In Conversation: Bless Thine Inheritance Special with Author Sophia Holloway & Narrator Matt Addis

Photo of a wooden desk, mug of tea, computer keyboard, and earbuds. Text at the top reads "Bless Thine Inheritance" and below reads "Exclusive interview with author Sophia Holloway & narrator Matt Addis"
It was recently my pleasure to review Bless Thine Inheritance by Sophia Holloway, a traditional Regency romance with a very unusual heroine. The book's protagonist, Celia, not only has to contend with an ambitious Mama, but the devastating injury and chronic incapacity that follows a horse riding accident. Bless Thine Inheritance captures all the comforting romance of a good Regency, but juxtaposes the grandeur and opulence of the wealthy, ballroom-dwelling set with the harsh reality of Celia's disability and the implications it has for her future within Georgian society.

This is the second collaboration between author Sophia Holloway and narrator Matt Addis, who previously brought us another charming Regency audiobook, The Devil You Know. Both of Holloway's books made it into my Top 20 Audiobooks of 2019, and Addis outstripped all competition to be named Narrator of the Year. In light of their sweeping successes across the board, I had the privilege of asking them some questions about Bless Thine Inheritance, their experience of bringing it to audio, and what we can expect from them next.


~ INTERVIEW ~

Welcome to MLHT, Sophia and Matt! Having been so thrilled by Bless Thine Inheritance earlier this year, and harbouring a definite soft spot for roguish, lovable George in The Devil You Know, I must confess to being rather excited by the prospect of hearing from you both about the 'making of' the book, and am very grateful that you have made time to chat.

I'd like to begin with a few questions for Sophia, if I may, but please do jump in at any time, should either of you have anything to add. If everyone has a cup of tea, then I think we're good to go... 

Historical romance is a much-maligned genre, but one which has proven to be perennially popular with readers - and listeners. How did you come to write your first Regency, Sophia?

Sophia: In part, desperation. I grew up on Georgette Heyer, and loved her attention to period detail and historical accuracy within the milieu in which she set her novels. My own daughter read them to the point where she ran out of books to read, and I decided to try and provide her with something in the same vein. Whilst of late I have been remiss, for several years she received a new Regency novel on her birthday and at Christmas. All my Regencies are dedicated to her, by initial. As you can tell, there are more than have as-yet been published.

A quote from the interview by Matt Addis. A purple background with tea and book at the top. Text reads: "I was expecting discount Jane Austen with mild erotica, and what I read was witty and sharply observed, with a wealth of well-researched period detail that I really enjoyed."I hope that we get to read the others, too! Both your books (so far) have been in the Austenian mould, focusing on the characters’ emotional relationships and wider societal observations rather than bowing to the bodice-ripper trend. Why did you decide to keep your novels more in line with the traditional style of romance?

Sophia: Primarily historical accuracy. Whilst Regency romance is unrealistically romantic, I have no desire to write a story and clothe it in long frocks as an afterthought. Thus, the women are not the Lara Crofts of 1812, liberated in all but corsetry. The reality was that young women of the Upper Ten Thousand were paraded during the Season at an age where they were meant to be entirely innocent, and the slightest breath of scandal would ruin any chance of marriage. As a married lady, a woman would have a household of her own to oversee, and certain freedoms. As a spinster she was – in the vast majority of cases – an incubus to the family, and reliant upon the generosity or otherwise of her male relatives. Husbands might stray, and once the ‘heir and spare’ had been provided, there were ladies who had lovers, but at the risk of losing everything. Bodice ripping is therefore out, and I write within the constraints of the period. ‘Bodice-rippers’ are popular with writers and readers, and that is fine, but that does not mean ‘trad’ Regency is inferior, just different.

Matt: I’m absolutely no expert on Regency Romance, but I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised by the first of Sophia’s that I recorded - ‘The Devil You Know’. I was expecting discount Jane Austen with mild erotica, and what I read was witty and sharply observed, with a wealth of well-researched period detail that I really enjoyed. 

A quote from the interview by Sophia Holloway. A purple background with book and flowers at the top. Text reads: "there is so much more to a person than how they look or sound. I would hope that somewhere in the past there were ‘Celias’ who were appreciated as they were, and were loved."What motivated you to write about a heroine with a disability when Regencies (true to their era) are usually so obsessed with perfection?

