News room: Bringing Books to Life by Kerry Shale

Bringing Books to Life by Kerry Shale by Kat Matfield

Kerry Shale, a man of a thousand and voices (almost literally), gives his insight into working as as an audiobook reader.

I’m a small, bald and bespectacled actor. My normal speaking voice is Standard American. So in casting terms, I’m put into the box marked American Lawyer-Doctor-Businessman. That’s why I’m so thankful for audiobooks. I have recorded around 125 of them since 1993, playing vicious serial killers, strong/silent heroes, a spacecraft full of astronauts, passengers on the Titanic, IRA men, Nazi officers, Greek shepherds, Italian chefs, black cops, Hungarian criminal masterminds, Russian politicians, a French accented tiger, multiple flying dragons, King Merlin, Dorothy and her Ozzy friends, Huckleberry Finn, Willy Wonka and at least 60 different citizens of the Republic of India.

I’m often asked how I prepare for the recording. Basically, by surrounding myself with lots of writing implements. By the time I finish with the manuscript, I have made thousands of marks: pencilled squiggles, felt-tipped arrows and highlighted words. I also make a note of every character, denoting their physical description, accent, age and page of first appearance.

The pay-off is that when I’m in the studio I can almost relax. I’ve already worked out the problems and solved most of them (a bit like Hitchcock, story-boarding his films in advance.) Now my job is to take those squiggles and make them sound spontaneous and natural. I’ve had two particularly terrific experiences over the years.

Recording the Bill Bryson books was so enjoyable it was almost sinful. We often had to stop because I’d be on the floor laughing. Recently, I’ve relished recording Aravind Adiga’s two novels, both set in India. I have no Indian heritage whatsoever, but I thrive on a vocal challenge. With my Indian Yoga teacher as accent advisor, I was able to get inside the characters in The White Tiger and the follow-up Between The Assassinations (out in July!).

Every audiobook reader has a different style. Some use minimal characterisation to great effect. I’ve always had a knack for playing lots of characters, finding a specific voice for each of them and switching between them as clearly as possible. I do it by imagining the book as a movie going on in my head. That’s the easy bit, I swear. The hard bit is making those squiggles in the script. I once had to read a non-fiction epic full of earnest, middle-aged male American scientists, dozens of them. It made me dig deeper because I couldn’t use my usual arsenal of accents and had to explore tone, range and timing instead.

The experience of reading out loud can be pretty intense. You connect very directly. The final page of an Anne Tyler novel once moved me so deeply that we had to stop the recording. Recording audiobooks has also introduced me to writers whose work I might otherwise have missed out on. I’ve discovered terrific novels by R J Ellory, Anthony Horowitz, Sam Bourne, Beryl Bainbridge and Jonathan Safran Foer. Normally, as a big Dylan fan, my idea of a good time is Bob Dylan’s autobiography!

Kerry Shale is a Canadian actor and writer who lives in the UK. He is the recipient of three Sony Awards for radio writing and acting and two awards for best male audiobook reader.

Listen to Kerry Shale and enter the 2009 Best Audiobook Competition!

2 Posts

    Kat Matfield


    01 Jul 19:38

    I’ve found, Heidi, that most readings of books don’t match up with the voice I ‘hear’ them in. But mostly, this is a delight not a disappointment. I’ve listened to the occasional reading which nearly destroys my enjoyment of the book with its wrong-ness, but most of the time the reading makes you see the book slightly differently – just as talking about it with someone else will give a new perspective.
    And then you sometimes encounter perfect matches between books and readers – check out Neil Gaiman reading his Graveyard Book here (, or try to get hold of the reading of The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield) by Juliet Stevenson. Incomparable!

    Heidi Polk


    06 Jul 21:21

    Thanks for the recommendation Kat – just read The Thirteenth Tale for the first time about a month ago and was definitely enamored with the book; it’ll be interesting to see how Juliet Stevenson compares.

    Thanks also for the link for Gaiman – I love the fact he recorded his own book (sooooo great!)

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Written by
Kat Matfield
Published on
Audio, Audiobooks, and Talking books