Harry Frost is a 28-year-old writer and voice actor living in Leicestershire, England. He enjoys literature, and is passionate about the audiobook medium as a way to revitalise a tradition of performance storytelling.
How did you become interested in performing audiobooks?
Harry Frost: I think because I’ve always listened to them, first as a child, then as an adult when I had a job that involved a lot of driving and travelling. I was first inspired by Martin Jarvis, a British actor/journalist who used to read Richmal Crompton’s Just William series of books on audio cassette; he has such humour and versatility and range. He was also a war correspondent, so years later it was quite a shock to see him on TV in a bulletproof jacket in Helmand province when I was used to hearing him doing the quavering voices of old English aunts and irate rural gamekeepers! After that, and studying drama at school, it was just something I’d always wanted to do.
There’s something wonderful, I find, about being led into a story. I think audio-narration is great because, unlike much of modern cultural media, it doesn’t try to tell you what to think about the story, but only facilitates your own contact with it by removing the need to read text which, though it can become nearly unconscious, can distract. When someone else is reading to me, and giving some emotional signals about how the dialogue and plot would make that character feel, I find I have my whole attention left for the story as a story.
The Darcy Monologues is your first audiobook. How did you get selected to perform it?
Harry Frost: I was very lucky to have discovered ACX [Audiobook Creation Exchange] and to have signed up for it in time to catch Christina (the editor’s) post advertising for a voice actor. I thought “Austenesque” sounded great, and pretty suitable to my natural speaking voice. What I didn’t realise initially was the variety of stories and settings, and that some would require me to do a US accent throughout! I don’t think I would have presumed to put myself forward for that part initially, but Christina, hearing my auditions, seemed to think I was up to it, and so there I was!
What kind of material did you submit to ACX to audition for this book?
Harry Frost: The website allows you to upload any number of samples in difference accents and styles, which in theory increases the likelihood of your coming up in rights holders’ / authors’ searches. I therefore set to work filling it up with as many as I could think of! Highlights (at least, I think) include my trying to do a Glaswegian rendering of a scene from Trainspotting and my absolute favourite scene in one of my favourite American authors’ greatest books: the final speech in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.
For the specific audition for The Darcy Monologues, I was sent selected scenes from the book to demonstrate how I would interpret certain scenes. Having not read the rest of the stories, it was interesting to imagine how the characters had ended up where they were, and to try and pitch the emotional content accordingly. One scene was from “Hot For Teacher,” outside the sports hall during the homecoming dance. I had decided Darcy and Elizabeth were high-school age, and so perhaps I voiced Darcy rather more like a high school jock and Lizzie more like a character out of Mean Girls than was strictly correct! Luckily, Christina was understanding.
Your bachelor’s degree was in Literature, and you’re currently studying for a master’s in Economics at De Montfort University, Leicester, in the UK. Most narrators seem to have degrees in performing fields, but I wonder if your background in learning to analyze literature gives you unique insight into performing books, especially ones like The Darcy Monologues.
Harry Frost: I think I definitely came to audiobooks out of literary conviction rather than a cold-headed career decision. I really believe in the power of the medium to transport people in a way nothing else does, with the perfect balance of suggestion, dramatisation and freedom of interpretation. My first degree roamed right through literary history, starting with the Greeks, then the Anglo Saxons and Vikings, and going right through to Modernism via the Regency period. I couldn’t get enough of it, and everything sounds better read aloud! Homer’s Iliad, the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, the Icelandic Sagas, the Finnish Kalevala; all were designed to be performed, not written down. Realism in fiction, too, has dialogue that was intended to sound like dialogue as actually spoken, so the fit there is great, too. And, as we know, though Regency writing is perhaps a little more ‘writerly’ than bardic, it was pretty usual to sit out the long, pre-Netflix evenings listening to someone read aloud (even if, alas, it was only Fordyce’s Sermons. . .)
