An interview with Simon Prebble

Simon Prebble

British born performer Simon Prebble is a stage, film and television actor who has played everything from Soaps to Shakespeare. As a narrator of some 350 audio book titles he has received critical acclaim from both fans and peers. He is one of Audiofile’s ‘Golden Voices’ and Voices of the Century’, and has received over 24 ‘Earphone’ awards, 5 ‘Listen Up’ awards and has been nominated 11 times for the ‘Audies’, the industry’s own ‘Oscars’. In 2005 he was named ‘Narrator of the Year’ by Publisher’s Weekly.

Simon very kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in March 2009.

You have now performed some 350 audio book titles. Can you still remember the very first book that you narrated?

Very much so… It was Graham Green’s ‘Our Man in Havana’. Your question prompted me to dust off the original cassettes and take a listen. I have to admit that it sounds pretty good today as it did some twenty years ago when I narrated it for Recorded Books. This is a company incidentally that I’ve worked for consistently over the years and I owe them a great deal for introducing me to this line of work that I so much enjoy.

Do you often meet people who instantly recognise your voice but cannot immediately explain why?

Not really…but back when I was the announcer on the phenomenally successful UK version of ‘The Price is Right’, it used to happen a lot!

Fantasy Book Review believes that your reading of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of the very best fantasy audio books. Were you aware of Susanna Clarke’s book before being asked to narrate it?

Thanks for the compliment… This job was certainly one of the highlights of my career… I had not really done any Fantasy or Science fiction titles before and so, at the time I was offered it, I was unaware of her work.

The total reading of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is over 32 hours. How daunting is it to work on a project of this size, containing so many different characters and featuring such extensive footnotes?

Don’t remind me! At an average ratio of two hours in the studio for each hour recorded it was a long concentrated time behind the microphone… so the key to narrating such a massive book is prepping and pacing. Your initial reading of the book is preparation, in order to get the overall shape and mood, to map the plot, and especially to find the voices of the characters. To do that, like a lot of narrators, I visualise them (often using various character actors from the TV or the movies) to give me a mental cue when reading . Unlike a lot of narrators, I rarely mark up my scripts, but when recording ‘Strange and Norrell’ there were so many characters that to avoid getting lost I had to make notes… but not footnotes! This, incidentally was an area that I had strong feelings about. I believe that the numerous footnotes in the book should have been read either on a separate track on the CD or at least at the end of the sentence in which they appeared… not in the middle of the sentence. With some of those faux footnotes over several pages long it seemed absurd to me to go back to the sentence from which they sprang. My producer disagreed.I feel somewhat vindicated however since several reviewers remarked on the odd method. With regards to pacing… when you are recording day after day, eight hours at a stretch, you need to physically as well as mentally pace yourself, so there is a consistency of energy, and comprehension, and especially characterisation.

Strange & Norrell has consistently been in the best sellers list on Audible.co.uk. Did you have the feeling that you had created something a little bit special when the recording was completed?

Notwithstanding our ‘creative differences’ on the footnotes, my producer was a godsend on this project. He may have held the reins, so to speak, but he let me ride with it. We had a mutual trust that was essential in such a large project, and I remember saying to him very early on in the recording that this book and the recording was something quite unique. It certainly seems to have turned out that way… even though Susanna Clarke says that, when writing it, she heard a woman’s voice! However, from what I can gather from her website she was quite happy with my interpretation.

Michelle Paver said that Sir Ian McKellen was the voice that she must have to bring her Wolf Brother books to audio life. Do you also have authors asking for you personally when they learn that their books are going to be turned into audio books?

Well as you can see Clarke didn’t ask for me… and in fact few authors have that particular clause in their contracts. Publishers and producers usually try to match a voice to a book. Sometimes after one has recorded several titles in a series, and the author has been happy with your work (or not raised any objections) then one gets to do the subsequent books. Often it is the authors’ fans who press for a particular voice; this has been my experience, especially with Romantic Fiction.

If you were allowed to take two books with you to a desert island, have you any idea what those two titles might be?

Sounds like Desert Island Discs… but of course not allowing Shakespeare or the Bible… and certainly the works of the former would have been one of my choices for all the usual reasons. I think, from so many choices, I would take Laurence Durrell’s ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ because…

Is there a book that you have not narrated that you would like to?

… it is (four) books that I’ve always wanted to record, and I had my opportunity earlier this year when Audible offered it to me… just when I was leaving for a month in France. Such is the luck of the freelancer!

How have you retained your “Englishness” whilst living in New York?

Well, when I sometimes return to London (hopefully to record for SilkSoundBooks (www.silksoundbooks.com)) friends comment on my "American" accent . This causes much amusement with my friends in New York who only hear those British vowels. I think one may lose the accent a little but it is the rhythm of the speech that endures. Everything else is kept in ‘tip top’ shape by watching all those British TV comedy shows! Yeah, right!

Are the Audies as glamorous as the Oscars?

They are when you win..I’m still waiting on that.

What does 2009 hold in store for Simon Prebble?

Well I’m just about record ‘The Odyssey ‘… recording at home. This is a new direction for me, and one that many other narrators are having to take… moving away from the Studio and into the Garage! That said, I hope to have as good a year and as many titles as I had in 2008.

For more information on Simon Prebble and his work visit his official website – http://www.simonprebble.com