24 June 2013

Going Public . . . In Shorts with Narrator John Lee (June Is Audiobook Month)

You must know by now that June is Audiobook Month (#JIAM2013, for those of you on Twitter). To help celebrate the month, I'm thrilled to be involved with the Going Public Project, which has put together an audiobook of short stories. All proceeds From this Spoken Freely project will go the Reach Out and Read literacy advocacy organization.

Every day in June, one or two of these stories (in the public domain) will be released on the Going Public blog as well on other blogs in the book blog community. Each story is free for listening (no downloads) for one week. On June 30, in collaboration with Blackstone Audio, the entire collection will be available for download via Downpour.

To find out when each story will be released and which narrator is reading it, check out the Going Public site. Jeffrey Kafer and SpringBrook Audio did the engineering and mastering and f power design did the graphic design. Blackstone Audio is the publisher. A huge thank you goes to project coordinator and executive producer Xe Sands.

I can't tell you how happy I was to be teamed up with veteran narrator John Lee for the Going Public . . . In Shorts project. I have spent many an hour with John as he's accompanied me on my walks and entertained me in my kitchen. No, I've never met him, but I know his voice well.

For Going Public . . . In Shorts, John read "Eveline" by James Joyce. To hear the story for free, just hit the play button above and be transported to Joyce's Dublin. To learn more about John Lee and what's it's like to be an audiobook narrator, listen in on our conversation:

Beth Fish Reads (BFR): We've never met, but I feel as if I'd know your voice anywhere, considering that I've had you in my head (earbuds) for almost 200 hours over the years. When you're recording a book, do you feel the pressure from repeat listeners' expectations for another stellar performance?

John Lee (JL): I do worry that people will either get tired of listening to me or will realize that I am not particularly good at certain kinds of books. I find myself thinking either that I should be sure to sound just like I did on the last book or thinking I should vary this a little because surely people are tired of me by now. Fortunately the sheer concentration it takes to narrate prevents me from thinking too deeply. Or maybe that's just my lack of intellectual depth.

BFR: You've recorded quite a variety of genres, although I'm most familiar with your narrations of historical fiction. Do you have a favorite genre for recording audiobooks? Is it different from what you might pick up for your personal reading?

JL: My personal reading consists almost entirely of nonfiction. If I did not narrate audiobooks I would probably never read anything fictional. This is just a function of my obsession with history, not any reflection on the quality of fiction. There are certain writers I love revisiting that I read when I was younger. Dickens, Conrad, Lawrence. I like the sort of history books that inject real personality. Ben Macintyre, whose books include Double Cross and The Napoleon of Crime, is an expert at this. Though I love nonfiction the best discovery I have made in narrating is Orhan Pahmuk, the Turkish Nobel Laureate. His books are wonderful, real gems. I always recommend them.

BFR: I'm a full-time professional book editor, and I turned to audiobooks in the late 1980s because, after reading all day for work, I needed to rest my eyes. Plus, I often silently edit when I'm reading. Do you have similar issues? When reading for pleasure do you begin to create voices for the characters or think about pacing and volume?

JL: Oh, yes. All the time. I now create voices in my head not just for my own amusement but in a way that I feel would be appropriate for a listener. I find myself thinking—You know, the writer really could have made that paragraph easier to read aloud. I find myself thinking that the writing is awkward because it's not easily read aloud when it might well be a perfectly lovely line as it sits on the page. I sometimes wonder if writers look at their work and think it looks lovely on the page. Perhaps they write in such a way as to shape their paragraphs nicely.

BFR: You've mostly recorded solo performances but in some cases, The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society comes to mind, you've been part of a collaboration. Can you talk a little bit about the pros and cons of working alone vs. working with others?

JL: The first difficulty with multicast productions is pronunciation. The first person to complete their part gets to tell everyone else how things are pronounced. The English have so many ways of pronouncing so many things that we all have to contort ourselves if a different pronunciation from our "normal" pronunciation is used. Trying to match at least the tone of another actor's interpretation of a character is quite difficult. I imagine that multicast projects are fun for listeners, and I try to make sure that the differences between narrators are not so glaring as to take people out of the flow of the book.

BFR: I'm sure you're asked this all the time, but I'm curious. What happens if you have to narrate a book you're not enjoying. I know that as an editor, sometimes that makes my job easier; when I'm less caught up in the story, I can more easily concentrate on the editorial issues. But what about for an audiobook narrator?

JL: My father was a construction carpenter. He made what Americans call "forms," what the English and Irish call "shuttering," the forms into which concrete is poured to make a foundation or a wall or a post. My father oversaw the pouring of more concrete than anyone outside of the Grand Coulee Dam. He helped build some of the ugliest buildings I've ever seen. However, those ugly buildings will stand as long as the elegant structures he helped build. He never asked why the building had to be so ugly, he just made sure it would stand up and stay up. I have the same attitude to narrating books. First of all, my dad might not have been a good judge of architecture and I might not be a good judge of a book. I write myself, plays and screenplays, so I know how hard it is to write anything, even bad work, so I have nothing but admiration for someone who can write a novel or a historical work and convince people who know books better than I do that it's worth publishing. Each writer deserves the best we can give him or her. Of course, it's a lot easier to narrate a book I enjoy. I do wonder sometimes if my attitude to a book comes across in the narration.

