Consumed by Arla: Q&A with narrator / actress / author Jane Slavin #QandASunday #Orentober

Hi and welcome to #QandASunday! Planning and plotting #Orentober2020, I wanted to put the spotlight once again on some of the people who are important to the bookish process but who remain more in the background. Last year I talked to jacket designer kid-ethic and when I was pondering who I should talk to this year, two people immediately came to mind, one of them the hugely talented Jane Slavin.

For those of you who don’t know who Jane is (who even are you!), or why I would want to interview her for #Orentober: Ms Slavin is not only an actress and an author, she is also one of the narrators of my favourite audiobook ever, Hydra by Matt Wesolowski, in which she voices protagonist Arla. Jane’s performance is definitely one of the reasons why Hydra is my favourite audiobook ever, I’m listening to it again as we speak, so today it is my absolute honour to welcome to FromBelgiumWithBookLove: Jane Slavin!

Picture taken from Jane’s Twitter profile @JaneSlavin

Hi Jane, and welcome! I am chuffed to bits to have you here, thanks so much for agreeing to an interview! As we’re having our talk when the coronavirus is wreaking havoc in both our countries, the most important question I can ask you is: how are you?
I’m not bad, you know? Thanks for inviting me to this Q&A – I LOVE a Q&A. I’m up and down at the moment but more up than down and I’m aware I’m in the fortunate position of having enough food and warmth to keep me and my daughter sustained, and while we have each other and the internet and a ton of books we can survive this weird time. We are not on the front line. My heart and all my admiration goes out to the medical staff, the carers, the delivery teams, the people still rocking up in their retail jobs every day when they would rather be safely cocooned elsewhere. So yes, we’re ok here. It’s a challenge though, I won’t lie.

These are challenging times for sure, so let’s dream a little. If this were an actual meeting in real life and there was no corona situation, where would we be now? Would we be out for coffee, would we go for a bite to eat? Where would you take me, and why?
Oh what a wonderful thought…I’d take you to Old Compton St in Soho in London and we’d sit outside one of the cafes and I’d buy you a great sandwich and some coffee and we would struggle to get a table because of the throngs and afterwards I’d walk you over to Piccadilly and we could wander into Waterstones or Bafta or somewhere…and oh, I miss this, I do…

That sounds divine! I miss London! But enough dreaming, back to business! Please describe yourself in 5 key words. Who is Jane Slavin?
OK I asked my friends and I think I agree with these – Resilient, empathic, messy, optimistic, funny (depends who’s asking though, this could also be a dark mess of five different words)

What is your best quality?
I think I’m a good and loyal friend and I’m kind. All those things wrapped up aren’t too bad I think.

What is your biggest vice?
Golden Virginia.

You’re an actress, an author, a narrator, clearly a woman of many talents, all of them creative. Is this what you pictured yourself doing when you were little, or did it just happen? How did you get where you are today?
This is exactly what I wanted to do. I used to sit in my bedroom when I was very young, six or so, and record stories into a tape recorder, then I would record a soundtrack with music and then I would record more voice. It was only very recently that a friend of mine pointed this out and I realised I had Got What I Wanted. Also my dad took us all to the theatre a lot, like once a week, and it was all I ever wanted to do. It still is. I really bloody love my job.

That’s fabulous, not that many people Get What They Wanted! So how does one become a narrator?
Honestly? I don’t know. Really the question might be how does one become an actor. Study, read and read and read again and go to the theatre and watch TV and watch people and then do more. Also you need passion, tenacity and these days prepare to be broke. It’s feast or famine. One year you might earn a fortune and the next year nothing. It was like that when I started 30 years ago and it’s still the same. I have more security now and I own a house but it is still hairy-scary.

How is one selected for narrating a particular audiobook? Do you have to audition?
I’ve never auditioned for an audio book and I’m not sure how we are selected. We have reels with examples of work and occasionally people ask for them but often it feels like chance and always on past work so I’ve no idea how someone would start. I won the Carleton Hobbs award when I was at drama school and the prize was six months on the BBC Radio Drama Company and this six months opened like a thousand doors and changed my life.

