com­edy, the story is very hon­est, very ‘real’ and at times, very touch­ing.

After each record­ing of a chapter, I would send the record­ing to Ian for his approv­al and he would email me back his notes. These notes were essen­tial, ensur­ing my deliv­ery and tim­ings were enhan­cing the com­edy. I enjoyed this col­lab­or­a­tion with Ian, always push­ing me and the audiobook and I am extremely happy with the end res­ult.

What was the most dif­fi­cult aspect?

Sustaining accents and swap­ping between mul­tiple char­ac­ters in a con­ver­sa­tion! It is very dif­fi­cult to go from a Welsh accent to a Cornish accent etc without one bleed­ing into anoth­er. Also, some­times I can sit in front of the micro­phone and record pages and pages with no errors, oth­er times I will be trip­ping over every oth­er line and have to keep stop­ping and start­ing, there was nev­er any pat­tern to it, just some­times my brain didn’t seem to be in full con­trol! 

Which oth­er audiobooks have you pro­duced?

Broken Mirror and the sequel, Broken Mind writ­ten by Oliver Rixon. Alternative Dimension writ­ten by Bill Kirton and Blood and Silk, writ­ten by Jeffrey Love.

Anything else you’d like to plug?

Probably my pho­to­graphy blog.

Thanks again to Dave for mak­ing the exper­i­ence so worth­while.

A Russia for Yuri Nikolaevich

The idea for A Russia for Yuri Nikolaevich evolved from a com­pan­ion piece, A Solitude of Space, which was itself inspired by a cent­ral theme of Lem’s Solaris: that con­tact between human­ity and an ali­en civil­isa­tion may not bring mutu­al under­stand­ing.

The first draft of A Russia began as a story about a space­craft pro­pelled by the col­lect­ive will of gal­ley slaves. Disruption arrives in the form of a woman whose mind is power­ful enough to alter the course of the ship. The second draft re-ima­gined the story as that of a hus­band and wife tak­ing a final cruise in the dying days of their mar­riage. Again, they sailed an inten­tion-powered craft, this time across the sur­face of an ocean plan­et. The story hinged on the man’s struggle to power the craft with his will, and how he deals with the rev­el­a­tion that his wife also has the power.

In the third draft, I placed the story on a snow plan­et and made the char­ac­ters marooned, Chinese astro­nauts. They named the plan­et wo, which means I, me, myself. The story was fine, but I wasn’t quite happy with it; prob­ably I was uncon­vinced by the abil­ity of the female astro­naut to con­jure great ice struc­tures from the per­ma­frost.

Between the third and fourth draft, I read a bio­graphy of the Soviet rock­et engin­eer and design­er Sergei Korolev. The astro­nauts became cos­mo­nauts in a future Soviet Union. The snow turned to ash. The cos­mo­nauts named their plan­et sushnyek.

I’ll let you find out what sushnyek means when you read the story on the Unsung Stories web­site, if the mood takes you.

Clarke Award 1: The Strange and The New

I’m mak­ing myself a host­age to for­tune by imply­ing, in the title, that I’ll review each of the Clarke Award final­ists, but that’s what I’m intend­ing to do.

First, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.

What fas­cin­ates me about Strange New Things is the con­trast between the lav­ish treat­ment by the crit­ic­al estab­lish­ment and my own reac­tion to it, which is much cool­er. M John Harrison (whose work I’ve always found self-con­sciously unortho­dox but in a good way), writes that the nov­el is ‘deeply affect­ing’.

David Mitchell, anoth­er writer I admire, has blurbed:

Michel Faber’s second mas­ter­piece, quite dif­fer­ent to The Crimson Petal and The White but every bit as lumin­es­cent and mem­or­able. It is a por­trait of a liv­ing, breath­ing rela­tion­ship, frayed by dis­tance. It is an enquiry into the moun­tains faith can move and the moun­tains faith can’t move. It is mani­ac­ally grip­ping.

Before I set down my thoughts, here’s a thumb­nail of the story: a young, evan­gel­ic­al priest called Peter is selec­ted to bring Christianity to ali­ens on the plan­et Oasis. He does so, while his mar­it­al rela­tion­ship deteri­or­ates over email.

One dif­fi­culty I had with Strange New Things con­cerns the ‘strange’. The ali­ens are not very. Strange, that is. They are, indeed, start­lingly famil­i­ar, and so is their plan­et, in as much as it is human-hab­it­able atmo­sphere-, grav­ity-, and nutri­tion-wise. Nothing wrong with that (Star Trek gets away with it, as did Iain Banks), but it jars against the groun­ded, real­ist­ic England Faber describes at the begin­ning of the story—if we take the rep­res­ent­a­tion of Earth ser­i­ously, why not the plan­et Oasis?

And then there’s the banal­ity of the human out­post. It has all the char­ac­ter of pro­vin­cial air­port. Again, noth­ing wrong with that in itself, but banal­ity and bore­dom are tox­ic ele­ments to stir into your fic­tion; you need to be care­ful mak­ing the read­er under­stand that a char­ac­ter is feel­ing bored, or that a place is banal, by mak­ing the read­er feel the same way. I don’t want to be bored.

Speaking as what reli­gious people term an ‘athe­ist’, I found it refresh­ing to read a book from the per­spect­ive of a Christian, par­tic­u­larly in a sci­ence fic­tion con­text. It was a real shame that oppor­tun­it­ies for fric­tion between his beliefs and his experiences—particularly the tech­no­lo­gic­al ones—remained unex­plored, basic­ally because the char­ac­ter, as writ­ten, is unin­ter­ested in how the world works. He’s only inter­ested in propagat­ing Christian beliefs, and the Oasans make this easy for him.

M John Harrison again:

This is a big nov­el – partly because it has to con­struct and explain its unhomely set­ting, partly because it has such a lot of reli­gious, lin­guist­ic, philo­soph­ic­al and polit­ic­al freight to deliv­er – but the read­er is pulled through it at some pace by the goth­ic sense of anxi­ety that per­vades and taints every ele­ment.

Without wish­ing to make an unfair com­par­is­on, check out Tolstoy’s Ana Karenina if you want a nov­el truly freighted with ideas. Two of his char­ac­ters can dis­cuss psy­cho­logy in the con­text of the philo­sophy of mind and cov­er just as much ground, and more effect­ively, as schol­arly works on the sub­ject. En passant, Tolstoy the­ory-checks pretty much most of the mod­ern psy­cho­lo­gic­al lit­er­at­ure, blaz­ing well ahead of Freud. And he tells a story at the same time. Much of the word­count of Strange New Things can be attrib­uted to char­ac­ters mov­ing from A to B, and hav­ing mean­der­ing conversations—which some­times hap­pen while they’re mov­ing from A to B.

There is one com­pel­ling idea in the nov­el, but I can’t tell you what it is without ruin­ing the story. It comes too late, how­ever, for Faber to pay expli­cit atten­tion to it. A re-read might bring up inter­est­ing fore­shad­ows.

Overall, it’s a nov­el with a sale­able premise—‘missionary in space’—but an exe­cu­tion that con­sciously sands-down the ‘new’ and bases the ‘strange’ on what is, essen­tially, the famil­i­ar.