Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Interview: Kate Baker

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Kate Baker can be heard narrating for StarShipSofa, Hugo nominated Clarkesworld Magazine, and Fantasy Magazine. She has also been given the title of Production Manager for The Sofanauts, a new StarShipSofa podcast. As of early July 2009, she has turned in a narration for Escape Pod as well.

Hi Kate! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first get acquainted with speculative fiction?

Hi Charles. Thank you so much for having me!

I got acquainted with speculative fiction as a little girl. Some of my earliest memories consist of curling up on the couch with my hands over my eyes, half watching The Dark Crystal. As I got older, I began to read fantasy classics such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Stephen King and Dean Koontz factored into my reading, as did Anne Rice.

A good friend turned me on to science fiction later in life. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein and Hyperion by Dan Simmons are some of my recent favorites, but I’m always looking to expand my bookcases with anything that has great characters and interesting plot.

Who are some of your favorite authors or what are some of your favorite books?

I guess this is one of those questions that you precede with "If your house was on fire and all you could save were a few books..."

There are always going to be the classic writers like Heinlein, Tolkein, King and Rice on my bookcase. Some of my current favorite authors consist of John Scalzi, Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Taylor Anderson, and Jim Butcher. I am also diving into the works of Cat Valenti, Mary Robinette Kowal and Elizabeth Bear.

There are too many books to list as favorites, but a few books that I’ve read recently are wonderful: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and Crusade, the second installment in the Destroyermen series by Taylor Anderson.

Did you ever imagine yourself being active in the science fiction/fantasy industry?

Hell no. If you had told me ten years ago that I would be doing anything more than dressing up as a poor Dana Scully imitation walking around a local X-Files convention, I would have laughed. (No, I will not be releasing pictures to accompany that mental imagery, either, even if they did exist, which of course they don't.) I consider myself very lucky to have worked in this field and with some of the nicest people in the universe.

I want to talk more on your podcasting work. Did you have any formal training?

Absolutely not! The only training I had involved reading stories in my best voices for my children every night before they went to bed. As anyone can surmise, children have impeccably high standards! They also happen to be my biggest fans.

What made you decide to do audio narrations? How did you start out?

One of my dearest friends (Peter Hodges) is a talented, aspiring writer. He had written some short stories and I had an underused USB microphone. Come to think about it, I think boredom played a significant role in starting my first ever podcast!

We are both avid gamers and one day I happened to notice you could save audio conversations on the Ventrilo voice server we used to communicate while in game. I set myself up in a little room, and hit “record”.

After some excellent feedback from friends, relatives and visitors to his blog, we ended up doing weekly podcasts. I upgraded my equipment and editing software and the rest is history!

What's your routine like when doing podcasts (i.e. doing warm-ups, getting into character, etc.)?

I test microphone levels and clarity, that's it. I go in cold to every reading. No warm -ups. The few times I’ve tried to over think the characters, I feel that they’ve sounded less genuine. Generally, if a story has rich characters and is well-written, they tend to come on out on their own. Immersion only works for me if it’s effortless. I know that sounds silly, but it’s really true. I’ll go back and correct a tonal inflection on occasion, but if I’m reading quality work, the characters kind of take over on their own.

What are the challenges that you run into?

Time, or more specifically, running out of it. This is a labor of love for me right now and I am sad to say that it doesn’t pay my bills. In fact, most of the podcasters/story narrators out there right now are reading for free and for the love of the genre.

When you're doing this type of work outside of a full-time job, time management gets to be tricky. I have the added bonus of being a single mother to boot, so my recording times are cut down even further to night hours when everyone is asleep.

Is there a definite label to doing such work such as voice actress, narrator, or podcaster? What would you prefer to be called?

“Voice Actress” sounds too pretentious and “podcaster” is overused! Seriously though, I really enjoy the label of “story narrator”. It’s a title that seems to imply literary understanding with a bit of whimsy. A narrator plays all the parts, does all the acting and ultimately has to make you believe. It’s more of an all encompassing description if you ask me.

At this point in time, is it a viable career or is most of it done for love of the genre?

Definitely a love for the genre.

Although I can’t deny, it does come with perks. I am forging invaluable contacts and even friendships through this work. The most important thing to me however, is that people are out there enjoying the readings that I’ve done. I am ecstatic if my name comes up as a talented and reliable narrator.

Sure, I would love to see this as a viable career in the future, but I also recognize that to be monetarily successful in podcasting, you would have to fundamentally change the idea of what a podcast is and how they are produced. Right now, good portions of podcasts being produced are usually seen as ‘extras’ or freebies to be offered with something else (i.e. a print version of the story).

I’d argue that it’s an exception to the rule if an online magazine is making any money off their podcasts. Even editors dedicated to putting out weekly content are lucky to gain a sponsorship based on downloaded content. It does happen, but even then, the legion of volunteer narrators very rarely see any monetary compensation.

I’ve been lucky to work with some excellent people who believe in compensating any way they can, but is it viable? Not yet. To change it to where it would be undermines the podcast "scene" without adding additional value.

For you, what characterizes a good narration/podcast?

The biggest rule of thumb for anyone reading a story is to have fun with it. If you can’t seem to engage in the story yourself, that will come through in your interpretation. I’ve listened to many narrators who just deadpan it and I’ve had to turn them off. They lose my interest quickly.

It’s open to personal interpretation, but for me, a good narration has great pacing, an interesting story and believable characters.