Once you’ve been selected, I suppose you get a bit of time to prepare? How do you prepare? Do you take notes, highlight things, …?
Usually there are a few days and you get slicker at the prep over the years but it’s not quick – the book has to be read and marked up. It’s fabulous when it’s a great book but it still requires a good couple of days prep for which we are not paid. It’s a labour of love.

For multicast audiobooks, like Hydra, are you given some kind of script, or do you get the entire novel and highlight your lines, or how does that work?
We have to talk about Hydra. This was extraordinary. I didn’t have much time to prepare to be honest and I read through my bits and the descriptions of Arla and had no real idea how it was going to sound, but then I went into the studio and it was very odd – magical maybe, I’m not kidding. We did it in pretty much one take and I was just – what’s the word? – consumed by Arla, I loved her so much, and it felt like something extraordinary was happening and then at the end the producer said, ‘I think that was the best piece of audio I have ever recorded in all my life’ and the writing was so wonderful and the session had been so amazing and when the book came out it was almost like I was hearing it for the first time and I actually wept for poor Arla and it remains the piece of audio of which I am most proud. Matt Wesolowski, I salute you, I bow down to you, thank you for giving me Arla.

I would definitely call it magical as well, there was so much emotion there, I’m constantly listening to audiobooks but none has got to me the way Hydra did, the way Arla did, the way you did. What is the recording process like?
We sit down, have a bit of a laugh, and then calm down. You can hear every single thing on a recording so it’s important to clear everything – mirth, grief, worry, everything. And the narrator reads and when there’s an error or a glitch or something, we go back, perfect it (thought there’s no such thing.)

Is it different for multicast audiobooks?
No because we record our bits separately unless it’s drama, which is a whole other ball game.

Are you alone in the studio?
I’m in a booth and there’s a control room next to me that I can hear and occasionally see (depending on the studio). Audio books are very different from drama because you do not have a director for books, just a producer/engineer.

Do you have any rituals before recording?
No

You’re also an actress, can you tell us a little about that? Is there, for example, a role you’re particularly proud of or a show you had heaps of fun with, or a play that you’ll always remember fondly?
I’ve enjoyed all my jobs. I particularly love theatre though have not been able to do any since my daughter was born. I was scheduled to start rehearsals tomorrow, March 30th for a play in London and losing this to the corona pandemic was heartbreaking – I grieved. It was only when my daughter lost her last day at secondary school to it and all those rites of passage that I snapped out of it, because her grief was greater than mine and I’m a proper Lioness with my girl. I’d do anything for her. What roles have I loved especially? Poopay in the West End in Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors. It was everything I could have dreamed of. Also Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. It doesn’t get much better than that. I’ve been lucky.

You’re also a published author, and you’ve narrated your own novel. Can you tell us a little about your book?
Oh my god, my book is not totally autobiographical but it reads like a diary and is very, very personal. It’s also very dark, an exploration of grief and loss and obsession and although it’s also funny and light, reading it for three days was exhausting and brought up so much grief I found myself pulling over in my car on the way home and crying in a lay-by. But it was also one of the loveliest things I’ve ever been asked to do and I felt very proud and pleased now that my dad got to see it produced before he died.

Was it weird narrating your own novel, or was it easier because they were your own words?
It was VERY weird because I knew the people in studio did not know which bits were me and which were her, Ellie, the protagonist. It’s quite bare and revealing and intimate. I felt occasionally like I was reading out the darkest bits of my diary.

Are you a reader? Do you have a favourite genre as a reader? Do you have a favourite author, or a favourite novel?
I am a reader, I have many favourites. I love behind The Scenes at the Museum, The L-Shaped Room, Jane Eyre. I love Jonathan Franzen and Andrea Newman and Sylvia Plath and OH THE LIST IS ENDLESS!

What does the future bring?
See my key words. Always optimistic.

What makes you happy? What are your favourite things?
Work makes me happy. My daughter. Coffee. Comedy. Friends (both the TV series and my actual friends). Being in love.

Well then I wish you lots of work, lots of time with your daughter and F/friends, buckets of coffee, hours of comedy and the feeling of being in love! Thanks so much for this!

Thanks for joining me today for #QandASunday! I’ll be back next week with another Q&A!

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