John Lee – Interview with a Golden Voice

Famous for his resonant voice, narrator John Lee chats with AudioFile.

When Golden Voice Narrator John Lee agreed to hop onto Goodreads for a narrator interview, we couldn’t believe our luck! John Lee is famous for his resonant voice, thoughtful characterizations, range, and stamina. He’s won awards for everything from serious history books to mysteries to Ken Follett’s sprawling novels. He has had many titles reviewed by AudioFile reviewers over the years, including the Earphones Award Winner Sweetland. Read a selection of our readers’ questions and John’s thoughtful answers below.

Q: I adored your performance of Georgina Harding’s The Solitude of Thomas Cave: A Novel, which takes place mostly in the Arctic winter. How did the situational details affect you while you were narrating?

John Lee: Some books excel at what I call mood. The Solitude of Thomas Cave seemed to have a sort of mournful music under the whole thing. It’s not quite the same as having an imagined soundtrack, it’s more like that unidentifiable hum you hear sometimes which catches your attention and you can never quite figure out where it’s coming from. That tone informs the whole reading and a book such as this requires a poetic approach or perhaps it might better be described as a musical approach: my tone needs to match what feels like the tone of the book. I certainly ended recording sessions on Thomas Cave with a sense that I was emerging from another world. It was very immersive.

Q: You are the historical fiction king—in my (audio)book. How do you decide if you’ll use an accent for characters or the narrative text? How do you prepare for speaking in an accent?

John Lee: The decision to use accents is always a tricky one. I just did a book about a historical Irish character and it was clear that both the narration and the characters needed to be in an Irish accent. Yet, if I am doing something like the Ken Follett’s The Century Trilogy there are dozens of accents and the narration needs to be in my voice simply to distinguish it from the Welsh and the German and the Boston ones. I prepare for doing accents mostly by trying to call up the voices of people who speak that way. It’s partly a visual recall of the people and partly a sort of recording I have in my head of their way of speaking.

Q:  Can you tell us how you engage emotionally with your characters and how you manage tension and pacing?

John Lee:  Pace is the heart of the matter. There are two basic schools of thought—one that the ear or brain takes in information at a certain speed, and that speed is quicker than you might think. The other is that a book is different from pure information and needs to be read a little slower. Because English people tend to speak more quickly than Americans, directors are always asking me to slow down. Speed, though, helps raise tension in the right places. And tension is that indefinable middle ground where the silence and the speed are just right. Engaging emotionally is a matter of basic acting. I am a creature of the theatre and came to audiobooks from a world where you know if you’ve paced yourself and held the tension well simply by sensing the audience’s reaction. I think of audiobooks as my personal theater space.

Jump over to John Lee’s narrator page for more of the interview, and come join the conversation in the Audiobooks group on Goodreads so you can take part in our next narrator Q&A!

Hear John Lee’s performances of The Century Trilogy that includes FALL OF GIANTS, WINTER OF THE WORLD, EDGE OF ETERNITY.

Would It Happen in Audio?


IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON? audiobook cover
A narrator’s foray into audiobook publishing

by Robert Fass

Certain books have the spellbinding quality of placing such trust in you as a reader that you feel they were written for you alone. They are intimate and confessional, creating an entire world which pulls you in, and weave an enchantment which continues to fascinate you long after you reach the end.

Russell H. Greenan’s debut novel from 1968, the brilliant, audacious cult classic IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON?, is one of those books for me. When I first discovered this swirling tale encompassing art, genius, love, madness, betrayal, God, and murder, I was still in my teens. It took up residence somewhere in the recesses of my mind and has dwelt there, quietly palpitating, ever since.

“Lately I have come to feel that the pigeons are spying on me.”

From that opening line Greenan’s book hooked me with its dense interiority and clever wordplay, its strangeness, and what emerges as the perfection of its construction. I identified with the nameless narrator, and that I did so despite some of the shocking acts he ultimately commits is a testament to Greenan’s ability as an author. And I loved that the vocabulary was so far above my head that it permanently expanded my awareness.

The novel received glowing reviews when it came out, yet it seemed to have quickly disappeared, consigned to the shelves of libraries and used bookstores, waiting to be discovered anew. Over the decades I have returned to it several times and have been a quiet advocate for it. I was thrilled when celebrated writers such as Anne Tyler and Jonathan Lethem publicly sang its praises. I had a role in its being republished as a Modern Library edition in 2003. I wanted to share it with as many people as possible.

Robert Fass narrator photoWhen my acting career led me to begin narrating audiobooks, I wondered whether I might someday be fortunate enough to be chosen to give voice to Greenan’s novel, which had never been recorded in audio. As time went on and I gained experience, one day it struck me: Why not do it myself, rather than wait for it to happen? I had never published an audiobook before, but with all the changes in the marketplace, publishing a one-off wasn’t unheard of. Why not take the risk?

I found a way to reach the author and acquaint him with my desire to narrate his work. An enthusiastic note soon arrived from Mr. Greenan, who was grateful for my efforts on his behalf, saying that the audio rights would revert to him the following fall on his 88th birthday. He hoped we could work something out then.

Calling on narrator and producer colleagues who had undertaken similar labors of love brought valuable insight on the wide variety of expertise and considerations to bring such a project to a successful completion. Big thanks to Stefan Rudnicki, Scott Brick, Jeffrey Kafer, Grover Gardner, and Tavia Gilbert.

