The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Matt Addis

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Matt Addis

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Summary: Sue has spent some very indulgent hours recently listening to books narrated by Matt Addis. Most recently she's wallowed in Rape of the Fair Country and The Hosts of Rebecca, both by Alexander Cordell, which she thought were amazing. When Matt popped into Bookbag Towers she wanted to know how it was all done.
Date: 16 September 2015
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Sue has spent some very indulgent hours recently listening to books narrated by Matt Addis. Most recently she's wallowed in Rape of the Fair Country and The Hosts of Rebecca, both by Alexander Cordell, which she thought were amazing. When Matt popped into Bookbag Towers she wanted to know how it was all done.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your listeners, who do you see?

Matt Addis: When you're on your own in a small sound studio, on day three of a long recording, with another two 8-hour days to go, it's always uplifting to imagine that anyone at all will be listening. I usually picture someone who loves the book, but who would be jolted from the story if I miss the sense of a phrase, or mis-pronounce a word. This keeps me on the straight and narrow.

I read a lot of poetry for BBC Radio 4's 'Something Understood' which goes out at 6am, and a producer once remarked to me that she likes to think of her audience as a wise old farmer, slowly ploughing his fields as the sun breaks the horizon. I couldn't help but tell her I always thought of them as dog-walkers and insomniacs.

MA: I was having lunch one day on the southbank with an old friend from Pontypool, Eleri Lynn, who is curator of the collections of the Historic Royal Palaces. I told her I'd given my girlfriend Jen a copy of the brilliant Rape of the Fair Country, and how much she was enjoying it. I said that Jen much preferred me reading it out loud to her, as she liked hearing the accents and placenames of the town I grew up in, rather than trying to guess the sometimes tricky pronunciations. Eleri said that she herself would love to hear it, and could I record it for her? I explained that, as much as I loved her, I wasn't going to spend 25 hours in a studio recording a book for her. She asked why didn't I find out who owned the audio rights and make the audiobook. To cut a long story short, that's exactly what I did. Once we had recorded the first book, I knew I wanted to complete the trilogy, and so I acquired the rights to all three, and the prequel - This Proud and Savage Land.

  • BB: I'm completely with Jen about the place names, Matt. When I listened to Rape of the Fair Country it was a shock to realise that it was probably the first time that I'd heard them all pronounced correctly since I left South Wales almost half a century ago.

I have encountered some narrators for whom the project is little more than 'reading aloud nicely'. Listening to you is more like listening to a play with added commentary. How do you prepare for the reading?

MA: I read the book, noting down each character as they first appear, with any hints as to how they may sound (some authors like to slip additional details like ‘his thick Russian accent held the merest hint of the time he’d spent on Tyneside in the war’ in after 200 pages of dialogue, so you have to be careful…) I also note down any unfamiliar vocabulary for research. Social Media are now hugely useful in researching obscure pronunciations - if I have a load of vocabulary from a particular country or area I’ve not covered before, I’ll ask friends and colleagues via Facebook or Twitter if anyone knows anyone from that part of Argentina, or Northumbria. It’s then a simple matter of a quick phone call or Skype chat where I get them to read out the words, record them, and later transcribe them phonetically and append them to the text. I think the trickiest so far has been a history of Aztec ritual sacrifice - I had an hour-long Skype chat with a Harvard PhD where he read out vastly complex Nahuatl words that were often mostly consonants.

  • BB: In Rape of the Fair Country and The Hosts of Rebecca you give us numerous (I started to count, but gave up!) Welsh voices, male and female plus a sprinkling of English voices. In Frank Merlin: Princes Gate and Stalin's Gold both by Mark Ellis, we had the benefit of a lot of different English voices and several foreign accents, male and female. How on earth do you keep track of them all?

MA: Technology helps here too - in the old days you were limited to the number of highlighters Rymans could supply, but now we read from pdfs on tablets, the colour scheme can be an almost infinite rainbow. I usually highlight everyone except the main characters, and the ability to give them a unique colour, which I can check against a guide sheet with reminders of the voices I’ve chosen, really helps.

  • BB: How do you research all the different voices?