So in terms of overall motivation and belief in the medium, my background in literature is really important. When it comes to devising a performance, perhaps less so. I think “literary” understanding can sometimes get in the way of the pure human emotion that it’s the reader’s duty to extract and convey. Scenes from classics like Pride and Prejudice are so famous as literature that they can become almost stylised, and we forget that, in essence, they are occasions when a character’s endurance has been tested beyond limit, or when they’re so happy they can hardly speak, or when they’re scared out of their wits. Projects like The Darcy Monologues overcome that by removing or changing the “window dressing” of era, plot, country etc. and keeping the emotion, and the narrator’s role is much the same with any project.
So while it helps to have read a lot, and to know for example that people pronounced “waistcoat” “weskit” in certain periods and not in others, the main qualification for a narrator has to be that of “personhood”: a feeling, empathetic human being who can isolate the true emotional tendency of a scene amid extraneous details. When it comes to portraying that through tone of voice, accent, pauses etc, then of course one has to have a history of performance. I did a lot of drama when I was young and a few amateur shows at university, and it’s really just a question of practice, and of watching films and plays to see how other professionals do it.
The Economics master’s degree is for my own edification, but consider the importance of economic factors in all spheres of human existence! I read recently in Thomas Piketty’s excellent Capital in the 21st Century that the novels of Jane Austen are an invaluable insight into historical standards of wealth. That Darcy has £10,000 a year meant everything to a society that knew no monetary inflation. After the Second World War, authors became much less keen to mention specific sums, because in five years their rich characters would begin to sound poor. . .
What kind of performing background do you have?
Decidedly amateur until now. I was in every possible play at school and studied Drama and Theatre until I was nineteen. I also wrote and acted in a few shows at university in Exeter, Devon (UK) while there as an undergraduate.
I then became a strategy consultant and did a lot of presenting to one executive board or another; I’m sure your more cynical readers will instantly see that confidently delivering pages and pages of material concerning fictional goings-on in a land of make-believe is hardly a change of direction at all.
How did you prepare to record this book? Especially in an anthology of stories like The Darcy Monologues, there must be a lot of characters to voice. How do you decide which voice to give which character? And then how do you keep them straight?
Harry Frost: I read the whole collection once as a reader, making no notes, to get an idea of the stories and then again, jotting down character names on a sheet of paper for each story and wrote what voice they needed using my own highly scientific naming system (“snooty butler, low”; “haughty old woman, quavery”; “throaty romantic lead” etc). The balancing act with accent selection is that it has to be stereotypical because people are expecting a certain thing, but mustn’t become cliché or “hammy” (over the top), which will distract.
The main characters should be as neutral as possible because we hear from them the most, and an irritating accent is death for a narrator. Side characters all usually conform to a certain type, so that as a general rule, butlers are Jeeves from Wodehouse’s classics, housekeepers are Mrs Potts from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, ferocious aunts are Wilde’s Lady Bracknell etc. Where I know the geographical setting, I’ll attempt the accent if it’s within my range. Obviously, I’m alright in the UK, but as a general rule my US accents are not regionally accurate. It was also noticeable that I was much less able to judge what was “over the top” with the few US regional dialects I attempted than with UK ones; that’s where a great editor like Christina was invaluable!
Keeping an accent straight is always tricky, and the key is to focus on really inhabiting the characters and concentrate on their genuine emotion, and hopefully the accent will not get in the way. Perhaps this is a little mystic, or maybe just “method,” but I feel like I’ve got it right when the character I’m voicing sounds like he’s more concerned with what he’s saying than with his accent. That said, it’s very nerve-wracking narrating whole stories in an accent other than one’s own, and I only hope that the performance is adequate, and correctly sustained. After a while of listening to one’s own recorded voice, one loses the capacity to judge dispassionately.
The stories in The Darcy Monologues take place in different times and locations, requiring various accents. What were the most challenging accents for you to use, and how did you learn them?
Harry Frost: The US accents, without a doubt! In “Pemberley by Stage” we have me, a middle class Englishman, voicing an upper class Southern woman pretending to be a working class Southern man! It was a challenge to say the least, and I hope I’ve done the author’s excellent work at least partial justice. In “I, Darcy,” too, there are US regional accents I’d just never come across, and so after a few attempts, I decided it would be best to stick to standard US.