Sophia: I think because we are still bombarded with ‘being perfect’ and so few of us are. This must have been as true two hundred years ago, and there is so much more to a person than how they look or sound. I would hope that somewhere in the past there were ‘Celias’ who were appreciated as they were, and were loved.

Did you have to do much research to write about a character with chronic pain? How important was it to get Celia’s experience right?

Sophia: I suffered a major arm fracture over a decade ago, which meant that for some months everyone stared at the frame bolted into the arm rather than look me in the face, and I was very limited in performing tasks one takes for granted, and it has left some loss of ability. I learned a lot from that, and also from a slipped disc. I have been fortunate that these periods of chronic pain and massive limitations in ability have been episodic, not permanent, but they gave me a glimpse of what others face every minute of every day. To me, making Celia ‘real’ was the most important aspect of the novel because I did not want some Hollywood caricature, but rather someone flesh and blood. Someone frustrated by the limitations created by [their] disability, and by other people treating them with pity or seeing them as sub-standard; afraid that the disability will define them, even eventually to themselves.

I loved Celia and was so grateful to see a non-traditional heroine written well, but who is your favourite character in Bless Thine Inheritance, and why?

Sophia: My favourite to write was the Dowager Lady Mardham, because she was such fun and so outspoken. She could give put downs one would love to deliver and never dare. I do have a soft spot for Lord Deben, because he is not the classic ‘alpha male hero’, but is so genuinely sweet-natured. It is not a trait often flaunted as admirable in men.

I especially admire your writing for its overall historical accuracy and attention to detail, but which of the tidbits that you uncovered for this book was your favourite discovery?

Sophia: Actually this one did not take much additional research, but I did like finding out about the coach maker in Gloucester, who did exist, and I was surprised at just how much shorter a leg would be after a fracture of the femur.

Matt: Sophia’s period knowledge and sensitivity feels like second nature to her - to the rest of us it’s rather wonderful. 

Do you enjoy researching the intricacies of a period for your writing more generally, and does it differ from the way you would research topics in your more academic work as a historian?

A quote from the interview by Sophia Holloway. A purple background with flowers at the top. Text reads: "The devil is in the detail and I strive to get it right. I will certainly never abandon historical accuracy for the sake of my plot."
Sophia: The devil is in the detail and I strive to get it right. I will certainly never abandon historical accuracy for the sake of my plot. In one novel I would have liked the secondary male lead to have been in blues rather than scarlet, but the book was set in 1817, and the Royal Horse Guards did not take up ceremonial duties until 1821, so he had to be in the Life Guards and wear scarlet after all. The approach is the same whether for fact or fiction - find primary sources wherever possible, and judge any secondary source with care. In the story where the lady is an angler, I consulted a fishing ‘best seller’ of the period to make sure she was using the right fly for the time of year and the method of casting that was used at the time. I like to find trade directories of the period for shops, and even made a corset to a Regency pattern (except that I used steel boning rather than whalebone).

That would certainly give you a more intimate understanding of your heroines, though you always seem to know your characters well. Did you have a clear idea of how you wanted them all to sound in audio, and did that evolve as Matt became involved in the process?

Sophia: Ha, well these days Matt is so involved in the process, in my head, that I even try to adjust the text to make it more ‘narration friendly’, so that there are fewer places where dialogue has ambiguous attribution. We have a long chat, and I also send him rough ideas of the sort of person I think a character might be, and give details of how I see them in my head even if that is not actually in the script. I had a character in The Devil You Know that I described as ‘a nasal weasel’!

   I do also sometimes say ‘in my head, so and so sounds a bit like X when they played Y’. However, I only give suggestions, because I am merely the writer of the words and he is a consummate professional in his craft. He may find other aspects that he feels work better, or indeed have constraints such as how to differentiate characters of similar age and the same gender. It would be both foolish and unutterably rude to tell him how to do his job.

It's marvellous that you take such a keen interest in your audiobooks. Why is it important to you that your books are available in audio?

Sophia: Most other media mean that an author’s words, characters and even plot are adapted, sometimes until barely recognisable. An unabridged audiobook, well narrated, not only keeps to every word, but enhances those words in the process. It also means that they can reach a wider audience, especially through libraries. When one of my novels is taken up to be an audiobook, I feel it has been a true success.