MA: When I encounter an accent I’ve not used before, I’ll find or make a recording of a native speaker, and work from that. It’s a complex process getting it right, but once you’ve got there, that accent is usually then at your disposal for the next time you need it. It’s then a case of adding appropriate variety, making people old or young, bold or shy, clever or less-so, etc. In a book like ‘Stalin’s Gold’ where there are 5 young Polish airmen in the same conversation, that gets challenging.

  • BB: I remember the Polish airmen vividly. There was such skill in the way that you did that - and managed to make it sound completely natural.

How would you describe your natural speaking voice?

MA: Growing up in an economically-depressed former mining town in the South Wales Valleys in the 1980s, I clearly decided I wanted a life more like those glamorous folk on TV, so developed a somewhat RP English sound that would allow me to fit in. It did exactly the opposite of that at school, and wasn’t awfully helpful when I went to University in Manchester either, but when I moved to Oxford I finally found a place where when I ordered a beer, no-one did a double take. It’s been helpful in my career, as it’s a good neutral accent base to explore other accents from.

  • BB: Is there any book which you haven't had the chance to narrate, but would love to do?

MA: I recorded the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy for the RNIB, and I’m very much hoping they’ll ask me to do the new one. Also I’m very keen to narrate more books for young people, and with any luck we’ll be releasing our first ones next year. Any suggestions of wonderful so far un-adapted children’s books are most welcome, via our website.

  • BB: Many people are put off buying audiobooks because of the cost, which can seem indulgent when compared to the cost of a hard copy. I'm sure that you can explain why this is - and do you think that audio downloads (as opposed to physical discs) and greater popularity will bring the price down?

MA: mp3 technology has brought down audiobook prices - only ten years ago a publisher would have had to press 20 CDs for each copy and package them, as well as printing enough to distribute to bookshops and libraries across the country. Now that technology allows distribution with less up-front investment, prices are slowly coming down. If, like me, you buy more than 7 audiobooks a year, then a subscription to a service like Amazon’s audible.co.uk can mean paying as little as £8 per unabridged book, which I think compares well to hard copy. As people enjoy the convenience of unabridged mp3 audiobooks, and clever complementary technologies like WhisperSync, I think prices will fall even further.

What I feel very strongly about is the growing perception that audiobook listeners only care about cost - it’s easy to ruin a good book with a poorly researched and poorly delivered narration from the wrong actor. I’m very keen that publishers take listeners’ feedback seriously, and value those producers and narrators who invest in consistently delivering quality. I feel that as self-publishing and even self audio-publishing rise, this is a huge opportunity for publishers to define and defend their role as arbiters of quality.

  • BB: I couldn't agree with you more, Matt. Here at Bookbag we've come to appreciate the benefits when a book is narrated by a top-class voice actor.

As a voice actor, what's your greatest fear?

MA: Getting it wrong. Giving a character a sound that doesn’t convince the listener, and which distracts from the story. I think my most nervous moment recently was playing a geordie TV-License Inspector in an afternoon play for R4… When I have to do geordie I usually channel the brilliant Kevin Whately, as indeed I had done recently for Peter Johnson, the young CID Inspector in Frank Merlin: Princes Gate, and that usually does the job. On arriving at the recording studio last month I discovered I’d be giving my best Kevin Whately opposite… Kevin Whately. That was somewhat nerve-wracking.

  • BB: What's next for Matt Addis?

MA: My latest audiobook Battlemage is released on the 24th of September, and that’s the first of a debut epic fantasy trilogy by British author Stephen Aryan. You can hear my best Kevin Whatley opposite the man himself in Kempton and the Duke on R4 at 1415 on the 6th of October - it’s the somewhat hilarious and completely true story of a retired bus driver so enraged by being forced to pay his television licence that in 1961 he stole a picture from the National Gallery and held it to ransom to pay for pensioners’ TV licences.

On Friday 23rd October I’m in Doctors on BBC1, playing a Sports Agent who’s desperate to keep his top player on the pitch. And if you’ve not had enough of me by then I’ll be appearing in The Snow Queen, at the fabulous Theatre by the Lake in Keswick this Christmas. 2016 will see the release of the final instalment in the Mortymer trilogy Song of the Earth, and the prequel to the series This Proud and Savage Land.

  • BB: There's a lot of exciting stuff there, Matt and I - for one - can't wait for the final part of the Mortymer trilogy. Thanks for taking the time to chat to us.

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