Meet the Narrators: Gail Shalan & Hope Newhouse
The Deception is told through two characters: Maud Price, a medium desperate to regain her fame and reputation, and Clementine Watkins, a clever woman tasked with saving Maud's career - through any means possible. I was thrilled when Brilliance Audio told me they would be casting two actors for the narration. And I was even more thrilled when I heard their audition recordings - because they are EXACTLY how I thought the two characters would sound.
When I contacted Gail and Hope to congratulate them and ask if they had questions for me, both wrote to say "I have a story to tell you about this audition..."
Which they will tell below. Thanks to Gail Shalan (Maud Price) and Hope Newhouse (Clementine Watkins) for joining us and giving us a peek into an audiobook narrator's world.
You have a great story about auditioning for The Deception – can you tell it here?
Ha! Yes. So Hope and I are good friends (ever since we worked together on Colby Cedar Smith’s Call Me Athena: Girl From Detroit) and frequently have virtual “water cooler” moments with a small group of narrators online. One day I got an audition from Brilliance Audio asking for a read in a “Historical New England Dialect”-- I dove down the rabbit hole of research into what we might know of dialects from the late 1800s New Hampshire (the information is limited and obscure) and later that day, Hope sent a message to our group saying “I’ve been asked to submit an audition in a “Historical New England Dialect - late 1800s New Hampshire… any ideas on where to start researching it?”
I thought, well, it’s too much of a coincidence, it must be the same audition! I reached out to her with my research, and we started to discuss. We got really nerdy and had a great time with it and then said, “May the best woman get the part, and let’s at least hope is one of the two of us”!
Then later that week, I can’t remember which one of us, but one of us thought to ask “Wait, who did you audition for?” It hadn’t even occurred to us that we might not be auditioning for the same role! I think it’s just so often that a two-hander in audiobooks is M/F. But she said “Clem, you mustve auditioned for Clem, too, right?” and I said, “no, Maud!” and then we got super excited and really crossed our fingers and toes— and it must’ve worked, because here we are! Your Clem and Maud.
It was so synchronous! Brilliance sent me the audition and it specifically asked for an historic New England accent. I do a lot of accents including New England ones, but I wasn’t sure what that sounded like. So I texted Gail who I co-narrated the IPPY award-winning novel Call Me Athena with because we did a lot of accent work for that one and I know she’s a master. She said "oh! I think got that audition too!" She immediately offered to send me her research (such a Maud!). I told her she didn’t have to since we thought I was her rival for the role but instead of backing down, we totally geeked out together about accents and the time period and her research. When I went to record the audition, I saw it was dual narration for two women so I asked “Are you also auditioning for Clem?” and she said “What? NO!!” Either of us would have been happy for the other, but when we realized it was for a co-narration and Brilliance had sent us opposite roles for the audition, we were so excited and when we both got the parts we were over the moon to be co-narrating together again! We had so much fun researching and creating characters together for The Deception!
How did you get into audiobook narration?
When I first moved to New York, a fresh 22-year old with a BFA in Acting and not much else to my name, I was totally overwhelmed by the acting industry, this huge and expensive city, and just generally adulting. I was working four jobs and none of them had anything to do with acting. I didn’t even know where to start looking for work as an actor.
I’d studied abroad at LAMDA in Undergrad, and one day I got an email from Audible for LAMDA alum to come over to Newark and learn about this new platform they were launching called ACX.com. Scott Brick and the late great Katie Kellgren (also a fellow LAMDA alum) had been brought in to sell us actors on why audiobook narration was such a wonderful place to apply our skills.
I didn’t even realize people did this as a job! But I was easily convinced– I’m one of those kids who brought home stacks of cassettes and CDS from the library to listen to “books on tape” for hours in my room.
But what really sealed the deal was sitting on the train back to Penn Station with Katie. I was totally baffled at how to make a living as an actor and enjoy my life, how to be involved in theatre which seemed to me, even then, like a dying industry and not be constantly sacrificing everything else. Katie was the kindest, warmest person and I feel so lucky to have met her. She said to me, on the train, “a life as an actor in this city is totally possible. And you can have a family, and take care of yourself, and enjoy yourself, too. You can say yes meaningful opportunities even if they have a low budget and pass on things that feel like a major compromise. The way I do that, is by being an audiobook narrator. When I’m narrating, I’m getting to tell meaningful stories every day and I get some agency over my life because of it.”
I went home, set up my first closet recording booth in the tiniest closet ever in Greenpoint, and booked my first several gigs on ACX. From that point on, I was in what I call a rotating-door relationship with audiobook narration. I did a couple here and there (from various closet-studios in various towns and cities I moved to). Then right before I left for Grad School in the UK, I booked my first big publisher gig with Blackstone Audio. While in school, I continued to work with a few indie clients from the old, haunted Christchurch recording studios in Bristol (where the BBC used to record) and I was cast in a UK release of a Robin Schnyder book produced by Audible Studios right as I was coming out of school.