A quote from the interview by Matt Addis. A purple background with book and flowers at the top. Text reads"I think people’s minds are often gently changed in the best ways by seeing from others’ perspectives, and I think Sophia does a sublime job in this book of giving us an insight into living with a disability, and how others can make that easier, or not."What do you hope the listener takes away from this book?

Sophia: Well, obviously I hope that it gives pleasure, and at times makes them smile, but if it makes them consider how they look at those with disability, both literally and in approach, that would be wonderful. However, I am not trying to bang a drum in an overt way because this is light fiction, not a lecture on thinking inclusively.

Matt: I think people’s minds are often gently changed in the best ways by seeing from others’ perspectives, and I think Sophia does a sublime job in this book of giving us an insight into living with a disability, and how others can make that easier, or not.

Speaking of others' perspectives, Matt, I'd love to hear more about your experience! How did you first get into audiobook narration, and was it what you expected?

Matt: I’ve loved audiobooks since I was tiny, then - as a working actor finding it hard to work my way in to the audiobook industry - I worked with a children’s book author to produce an unabridged recording of her novel. I used a commercial studio and paid the engineer in beer. It was definitely as much fun as I’d anticipated. From there I worked extensively with the wonderful RNIB’s Talking Books department, who taught me a great deal about the craft. Narration is an absolute joy, and one of my favourite parts of my work.

It's wonderful to hear that you enjoy narrating as much as we love listening to you. Do you have to do much preparation before you record a novel, and has the way you approach that studio time changed as you’ve become more experienced?

Matt: I read the book carefully beforehand, noting each character, and research any words that I’m unfamiliar with - including names, place names, foreign/specialist/period vocabulary etc. I’ll then consult with people more knowledgeable than me about the best choices. As I’ve become more experienced, I’ve become more confident about building relationships with authors (which used to be generally discouraged in the industry).

Sophia: Really? Well, I am so glad that has changed. I would be biting my nails if I had no idea how a reader would approach my characters.
  
Matt: Yes - I always found it extraordinary that the one person with ‘all the answers’ was excluded from the process. I like to think that, in some small way, I’ve been a part of changing that.

Thank you for helping bridge the gap between authors and narrators to bring listeners a more authentic experience. Are there any particular challenges to narrating historical fiction, and how do you overcome them?

Matt: A balance must always be struck between how people might actually have sounded, and how I can portray them in a way that’s acceptable and comprehensible to a modern ear - that often means a compromise that gives a believable impression of a character. The other tricky element is vocabulary - language is constantly evolving, and the pronunciation of words changes over time, so choices must be made, but every choice is essentially a matter of opinion. As an example - in recording this book I used an industry-standard resource (the howjsay app) to check the pronunciation of the word ‘phaeton’ and received an answer that subsequently no-one had apparently ever heard of - however neither my producer nor the proofer caught the error, and it’s awkwardly present 26 times in the audiobook. Needless to say, I haven’t used that resource again.

Sophia: But I must also bear responsibility for that one, if I did not flag it up. I suppose that having been a Heyerite since my early teens, and now as a writer of Regency novels, the word has become every-day. It is not a word said in general conversation.

Matt: Not at all! You write the words, it’s the least I can do to pronounce them properly...

Sophia: I still recall reading Heyer’s Sylvester when I was about fourteen, and my Father (who was a big Heyer fan) asked if I had enjoyed it. I said yes, but I was put off a little by the heroine having such a silly name - Phoebe. It was a rare name then and I had never heard it. I thought it was pronounced Pho-eeb. Thus, who am I to comment on a mispronunciation? (Mind you, Pho-eeb would be a very silly name for a heroine.) 

While listening to your performance of Bless Thine Inheritance, Matt, I thought that I spotted a few familiar influences, helping inform the voices for one or two of the characters. When narrating a book like this where you must ‘play several parts’ how do you decide on the voices for each character?

Matt: There’s a method of character building where you take what people say about themselves, what others say about them, and what they say about others. I usually combine that with the author’s thoughts about a character (both from the text and from my research) to produce a portrait that allows me to visualise the character, and hear them speak. Some authors ‘hear’ the voices in their head as they write, some have absolutely no idea how their characters sound. It’s also essential that if two characters converse in a book they have reasonably distinct voices, to make life easier for the listener.

