Julian responds to our questions about narrating the Whyborne & Griffin series on audiobook –
Question 1 – Have you found a change in how you narrate audiobooks as your skill level increased over time?
The simple answer is yes, I have. “Widdershins: Whyborne and Griffin” was the first audiobook I ever narrated. I had done some voice over work and I am an actor, but those processes are quite different from narrating an audiobook. There were a lot of complications in recording that first book. I was much more self-conscious of what I was doing and that can and does limit your involvement in the actual creative task of creating the characters. But I loved the book and I love Jordan’s writing and that came through in the final result, I think. The thing about any book, audiobook or movie that draws a person in is whether or not they relate to the character either personally or perhaps they know someone in their own life that they identify in these characters, whether they like them or not. Audiobooks are unique in that the narrator wants to create a personality for each character through their reading, but not so much that the listener can’t involve their own imagination. I think in that first book I overstepped those bounds somewhat, by simply trying too hard to be all things to all listeners.
And there is something else that evolved in narrating the first four “Widdershins” books that even I wasn’t aware of and that is Whyborne’s own development and maturation as a person and a sexual being. I personally wasn’t dealing with the issues Whyborne was, but I still strongly identified with his “fish out of water” view of himself. And as I have narrated the books I have found his voice and I don’t think the read of him over the books is an accident. It’s almost like this character channeled into me and I read his voice at the level he was at during that point in his life. There is an incredible character arc with all three of the main characters. And with Whyborne particularly, when listeners aren’t really getting him at first, it’s really because he isn’t getting himself, if that makes sense. On a professional level I do believe my skills as a narrator have greatly improved as I have become more comfortable with the process. And for Books Two, Three and Four I have worked with a very experienced and exceptional audio engineer, Zach Herries, who has made the process smoother and cleaner. He has engineered or produced more than 500 audiobooks.
I also have to say that as I have read each book, I love the characters more and more. “Necropolis” is probably my favorite because I have always been drawn to Egypt and the occult from that part of the world and putting Whyborne, Griffin, and Christine in this setting was perfect. And we get to see a side of Christine we haven’t before and if I were a woman back then, she would have been my idol. In Native American culture there are people called “Two Spirit” people, human beings who are both half masculine and half feminine and I have found that all of these characters are “two spirit,” just like we all are, but may not want to admit it. That realization has helped me find and create each of these main characters in a more authentic light.
Question 2 – How long have you been narrating audiobooks?
As I said, “Widdershins: Whyborne and Griffin” was my first and I narrated that in January 2013.
Question 3 – What helped you decide to do this full series and what do you think of the books?
I love these books. Jordan L. Hawk, the author, has such an incredible insight into the workings of the human mind and emotions. She also has a background in archaeology and that adds to the depth of the stories. The characters are rich and complex and what I like is that what they seem to be on the outside or in the world at large is not who they are on the inside. Doesn’t that describe most of us? And how often do we experience characters like that in film, TV, or books? Not that often. There is something else that I think is important when narrating audiobooks, just like in acting, and that is you have to care about the characters, be invested in them. And in audiobooks the narrator is playing everyone, not just one character. The narrator can look at that as a negative or they can look at it as an exciting challenge. That was definitely part of why I was eager to do more of these books, because of the opportunity to play so many characters.
Question 4 – Was it awkward for you to do intimate scenes between two men?
This brings up an interesting point. One of the other reasons I decided to narrate these books is because the intimate scenes between men were about men who cared for each other and who eventually become a couple. I think there are a lot of books with gratuitous sex scenes in them, both heterosexual and homosexual, and I’m not really interested in that. It was also a professional decision as an actor who works on film and tape in a world that is not as accepting of such things. The other point is, if I think too much about narrating intimate scenes on tape I probably wouldn’t be able to do it! It is definitely an integral part to the relationship between Whyborne and Griffin and it’s a passionate and lovely one.
Question 5 – Will you consider doing more books in the M/M genre?
I’m not sure. The “Widdershins” books are really well-written and I don’t know how many M/M authors are writing that kind of work. There are definitely a few literary authors whom I would say, “Yes, I will narrate your book!” There are also some classic novels or books of poetry that I would love to narrate, like Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” or “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann or “Maurice” by E.M. Forster. There are several of those.
