2nd September 2021

The making of an audiobook: STAGS 4: TIGERS

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TIGERS, the penultimate instalment of the barnstorming STAGS saga, showcases a series truly baring its teeth. M.A. Bennett returns with a globe-trotting tale that takes us from the shadowy halls of St. Aidan the Great to the sun-battered streets of Rajasthan. Part-mystery, part-love story, and unflinching in its critique of the legacy of British colonialism; the book delves deep into the mythology of the Order of the Stag and the dark history of the hunt… Fans will be hanging off every word.

The audiobooks have become a huge part of the STAGS experience, with listeners embracing the nimble work of Waterloo Road and Coronation Street star Lucy Dixon as series lead Greer. Arriving in these unprecedented times, the latest instalment is more eagerly anticipated than ever. As author M.A. Bennett suggests, after the year we’ve all had, audiobooks have been “a lifesaver. Especially when you can’t travel. You can go anywhere with an audiobook – any country, any time period…” And TIGERS listeners can look forward to an adventure that takes in both the India of present day and the English country halls of 1969.

Fans will be guided on their travels by a brand-new voice – with Dixon’s Greer joined by a co-narrator for the very first time – as Shafeen’s father Prince Aadhish unspools the secrets of the past in unforgettable diary entries that promise to forever shake up the world of STAGS. We went behind the scenes with the audio team to detail the process of bringing the prince to life – reaching our hand deep into the tiger’s mouth to pull out the full story of the making of M.A. Bennett’s latest YA thrill-ride…

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As audiobook editor, Marina Stavropoulou is responsible for that subtle alchemy of story, storyteller and sound that makes for a truly great listening experience: prepping the script and guiding the project from acquisition all the way through to production and release.

She’s unequivocal about the single biggest factor in any audiobook’s success: the narrator. Regardless of the book’s subject matter, Stavropoulou says that “with an amazing narrator giving a great performance, I’m always interested in listening. That’s what we strive for. That’s the first thing we look for: the right voice.”

Find that, and the rest will follow.

With fan-favourite Lucy Dixon already locked in to return as Greer, Stavropoulou worked with the book’s print editor, Emma Mathewson, to create an in-depth casting brief for the pivotal new role of Prince Aadhish.

“It was a difficult casting! We had to branch out. We wanted that posh, upper-class quality. He’s a prince in India after all, but Aadhish also needs a timid quality – he’s a person going to a new country and trying to navigate the private school cliques. A kind person in a cut-throat environment.”

Bennett concurs. They needed an actor who could convey Aadhish’s intense struggle as an outsider thrust into the cut-throat, cut-glass environment of late 60s Longcross Hall. “He’s landed in England at this time when the only real mainstream representation of Indian culture was The Jungle Book – first Kipling and then Disney’d Kipling – which is so far removed from authentic Indian culture that it bears no relationship to reality,” says Bennett. “He’s a brave boy wrestling with two worlds.”

Various voiceover agencies were approached, but the right match remained elusive. It was M.A. Bennett herself who helped make the breakthrough. The author had seen Nathan Clarke, young star of The 4 O’Clock Club, in an early role in We Still Kill The Old Way, delivering a performance with shades of Aadhish. “There was something in him. He has that vulnerability. But in the film, he played a role with a lot of honour, standing up for other characters. He was young, but strong. He showed he could play kind and vulnerable, while being powerful at the same time.”

Stavropoulou sent over the first few pages to his agent. When Clarke’s audio clips came through, she knew they’d finally found their prince: “He closely matched what I had in my mind.”

Naturally drawn to fundamentally decent characters thrust into ‘sticky situations’ (rather an understatement in this case!), Clarke felt an affinity to Aadhish that helped him take the plunge: “Growing up mixed race, I definitely have had the same thoughts, feelings and inner turmoil as Aadhish. ‘Where do I place myself in society?’ Of fitting in but not dismissing my background. His voice came quite easily to me. It was a case of going back and revisiting the thoughts and inner turmoil of my youth and injecting that into the character.”

TIGERS would mark Clarke’s audiobook debut. Already a huge audiobook fan, Clarke began immersing himself into the world of STAGS. He swiftly devoured the previous three books – “I haven’t actually met Lucy, but I feel like I have because I’ve listened to her voice so much!” – readying himself to make his own mark on the series.

Meanwhile, Stavropoulou pressed forward with pre-production, working closely alongside Ben Carpenter, the director and producer at Rakkit Productions. The relationship between the audio team and the production house is paramount to the project’s success, and the two remain in regular contact throughout the process. Before each production, Stavropoulou provides a comprehensive pack filled with information about the book, sections that require particular emphasis and highlights any technical challenges involved. It’s this level of detail that allows the studio “to hit the ground running with the actors”, says Carpenter.

Producing audiobooks sounds suspiciously like the dream job. Listening to brilliant actors read you stories all day… What’s not to love? Carpenter doesn’t disagree, but stresses that “your job as a producer is to detach yourself, to hear noise and detail. To imagine someone listening to it without reading the book. How do you make things come off the page if it’s in brackets or a funny font?” Though he does admit that when things are going really well and the narrator is accurate, you can’t help but “have those moments when you are totally absorbed” in the author’s world.

