What’s in a voice? Well, everything if you are Davina Porter, the books-on-tape narrator perhaps best known for reading Diana Gabaldon’s wildly popular “Outlander” series and the Isabel Dalhousie books by Alexander McCall Smith. However, those don’t scratch the surface. Audible Books alone lists an impressive 192 books to her name. Whether Porter is reading fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, or classic literature, she transports us into another world. It is terribly hard to press pause on any recording when listening to her singular, rich voice.
Where did it all begin? Well, Porter says, “Right from the start as a kid, I always liked reading out loud. I found if I said it out loud for school, I could learn it. I remember my mother taking books away from me and saying, ‘Go outside and play in the sunshine.’’’ And by age 8, she was bitten by the acting bug, leading to the perfect combination.
Listening to Porter describe her earliest theatrical experience belies her sense of humor. She explains, “We had to write a play as an exercise for school. So, I wrote one and wrote myself the big lead. It was ‘After Dark in Kensington Gardens,’ and there were trees coming to life and I was going to be the main fairy. Then they cast the play and I thought, I’m bound to be the fairy.” As it turned out, the girl who took dancing lessons and had the tutu nailed the part, and Porter was cast as a tree. Undeterred, she says, “So, I rewrote the play to make the tree the largest character.”
She continued acting throughout her school years and into the early 1960s, when as a corporate wife and mother who had moved to the States from England, she found, “By joining community theater you really get plugged into the whole area. That segued into becoming professional in about the mid-1980s.”
Her acting career, she says, “has been an incredible help when you’re narrating a book, because you can immediately sum up a character. Most authors, good writers, give you those clues anyway. Some of the characters that can be more cardboardy, you can give them a character by looking for clues. Acting helped enormously in that.”
Her start in recorded books began innocently enough. In 1986, she answered an ad for narrators in Backstage, which at that time was a weekly New York newspaper that included all the auditions. She got the gig and found it was a good fit, since she didn’t like spending long periods of time away from her then young children when doing theater. Now she says, “What’s good about recorded books is that if you never see me, you don’t know how old I am. As long as your voice stays flexible and you can do the youthful voices, you can read forever … providing the brain and the eyes keep up as well.”
Besides Porter’s acting talent, the approach she takes to each book is another key to her success. “I read it thoroughly first, and then ask, What is the author’s intent here? Is it funny? Is it tongue-in-cheek? Is it serious? What is she or he or she really saying?” Porter said.
Her main intent, she says, is “to tell the story. To be the conduit for the story. There’s no judgment on it. The best thing is for at the end of a narration is someone to say, ‘Oh, I enjoyed that. That was a wonderful book.’ To do a good job is to make the story come alive.”
Ironically, the challenge is not in reading a good book. It turns out to be in reading a poor book. What does she do then?
“You think, well somebody out there really liked this book, and it’s not for me to be judgmental. It’s been good enough to be published. It’s been good enough to be recorded, and therefore, it’s been good enough to give it your best. But sometimes they are harder to do than the good ones, because sometimes you get a train of thought saying, ‘Oh, really?’ or ‘Oh, for goodness sake!’ and that must not come out in your voice … ever.”
What really sets Porter off, her pet peeve, is historical anachronisms. She says, “I feel if I am reading a book set in a historical context, that person should have done her or his homework. I read a few years ago a book set in Victorian times where the heroine went to Buckingham Palace, and she gave her hat to a hat check girl and then sat cross-legged in a chair in her crinoline. If I read a book about the Civil War and I read about the fashion and the kitchen and the houses, I expect them to be correct.”
Although perhaps best known for her historical novels, interestingly, she says, “I like children’s literature very much because you’re not allowed to abbreviate. You can’t say ‘can’t.’ It’s got to be ‘cannot.’ A child will abbreviate it when they get older. But the grammar for the most part is exceptional. Some of the adult ones get a little sloppy. You either say, ‘Can I change this?’ or you point it out to the publisher.”
What about nonfiction, where she doesn’t have the luxury of voices and dialogue? Porter explains, “You have got to be able to make it interesting. You don’t want someone to say, ‘I’m nodding off. Oh, my lord. She’s droning on and I’m only on Chapter 1.’ You’ve got to keep the interest going. That might mean vocal inflections. You’ve got to make it lively. You want people to say, ‘I’ve had enough now, but I’m looking forward to reading chapter 2, 3, and 4.’” What she loves is when a listener writes her and says, “I sat in my driveway and didn’t go home until I finished the chapter.”
Porter’s enjoyment of the process is paramount. “I just love it,” she says, “I’ve always read. I guess you like to hear the sound of your own voice. You hear the characters and suddenly think, ‘Oh, that is funny.’ It came out of left field. It’s not until you say it out loud.”
Davina Porter will speak at the Edgartown library on Tuesday, Oct. 22, at 7 pm.