Katherine Kellgren is sitting in a recording booth in a studio on Broadway, speaking with an aristocratic British accent. "I do think it's possible to overdo the diamond choker style," she says, reciting dialogue from Fay Weldon's Long Live the King (Macmillan Audio), a novel set at the Downton-like Dilberne Court just after the turn of the 20th century. "I rather wish you could develop a taste for diamonds...."
The scene continues. As a new character, "Little Minnie from Chicago," is introduced, Kellgren shifts into her voice as well. Occasionally, she asks to re-record a line, giving it a slightly different emphasis based on her emotional understanding of the characters' entire story.
"Katy's fabulous," producer Scott Sheratt says from his station at the control board. This is the second Weldon novel they've recorded together (after Habits of the House), and he admires the tenacity with which she approaches Weldon's often complex prose style. "She's so dedicated to every word, every author intention."
During a break in the recording, Kellgren is quick to return the praise. "Scott is so clear about what he wants," she says, "but he also makes me feel so comfortable. He can usually get more pages out of me [in a day] than anybody else."
Pages, in this context, is taking on an increasingly metaphorical meaning. After years of working directly from paper scripts, Kellgren is now seeing those pages scanned and loaded onto an iPad, from which she reads in the booth. Although she misses "the security blanket of the actual paper," she says, the elimination of the rustle of turning pages is a happy development. "Soon," she resolves, "the iPad will hopefully feel like a home base."
Kellgren does a significant amount of research for each audiobook project. Long Live the King, for example, required her to track down the tunes to several Victorian-era songs quoted in the novel, as well as a slew of general pronunciation questions. Luckily, she says, she's long possessed an "amazing book," The BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names, an essential resource for her audiobook work. "It's been incredibly helpful for this scene," she observes.
Beyond that, there's the preparations she goes into for each character. The previous night, she confides, she spent an hour and a half brushing up her Australian accent for a character she'll be recording later in the day. I mention that Little Minnie's Chicago accent came across very subtly in the passage she just recorded. "Minnie's been to finishing school, so her Chicago accent has been diminished," Kellgren explains, then mentions that her mother, who appears elsewhere in the novel, had a much broader accent.
Kellgren has recorded more than 100 audiobooks and has won just about every award there is to win for audiobook narration, several times over. She's especially sought after by publishers to record books by British novelists. Although she's a native New Yorker, "I don't think I ever had a strong New York accent," she says, and she spent three years studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. "We did a lot of vocal training, a lot of dialect work," she recalls. After the intensive training, which included writing out phrases phonetically in one dialect after another, her replication of several regional British accents was eventually rated "native" or "nearly native." One day, an acting coach from the Royal Shakespeare Company came to meet the students--and was initially convinced that Kellgren was from Devon.
As you might imagine, Kellgren's Anglophile roots run deep. "My ultimate hero from the time I was a teenager was John Gielgud," she says; the first audiobook she owned was his recording of Ages of Man. "Talk about a reader who completely understood what he was reading, and made it clear to the reader." It's an approach she works hard to emulate; in addition to novels like Long Live the King, she records a great deal of young adult and children's literature, and "I really aspire to be a reader who encourages children to pick up the books and read them in print."
For her own part, Kellgren doesn't usually get to read print books outside of her professional projects, but she has recently indulged in some pleasure reading--P.G. Wodehouse's Where Angels Fear to Tread and The Bad Beginning, the first book in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. She also has high praise for John Schwartz's audiobook recording of his own memoir, Oddly Normal. (Though she does very little nonfiction work, she says working on first-person stories can be "enormous fun," and they make up many of her favorite projects.)
As I leave the studio, Kellgren and Sheratt are going over her notes for the chapter they'll record next, fine-tuning the voice of one of the novel's servant characters. She proposes a Somerset accent, "to show the contrast between upstairs and downstairs," and, once the green light is given, she steps back into the booth, and back into Weldon's early 20th-century aristocratic world. --Ron Hogan
Listen to an excerpt from Fay Weldon's Long Live the King audiobook, read by Katherine Kellgren.