BFR: As an avid audiobook listener, one thing I always appreciate is when a narrator hits that sweet spot of adding emotion, drama, tension, and characterizations to a novel while at the same time leaving me space to form my own connections and reactions. Is that something you consciously strive for or is that a just part of the job?

JL: It's always what I strive for. It's similar to being on stage and doing just enough to tell an audience what they need to know while letting them come to their own conclusions or get that laugh without being pushed or find those tears without being forced. It's the trickiest part of the process.

BFR: Finally, I have another question that I bet audiobook narrators are often asked. What kind of research do you do when the book you're narrating contains a number of foreign words or regional cities or towns that might have a distinct pronunciation? In some cases, how do you even know that a town name (Cairo, Georgia, comes to mind) might not be pronounced as it's spelled?

JL: Two parts to this answer. Let's say I am reading a book set in Sweden. I come across the city of Gothenburg. I know, of course that this is pronounced Goth-un-berg. However, I decide to look it up. In fact it is pronounced Got-a-burr-ya. Now, if it's a Swede speaking it must be pronounced in this way. However, can we get away with saying Gothenberg for the sake of the non-Swedish listener? It's a dance between accuracy and reality. Back when I started narrating you had to look all these things up in books or call someone in Cairo, Georgia, and ask them how they say the name. Google has saved us all a lot of time. Who those people are who take time out to record all these words I have no idea but I thank them. There is a difference, too, if I am working with a director. The director will also have pronunciation research.

The part of research that is more difficult ultimately comes down to skill as a narrator, but the narrator does need to know something about the context of a given book. I mentioned Orhan Pahmuk, not just a Turkish writer but, very specifically, an Istanbul writer. It helps my reading if I know something about Turkey, about Kemal Ataturk, the military junta that ruled there, something about Turkish Islam. I won't be able to convey all that to a listener but it adds something very important to my narration, something intangible.

BFR: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, John. I learned quite a bit about what's it's like to be the person on the other side of the mic. I'm particularly amazed by all the decisions that must be made about pronunciations, whether foreign words, names of cities, or matching other performers on a multicast project. I also want to thank you for giving me so many, many hours of pleasure when I've listened to books you've narrated.
More about John Lee (the most evil man in the world?): His voice can be heard in MTV’s Aeon Flux, as Trevor Goodchild, the most evil man in the world: in HBO’s Spawn, as Jason Wynn, the most evil man in the world, and in Jet Li's The Black Mask he dubbed the voice of Commander Hung, the most evil man in the world. He also provided the voice for Meier, the conflicted vampire in Vampire Hunter D and worked on Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke.

John’s voice can be heard all over the gaming world, in Final Fantasy, The Mists of Avalon, Warhawk, Ninja Scrolls, Blackjack, and Everquest.

His book narration continues apace. In 2007 he recorded the monumental World Without End, Ken Follet’s sequel to the equally grand Pillars of the Earth, which John recorded in 2006. He has been lucky enough to read the remarkable works of Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and Philip Kerr’s wonderfully researched detective novels set in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. He has not quite recovered from narrating James Joyce’s Ulysses but hopes that large quantities of stout will solve that problem.

For more about Going Public . . . In Shorts, visit yesterday's host The Guilded Earlobe and tomorrow's host Jen's Book Thoughts.


rhapsodyinbooks 6/24/13, 7:10 AM  

Great interview and hurray for asking the voices and the pronunciation questions! :--) And I love the excerpt you posted. I just love the sound of the Irish pronunciation of "a". Really, it all reminds me I must revisit the Tana French books on audio instead of in book form, just to hear that accent! :--)

JoAnn 6/24/13, 7:30 AM  

Excellent interview. It must be a strange experience 'meeting' someone you've already spent so much time with.

I didn't realize John Lee narrated Ken Follett's books -read Fall of Giants earlier this year, but may choose to listen to Winter of the World instead.

bermudaonion 6/24/13, 9:09 AM  

I find it fascinating that he narrates video games too. I really had no idea people did that.

I'm glad you asked the pronunciation question too. I'm listening to a book set in Atlanta right now - the narrator's southern accent is not good and she doesn't pronounce kudzu the way we do in the south. I know it's picky but wouldn't a character from Atlanta pronounce it the southern way?

Beth Hoffman 6/24/13, 9:23 AM  

What an interesting fun interview! I smiled when I read this --> "I find myself thinking—You know, the writer really could have made that paragraph easier to read aloud."

He's right! I read my work aloud before it's edited and wow, does that ever make a difference.

Daryl 6/24/13, 9:54 AM  

i wish i could listen to a book w/o falling asleep ...

Julie P. 6/24/13, 3:39 PM  

Very fun post!!! I like that he's accompanied you to so many places.

Nise' 6/24/13, 7:04 PM  

Wonderful interview. I am familiar with John's voice listening to the mammoth Follett books.

Leslie (Under My Apple Tree) 6/25/13, 11:42 AM  

Great interview. That answered a few questions I've had about narrators. I enjoy the multi-cast productions and never thought about the impact the other cast members would have on pronunciation.

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