An interview with Karen Archer

To all of her performances, Karen Archer brings a seamless fluidity and humanity combined with precision and attention to detail. These qualities have made her a familiar voice in the many documentaries she has recorded for National Geographic and Discovery Channel. Karen has made numerous broadcasts for BBC Radio, twice being a member of BBC Radio Drama Company. Her work in the theatre includes classics such as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts and contemporary roles such as Annie Wilkes in an adaptation of Steven King’s novel Misery. Her extensive television work has included Assistant Chief Constable Anne Stewart in the police drama series The Chief and Queen Elizabeth I in David Starkey’s acclaimed historical series, Elizabeth. Karen has read a biography of Queen Elizabeth I for Naxos Audio Books. For Craftsman Audio Books she has recorded the complete Snow-Walker trilogy by Catherine Fisher and A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin.

Karen kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in March 2009.

Tim Cook of Craftsman Audio Books says that the reading of unabridged audio books is a very special skill and that very few actors have the ability to do it at the highest level.

“Firstly, they must have the stamina: it is 8 hours of concentrated recording each day. In the midst of this very demanding physical test they need to convey the text with subtlety and conviction.”

He goes on to say that yourself and David Collings possess these attributes plus an excellent command of the English language.

Is there anything that you would add to Tim’s words, especially in regards to the skills you deem vital in the recording of high-quality audio books?

Karen Archer: Tim’s right about stamina – at first sight, sitting for several hours at a stretch doesn’t seem hard, but there’s a lot of concentration involved, and critical self-awareness of extraneous noises on the microphone, and so on – and that’s before you’re thinking about characterisation. The sensitivity of modern microphones is such that a certain amount of retakes are necessary for mouth ‘clicks’, swallowing, things like that.  So patience is a virtue, too. . .

Were you aware of, and had you previously read, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Saga before recording them for Craftsman Audio Books?

Karen Archer: No, I hadn’t.  Not a popular answer for your website, but I’d never thought this was a genre of literature which interested me.  However, I loved this trilogy, and think Ursula Le Guin is a wonderful writer.  I think of her as America’s female counterpart to Tolkien.

The production of an audio book requires 8 hours of concentrated recording a day. How demanding are these days and do you have a special method of preparation?

Karen Archer: No, not really – I just try to get enough sleep the night before so that I don’t get sluggish in the middle of the afternoon.  And pray that I don’t develop a cold during recording days, which happens with uncanny frequency.

Will you be recording the remaining two books in the Earthsea Saga: The Farthest Shore and Tehanu?

Karen Archer: I hope so – I think they’re being planned, but there may be rights issues involved.

You have played Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery in an audio book production. How difficult was it to portray one of the most disturbing characters from horror fiction?

Karen Archer: No, I’m afraid that’s not right – I played Annie Wilkes on stage at Harrogate theatre, not in an audiobook.  I worried for a while how I was going to approach this part because I’m not a fan of gory stuff, but in the end it was the gallows humour that won me over – when Annie’s about to saw through the hapless Paul’s ankle, she says "for goodness’ sake, don’t be such a baby.  After all, I AM a qualified nurse". You just have to convey her warped reality as matter-of-factly as possible, I suppose. Almost, at times, she’s like an innocent.

Of all the narrative work that you done, including your work for TV, are there any golden moments where you know that you been involved in creating something special?

Going back a long time, I’d have to say Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s production of Nicholas Nickleby with the Royal Shakespeare Company – brilliant storytelling, 8 hours of magical ensemble theatre. (I know, because I saw the previous incarnation 4 years before we revived the production).  I loved playing Mme Matisse in Howard Ginsberg’s My Matisse in Edinburgh, too – sometimes you feel you fit your character in a personal way, as opposed to just doing a part.  But also, I really love the intimacy of audio reading, when the book is of the quality of Wizard of Earthsea – if the words transport you, the reader, in the live moment on microphone, it’s almost surreal at times – the words rush at you on the page, and what comes out of your mouth is, I suppose, the unconscious choice made by your brain and heart and third eye, in a split second.  (If that doesn’t sound like pretentious gobbledegook).

Fantasy Book Review is themed around the fantasy genre. Are there any fantasy books from your childhood that you still hold dear?

Karen Archer: I think I was always rather earthbound – poetry was what took flight for me, and the novels I remember as being very important were always rooted in reality – Little Women, Jane Eyre, that sort of thing.  To be honest, I think the more fantastical works scared me rather – I remember clearly not liking the Rupert stories in the Dandy (Beano?) very much because danger always lurked around the nearest innocuous rock – things were never what they seemed.  The familiar became transformed into the threatening.

Is there a narrator that you have always held in the highest esteem? Who would class as the master of this art? 

Karen Archer: I couldn’t possibly answer with one definitive person, and sometimes it’s a question of the happy marriage of reader with text – but two people I think are always superb are Sean Barrett and Nigel Anthony.

What does 2009 hold for Karen Archer? 

Karen Archer: I’d like more work of any sort, because I have to earn a living, and it gets more and more difficult. The thing that gives me most pleasure, in any medium, is bringing words and emotions to life.  I’m seeing some people soon about a play at a London fringe theatre; and I’m halfway through recording some LeFanu stories for Craftsman Audiobooks.  And my daughter’s graduating from drama school this summer.

When I’m not working I spend a lot of time in Wandsworth Prison with the Independent Monitoring Board; and I may start some drama work with a group of prisoners. And on it goes…

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