The day’s recording took place at Rakkit Studios, tucked behind a deli down a West London side street sodden by torrential summer rain: a state-of the-art complex complete with the latest recording equipment and a resident sausage dog roaming the corridors.

Recording days here can be long and physically taxing. Carpenter always reminds actors not to skip breakfast – the mics will pick up every rumble of the stomach! “The old pros have their snacks, their berries and nuts” to manage their energy throughout the day. “A lot of actors are used to film and theatre where there’s a lot of waiting around before a sudden burst of energy,” says Carpenter. “This is very much 9-5, steady as she goes. This is more of a marathon than a sprint. You need to keep the energy up, but you’re in someone’s ear, so you can’t be too loud. It’s a balance.”

Narrator and director start early with a chat about the book, discussing character and pinning down pronunciations, accents, and pace. It’s a process Carpenter likes to go through with all his actors: “It warms up their voice and helps them relax into the job.” Clarke had a few questions of his own, having suddenly been struck on the train over by the fear that he might be expected to deliver the entire book in one take… “I had this terrible panic before coming in today, thinking ‘Have I gotta get through this without making any mistakes?!’”, he laughs, “But Ben immediately reassured me.”

Separated by a sheet of glass, Clarke in the booth, Carpenter on the deck, the duo got to work – settling in for the day. Audiobook narration is a very different beast to other forms of acting. “It’s important not to perform a book,” says Carpenter. “Tell the story. Capture the tone. Captivate the audience that way, rather than by giving us enormous characters or a load of accents. What’s the book really about? What’s the mood?”

The chemistry between actor and director is all-important, and the pair soon found an easy rapport throughout the recording. Carpenter is effusive in his praise for Clarke as a first-time audiobook narrator: “I knew he was experienced in TV, but that doesn’t always translate. it’s a very different job. But Nathan had done a lot of prep. He listens, he takes direction, he’d checked out the previous books in the series and made sure to match the pace. It went really well.”

The feeling was mutual. “Ben’s looked after me!”, smiles Clarke. “He’s let me get on with it but pulled me up if anything sounded out of character, or not quite right. He gave me the courage to roll with it.” The actor was eager to see how M.A. Bennett’s propulsive, cinematic narrative would play out in the booth. “Her writing almost feels like water: you’re on a quiet calm stream taking in the beautiful things she’s describing, and then all of sudden, at the drop of a hat, you’re down a waterfall and gasping for air.” Together, Clarke and Carpenter navigated these currents.

With Clarke’s work in the can, attention could now turn to Lucy Dixon – recording Greer’s sections from her home studio. While recording remotely can present its own unique challenges for a producer (“If they’re getting frustrated with the neighbour’s dog there’s not much I can do!”), Dixon “has it nailed,” says Carpenter. “She’s done a great job on the previous books and carried that through. As a producer you don’t want to interfere with that.” The producer worked with Dixon to ensure consistency between the two individual recording sessions, “keeping the sound as dry as possible, so my editor can work some magic to smooth it all out so it matches.”

M.A. Bennett was delighted to see Dixon return to a role she’s made her own since first stepping into Greer’s shoes four years ago. “She’s climbed into my head and figured out exactly how Greer would speak. She’s been fabulous right from the off. There’s a lot of darkness and light to the books, and Lucy is so good at navigating that and bringing colour to the changes happening to Greer. There’s no notion of foreknowledge. You discover things as they happen. There’s that delightful naivety, until she’s like ‘Christ! We’re going over the rapids here!’”

With both narrators’ recordings complete, the studio then edits, masters, and proofs the hours of amassed material – delivering final files back to Bonnier Books UK a few weeks before publication date. Stavropoulou conducts her final checks, and – satisfied – uploads the audiobook to the online distributor: STAGS 4: TIGERS finally ready for the eager ears of listeners around the world.

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Stavropoulou can’t wait for the fans to get their hands on the audiobook – promising an instalment that brings new shades and surprises to the blockbuster series: “It’s very much tethered to the school. We have that unifying element. We still have the mystery element, the Scooby Squad trying to figure things out! But I love the change of scenery.”

And, for Clarke, he’ll soon have the opportunity to stick his headphones on and enjoy listening to his own stamp on the STAGS universe. “It’s always daunting doing something new, but I just wanted to let the writing speak for itself. M.A. Bennett is incredible. Going through the previous books in the series, I just wanted to lend my voice to that, and let her words do the talking. I hope I’ve done it justice.”

So has he?

And did the audio team find the right voice for Prince Aadhish?

Bennett, for one, is convinced. “Nathan has captured Aadhish beautifully. When you hear his reading, he has that touching naivety. It’s heart-breaking what he brings to the role.” As an author, the novelty of hearing the characters you’ve carried inside your own head for so long given voice never quite goes away. “You write the words on the page and people will read your work,” says Bennett. “But it’s so fantastic to have them brought to life by these young audio artists. It’s a huge thrill for an author to hear what they do with your words.”

 

STAGS 4: TIGERS (Hot Key Books) is let loose on audiences in audiobook and paperback on September 2nd.

Listen on Audible, Google Play and wherever else you get your audiobooks.