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Hazel Barkworth interviews Helen Duff, narrator of Heatstroke

HB: How do you prepare to narrate an audiobook? When you read the book, what do you notice first?


HD: The syntax, vocab choices, the tone and the genre all really determine the way I read. Obviously, I have certain things that I can’t not do, like say all the words in the book, and give slightly different accents or intonations to different characters. But some books will determine a more ‘characterful’ read and others a more ‘straightforward’ read, in the sense that the character voices shouldn’t be too much of a deviation from the narration.

With Heatstroke, I’m doing a mix of the two. It’s a beautifully written, almost poetic, novel. You clearly have a real interest in language and that’s so easy to read because when something is literary, and engages all my senses as a reader, my focus is constant throughout the record. So, I’ve really enjoyed the process of reading it.

I loved preparing for this record because I just really enjoyed reading the book. I always read a book through once before recording. I did English at Cambridge, so I’ve had years of reading, analysing and immediately responding to texts. I’ve always had a great capacity for picking up on plot and character since I was very young. I remember playing Lady Macbeth at Bristol Old Vic summer school when I was fourteen and quickly found the speaking of Shakespeare natural. I’ve always had an affinity with language, characters and characterisation. Reading out loud has always been something I’ve really enjoyed: I was that kid in class who would put their hand up first when we were doing a text in English while other people were cowering in the corner!

When I read through a book before recording, I take notes of each different character, where the book is set, if there are any changes in location or the passage of time etc. over the course of the narrative. Often, you’ll get clues about where characters are from originally, and where they’ve travelled to since, which would inflect their accent. Also, I think about the extent to which a character should have a strong accent given the nature of the book, and whether it comes across as a piece that would lend itself to drawing out big characters or going for a slightly more subtle read.


HB: How do you build the idea of a character? What do you look for when you read? And, with only your voice, how do you create that character fully?


HD: I think it’s about being sensitive to the language. I really get into speaking the book. I was classically trained and went to LAMDA after my English degree. I love acting for stage but do it less and less now because I focus on stand-up comedy. It’s my main job when I’m not doing audiobook recordings. So, for me to be able to get my chops around a dynamic relationship, which is often what you find in a novel, two or even five people having an exchange on a page, is so exhilarating. It feels like I’m getting to play all the parts in a production at once and I love that. I’m very greedy when it comes to wanting to do all the different voices! It works well for me.


HB: When you worked to create the voice for Rachel, what did you have in mind and what did you aim to draw out?


HD: I wanted to give Rachel a voice very close to my own so it’s not that much of a deviation from when she’s speaking out loud to when I’m narrating the rest of the book. I noticed that part of the fun and the intrigue of the narrative of this novel is that we can’t trust Rachel entirely because it is written from her perspective. So, I wanted to make her speaking voice like the narrative voice because they are constantly spilling over each other and I wanted that kind of slippage to be something that would make the listener question how much they could trust Rachel’s point of view.

When I first read Heatstroke, I noticed that there are certain sections where you’re not really sure whose point of view the scene is written from. So, I needed to be careful. I could see how important it was to the way the reader experiences the story to uphold the mystique of the book and not throw the listener off.

Funnily enough, I have a lot of crossover with Rachel. I taught English myself, I love the sea, and my father lived in suburban Surrey in some parts of my life, so I didn’t think my voice would be too different from hers.


HB: What about dialogue? How do you approach having to voice a range of characters?


HD: I have always been a very imaginative person and had a great number of voices in my mind that I’ve wanted to express. Doing lots of different accents that are in dialogue with each other comes very naturally to me. I love it! When I do stand-up comedy, I have a game where I get the audience to draw each other and then I create characters from the portraits they’ve drawn. I improvise each character and give them distinct voices and accents because I find voice and tone such a key to a character – the pace of their speech, the way in which they draw breath. As a writer, you are very sensitive to that too. I thought you making the headteacher very similar to Tony Blair in the way that he delivers his addresses to the teaching body, for example, a great key into the kind of person he is.


HB: Do you think about atmosphere when you are reading? How do you go about conveying that?


HD: Yes, I do and especially with a book like Heatstroke where even in the title there is a pervasive level of the tension that continues throughout the book. The first word of the novel is ‘languid’, and that’s such an indication of how the whole narrative seems to be permeated by this oppressive heat. When I am reading, I’m conscious of my own voice, which has quite a deep, rich range. I am certainly leaning into that while reading Heatstroke. I think it lends itself quite well to creating the atmosphere of the novel. I don’t push it too hard though. I’ve been told in the past that my voice is sometimes quite seductive and somnambulant, and so I’m conscious of the fact that this narrative is already steeped in heat and I don’t want it to tip over. I want to balance my reading with the pace of the plot. Heatstroke has a fantastically engaging ‘who done it’ style race to the finish alongside a very tense, very emotionally charged and very bodily atmosphere. I love the way the writing is so aware of skin and touch and sweat. And particularly a woman’s body, how women of a certain age interact with adolescents on the cusp of adulthood, and what Rachel’s husband’s absence does to her physicality and her consciousness of herself as a body. All those things play into the way I come to the book and then once I’m in flow,all that thinking I’ve done before about themes, style and atmosphere come out naturally. I try not to be thinking too hard, or in fact at all, whilst I’m reading.


HB: What are your favourite things to give voice to?


HD: I’ve really enjoyed reading Heatstroke. I think it’s beautifully written: the attention to detail, the focus on language, the almost poetic style of it. I really enjoy the ‘play within a play’ element too. As an actor, those are the books that I adore reading. One of my favourites is The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton.


I’ve always been fascinated by the way theatre holds so many metaphors for performance and reflects on the way in which we are cast in roles, pretending to be things we are not and trying on different persona. That works so well within this text where you’re exploring a woman who doesn’t necessarily know herself, or know her daughter, or know her students. Everybody is growing and changing and pretending and lying.


I really enjoy books with that level of metaphor and self-awareness. The novels I love reading are the ones that make me think about the world and how I approach it. Every book I have read as an audiobook narrator has allowed me that experience. There is always some point that chimes with me or makes me think differently about life, love, or some major concept that affects us all. I’m very lucky that I get to have that experience.


HB: What are the biggest challenges in narrating a novel?


HD: I would say it’s been a big change recently because I’m recording Heatstroke during the Coronavirus pandemic. Normally, I’d be in a studio with a team, but I’m recording this in my home studio, which is fully kitted out, and I’ve had to learn all sorts of new things. Heatstroke is actually the fourth book I’ve started recording since this crisis started, so now I feel like I’m a complete pro! To begin with, it was quite daunting being both reader and producer but now I’m not sure if I would go back. I really enjoy the fact that I’m completely in control and I get to record whenever I like, and I can edit myself.


Normally, though, the biggest challenge is ensuring you do a good job by the author. You want to honour their intentions and style – and try to translate that verbally. And it’s not something you can ever be certain of until you get feedback at the end. So far, I’ve had very good responses! Although, often, I don’t think authors listen to the audiobook versions of their novels so the feedback is up to the listeners. I have lots of people who get in touch with me and tell me how much they enjoy my narration. I think it’s about committing to your style and not trying to be anything that you’re not. I speak in my natural voice when I’m narrating, I don’t try to push it. I don’t deliberately try to become more seductive, or tense, or animated – I respond to the text on the page and trust my instincts.


HEATSTROKE is available to buy now in hardback, ebook and audio.