Sophia: I noted in your review, Miss Lawrence, that you felt Lord Deben reminded you of Bertie Wooster. Interestingly, I described him to Matt as sounding, in my head, a little like Hugh Laurie’s Bertie Wooster, just not as empty headed. That Matt conveyed that without doing an impression, just shows how good he is with voices.

Is it difficult to narrate so many female characters, especially multiple ladies per generation, and make them all distinctive?

Matt: Sometimes, and equally so with men, but it’s usually just a case of discovering something that makes them distinctive. If you think of a hundred girls from the same school year, they may well sound very similar, but each will also sound distinctive in some way. Four middle-aged Swedish policemen, all from Gothenburg, provide pretty much the same challenge as four Regency debutantes.

You spend so long in the studio helping bring these audiobooks to life, do you ever have a favourite character whose parts you look forward to, or in whose story you become most invested? Did you have a favourite character in Bless Thine Inheritance?

Matt: Most definitely, I think any reader has favourite characters whose scenes they relish, and it’s no different for narrators. It’s often those whose values chime with our own, or whose wit or intellect we aspire to. I loved Celia in BTI.

Sophia: Oh dear. It looks like I secretly aspire to be a dominating and acerbic old lady. My future is foreseen!

Matt: Haha! Never! Though she is definitely one of my favourite characters.

A quote from the interview by Sophia Holloway. A purple background with flowers and a book at the top. Text reads: "Matt has guided me through several re-writes to turn my first mediaeval murder mystery into a radio play, but getting it in front of the right production company is difficult. I really hope that one afternoon it will be on Radio 4, and with Matt as one of the two main characters."Do you enjoy the challenge of narrating all the characters yourself, or is it more fun working on a fully casted dramatisation or radio play?

Matt: They are very different beasts, each with their own joys and frustrations - sadly I’ve yet to do both versions of the same work, which would allow for a true comparison. The joy of an audiobook is that you get to play all the characters, but also the responsibility for the whole performance sits almost entirely on your shoulders - whereas in a radio play there is both a producer who shapes the whole, and an entire cast of other actors who each bring their energy and interpretation of each character for you to play against. I love both.

Sophia: Matt has guided me through several re-writes to turn my first mediaeval murder mystery into a radio play, but getting it in front of the right production company is difficult. I really hope that one afternoon it will be on Radio 4, and with Matt as one of the two main characters.

That does sound interesting, and a good use of your combined talents and experience. I hope the BBC like the idea, too!

Do you prefer narrating in your native Welsh accent, Matt, as you do for your reading of The Mabinogion (and, if memory serves, Dean Burnett's Happy Brain)? Or is it more fun to step out of yourself completely for a project like this, and use every voice but your own?

Matt: I love narrating in my native accent, and my other half is convinced that I always do a better job when I’m allowed to. That said, I relish the challenge of learning new accents and elements of unfamiliar languages for a project. The last year has taken me to the Faroes, the foothills of the Pyrenees, south Tyrol, modern-day, WWII & revolutionary Paris, the various ancient Kingdoms of both Wales & Ireland, 18C Stockholm, medieval Worcestershire and various other real and fantasy locales & times that required investigation, imagination and expert advice.

That sounds like a lot of research. What is most important to you when you are recording an audiobook?

A black and white photo of narrator Matt Addis in the recording studio.
Matt: That I serve the text - that every character is as believable as I can possibly make them, that I find and enjoy the humour as written, and that I understand the ideas put forward by the author or their characters. If I’m having fun when I’m reading, then hopefully the listener might do when they’re on the receiving end. 

Sophia: Just to say you were so believable as George Ledbury in The Devil You Know, I felt sorry for having put you through such intense emotions. You also made what had never as much as a broken thread in a bodice sound very sexually charged, to the point I blushed! 

Now that we have established what a great team you are, I have some questions for you both. 

I know that you try and discuss your projects prior to recording. How did you find the collaborative process helpful with Bless Thine Inheritance?

Sophia: Was I helpful, Matt?

