An encounter with superstar audiobook narrator, Stig Wemyss
With a fanatical global following of tweens declaring on social media, ‘I love Stig’, ‘Stig rocks’, and ‘Stig Wemyss is the best narrator in the WORLD!’, I’m in no doubt that meeting ‘total legend’ and ‘true rock star’ audiobook narrator, Stig Wemyss, is going to be one for the books.
And he certainly doesn’t disappoint. My biggest challenge? Trying to stop laughing long enough to deliver some sensible questions.
But somewhere between the appearance of a stiff-upper-lipped Pommy naval officer, a dim-witted English serving wench and a character by the name of Wrong Way Warren, who sounds uncannily like Neil from The Young Ones, I do manage to learn some tricks of the trade from one of Australia’s best-loved audiobook narrators.
First, though, Stig wants to tell me about his latest film project: a riff on Banjo Paterson’s classic Australian poem, The Man from Ironbark.
‘I’ve called it The Man from Mooroolbark,’ he tells me. ‘It’s about hipsters and bogans. This guy from Mooroolbark comes into the city, but he doesn’t really fit in with all the man-bun wearing hipsters with their $25 avo-on-toast. So he goes berserk in a barber shop full of men with Ned Kelly beards.’
His muse? Quentin Tarantino. ‘The way he does violence is so good!’ Stig gushes.
Tarantino’s enthusiastic bloodletting is a long way from the stories that have landed Stig at the pinnacle of Australia’s tween and young adult audiobook landscape as the voice of Andy Griffiths’ kid-cult favourites.
When Bolinda launched its BorrowBox app, it took Stig and his signature mayhem on the road. It was such a hit, he’s kept it up, much to the delight of the knee-high brigade.
‘Boys in particular love Andy’s books because they talk about farting and vomiting … and bums,’ he says. ‘So I just take that to a live level in stadiums – and some of them are massive … the stadiums, I mean. Not the bums! So, yeah, it’s very rock-star!’
‘It’s like a one-man stand-up comedy show for 10-year-olds. I’m like a live version of Andy’s books. It’s just crazy chaos! I squirt kids in the face with water pistols … I’m like a naughty schoolboy!’
With his shock of unruly hair, off-piste sense of humour and madcap laugh, Stig is the ‘naughty schoolboy’ who never grew up. And it means he’s on the same wavelength as Griffiths and his erstwhile collaborator, illustrator Terry Denton.
It’s also one of the reasons Stig believes his narrations of their work are such big hits with Denton and Griffiths’ fans. ‘A really important part of their books’ popularity is the connection between Andy’s writing and Terry’s illustrations,’ Stig explains. ‘The drawings often aren’t even related to what’s going on in a particular story.’
‘So after I became the voice of Andy’s books, I asked if I could do what I called “sonic scribbling” in the “margins” of the audiobook. So, for example, instead of just saying it was the end of the CD, I’d do a crazy character that would come on and do some ridiculous commentary about how the CD was finished.’
‘Andy loved it, because it was aligned with his own brand of humour. Now, I get letters from kids who know Andy’s books, and they tell me how much they love all the other stuff I put in. It’s like DVD extras for Andy’s audiobooks!’
Stig is almost as passionate about tapping into this enthusiasm and using audiobooks to improve child literacy as he is about vomit, farts and Tarantino.
‘If we use audiobooks to excite kids about reading, and this becomes a stepping-stone into literature, then all our children are going to be better off,’ he says. ‘This is particularly true of boys, who are reluctant readers. Audio is a fantastic way of drawing them into a world they wouldn’t normally think of as cool.’
With eight straight years of double-digit growth in sales revenue and 57 per cent of frequent audiobook readers in the US under the age of 45, the audiobook industry has cornered the publishing industry’s elusive sweet spot: a young – and growing – audience.
Demand has skyrocketed amongst a tech-savvy generation of boys and younger men, and Stig Wemyss, who narrates somewhere between four and ten audiobooks a year, gives this audience what it wants by drawing on his formal training as an actor and stand-up comedian.
After studying in New York with the legendary acting coach, Uta Hagen, he headed home to take up roles in many of Australia’s best-loved TV series.