Question 6 – How long does it take to actually produce and record just one 7-8 hour book?
There is a ratio that can be anywhere from 4-1 down to 2-1. This means four hours of recording to one finished hour. I think on the first book I was at 4 to1, but now I am at 2 to 1, so I have definitely learned the process. In total that means an eight hour book can take about 36 hours of work or if you are more experienced, 16 hours. On top of that there is a lot of prep that has to be done. I read the book and mark it as I go along. I highlight each character’s dialogue in a different color and I keep a master with the color codes. Then I think about how this character sounds to me, who they are, what they are about, where they come from, their education and social status. I also keep a list of words I may not be familiar with so I can look up their pronunciation and definition. I have a pretty good vocabulary, but Jordan always keeps me on my toes!
Question 7 – Do you strictly work through audible, or are you independent from them?
I will work through any producer or publisher, but Audible does have a huge portion of the market.
Question 8 – How much acting background is required to make a character sound authentic?
An acting background does help, but even more so a good imagination. I know people whom I think would be superb as narrators, simply because of their observations on life, but these people would never think of it. Some actors are also quick studies, naturals, if you will, and they could probably jump right in with a good audio engineer or producer. It also can help to have a director. I have not worked with a director and perhaps if I had that first book would have been a smoother process. Authenticity is really about understanding a character, but in audiobooks it’s trickier. When we watch a movie, our senses are very involved. We use our eyes and ears equally, but in audiobooks it’s all sound, which leaves the listener to imagine the characters. If you’re just reading the book you can imagine everything, including how the character sounds to you, because you are compelled to give them a voice, to give them life, through the act of reading.
So what happens if you don’t like the voice the narrator has given to a character? It’s difficult for the narrator because we can’t be all things to all listeners. So what is the answer? For me it’s in finding something of myself in the character, and making that character real, authentic. That is the most I can do. Have my years of acting training helped? Absolutely. I was fortunate enough to go to Oxford and study Shakespeare and the classics from an acting point of view, under some of the best actors and directors in England, and it instilled me a foundation from which to work. There is no doubt that having a solid training as an actor can help.
Question 9 – Is it difficult to bring someone else’s characters to life? Do you work closely with the author to get the characters just right as she imagined them, or do you create your own version of how you yourself imagine them?
There is a process where you first do an audio audition using some pages from the book you are hoping to narrate. Based on that audition the author decides whether they want to hire you as the narrator. Then after you’ve been hired, you record the first fifteen minutes of the book, the author listens to it and gives you notes. That is part of the process. I have often asked Jordan about one character or another or how I hear them and we correspond about it. I think it’s essential, especially when I’m not sure, to communicate with the author. Jordan has been amazing. Her faith in me since the beginning has been a gift for which I am forever grateful. She has given me free rein to discover these characters for myself. I don’t know if that is always her way with other narrators, but we have a tremendous synchronicity.
Question 10 – Do you record in just one sitting, and how do you prepare your recording environment?
The audiobooks are recorded at a professional studio. I sit in a booth by myself and the engineer sits in another room at a control panel and is following the book at the same time as I’m reading aloud.
Question 11 – Do you have any more LGBT audio projects lined up?
I am about to narrate the fifth “Widdershins” book, “Bloodline,” which will be released in November. I am also narrating an audiobook (non LGBT-related) called “Chinatown Quest,” which is also in development as a limited TV series. I also want to add that I am moderating a panel, “The Advent of the GLBT Audiobook” at Bent-Con (www.bent-con.org) in early November at the Burbank Convention Center in Burbank, CA. Two of my panel guests are the amazing Jordan L. Hawk (www.jordanlhawk.com), and audio producer, engineer, and narrator, Zach Herries of Mosaic Audio (www.mosaicaudio.com). I hope you and your readers will come out and meet us!
Question 12 – How would an author contact you if they were interested in having you record one of their books?
I am on twitter @juliangsimmons and I have a website www.juliangsimmons.com
Thank you so much Julian, for the insightful interview! I know we are looking forward to your next narration of Jordan’s 5th book in the Whyborne & Griffin series ‘Bloodline’ *Bloodline will be released in ebook format October 7, 2014 and audiobook in November*
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