Jim Dale: A Fly on the Wall
On Narrating the Harry Potter Audio Books
This interview is yet another example of why I absolutely love my job. While writing an article on audiobooks for The Children’s Writer, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Jim Dale, the narrator of all the Harry Potter books. At the time of this interview, Jim was in the process of recording book six, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. When we first started talking, he warned that he was not allowed to reveal anything he was currently doing (I could respect that). But he did have much to say on the fine art of narrating audiobooks. Jim was extremely fun to talk to, insightful, witty, and at time hilarious, as when describing his first mistake made when recording book one, and when we had to pause while he retrieved his dog’s bone from under the couch. I consider this to be one of the high points of my career, especially because, with our interview complete, Jim said hello to all four of my children in character—as Dumbledore, Dobby, Professor McGonagal, and Hagrid. Thank you, Jim, once again!
Kim: How were you first selected to narrate the Harry Potter books? Did you audition? Was the job presented to you?
Jim: I had been doing a play Off Broadway called Travels with My Aunt. Maggie Smith played the aunt. Only 4 men in it, and only three of them had speaking parts, between the three of us we created 33 characters. When the producers were looking for somebody to do Harry Potter, they remembered Jim Dale was in that play, so he must be able to do lots of voices. And they hired me. It was only after they signed the contract they found that Jim Dale only played two characters, the other guys played the other 31. I sort of got it from false pretenses.
Kim: As an actor did you ever envision yourself as an audiobook narrator?
Jim: No, it came to me later in life. I’ve been a professional now for over 50 years, I started when I was very young. I was a very young, professional, stand-up comedian in England at age 17. I studied every other branch on the showbiz tree, taken many journeys on various branches that I’ve enjoyed, or not enjoyed, and this one came my way late in life and suddenly I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I couldn’t be more surprised at how successful it is. Thank God they chose me for Harry Potter.
Kim: How do you prepare for your taping sessions?
Jim: Usually there’s a couple of months before the book is released, and during that time the audiobook has to be created. Not only created and edited, many things have to be done to the audiobook before it’s done. We’ve only got two months to do the whole thing, design the packaging, do all the promotions for it, and distribute it so it’s actually on sale the same day the book comes out, because if it isn’t then the children, as I’ve heard, won’t be able to control themselves, and they’ll say to hell with you we’re not buying the book! So we’ll lose a lot of sales. So all of this is a fast, fast process.
Usually I get the book about two months in advance. But last time I got book five on Friday, and I was in the recording studio on Monday. It’s impossible to read the entire book beforehand, it would take three weeks. So what I do is read 100 pages. As I’m reading I’ll jot down in a little notebook all the characters, and as I go through the book I’ll invent the voices of the characters. I use my own tape recorder and as I read I’ll say, ‘Page one, fourth line down, Dumbledore. Take one for Dumbledore.’ And I’ll speak the first line that Dumbledore speaks. Then I’ll read a little more and there’s another character, say Ron. I’ll say on the tape, ‘Second voice, Ron Weasley.’ And then I’ll read the first line that Ron speaks. So then I’ll take that tape with me into the studio, and as I’m recording, we keep stopping when we come to a new character and I play the tape. Voice number 27, voice number 133, whatever it is, and then I hear the voice I created the night before, speaking the very same line that I’m about to speak, and then it reminds me of that character’s voice.
Later I got a program that I asked them to devise for me which consists of the an alphabetical list of all the characters, over 200 of them, from all the Harry Potter books. When there’s a character say in book five, and I couldn’t remember the character voice, then I would click on the name on the computer screen, and I would hear through the speakers the voice I had used before in book three or book two or book one. I would then record that voice again in my small tape recorder the voice I just heard from the computer.
Kim: So as you’re in the taping process, you can just say pause and they’ll stop recording.