It was one of those performances that landed him the gig narrating Trent Dalton’s international bestselling coming-of-age novel, Boy Swallows Universe, an effort that won Audiobook of the Year, and plaudits from Dalton himself, who describes Stig as a ‘God-like genius narrator.’
It all started with a popular network comedy show called Col’n Carpenter, where Stig played housemate to Kim Gyngell’s hapless Col’n. ‘Boy Swallows Universe was Trent’s first novel, based on his life growing up in Queensland,’ Stig explains. ‘Every Sunday night, Trent and his brothers would watch Col’n Carpenter with their father.’
‘Trent remembered it as being one of the few good times in his life, because by 10 o’clock, his dad would be drunk, and he’d beat the shit out of them. So when he got my audition tape, he couldn’t believe I was the same guy from the TV series. And that’s why he chose me to narrate his book!’
After an author like Dalton selects Stig to narrate a book, the hard work begins. ‘I get sent the manuscript, and read it through once, just to let it wash over me. Then I’ll go back a second time and re-read it, highlighting action or vocal prompts – “he screamed” or “she whispered”, for example.’
‘Then I make notes for myself about character voices.’ Stig holds up a sheet of paper. ‘See this? I’ve got the character names – Two-Times, Wrong-Ways, First-Mate, Stink-Eyes … and next to them I’ve written: Two-Times: army officer. Fish-Face: insipid. Wrong-Ways Warren: Neil, Young Ones.’
Our interview then goes completely off the rails as Stig brings those characters to life and cripples me with laughter.
Back to Stig Wemyss’ audiobook masterclass. Conventional wisdom says it’s best to minimise breaks in narration because too much editing intrudes on the listening experience. But for the narrator, that means a gruelling, and exacting, work schedule.
‘Generally, a finished book takes twice as long to record as it plays,’ Stig tells me. ‘So if it runs for two hours, then it will take four hours to make. That’s because we make mistakes… Yes, I’m human! I do get tongue-tied sometimes, particularly with character voices. And after four or five hours in the studio, you start seeing words on the page. Then you’ll work in a whole sentence out of thin air and the producer has to step in and say, “Ah, there’s nothing about a chemist in there, man!”’
When I ask Stig to reveal his worst audiobook boo-boo, he groans. ‘One time I was booked to narrate a book, but didn’t get a copy of it till the last minute. So I hadn’t got to the end by the time I started recording it.’
He laughs at the memory. ‘In the studio when I got to the last page, there was a line that read “Johnno said, in his broad Scottish accent …” And I went, “What…?! Scottish…?! Since when?!” So we had to go back and record all Johnno’s dialogue again!’
In the days leading up to a recording, narrators avoid things that could strain their voices: smoking, drinking, big nights out, cheering at the footy, not to mention the voice actor’s bête noire: phlegm-inducing food and beverages. Note to aspiring voice actors: dairy is the worst culprit, apparently.
It’s all about taking the job seriously. Which, between the bouts of hilarity, Stig certainly does.
‘When I recorded my first book for Bolinda,’ he says, ‘[company founder] Rebecca Herrmann told me that a person’s first experience with an audiobook will determine whether or not they become an audiobook user for the rest of their life. So every time I go into a studio to record, I know I have to deliver the best I can do, so that anybody listening for the first time has a great experience.’
For Stig, the secret to a ‘great listening experience’ is simplicity. ‘You need to find the simplest way of doing it – to honour what’s on the page without trying to be the hero of the story. The narrator’s job is to be the conduit between the words on the page and the person’s ears. It’s about bringing these words to life as the author intended them to be heard.’
The corner of the audiobook world that Stig occupies calls for a very specific approach. ‘Kids’ stuff can be over-the-top,’ he says. ‘And I love that. But if I’m going to commit to it, the characters should be varied and colourful.’
‘Adult books need a different approach. So, if a man is reading a woman’s voice, they just lighten their voice, rather than give it a full character. Even in a young adult book, I pull back a bit because it’s a much more realistic environment. Andy Griffiths, though? Well, you can silicon up the shower, float to the ceiling and escape… it’s completely made-up bullshit.’
