I’ve been listening to Nancy Wu’s audiobook performances since the very beginnings of her career as a narrator. Many of you may be most familiar with her work on audiobooks with Asian themes, settings, or characters. Nancy’s performances always engage, whether she’s narrating fiction, thrillers, contemporary culture, or young adult audiobooks. Nancy’s impeccable sense of timing keeps me glued to whatever audiobook she’s performing. I know she’ll keep the dialogue flowing and the action zooming along. What’s more, she can deliver comedy as easily as she can build suspense, making me laugh out loud (#EmbarrassingPublicListenerMoment) or keep me glued to my earbuds for just one more scene. Of course, I also appreciate Nancy’s thoughtful and believable characterizations, which never stray to stereotypes, even when she’s performing dialogue from individuals whose first language is not English.
AudioFile: Which genre will you always say yes to and why?
Nancy Wu : I would never turn down good historical fiction or young adult fantasy adventure. My original niche, possibly the one dearest to my heart, is Asian-inspired fantasy, filled with dragons, magic, heroic battle, and intrigue. I’m lucky to be seen as both a YA actor and as a mature voice that can authoritatively read nonfiction and contemporary literary fiction. I have some producers who specifically cast me for wacky characters, one who gives me dense history titles, and another who said, “I only give you difficult books!” I’m in the middle of a Marvel X-Men series now—talk about the pressure of coming up with scores of iconic superhero and villain voices. It’s been a mission!
AF: Tell us something surprising about yourself.
NW : I lived on the Thai/Burma Border for almost a year, where I was suspected of being a spy! I was a human rights activist before the fall of Burma’s dictatorship in 2011, and I lived on the Thai/Burma border, home to the longest protracted refugee situation in the world: For more than half a century, persecuted ethnic groups have fled to Thailand into cramped, makeshift jungle camps, in which generations have been born and raised. At that time especially, before Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from prison, the violence on the border was rampant. Burma’s ethnic minorities were constantly attacked by the Burmese military, and some political dissidents in the town I lived wondered why I, an American of Chinese descent, was asking so many questions! At the time I was engaged in documenting human rights abuses and interviewing some political dissidents who had fled Burma on video. With my energy and curious American personality, I became suspected in town of having ulterior motives . . . It was not as far-fetched as it sounds, because some of my colleagues were in fact international journalists uncovering some dangerous stories! And a number of us did indeed get smuggled, or sneaked, through the border to observe conditions in Burma itself, and not in the safest of manners. My life was much more exciting then! A second little-known fact: I was a Wall Street equities analyst and Hong Kong/Shanghai management consultant before becoming an actor.
AF: What are you doing when you’re not working?
NW : Traveling. I began traveling at a young age to Asia with my family, where we have relatives in many countries. There began my love of travel, and I studied and worked abroad for many years in Europe and Asia. I began rock climbing in Hong Kong and Thailand, and ever since, I have ventured to many beautiful places in nature on climbing and exploring trips. My favorite places to climb have been China, Slovenia, Italy, and Croatia. I can’t travel as much as I used to right now, but I still make sure to take at least one trip far afield every year.
AF: What are the pros and cons of recording a series?
NW Pros: You become so familiar with your characters and invested in their adventures that you’re excited to reunite with them to see what happens next. It’s also nice to have established main characters who are already in your head, so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I’m so invested in my Peasprout Chen series that I hope she goes on for as long as Harry Potter did! The cons are forgetting to bounce and save voice clips and trying to remember who’s who out of all the secondary characters. Sometimes the author surprises you years into a series by giving a character detail she never revealed before. Once I had an obnoxious mother-in-law character to whom I gave a Jersey accent, just to discover in book five that she was from the Midwest! There’s that dilemma. I changed it for that book, but then a fan got upset, complaining about the loss of the hilarious Jersey mom, so I switched back.
AF: What’s the first task you tackle when given a new audiobook project?
NW : Creating character voices and doing foreign language and accent research! First, I skim through to find out who all the characters are, how they’re described, what they look like as well as their motivations, relationships, and purpose in the book. With voices, sometimes you just have to go for it. Make a bold choice, trust that the audience will forgive you for it, and move on! LOL. Sometimes you fail. Sigh. When you do challenging, interesting books, you inevitably put a lot of time into research and prep. Researching historical names, places, and events is time-consuming (especially in a foreign language)—as is highlighting the script, which I find necessary for scenes with dialogue between multiple characters. However, when you’re lucky enough to get all that done—all you have to do in front of the mic is sit back and live the story. That’s the joy of it.
AF: Thanks so much, Nancy, for taking the time to talk with us. I’m so impressed with your work in Thailand, and how scary (but also kind of fun?) to have been thought of as a spy. Yikes. We listeners appreciate all that research you do into foreign languages and accents; it gives your performances an under-layer of authenticity.
To find more audiobooks performed by Nancy Wu, browse our reviews.
CANDACE LEVY | SEPTEMBER 25, 2019
Nancy Wu narrated in studios around the world while living three years in Thailand, Switzerland, and Italy and earning a Master’s Degree in Human Rights. We asked her how she got involved in recording audiobooks. “I’ve been an actor for a long time. I was recommended to Claudia Howard in 2004, and she started casting me. She was great.” Howard, executive producer at Recorded Books at the time, cast her in what would become a New York Times bestselling vampire series by MaryJanice Davidson, boasting 19 sequels. “The protagonist is a tall, blonde, ditzy vampire queen who has vampire sex. UNDEAD & UNWED began my narrator career abroad.”
Because she’s a native West Virginian with relatives from China and Indonesia, and because she has a good ear for accents, Wu is able to offer voices for characters of many ethnicities. “As I am Asian, I get cast in a lot of Asian stories.” This requires occasional contact with the author to discuss characters. “It’s very helpful to hear from the author.” After an AudioFile Earphones Award and a Parents’ Choice Award for her recording of PEASPROUT CHEN: FUTURE LEGEND OF SKATE AND SWORD, Wu got to meet author Henry Lien, and later this winter they are going to work together on the sequel, PEASPROUT CHEN: BATTLE OF CHAMPIONS. Wu says, “This year has been amazing. This summer I was working more than I ever have.” She is currently finishing recording Emily Hahn’s memoir CHINA TO ME. She also recorded Hahn's history about the Chinese Revolution, THE SOONG SISTERS.
Wu’s Earphones Award-winning performance of Ling Ma’s novel SEVERANCE, a bloody zombie apocalypse novel, is not Wu’s usual material. She laughs, “It was a stretch for me. It’s totally not my usual genre, so I’m thrilled people love it!” While she does have a home studio, she prefers recording in a studio with directors and engineers because she doesn’t like to be alone. “I enjoy being with people. I love sharing the experience with the people on the other side of the glass. They’re with you, sharing the ride, and they give you feedback.” With seven Earphones Awards to her credit to date, Wu is especially proud of her work on MAGRUDER’S CURIOSITY CABINET by H.P. Wood (2016) and THE NEXT FACTORY OF THE WORLD by Irene Yuan Sun (2018).
When she’s not recording, the busy and talented Wu is an avid rock climber and yoga practitioner. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, and is the lead instructor for Timeless|Meditation, a meditation app. Wu says that she uses yoga quite a bit when she’s in the booth. “When you’re sitting for so long, you need to have an awareness of your body and your posture. You need to keep your breath full. Yoga is the perfect tool to center yourself and to breathe.”--S.J. Henschel
[DECEMBER 2018/ JANUARY 2019]
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