Jim: In the old days I used to sort of sit and think up two or three voices for a character and choose the best one for it. However, now with the time being so precious to us, I really don’t have the time for that luxury. I really have to just go with my own instinct based on the description written by the author. The way the author describes who the character is, how they’re dressed, what they look like. All these things have to be considered before I even open my mouth. Then I have to put myself in the head of that character and see the world and the story through that character’s eyes, whether it be a hero or a villain. I have to be that villain. I have to love being that villain. I have to love being everybody that I do, because people love themselves, of course they do. That’s how I go through it. Instinctively, I just go for the voice that I think will be a little unique and a little different, especially when it comes to people like snakes and spiders. It’s also very difficult to do the ordinary voices, like the Weasley brothers, because when you listen to boys talk they all sound very similar. You have to differentiate by making one a little slower, making one a bit faster, one a bit more excited. That’s how you put a little bit of difference between them.
Kim: That’s very interesting because that shows how you take into consideration what the author has written.
Jim: You have to. Don’t forget, with the description that the author gives of how the character looks, with my description of what the character sounds like, the child in their own head can create a far more detailed person as to who is speaking in that book or in their headphones. Rather than just read about it on the page, suddenly they’re hearing that character. Suddenly that character comes to life. So it gives them a whole different palate of coloring of that character in their mind’s eye.
Kim: How are mistakes handled in the recording session?
Jim: Especially with the Harry Potter books, there is a strict timeline. I don’t have time to read the whole book. Mistakes are naturally going to be there. You’ll inevitably fluff a line. And they’ll say okay let’s stop and do it again. And if you question it, as I did on my first book, you’ll get an answer from the floor manager like the one I got, which was, “Jim, if you’re going to waste time wanting us to explain where you went wrong, then this book is going to take a year to record. Take it from us, you did something wrong, just do it again.” I must just say thank you, your right, I won’t even question what the hell it was, and I’ll just do it again. It’s really fast, I’ll just speak a sentence, and that’s how we correct them. I might read something loudly like, ‘”I didn’t know you were coming here today,” she said whispering,’ and I’m like oh shit, whispering! So I have to write whispering in at the beginning of the line and do it again.
We’re stopping and starting thousands of time over a hundred page book . You’re stopping for things turning the page. You have to stop, otherwise you’re going to hear the page turning. You have to stop if you hear sounds like my tummy rumbling because I didn’t eat enough breakfast, which happens quite often. Microphones pick up every little sound. It there’s a fly in the room you can’t possibly record. If you have a scratch on your body, that’s suddenly heard, uou can’t have that. And then of course you have to stop for tea time. And after that there’s pee time. So there’s constantly starting, stopping, starting, stopping. And with Harry Potter, as I finish one set of tapes, they go out to be edited, and later on as I’m recording, back comes a certain set of tapes and they’ll say make a correction on this. So I have to throw my mind back to that earlier session and what I was doing then to correct a problem that had been missed by the engineer or the producer. There are mistakes that I don’t notice, the engineer doesn’t notice, nor the producer, until down the line some kid in the back office says, ‘By the way he’s pronouncing this wrong.’ And everyone’ll say ‘Jesus none of us noticed!’ So there’s a constant re-recording even days after you finish the whole book.
Kim: Do you think listening might curtail a child’s interest in reading?Jim: No not at all. A child could listen to an audiotape and enjoy it a year or more earlier than when they actually learn to read. Kids could also have the book in front of them and follow along as they listen. This is a great aid. They begin to associate that sound with that word. I think an audiobook can only help. It encourages children to read more on their own. It gives children the opportunity to get more out of the book than what they’re reading. They get to hear what the character sounds like, and that can add tremendously to the excitement of the story. They hear characters as they’re screaming at each other, fighting, or whispering. It’s very intimate, as if you were a fly on the wall. When you are an audiobook listener, you are a fly on the wall.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Grammy Award ~ "Best Children's Audio Book" ~ Odyssey Award
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The Benjamin Franklin Award ~ "Best Children's Audio Book" ~ Audiofile Earphone Award
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"
Versions of this interview were first published in The Children’s Writer Bulletin and Focus on Your Child parenting newsletters, on the joy of listening to audiobooks.