When I came back to New York, a recent MFA grad, with little else to my name than another theatre degree, I worked hard to build savings, find an apartment I could build a really great closet-studio in, and network in Voice Over. The Pandemic hit just as I was about ready to make the leap into full-time and it nudged me to focus and throw everything I had into it. Here I am, several years later, working as a full-time voice artist (mostly audiobook narrator) and, just like Katie said, enjoying my life, my little family (partner and puppy), and working on theatre, film, and writing projects that creatively fulfill me.
I come from a background in theater. I worked onstage for almost 10 years, mostly in Paris and on tour in France (where I live) working with French theater troupes. When I had my daughter in 2015, I didn't want to work so many nights or be on tour so I leaned more into the voice work I was already doing and a friend suggested audiobooks, which I immediately fell in love with. I have always been a voracious reader and, as an actor, of course I want to play all the parts. It was a match made in heaven!
How do you prepare for a role or narration of a novel?
It completely depends on the book! But my first step is always to read the book:) I also, immediately upon booking (or sometimes at the audition time) research the author a bit and their previous work to get a feel for their voice/brand/aesthetic.
Sometimes I browse a book quickly once when I’m considering taking it on, and then do a detailed read, but usually I only have time for the deep dive. As I read the book, I look for clues in the text. I write down everything that’s said about the various characters, how they sound, look, where they come from, what emotional burdens they carry, their dispositions, their relationships to each other, etc. Also notes about the world of the book, and anything else that factually might be important.
I look out for any dialects I may need to start preparing for various characters and then I start to program those dialects in. I note any words I don’t know how to say and look them up or try to find authentic speakers to pronounce them for me– if I can’t find them, they are made up by the author, or there are multiple options for pronunciation, I turn back to the producer and ask for pronunciation verification.
While I’m doing my read through, I’m also building a mood board and playlist for most pieces. I collect images and music that feel evocative of the story so that I can use these sensory tools later when recording or in my warmups. And I highlight all the different character dialogue (color-coated according to the energy I’m picking up on from the characters or the connections they might have to each other) and annotate my script with any additional notes I want to pay attention to when recording.
If I have time, I will sometimes watch films or go visit locations in the city that feel evocative of the project– like little field trips– to keep inspiration flowing. Also, I will touch base with fellow narrators once I have completed my prep read to make sure we are on the same page regarding character choices, etc.
I read the book and if it’s fiction, I take notes on the characters (age, profession, personality descriptions, physical descriptions and especially any vocal descriptions the author uses). I highlight the manuscript with different colors for each character. I try to choose a color that fits the personality so that when I read it's like a Pavlovian response: when I see that color, I do the character's voice. I look up any words I don’t know how to pronounce and I send any questions I have to the publisher or author, especially if the author has made up names or vocabulary. If there are accents, I try to immerse myself in that accent. If it’s way outside my comfort zone, I might hire an accent coach to help. In the same way if there are words in a language I don’t speak, I will look up pronunciations or ask/hire a native to pronounce them for me. When I get in the booth, I use physicality to help find characters as well: the way I hold my body or face or make small movements (much less than onstage of course because you have to be quiet behind the microphone!).
What’s the hardest accent you’ve had to do and how did you master it?
Gosh, I really am not great with Australian accents– I don’t know why. I think I just haven’t gotten to use them much, so I need practice. But I also get stuck with the sound changes and find myself drifting into other places– London one minute, Brooklyn the next, who knows where the moment after that!
Same with Philadelphia– I had to do that recently and it was hard! My mouth is not used to making that Mid-Atlantic “o” sound. It took a lot of practice.
But pretty much any accent is learnable for me. Especially with enough time. It comes down to integrating a technical sound change & placement breakdown, with muscular practice/training, and a feel or energy of the dialect. Which is never separate from the character, by the way! Dialects do not live in a bubble. In fact, every “dialect” is just many “idiolect” data points concentrated as one sound or generalization. So understanding who the character is and where they (and their people) have come from, what formative experiences they’ve encountered in life and in trying to express themselves, and also when in time this character is living, is very essential to building a character voice. Also, it’s important to always keep one’s audience in mind, especially in long form narration. The words have to be understood, the dialect can not interfere with the sense of the words (unless the story calls for that, somehow, and it wouldn’t be for more than a couple words, I imagine).
The hardest accents to do are accents with a lot of different influences. For example, I had a grandmother character in a YA novel who grew up in the Jewish quarter of Prague in the early 1900s and moved to the US when she was a teenager and then lived in New York. A lot of thought goes into what that accent sounds like: is it Czech? Is it New York? How does her Jewish heritage influence her accent in both those places? How easily did she learn English? If she was young enough, did she lose most of her accent? Or was she mostly in a community of people who spoke with an accent? In that case, I listened to as many Czech accents as I could (the International Dialects of English Archive is a great resource for that) and I tried to find historical examples as well and then I made the best choices I could.
For an accent that I haven’t mastered, I will also often hire an accent coach. For example, when I started out, I noticed I got hired for a lot of historical fiction novels that took place in France during WWI or WWII because I speak fluent French. Most of them also had German characters and I wasn’t at all at ease with the German accent. I worked with an accent coach to master that one and now it’s one of the accents I do most frequently and easily!