Matt: Sophia has been wonderfully generous with her time and expertise when I’ve prepared each of her books, and this was no exception. In addition to an encyclopaedic knowledge of the period, she has brilliantly clear ideas about her characters, and is also very understanding if I need to tweak them in some way to make them work best for audio.

Has your approach to a new joint project changed now that you have worked together on several books?

A colour photo of a smiling Sophia Holloway (left) and Matt Addis (right).Matt: I think in any professional partnership you develop a process as you work together, and we’ve now honed that into a rather efficient method of collaboration that really delivers the best from the audiobook versions of Sophia’s brilliant books. We’ve also developed a friendship that’s led to some very enjoyable hours together not talking about books, which is a wonderful bonus.

Sophia: We laugh more, and there is no stress. I think Matt is getting used to me using archaic words and names, and in my other genre, even Old English. I try hard to edit any novels to make them easier for narration, and I can often ‘hear’ Matt’s voice when I write dialogue for certain characters. It is good to work with someone you can also call a friend.

A quote from the interview by Sophia Holloway. A purple background with flowers at the top. Text reads: "In having Matt as ‘my’ narrator (note the possessive), I think I hit the jackpot. I love his attention to detail in his voices, their origin by place and any alterations that come with their social position, and am in awe of his ability to turn a book into a one man radio play that engages the listener so completely."
What do you each admire most about the skills that the other brings to the process of telling a good story?

Sophia: Is this a test to see who blushes most? I want to get in first. In having Matt as ‘my’ narrator (note the possessive), I think I hit the jackpot. I love his attention to detail in his voices, their origin by place and any alterations that come with their social position, and am in awe of his ability to turn a book into a one man radio play that engages the listener so completely.

Matt: Well, that’s awfully kind! I am wholly in admiration of Sophia’s ability to essentially take a blank page, and create a whole world of characters that can make me laugh, cry, and feel desperate to know what happens next. Grounding those characters in an elegantly researched historical world is a finesse I am in awe of.

Sophia: I think I would be daunted by a blank page too. The thing is, to me it is letting out The Words which are desperate to get out onto that paper/blank screen.

A quote from the interview by Matt Addis. A purple background with tea and book at the top. Text reads: "I am wholly in admiration of Sophia’s ability to essentially take a blank page, and create a whole world of characters that can make me laugh, cry, and feel desperate to know what happens next. Grounding those characters in an elegantly researched historical world is a finesse I am in awe of."In my review I mentioned how well I feel Bless Thine Inheritance would play out on screen. Are there any actors you think would suit a dream casting? And would you, Matt, wish to play anyone in particular if you had the chance? (And would you let him, Sophia, or do you think he'd be better suited as someone else?)

Sophia: On a screen the limitations of the characters’ ages get in the way, which is the beauty of radio/audiobooks. Since the young ladies are all under twenty they would have to be cast from actors just emerging from acting school, and in this book most of the young men are still in their twenties. Having said which, Dame Maggie Smith to play the Dowager Lady Mardham, please, and I could imagine the younger version of Michael Cochrane as the blustering Lord Curborough.

Matt: I spent this summer playing something of a villain in a stage play, and so I think it might be rather fun to play Wombwell, though I regret I’m probably rather too ancient now. The baddies quite often seem to have all the fun.

Sophia: I think you are right about the baddies, but I may put my foot down over Wombwell, and not for the age. In another ten years you could play Lord Mardham, and a very few years ago I think you would actually be a very good Levedale. You exude probity and thoughtfulness, Matt. Sorry.

Bless Thine Inheritance draws upon the highs and lows of a grand house party, but if you had to host a group of celebrities, aristocrats, and academics, (the closest we have to the Georgian ‘ton’) for a week, who would you invite?

Sophia: I hope we are inviting each other, otherwise I would have to gate-crash Matt’s. I also wonder if we are limited to ‘currently living’? I am not very good on’celebrities’ other than actors, and I could put face to name for very few living aristocrats. So after Matt, top of my list would be Sir David Attenborough. Add to that James Fox, the art historian not the actor, the historian Michael Wood, Jon Finnemore, Michelle Obama, New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern, Meryl Streep, along with Richard Armitage and Roger Allam (whose voices mean I could listen to them saying anything).

