Interview with Narrator C.S.E. Cooney

By Sarah Barning

I had the wonderful opportunity of interviewing C.S.E. Cooney. Ms. Cooney is an in house narrator at Tantor and her smile and personality lights up the place. It is always a great day when she is here recording. She is very talented, and I am thrilled to share her interview with everyone.

Narrator Photo
C.S.E Cooney

How did you get into narrating?

This is a question that people have been asking since I landed my job at Tantor back in April! I find it tricky, because there is no short answer. Some of it was luck: right place, right time, right email address. But to get to that time and place and email address, I spent two years stopping everyone I met who had any connection whatsoever with the audiobook industry to say, “I want to do this; how do I do this?” Some of it is my BA in Fiction Writing with an Acting minor from Columbia College Chicago (a peculiar combination of education that makes this job peculiarly ideal). I began by narrating for such short-form fantasy podcasts such as Uncanny Magazine, Podcastle, Tales to Terrify, and Goblin Fruit.

Mostly though, after looking into a job as a proofer for Tantor, I heard from a friend—at the time employed in that same position—that the company was also looking for narrators. I sent in an email with an audition reel, made an appointment to audition, and landed a trial run with two cozy mysteries (later mentioned). After that, I got a 13-week contract, and found myself booked through the summer and early fall doing the Best Job Ever. It was the most glorious, double lightning strike of luck and work.

What was your favorite audiobook to narrate?

Well… I think that’s a toss-up between Combat Ready Kitchen and Tales from the Back Row. This surprised even me, for I read and write fiction primarily, and these were two of only three non-fiction books I narrated. I felt like I was learning loads of interesting things in the process—not just about narrating, but about cheese bacteria, and New York City Fashion week—and on a very basic sentence level, I found the sentences conversational and cathedral-like. Sometimes in fiction a sentence can get very basic, making way for a forward-driven plot, snappy dialogue, and colorful characters. With these two memoirs/histories, the focus was on conveying new and often useful information with clarity and beauty and wit; I found it extraordinary.

How do you choose what voice a character gets?

You know those voices you get in your head when you’re reading? I get those too, and then I try to make my voice match. But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes it’s just a close approximation. Sometimes I imagine actors I’d like to play those parts, and pretend I’m that actor. And sometimes I remember characters from movies I like that are sort of like the characters I’m playing, and steal a little of the spirit of that voice for my own. Actress Meryl Streep is often called The Queen of Voices. Well, my own muse is audiobook narrator Barbara Rosenblat, who I consider the Empress—or even GODDESS—of Voices. And I’m just sort of like the pageboy or saucy kitchen maid of Voices, but at least I’ve got a foot in the same castle.

What is your favorite accent to perform?

In J. C. Nelson’s Grimm Agency series, there was a character called “The Black Queen” who is described as having a French accent. The accent I imagined for her was not the Pepé Le Pew French accent, but the gentler, softer, musical accent of actress of Sophie Marceau. She plays the French Princess in the movie Braveheart. At one point William Wallace asks her, “Why are you doing this?” And she answers, “Because of the way you are looking at me now.” I often used my memory of her accent and intonation in that one line to launch me totally into the Black Queen’s character voice. But don’t tell Sophie Marceau that.

What is the most challenging book you’ve voiced?

In a way, the most challenging books I’ve voiced were the two I mentioned were my favorites—and for many of the same reasons. The difficulty in the material, the heavy research, the unfamiliar and often international names and brands, the complicated sentence structure, were all quite difficult for me to negotiate. But I loved every second of the process.

Coal River CoverMost lately, I narrated a piece of historical fiction called Coal River. The material was densely researched, highly descriptive, often bleak, and with a wide variety of powerful characters. It was surprisingly difficult and moving material; I was often quite tired at the end of the recording day, and the images and characters and conundrums of the story stayed with me long after I left work. This era of factory strikes, child labor, and the rise of unions is a particularly powerful and fascinating one. I had already read a lot of literature and seen movies about this time period, and found it profoundly satisfying—if occasionally difficult—to narrate a piece of fiction about it. Really lovely.

What is your favorite genre to narrate?

I read and write mostly fantasy, and I have to say that’s where my heart is. Although memoir and history is growing on me. And I really liked doing those mysteries. Oh, and science fiction would be fun. And YA is kind of a hoot. And, and, and… I just like narrating, really.

What book do you wish you could have narrated that is already published?

Ah! Do I get a list?  But if I had to choose just one… Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold. I love this book. I love Cordelia Vorkosigan as a character. I want to be her when I grow up. I’ve read this book twenty times. Maybe more. Hard to tell. I would love to give voice to it. But there’s already a quite good audiobook with narrator Grover Gardner who voices the entire Vorkosigan Saga (great space opera; I do not use the word “epic” lightly—and also fun and witty and deeply moving), so I don’t think there’s much of a chance.

I’d love to read anything by author Kage Baker—but perhaps her fantasy books first. Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan.” Emma Bull and Steven Brust’s Freedom and Necessity.

Who would you love to collaborate with?

