Whose Voice Is It Anyway?

I realized I wanted to be a voice actor at my mother’s funeral.

Dramatic, but true. I had been playing with the idea for quite a while but it was this event that pulled my heart and mind into the sharpest focus.

My mother, Emma Tennant, was a novelist who had over 50 books published in her lifetime.

The thought of seeing her disappear forever behind the absurd curtains that crematoriums coyly use to deal with the bare fact of death almost stopped my heartbeat.

What kept it ticking as I waited interminably for the day of the funeral was the task I had given myself of reading an excerpt from one of her books as part of the service.

I knew I wanted to find something that would convey the sophisticated fluency of her spoken voice.

I narrowed it down to her autobiographical fiction and then it didn’t take long to decide on the witty, ironic voice of her 15 year old flame-haired heroine Robina in ‘The Adventures of Robina, by Herself’.

Here, my mother plays the role of Editor. Robina’s story is framed by an archivist who has written down an oral tale told to her one stormy night in the library of a Scottish castle by an older Robina reminiscing about her misadventures as a debutante in 1950’s London.

Mixing archaic stylistic devices with modern idiom, a curious tone emerges that for me captures my mother’s particular flavour of irony. Behind the wit is a non-stop Me-Too nightmare, as the innocent orphan-become-debutante is assaulted by lecherous lords at every turn.

As I re-read the slim Faber 1981 paperback with its cover featuring a fantastical wild red-haired woman I remembered how my mother had particularly enjoyed writing ‘Robina’ and how she handed the manuscript to me when she finished it and said ‘you’ll like this one’ with a glint in her eye.

She was a notoriously fast writer and wrote Robina in 3 weeks with the kind of relish that perhaps comes from finding the right tone and framing device to narrate personal episodes that have long waited to be voiced.

The first-person narration of nearly 200 pages could be read aloud in one sitting and feels like it was written without pause. And that’s probably not far from how it was done. My mother had an impetuous temperament and could not write fast enough for her speaking voice.

In preparing for her funeral, I had the revelation that she was above all an oral storyteller.

This insight was prompted by an old interview on youtube I came across whilst browsing for references to ‘Robina’. In it she says she would have preferred to tell stories round the fire than write them down.

So many of my mother’s habits and attitudes suddenly made sense. It explained how she would rush a synopsis or manuscript to the publishers and call them within the hour to get a reaction.

Yes, writers want an immediate response to what they’ve so vulnerably offered up, but usually acknowledge the convention of waiting at least some days if not weeks before dialing an editor’s direct line.

Not my mother. But now I understood that it was because she saw the publisher as a live audience who was being intolerably slow in reacting.

I was amazed to note how quickly and fluently she expressed her thoughts in the interview. The speed was coupled with grammatical correctness and complicated sentence structures. She had learned how to connect her brain to her mouth expertly.

And she loved to talk. Growing up, my bedroom was beneath the living room, where she and her close writer friends sat and talked into the early hours, their voices increasing in volume and hilarity with each top-up of whiskey, thrashing out ideas for books.

My mother’s voice is what I think of when I think of her now.

As I rehearsed reading aloud the extract, I grappled with questions so familiar to voice actors, such as –

How can I convey this person’s voice as truthfully as possible?

How can I bring my personality and emotional experience into this while getting out of the way of the author’s voice?

How can I make this interesting for the listener?

How can I include my point of view without commenting in a way that takes the listener out of the story?

I may not have articulated these questions quite like this at the time, but they were there. And in this case, the added question:

How can I be true to my mother’s authorial voice when I have so much deep feeling about her, and particularly now, as I am saying goodbye?

Was I trying to do something that would be best avoided, I wondered, and thought of not standing up to read.

As the moment came, I decided I would stand up as I felt that it was going to help me. I had a burning desire to convey my mother’s voice to those gathered there and to hear it for myself.

I wanted them to know who she was, what she had been through, and all the subtlety of her character. And I wanted to know all that myself.

Several of her friends read at the funeral, mostly writers, and one British theatre actor, who had known my mother for 50 years. He read from another of her autobiographical novels “Girlitude.”

Hearing the way he brought her personality to life by filtering it through his own was a gift.

I went to see him at his flat a week later and before I left tentatively mentioned my desire to narrate an audiobook of ‘Robina’ and to pursue voice acting in general.

He affirmed my sense that this was a great direction for me and poured me a stiff whiskey. ‘I haven’t heard from my voiceover agent in months’, he said.

He was in his 80s and had been acting since his 20s. Even he, who had worked a lot and in prominent roles the past few decades, felt vulnerable. 

The decision to pursue voice acting didn’t come completely out of the blue. I had some acting experience and training, was an Alexander Technique teacher, and had worked various jobs that were connected in some way.

But as any voice actor knows and any beginner soon finds out, voice acting is a highly exacting skill in and of itself.

Plus the technical demands of working remotely are significant, not to mention the importance of having an entrepreneur mindset and being ready to brave the unknown galaxies in good spirits.

I knew that it would be an endless journey which I would take one leap at a time. I often think of my mother’s voice as an impetus to keep leaping. 


Emma Tennant with her brother, Colin, in the 1950s

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