What are the skills necessary for a narrator/podcaster to nurture?

Self confidence.

Rhythm of reading is also extremely important. Awkward pauses or choppy editing really detracts from immersion in a story. For some great advice on how to read aloud: Mary Robinette Kowal has some great posts on her website:


Also, listen to how people speak. This advice has been around for all the writers out there, but it’s extremely true for narrators as well. If you don’t sound natural while reading dialogue, it can be a huge put-off to the listener. You can hear both smiles and frowns in someone’s voice, so it’s essential that a narrator plays all the right parts.

In stories where there are multiple strings of dialogue, one of the most difficult aspects of reading is to differentiate between each character with different tone and accents. It’s definitely a skill that I’m constantly working on and trying to get comfortable doing. I think I have my British dialect and Irish lilts down as passable but I’m always trying to improve by listening to those particular dialects. Welsh and Scottish elude me for now.

Find editing software that you are comfortable with and learn it well. All the magazines /authors I’ve worked for require you to fix your own mistakes. If you know what you are using, it will make putting out a finished product easier and faster. Editing takes 75 percent of the time of creation (especially if you are a perfectionist like me.)

What is it like, collaborating with publishers/authors when doing a podcast?

Honestly, I’ve had it pretty easy all things considered. I’ve worked with some of the nicest folks in the SF community. Tony C. Smith from StarShipSofa and Neil Clarke from Clarkesworld Magazine tend to just send me a story and tell me to run with it.

Other magazines are more structured and have rules and guidelines when submitting finished projects. It’s all about knowing who you are working for and ultimately what they expect.

It can certainly be interesting especially up against a deadline if you need an answer from the author on word pronunciation. Working through a magazine, there are often times you don’t have direct access to the author of the piece your reading, so sometimes depending on time management its best to just wing it. Always best to ask first though. Usually if it’s important and the author comes back with a reread request, there are always chances to re-record or quick edit.

You've also done podcasts for various publications including StarShipSofa and Clarkesworld. How do you nurture your social network and land these duties?

It starts with being a fan of what you do. I wouldn’t have plugged in that USB microphone on my very first podcast had I not been interested in reading my best friend’s short stories.

It’s the same way for StarShipSofa. As a fan of the show, I heard Tony was looking for new narrators so I sent in a query. It’s amazing what a little email can accomplish!

I’ve also built some great friendships and relationships with people in the SF field as well, which has helped on this path. As a fan, I absolutely love going to cons, meeting new people, having conversations, visiting author blogs and becoming a part of their communities. Ultimately, being genuine in how you come across and most importantly having fun with what you do is the best way to go about anything.

You also have some music on your site. Can you tell us more about that?

Music is my first love. I think I came out of the womb, singing, or so I’ve been told. One of my earliest memories is harmonizing the theme song to the Original Star Trek series with members of my family. I know – super geek, here. I believe I was about four.

If I didn’t have to sell out everything I am to become a famous pop star, I would love to get into a recording studio and really explore that side of my creativity. But for now, I just play with Garage Band or Sony Acid. Most of the time, I’ll just throw loops against the wall until something sticks and then I’ll write the lyrics. It’s a fun distraction at the moment although, I’ve been asked multiple times when a independently released music CD will be available for sale by a few unlikely fans. That’s certainly a slice of humble pie right there.

What are the other projects you're currently working on?

I'm currently helping out Tony C. Smith with logistics and production on the new podcast called "The Sofanauts". It’s a round table discussion encompassing weekly science fiction/publishing news. We’ve had some incredible guests so far including, Jeremy Tolbert, Pablo Defendini, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Amy H. Sturgis. The list goes on and on!

As far as narrations, I’ve got a few coming up for StarShipSofa, and one for Escape Pod.

As Peter Hodges finishes up the drafts of his novel, we hope to restart weekly serials as well of both the new stuff and revisiting characters from past works as well.

I can also be heard narrating poetry for Mike Allen on mythicdelirium.com as well.

In your opinion, how is the Internet and podcasting changing the speculative fiction community and the publishing industry?

I don’t think it’s necessarily changing it as opposed to enhancing it. Whether you are listening to serialization of a novel, a free short story or keeping up to speed with a round-table SF/F news discussion; podcasting has become both a tool and an art of reaching out in a convenient and portable way to an ever busy audience.

I don’t' see podcasting overtaking or overshadowing the publishing industry. Used correctly, podcasting could have the same relationship to a book or a short story that a music video does to a popular song.

Truthfully, the sky is the limit when it comes to podcasting, especially in the realms of speculative fiction. To date, I’ve seen it used as a marketing tool, entertainment, and a conduit for important news.

Any advice for aspiring narrators/podcasters?

It’s going to sound cliché, but do it only if you love it. If you have fun reading and acting out stories, this is the way to go. Yet, I must warn anyone who is interested, that with any sort of reward, comes the work.

It’s all about buying a decent microphone, learning editing software, recording and going over a story with a fine-toothed comb to make sure it’s acceptable.

A 5000 word story usually takes me anywhere from 45 minutes recording time, to 3 hours of editing and re-listening. Again, this is coming from someone who is a self proclaimed perfectionist, but if you aren’t taking the time to put out a decent podcast, people won’t take the time to listen.

Anything else you want to plug?

I have narrations this month and next at Clarkesworld. I've also got two narrations up for Escape Pod.

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