When Mr. Greenan’s 88th finally arrived in 2013, his daughter and I negotiated an agreement for the exclusive rights to create an audiobook of his work, to be released simultaneously with the new ebook and Blurb editions she was publishing independently. Blackstone Audio enthusiastically signed on to be my partner in manufacturing, marketing, and distribution, and were a joy to work with while I wore my producer’s hat. Once the ink had dried on all the contracts, and the extensive pronunciation research was complete, I entered my recording booth with the manuscript and–at last!–began narrating.

The audiobook of IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON? officially released in 2015. My first, and perhaps only (although I’ll appropriate Greenan’s question mark here), foray into audiobook publishing had wonderful support from the online book community and the press in spreading the word. I am tremendously grateful to the good Mr. Greenan for entrusting his creation to me, and to Blackstone for helping me realize my dream of performing IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON? in audio. This audiobook and the new ebook and print editions, arriving nearly fifty years after it was first published, makes this amazing novel readily available to a new (and I hope, wide) audience of listeners and readers.

Audiography icon guide to related audiobooksRobert Fass is an actor who has recorded over 100 audiobooks across a wide variety of genres including History, Sci-Fi, Journalism, Young Adult, Mystery, and Literary Fiction. Along the way he has received two Audie awards and multiple Earphones awards and was listed among AudioFile’s Best Audiobooks of the Year in 2011, 2012, and 2013. He is also a writer and photographer. He lives in the Bronx.

This AudiOpinion has been edited from its original longer form in the print issue of AudioFile Magazine, April/May 2015.

© AudioFile 2015, Portland, Maine

 

 

A Fan’s Memo


LET'S PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED audiobook coverCautions to audiobook narrators

Audiobook narrators are my heroes. They have to do with voice alone what stage or screen actors can do with eyebrows, posture, hands, and physical beauty. In fact, it’s surprisingly often the marquee-name actors who breeze into the recording booth prepared to blow us away as narrators, yet wind up in the dust because they underestimated how hard it is to do all of their acting with just one of their tools.

The narrator doesn’t get nearly enough adulation, in my book, but too often s/he also doesn’t get the same kind of triple-checking support from the publisher that the print version of a book does. Many times, the actor who translates the book into sound does a good job interpreting the text while failing through pronunciation or production mistakes that are the aural equivalent of copy-editing errors. The details that can trip up a narrator from returning a perfect performance can be avoided through research and a closer reading of a book before recording time.

After polling a wide range of audiobook reviewers and judges, passionate listeners, and
newcomers to audiobooks, I’ve compiled a list of mistakes that they report as pulling them out of the moment and cause annoyance rather than engagement and contentment.

  1. The narrator should know where a sentence is going before she gets into it and not come to rest halfway through, as if that comma or semicolon were a full stop. If the author has put all those words into one sentence, it distorts meaning and the writer’s rhythm if the narrator breaks them up her own way.
  2. The audio recording should avoid extreme changes of level. Most of us are not listening in  pristine sound booths, and if a character expresses malice by whispering so softly that we have to keep fiddling the dials at 60 mph, it’s a problem.
  3. Mouth sounds and an audible turning of pages are distractions. In the very early days of audiobooks, a beloved author recorded his own memoir and included the sounds of swallowing, the setting down of his drinking glass, and mildly suppressed belches. It was rather charming, but a very special case.
  4. The narrator shouldn’t assume he knows how to pronounce something if there is a chance that he doesn’t. Much can depend on regional and cultural differences in all aspects of pronunciation, from syllable emphasis to letters that seem to be elided when a word is said aloud in some areas. If you don’t know whether a BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA would pronounce “aunt” to rhyme with “haunt” or with “ant,” call a library in Charleston and ask. Librarians love to help. The educational attainment and class of the character also informs pronunciation that sounds authentic. When a narrator speaks the words of someone who would know the difference between pronouncing forte, when it references strength, as “fort,” rather than “for-tay” (which means “loud”), the correct pronunciation should be employed.
  5. Mispronunciations of proper names and place names occur when non-locals assume the pronunciation they know matches local practice. The key to pronouncing Theodore Roosevelt‘s surname or  the Swiss French-speaking city of Montreux can be discovered through authoritative sound files freely available on the World Wide Web. Bangor, Maine, like Bangor, Wales, responds to frequent mispronunciation of their home through the edifyingly humorous video below.   Since proper names may well occur twenty or thirty times in a given audiobook, the impression locals develop of being disrespected when you get their local names wrong can become wildly annoying.

Mispronunciation yanks the listener out of the story, perhaps even more joltingly than typos or spelling mistakes on a page since a great narration puts you inside the story and the story literally inside your head. Narrators should always check how to say foreign words, and especially if they have not been trained in the language the words come from. Listeners will enjoy your work so much more if your “Dvorak” is pronounced Dvor-zhak, both for the authenticity and for the beauty and strangeness of it. You are building a universe from sounds for your listener; don’t leave out the good parts.

In addition to turning to librarians, if the writer of the text you are performing is alive, ask the GOOD-BYE AND AMEN audiobook coverpublisher if you may talk to him or her about pronunciations and even characterizations. Every writer I know would welcome this.

We audiobook addicts adore what great narrators do for us. They are the bedrock of one corner of the literary world that is thriving and growing and as such, they are profoundly important to readers and writers everywhere. All we ask is that they be perfect.

Beth Gutcheon is a novelist with ten novels in print, six of which have been recorded. She has reviewed hundreds of audiobooks, consumed many hundreds more as a civilian, and serves as a judge for the Audie awards. Her most recent novel and first murder mystery, Death at Breakfast, appeared in May.

This AudiOpinion has been edited from its original longer form in the print issue of AudioFile Magazine, December 2015/January 2016.

© AudioFile 2015, Portland, Maine