This month, I lost a friend I’d never met.
Katherine Kellgren, the gifted, award-winning narrator who gave life to several of my novels as audiobooks, was taken by cancer on January 10.
Several years ago, Katy was interviewed here at the Word Wenches, by Nicola, and in 2013 I did something similar at my own blog. This is what I wrote about Katy then, when I was talking about all the headaches I caused my audiobook narrators:
I'm surprised that Katherine Kellgren, when she called to go over the voices for The Firebird, didn't hang up on me right then and there.
Here's what she had to say, after the fact, about her experience with the novel:
"There were technical requirements in The Firebird in terms of the many dialects spoken in contemporary and historical scenes which made the book both a challenge and a joy to record. Luckily I was able to enlist the help of a wonderful and very experienced dialect coach when preparing to go into the studio – but we were both working overtime on this one! I was practically dreaming in Scots dialect by the time we were done!"
And here's why. When she first got in touch on the phone, we began with the Scottish voices. The Firebird, as a sort-of-sequel to The Winter Sea, contains a few of the same characters, so I was ready with the references I'd given Roz [Rosalyn Landor], sometimes matching the accent of a living actor to that of a character, to make things easier.
For example, Colonel Graeme, who's in both books, is a Perthshire man. He looks and sounds in my own mind like Scottish actor Brian Cox, which proved to be a useful thing for Katy, as she actually knows Brian Cox, so she's familiar with his voice.
Rob, the modern-day hero, is from Eyemouth, which becomes more problematic, since the accent is sui generis, unique to that one town, and even if you do it properly it can be somewhat difficult to follow. "But," I said to Katy in an effort to be helpful, "he'd modify the way he speaks when talking to the heroine, because she's English. So it would be sort of watered-down Eyemouth. Except when he's angry. Or drunk."
I could hear Katy jotting that down, at her end of the phone.
We moved on, to the cast of historical characters. Irish nuns in Flanders. Siberian servants in St. Petersburg. In the house of General Lacy, who was also in St. Petersburg, we had the general's wife, who was Livonian; their children, who had been raised on the general's estate in Livonia; Edmund O'Connor, an Irishman from County Kerry; the family priest, who would most likely be Italian, and the general himself, who had come out of Ireland as a young teenager and lived abroad ever since. "So his accent," I said, "would have altered a bit, though it may become stronger when he's speaking to other Irishmen."
"Right," Katy said. More notes jotted. "And Charles, the nephew of Vice-Admiral Gordon…?"
"Well, Charles," I said, "is a second-generation expatriate Scot. His father was born and raised near Aberdeen and sent as a young man to serve under a Scottish general in Russia, where there was a fairly large community of British expatriates, so Charles would most probably have grown up speaking English with an Aberdonian inflection but also some influence from his mother, who may or may not have been Russian…"
And that's where she should have hung up on me, really.
She never did hang up on me.
Almost exactly three years ago, towards the end of January, 2015, when A Desperate Fortune was in production, Katy emailed to tell me how beautiful Central Park looked in the snow, and to ask me if I had time to chat “about character names and some other pronunciations, and to discuss the accents in the book (I'd love to double check on when you want characters to be disguising their normal accents on the stages of the journey to Rome and the like)!”
Of course I had time. Of course we chatted, with me feeling guilty all over again for the work I was putting her through. And of course, she just beautifully nailed every part of it in her performance.
A year passed, and January came around again, and there Katy was on the phone once more, notably sadder this time as we went over details about the Welsh accents for Named of the Dragon—things had been “thrown sideways” in her life, as she put it, with the recent, sudden death of her beloved brother Nick. So we talked about Nick, and the struggle to cope with the pain of the loss of a sibling.
October, 2016, and she lent me her shoulder in turn, while I worked to recover from surgery and what I thought was a minor infection that turned out to be a more serious bout of C. difficile. Working around my naps, cheering me up with her warm thoughts and words of encouragement, she got the details she needed to narrate my book Every Secret Thing. “The main thing,” she told me, “is that you feel better, and get proper rest. I’ll be thinking about you!”
I thought about her, too, all through the writing of my latest book. Katy is going to kill me, I thought, when I give her a heroine raised in Toronto who moved to New York as a teenager, a French-Canadian hero from old Quebec, two Spanish characters—one from Spain, one from Columbia—men from Long Island, New Jersey, and Brooklyn; an Englishman, AND an Acadian.
I made notes for her. Lined up some video clips that would help with the accents, so I’d have them ready for her when she called.
Then, after being offline for a day, I signed on to discover that Katy had died.
The news, I will admit, has hit me hard.
My heart is with her husband and her family. I’m so very sad and sorry for their loss, and for the days they must now navigate without her.
I’m sad I’ll never get the chance to meet her, as I’d hoped I would, or share another of those fun and long and chatty phone calls.
And I’m sad to think the characters of Bellewether and future books will never know her voice.
But I’m so very, deeply grateful for the voices that she did provide, the characters she brought to life, the stories that she lifted from the page with her performances.
Few writers are so fortunate.
I’ll miss her very much.
Katy’s obituary, from the New York Times, can be found here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/nytimes/obituary.aspx?pid=187871203
Her husband David Cote has asked that in lieu of flowers, people donate to the Hispanic Federation.
And maybe, to honour her here, we could talk about audiobooks—favourite narrators, recommendations, whatever you like.