Do you have a home studio or record at publisher’s studios?
Both! I’m lucky to live in New York where I can easily go into some top notch recording spaces in midtown. Depending on the budget of the project, the timeline, and the publisher’s practices I’ll be brought in studio to record (which I always hugely prefer for several reasons), but I also have a home studio. It’s actually several blocks away from my apartment and I finally got out of the closet! My partner is a musician – so we have a double walled music studio we rent and inside of that I have a WhisperRoom prefabricated isolation booth.
Yes. I have a professional home studio where I work from most often, especially since I live in France and many of my clients are American publishers. But I have worked in publisher studios in New York when the timing has worked out and I work in studio in Paris sometimes for clients here.
What’s your favorite genre to narrate?
Any literary fiction with an emotionally complex heroine at the forefront. That, and middle grade fiction– I just adore the fluid and genuine nature of stories for kids! I’m a sucker for anything particularly character driven, playful, or deeply existential. And I love working on text that is artistically written. I have such deep respect for the craft of writing, and I love language. Some of my favorite audiobook narrations have been completely in verse.
My favorite genre to narrate is probably YA fantasy because I love interesting character work and anything with lgbtq+ themes because as a queer narrator, it means a lot to get to tell those stories. But I love to read and I really enjoy any well-written story. I am lucky narrate in a lot of wonderful genres!
What has been your very favorite role?
That’s a very tough call. I fall deeply in love with every character I get to voice. I kind of think that’s the most important part of my job, that I deeply empathize with each one. But a couple highlights have been:
Obviously, Maud against Hope Newhouse’s delicious Clem! There is so much beautiful tension there and working on this gorgeous, theatrical text was an actor’s dream. Especially with such a delightful scene partner. Maud has so many layers and goes through so much growth throughout the novel. She was an incredibly fun part to play and I adore her.
Ruth Applebaum from Amy Sue Nathan’s Well Behaved Wives was such a privilege. She is not-so-loosely based on the notorious RBG and a totally amazing, brilliant, bad-ass, feminist character.
Cora from Elle McNicoll’s Show Us Who You Are will stick with me forever. She is an actual, real life superhero! I was so proud of her by the end of the book, and she really surprised me. We stopped multiple times while recording to talk about how much of a better place the world would be if Cora had been the hero of our stories we read in middle school.
Mary from Colby Cedar Smith’s Call Me Athena: Girl from Detroit. This is the first book I did with Hope (she actually plays my French mother). It is an award-winning YA written in verse about belonging, identity, love, family, and finding one’s own. I adore her strength and sensitivity. And I love telling stories about where we come from, heritage stories. They are so meaningful to me.
All of the characters in Ashleigh Bell Pederson’s The Crocodile Bride, especially dear 11-year old Sunshine Turner. This book is a stunning revelation that dives into the heartbreaking myth that keeps one family going through many abusive cycles, generation after generation. It uses storytelling as a means of healing generational trauma, and that was such a powerful thing to be a part of.
Finally, I have to say Maddie from Megan E. Freeman’s Alone. Maddie is the strongest character I have ever had the pleasure of playing. She survives for four years on her own in a deserted town against fires, floods, raids, starvation, and solitude. And the thing that saves her most is when she discovers the library and the poetry of Mary Oliver. Aloneis a 500-page middle grade novel-in-verse. It’s astounding.
This is a hard question because I fall deeply in love with so many of my characters. I spend time feeling their emotions and being a part of their lives. It’s hard to love someone when you know them from the inside like that. Jeanne from Call Me Athena was one of my favorites because it was a novel in verse and it is moving to narrate poetry. Her experiences as a young French woman in WWI were also very intense and beautiful. But I have to admit that Clem was one of my favorites! I often get hired to portray sweet characters and getting to play someone so devious was purely delectable!!
What’s the next project you’re working on?
I’m working on a couple right now that I can’t announce yet but are really amazing novels. But I did just wrap recording Charlotte Van denBroeck’s Bold Ventures: Thirteen Tales of Architectural Tragedy which will be out later this year. It’s one of the most fascinating non-fiction titles I’ve ever done. A truly existential piece of philosophy combined with dark, poetic, comedic musings, travelogue style encounters, and lots of fascinating European, British, and American art history. It surprised me in the most wonderful ways. She is an absolutely fantastic thinker and writer.
I am currently recording The Puttermans are in the House by Jacquetta Nammar Feldman for HarperAudio. It’s middle grade novel that I’m co-narrating with Jesse Vilinsky and Michael Crouch. My character Becky is often frustrated and, yes, maybe a little self-centered but honestly, it’s really not fair that her cousins always get ALL the attention just because they are good at baseball and they are twins! And ok, yes, they lost their house in the hurricane, which sucks, but she has passions too, even though no one takes them seriously and her bat mitzvah is coming up which is really important and is it too much to ask that she get to be the focus just this once??
I love Becky so hard!