By contrast, the UK voices were a holiday! One that was particularly fun to develop was the general style of “Reason to Hope,” which is set during the Second World War. There were a lot of nice nuances to get involved with, like a certain briskness that pervades speech in that whole period (if contemporary films are a guide), and particularly Elizabeth’s bracing, capable air; a particular kind of aristocratic manner that my grandmother, who was a nurse in the War herself, used to call a “tough-and-outdoors” voice. One of that story’s main attractions for me was that it added to the Darcy-Elizabeth narrative the observation that, in times of war or crisis, some people rise to a challenge and some people shy away. In doing either, they reveal what kind of person they really are, and any differences of class or temperament or opinion other than that become irrelevant. It was great fun to include a kind of resilient determination that united that Darcy and that Elizabeth, and to exclude it from the “lesser” characters.
What insights into Mr. Darcy’s character did performing this book give you?
Harry Frost: I suppose it just reinforces the impression that the characteristics that make some men attractive — strength, stoicism, integrity, determination, hatred of deceit — can equally make them seem repulsive and lead them into seemingly irremediable social situations! There’s a great sense of dramatic irony to these Darcy stories, because time and again we hear his internal monologue justify the same outlandish ideas that to us, the audience, and to the other characters, are patently absurd and could be sorted out with the minimum of clear communication. But then, if they were to become sorted out, would the reconciliation be as cathartic?
What I hadn’t realised so well before is that this device is used both ways; of course, Elizabeth’s idea of herself as clear-sighted and fair is as incorrect as Darcy’s belief in his rightness. This won’t remotely come as a surprise to anyone who has read the book carefully, but I hadn’t paid that much attention to it before! In any case, it’s a good message for us nowadays, when every side of an argument tends to see themselves as able to evade all bias and prejudice, but at the same time to spot it instantly in the statements of others, even when those others might truly be trying to make peace in good faith.
What was the thing you learned the most about performing audiobooks from this experience that you will take to your next job?
Harry Frost: Two things; the technical side of producing and mastering audio, and the “mechanical” process of the actual delivery of the performance.
For the technical side, there are some great free software programmes and online resources, so the basics can be learned with enough determination. I had done some unpublished projects before, and so was moderately well-equipped going into The Darcy Monologues. I think for next time, I might save up and buy some better hardware. Even though it’s a sign of a bad workman to blame his tools, I really think I was pushing the capability of my microphone to the limit, which created extra work at the editing stage.
Before starting this project, I had no idea how physically challenging audiobook work is; it is a bit of a marathon. On the one hand, you have to relax, but on the other you have to keep a fixed distance from the microphone, not talk too loudly, not misread from the text (I use an iPad propped behind the mic in my home-made booth), and remember what accent goes with which character! I learned to do proper vocal warmups before and, most importantly, use a nasal spray to protect against infection when going out and about, or on a public train, for example! It’s not something I’d ever considered before, and I certainly couldn’t be described as a “clean freak” normally, but getting a cold in the middle of a project is excruciating! Where ordinarily you’d just curl up in bed and wait for it to pass, it’s very painful watching your precious production days tick away while you try to work out objectively whether or not you still sound ‘stuffed up’.
Check out the book on Audible.
“You must allow me to tell you…”
For over two hundred years, Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy has captivated readers’ imaginations as the ultimate catch. Rich. Powerful. Noble. Handsome. And yet, as Miss Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is established through Elizabeth Bennet’s fine eyes, how are we to know what his tortured soul is indeed thinking? How does Darcy progress from “She is tolerable: but not handsome enough to tempt me” to “I thought only of you”?
In this romance anthology, fifteen Austen-inspired authors assemble to sketch Darcy’s character through a series of re-imaginings set in the Regency through contemporary times—from faithful narratives to the fanciful. Herein The Darcy Monologues, the man himself reveals his intimate thoughts, his passionate dreams, and his journey to love—all told with a previously concealed wit and enduring charm.
Stories by: Susan Adriani * Sara Angelini * Karen M Cox * J. Marie Croft * Jan Hahn * Jenetta James * Lory Lilian * KaraLynne Mackrory * Beau North * Ruth Phillips Oakland * Natalie Richards * Sophia Rose * Melanie Stanford * Joana Starnes * Caitlin Williams