Actors or authors? Of actors… Recently hired to Tantor were a few actors I know and/or have worked with through Flock Theatre of New London, CT. I’d love to collaborate with any of them on a project: Callie Beaulieu, Michael Hinton, Amy Melissa Bentley. Also, I got to know narrator Susan Boyce a little just through chatting in the Narrator Lounge, and she’d be a lovely narrator to work with.

Of authors… Neil Gaiman and Ellen Kushner are two significant voices both in fiction writing and audiobooks. They are always doing cool projects, and it would be great to work with them sometime—on anything really. Because anything they do is bound to be awesome. The Serial Box project (serialized novella-length fiction released to subscribers in episodes over a period of weeks, in eBooks and in audio) is really exciting; it would be fun to narrate for them sometime.

What do you like to listen to? (music, audiobooks, podcasts)

I’ve been recently listening to a great podcast called Fakelore, wherein a pop culture geek and a folklorist discuss books, movies, and culture and debate on whether the roots of certain stories are “folk or fake.” It’s hysterical. I love Podcastle—a great place to get short-form fantasy stories. I sometimes listen to Savage Love for kicks.

I’m in the middle of two audiobooks right now Back Channel to Cuba; The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana by William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, narrated by Robertson Dean (non-fiction), and Daniel José Older’s Half-Resurrection Blues, narrated by the author (fiction).

I love music of all kinds, but especially musicals and folk songs. I love the Blues, and parody songs or satire, and I like music that can’t be easily defined. I get to go see a Joanna Newsom concert in December—so that’s very exciting!

Your book Bone Swans was recently published.  What was your inspiration?

Bone Swans is actually a collection of five novellas. Four of them were previously published, and one (the title story) is original to the collection. They’re all fantasy, set in different secondary (non-Earth) worlds—but not all the same world. Fantasy is a great uber-umbrella of a genre, so I have one story that’s sort of high-octane adventure sword-and-sorcery-ish, with flying carpets and rebels and gods who are very involved in the lives of mortals. One is a murder mystery set on an island. One is a retelling of the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin”—wherein the title character is NOT the villain. One’s a mash-up of “The Pied Piper” and Grimm’s tale “The Juniper Tree.” And one is a sort of post-apocalyptic horror story with scary clowns and ghost children. So, as you see, the inspiration was perforce as varied as the material!

The murder mystery (the story titled “Martyr’s Gem”) came directly from a dream I had, wherein two characters met for the first time because they were contracted by law to marry. The boy falls in love with the girl on sight, but he is very shy, with quite a low self-esteem. The girl is deeply lost in grief and her quest for vengeance; her young sister had recently been murdered. But she too finds herself falling in love with her young, wise, stranger-husband. The dream and its characters haunted and hounded me until I wrote it out. Ann Leckie, then editor of the e-zine GigaNotoSaurus, originally published  “Marty’s Gem,” and you can still find it online. Ann has since gone on to become the New York Times bestselling author of the science fiction novel Ancillary Mercy, the epic conclusion of the Imperial Radch trilogy.

What projects can your fans expect from you next?

Well, I hope I get to narrate loads of audiobooks! At the moment, I have no projects pending, but that may change at any moment. Voice work aside, at the moment I’m working on the fourth draft of my novel Miscellaneous Stones: Assassin. I’d love to finish that out, and then venture out again on my Great Literary Agent Quest.

This year I crowd-funded for a music project called Brimstone Rhine. I released my first EP in July, called Alecto! Alecto! (you can listen to it on Bandcamp, if you so desire. It takes less than 20 minutes total). It’s eight songs about women of myth and legend: witches, queens, nymphs, fiends—you know, people just like us. Brimstone Rhine’s second EP The Headless Bride is due to come out sometime before the New Year, I hope.

I also hope to finish my third novella in a dark romantic fantasy series called Dark Breakers before the end of the year. The Dark Breakers novellas take place in a world very much like Earth, at a time very much like our early 20th century, in a city very much like Newport, Rhode Island (I call mine “Seafall”), in a mansion very much like The Breakers. They’re super-fun stories, and the first two “The Breaker Queen” and “The Two Paupers” are available on Amazon.

Caught Dead Handed CoverI recently finished listening to Carol J. Perry’s Caught Dead Handed.  I am a huge fan of cozy mysteries, so when I saw you read this, it was a huge plus!  The cat also adds bonus points.  This is the perfect time of year to listen to story based in Salem, Massachusetts.  I was very impressed with all of the characters that you performed and all the different voices they had.  Even with so many characters, each one was spot on.  I couldn’t imagine trying to remember who gets what voice, and you do it so naturally. I am excited to listen to the rest of the series.  You are so talented, and I am excited to see what audiobooks you record next.

Thank you! I loved doing these mysteries! And Carol J. Perry just keeps getting better and better. Her newest book Look Both Ways has an antique bureau with a SECRET COMPARTMENT! I love secret compartments. And pink diamonds! And ghosts! And plus, there are so MANY MANY CATS in this one!

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