“I’m not your usual Amherst story,” says Nancy Wu ’93, an award-winning and prolific audiobook narrator. “Most of
my classmates went down very traditional, successful paths.” From a stint as a management consultant in Shanghai, to gritting it out as an actor in New York, to becoming a human rights advocate in Thailand, and then an avid yoga practitioner, rock climber and meditation app instructor in Boulder, Colo. (where she now cares for her mother, who has dementia), Wu has recreated herself time and again. “That’s about four cat lives,” she jokes, “and I still have five left.”
You are Chinese-American and grew up in rural West Virginia. What was that like?
My father was an engineering professor at West Virginia Tech. I had a very good perspective on life in America, because I didn’t grow up in New York or California. There was no Chinatown. I had mostly white friends, and there were a few of us Asians, South Asians, whose parents were the doctors and professors in town.
What was your Amherst learning experience like?
My father left China just before Mao took over, and my mother is Indonesian-Chinese. I wanted to understand them, so I became an Asian studies (and not a theater) major, though I had done lots of community theater back home. Jerry Dennerline (Asian studies), Lan Hua (Chinese language instructor), Helen Von Schmidt (film and media studies) and Wendy Woodson (theater and dance) were my teachers. But I was also amazed by Barry O’Connell (English), Rick Griffiths (classics) and Peter Lobdell ’68 (theater).
You stuck it out as a New York actor for a decade. Sounds impressive, but grueling.
There’s so much insecurity, doubt and rejection in being an actor. I was doing a couple of Law & Orders, right? I was on All My Children as a nurse. I loved working in theater. I’m a small Asian girl who’s a little bit quirky: she always plays the nurse or technician, the doctor or prostitute. You get typecast as an actor. But with audiobooks, you can play every single character. And you don’t have to go around to auditions. It’s so much better than acting!
Tell us about your audiobook career.
Since 2004, it became a niche for me, often voicing books by Asian authors. Because I’ve lived in Asia and I spoke Chinese, I knew the difference between many accents: Hong Kong Chinese, Cantonese, Singaporean, Indonesian, Malaysian. Since Audible.com was bought by Amazon, the medium has skyrocketed. Now, many books get launched together with the audiobook. I’ve done around 140 titles in many genres, from novels to non-fiction to sci-fi to young adult books.
The toughest scenes are when three or more characters are in a dialogue.
How do you prepare to voice a book?
You get the script and it may not be the final book draft. You have to get pronunciations right, proper names for places. Sometimes producers have a research department to assist, or you talk to the author. Up until 10 years ago, you read off paper. Now the standard is an iPad. I have notes on each character, and I highlight the parts with different colors. The toughest scenes are when there are three or more characters in a dialogue, and you need to be able to switch the voice so that you can follow who’s saying what. That’s a tough skill.
What happens inside the sound booth?
It’s “punch and roll.” The minute you mess up, mispronounce something, have a stomach noise, you stop, and then they roll you back and punch you in at the end of that phrase, so you can start another sequence. It takes up to three hours in the studio to get one hour of audio. You have to have vocal stamina, know how to use your instrument, take care of your health and be hydrated. My yoga has totally changed the game of being in the audio booth. Sitting properly in the chair, breathing slowly. Narrators can have a hard time with gasps between sentences, you know? I know how to breathe.
Photo by: Olivier Balma