   If we can add from those no longer with us, and from history, I would have the late and much lamented Sir Terry Pratchett, the first Duke of Wellington, Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians (daughter of King Alfred), Mary, Lady Bankes, who held Corfe Castle against Parliamentarian siege for three years in the Civil War, Jane Austen, Ingrid Bergman, Ada Lovelace, the mathematician, and Millicent Fawcett the Suffragist.

   I get the feeling this had better be a very large house, because I am not sure this group would all get along well, but it would be fascinating to mingle with these people.

Matt: Ooh - great question! If they’re fun at Sophia’s party I’d definitely steal Jon Finnemore & Æthelflæd. My list would include Greta Thunberg, George Monbiot, Mhairi Black, James Rebanks, Barack Obama, Jeanette Winterson, Will Self, Jack Thorne, Carole Cadwalladr, Bill Bryson, Hana Walker-Brown, Tim Minchin, St Bega, Jolyon Maugham, Liz Stevenson and, of course, Sophia Holloway.

Sophia: Hurray! No gate-crashing gear required. On the other hand, in a house with such guests I would be best below stairs, bringing up the tea tray (and I had to look up James Rebanks). You can only steal Jon Finnemore and Aethelflaed, Matt, if I can have them back afterwards. 

   As long as Jon Finnemore does not try to explain the rules of playing ‘Yellow Car’ (as found in the sublime radio comedy ‘Cabin Pressure’) to Aethelflaed and St Bega, all will be fine.

That sounds like quite a party, and I do hope you manage to agree upon alternate weekends to share custody of Jon Finnemore. Do either of you listen to audiobooks or podcasts yourselves, and if so do you have a favourite?

Sophia: I do like listening to The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry podcasts, and anything with Mark Kermode on film, and in the case of audiobooks I am always excited to hear Matt’s performance (there is no other accurate term) of my novels. I listen to them for pure pleasure. If there is one other book that blew me away as an audiobook, it was Richard Armitage performing The Lords of the North, by Bernard Cornwell. I also loved Patrick Malahide’s reading of Five Red Herrings, by Dorothy L Sayers.

Matt: I love audiobooks and am an avid R4 listener, but few podcasts have really caught me so far. I loved ‘West Cork’ and the last audiobook I really enjoyed was Freddy Forsyth’s ‘The Fox’ – superbly narrated by the brilliant David Rintoul. I also really like non-fiction in audio - Bill Bryson is a firm favourite, and I recently delighted in Richard Asquith’s ‘The Lost Village’ - deftly read by Nick Rawlinson.

Some great recommendations there, thank you. The Lost Village is now on my wishlist, and I really don't need much encouragement to add to my list of Richard Armitage's books, even his version of Lords of the North is only available on CD!

W
hat are you both currently working on? Are there any more joint ventures to look forward to?

Matt: My next audiobook adventure is ‘Short Life in a Strange World’ by Toby Ferris, which looks very exciting, and in January I’m playing Freeman Wills Croft and Anthony Berkeley Cox in a new Radio 4 drama about the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. I’m also very much hoping that 2020 finds me in studio with Sophia’s next adventure. [You can follow Matt's theatrical, radio, and audiobook projects as they are released by keeping an eye on his website.]

Sophia: Matt has just recorded the fourth in my mediaeval murder mystery series with Isis Audiobooks, due out in March, and I too hope for another Regency audiobook in 2020, with luck. I have one where I actually envisaged Matt as the ‘male lead’ from the start, so it is truly written with him in mind. I have a tenth Regency novel currently at 65,000 words, and want to get back into my ninth mediaeval murder mystery. [More information on Sophia's Regency projects and other historical works can be found on her website.]

Thank you both for your insightful answers and the generosity of your time. It has been wonderful to have you here at MLHT, and I am very much looking forward to your upcoming projects, and the hope of further collaborations. 

Congratulations to you both once more on your prominence within the first #MLHTBestLovedListens, and for bringing to life characters who have been such good company across this last year.




If you've been inspired to listen to Sophia and Matt's stories then you can get them here:


Audiobook cover for Bless Thine Inheritance by Sophia Holloway.

Bless Thine Inheritance
Audiobook cover for The Devil You Know by Sophia Holloway.

The Devil You Know

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