It hasn’t always been this way. ‘Talking books,’ as they were called, were developed by institutes for the blind in the first half of the twentieth century to cater to World War I veterans blinded by chemical warfare. Most of the narrators were volunteers, and the books themselves were often what’s politely described as a ‘dry read’.
With the popularity of audiobooks reaching far beyond the core original audience of people with vision impairment, nowadays some very familiar voices can be found narrating books.
‘More actors are coming on board,’ Stig explains. ‘There was a time when people wouldn’t even consider it. But now there’s a lot of kudos associated with it, and high-profile actors are lending their voices to great stories. Like Stephen Fry reading the Harry Potter books. He’s just brilliant.’
But for every Stephen Fry, there’s a cautionary tale. Narrating is not as easy as many accomplished actors think it will be. For a start, there’s no room for multiple takes – the narrator keeps recording until he or she makes a mistake. And while physical expression is an important part of an actor’s craft, the sensitivity of the recording equipment means narrators like Stig have to stay perfectly still. Foot tapping, emphatic flinging round of limbs and rustling clothes are all out.
Capturing the perfect voice for a book is an acquired art many actors struggle to perfect. ‘I heard a recording of an awesome book I’d read and absolutely loved,’ Stig says. ‘It was narrated by a fairly famous Australian actor. But it wasn’t good. So … great book, great literature, talented actor. Yet it didn’t work. So why hadn’t it grabbed me?’
‘The secret to good narration is doing what Stephen King describes in his book, Misery, as “finding the hole in the paper,”’ Stig explains. ‘You have to live and breathe the story. If you do that, you forget who you’re reading to, and become totally immersed in the story. Then the person listening to you will be taken along for that ride.’
‘But the moment you just start lifting the words off the page and reciting sentences, you lose your audience. If you’re not completely engaged, we human beings are too clever not to pick up on that.’
Other things that have Stig reaching for the ‘stop’ button? ‘I find it icky when I hear mouth noises.’ I laugh, and he illustrates his point with a revolting stream of sounds. ‘See what I mean? The slap of the lips, a wet tongue, too much drool. Oh – and when somebody’s a really deep breather—they’ll take a big gasp before they start the next sentence, and you think “Oh my God, this person is going to wheeze themselves to death!” It takes you out of the story and dismantles all the good work they’ve done with their voice.’
As the audience for audiobooks expands, Stig believes the industry has to move with the times. ‘I’m now much more aware about the impact of accents,’ he says. ‘Some years ago, I read a book called Deadly, Unna? It was a first-person narrative written by an Aboriginal character, and I read the whole thing with an Aboriginal accent.’
‘Nowadays, that wouldn’t be acceptable. The author and the Aboriginal community would have every right to expect an Indigenous narrator to read it.’ He pauses. It’s clearly something that weighs heavily on him. ‘So, is it also racist to give Chinese characters Chinese accents? It’s something we need to be thinking about.’
But any downside of the work is more than outweighed by the positive. ‘I’m so grateful for those moments where I can give back,’ he says. ‘A kid’s mum contacted me, years ago, to tell me that her young son had lost his eyes through cancer, and that he’d become a massive fan of my work. So I went to his school, and did a performance for his class. He was blown away.’
‘When he was in year 11, his mum contacted me again and told me he was really struggling. So I went and had a coffee with him and told him how much he inspires me. He told me that what he really loved was creating audio. Anyway, I saw on socials recently that he’s studying to be an audio engineer! How brilliant is that?’
It’s difficult to overstate the bond that exists between Stig Wemyss and a generation of avid young audiobook fans. And he’s aware of what a heavy responsibility it is. ‘Children get to the end of an Andy Griffiths book and go back to the start and listen to it again. It becomes a friend, and the sound of my voice is something they need to go to sleep with because it’s warm and it’s comforting.’
‘I’ve had kids write to me saying “your voice makes me feel better about myself and takes away my anxiety.”’
‘And that’s big.’
Suddenly, I’m no longer sitting across from superstar audiobook narrator, Stig Wemyss, but Spiderman.
‘With great power, comes great responsibility…’ he intones.
And Stig the naughty schoolboy is off and running again.