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A conversation with expert narrator Barbara Rosenblat

Audiobook narrator and “Orange is the New Black” star will speak Saturday at the Virginia Festival of the Book

Barbara Rosenblat was prominently featured as Miss Rosa in the latest season of the Netflix series “Orange Is The New Black.” What fans of the show may not realize, though, is that Rosenblat is one of the most popular and respected audiobook narrators in the country. Speaking with her, it’s easy to tell why — she has a truly captivating voice.

Barbara Rosenblat will be speaking about her craft on a panel as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book this Saturday from 2-3 p.m. at the Omni Hotel. Arts & Entertainment spoke with her in advance about her multi-talented career.

Barbara Rosenblat: I finished a really great job yesterday. I recorded a book for Harper Audio. It’s a memoir. The woman on whom one of the main characters in “Orange is the New Black” is based has just written her memoir. It’s called “Out of Orange,” and I just finished recording it yesterday. So that was an interesting alignment of the stars for me!

Arts & Entertainment: When you’re approaching a book like that, or really any book, what is your process for preparing to do the recording? Do you read through several times, study the characters?

BR: All of the above. I don’t read the book several times, though. I read it slowly, once. And as I’m reading I’m trying to get the same energy that anybody reading a good book will get, being inquisitive about characters. I come across a dialect, and I think “How shall I do that?” male, female. I start to build what I call an audio canvas and by the time I finish reading the book I have a list of the words I can’t pronounce and place names and stuff like that, which I research. Then I have a pretty good idea of what everybody’s going to sound like and I’m ready to go in and work.

A&E: Is the narrative voice you go for meant to be like the voice a reader would have otherwise heard in there head?

BR: Well, the stuff I think about when I’m preparing all actually occurs to me when I’m reading. I read as though I’m reading for pleasure, and usually I am because I haven’t been given too many sucky books — thank God — over the last 500 or so titles I’ve recorded in the last couple of decades! The narrator voice is sort of the backdrop, the canvas, on which I hang all of the characters — male, female, even inanimate objects occasionally. And once you get in the studio you start to use some of the tools of the craft of recording audio books — pacing, breathing, characterization, that kind of stuff.

A&E: Are there any elements that consistently tend to pose a particular challenge?

BR: It always varies from book to book. One 300 page book will take twice as long as another 300 page book, simply by dint of density, difficulty of the material, it really depends on how the book is put together.

A&E: So if the book is a slow read when you read to yourself it tends to be a slow read when you’re narrating it?

BR: That depends. Those are decisions I make once I get into the studio. I try to keep a pace that is good for the listener. For example, I recorded many years ago a wonderful book called “Orlando” by Virginia Woolf. You will notice that Virginia Woolf was not very fond of punctuation. She would start a sentence, “So I went to the door, pulled the coat off the hook, and thinking back to my youth…” and you get to the bottom of the page, a comma, “and opened the door and left.” So if you’re going to make sense of that, in the audio format, in sonic storytelling you have to break that up into thoughts so that they’re understood. I seduce all my listeners, one pair of ears at a time.

AE: What originally attracted you to being an audiobook narrator?

BR: Audiobook narration is such a delicious craft. A delicious collaborative art-form. I tend to work with a producer-director or sometimes an engineer and a director, but there’s at least two of us every time I record a novel. I think the control of being able to paint these pictures and pace a narrative in such a way that you really seduce a listener straight through to the last sentence is a wonderfully powerful thing. And I enjoy it enormously. I actually wrote a book about it called “Audiobook Narrator: The Art of Recording Audiobooks.”

AE: Do you find your various jobs, stage or screen or narration, have very different skill-sets?

BR: Absolutely. When you record an audiobook, you are everybody. You’re creating a movie for the mind. And if I’ve done my job right, I disappear completely and you just get swept away by the tale I’m telling. In a movie, or a stage-play, you’re with loads of other folk. As any theater teacher will tell you, acting is reacting because you’re working with other folk. When I’m in a studio I’m talking to myself, so I have to pretend I’m everybody and that’s what I do!

AE: Do you have a preference?

BR: My stock answer is, my favorite thing to do is the thing that’s in front of me. It’s true. I love it all. And I’m very lucky to have any of it.

AE: What’s your favorite book that you’ve narrated?

BR: Oh please, you mean like who’s my favorite child? I consider myself a genre-free recording artist. I don’t specialize in mysteries or sci-fi or self-help or biography. I do all of it. And so different things throw me about each book that I get to do. I will say one thing, though: When I get a book that is not on the level of Dickens or something, that’s when the skills that I’ve honed over the decades come into play so that hopefully I can elevate less-than-sparkling material into something that’s really entertaining.

AE: Is there any book you’d love to record in the future?

BR: There’s a series of books by a writer by the name of M.F.K. Fisher. She wrote a series of books that were memoires, but a lot of them involve food and her response to food and places where she had fabulous meals. This was back in the 40s, during the war and post-World War. Just lovely, ballet writing … I’d love to record some of that stuff.

AE: Do you have any projects coming up that you’re very excited about?

BR: I have a little audio theater company, it’s called VoiceScapes. We’re doing a show on the 29 of March in Nyack, New York, which is our first New York show. What we do is original radio drama, much of which is quite funny. And some of the stuff that we’ve done is on podcast form on the site! I’ve been doing radio for years and years and years and I adore it, and that all started in England with the BBC, so it’s a big treat to be a part of a new company writing original material. And then of course in June I go off to the Hear Now festival. Hear Now is a festival of sonic storytelling for about three days in Kansas City, Missouri. Our company will be there and we’ll do more radio drama stuff, and also a national radio show, a newsradio type thing that I’ve done for the last couple of years called Right Between The Ears, which is a national public radio news sketch show which is fabulous. So yeah, I’ve got some stuff coming up.

AE: To close, can you give a little preview of what you’ll talk about this Saturday?

BR: We’re doing a panel on the craft of audiobooks, some of what I’ve just talked about, a lot of which I talk about in my book. I’ve been asked to talk a bit about preparation, how I prepare, how I do research, how I think about characters, how I form them and stuff like that. It’s not like you can just pick up a book and pick up a microphone — a lot has to happen in order to do that.