I love stories. I like to read them, see them, and hear them. Audio narration has especially fascinated me. I met Xe, by chance and found her a lovely and informative person. She graciously has agreed to an interview and I hope you find her as interesting as I do!
Well, I am a visual and voice artist living in the Pacific Northwest with an unhealthy passion for pastry. I am fortunate to have the love and support of my family, a foundation that makes everything else possible. Ah, I have heard that is a wonderful, if not drizzly part of the country. I also share your unhealthy love of pastry. J Most importantly that is wonderful that your family supports you.
What drew you to audio? Or I should ask how did you start? And what did you do before? Good questions, both –they get at different aspects of this crazy-wonderful thing I’ve chosen to do with my life. What drew me to audio was reading to my daughter over the course of her life (sadly not as often now). All those years spent performing for her gradually grew into the realization that I loved doing it – something that earlier in my life, I never would have guessed I would enjoy. But I do. I absolutely love it, despite the inevitable frustrations. And to be able to do this, something so creative and personally transformative after almost 20 years of administrative work is truly a blessing.
As for how I started – if you mean professionally, I originally started out volunteering for a wonderful organization, Librivox, which allows volunteer readers to record works in the public domain, which are then free to download. After doing that for several years, I took the plunge and attended one of Pat Fraley’s great workshops on breaking into audiobook narration, and from there started working with my coach, Carrington MacDuffie. Connections led to other connections and eventually to my first professionally produced audiobooks. That is fascinating—How it started as something personal and gradually lead to the career you have now. I bet it was a long road. What kind of stumbling blocks did you hit? And when you did, how did you overcome them?
Oh you know how to ask the tough questions! Well, their were two practical stumbling blocks I hit fairly early on. The first was how to begin approaching publishers; the second was how to teach myself the requisite skills required to work predominantly out of my home studio (as narrator, director and engineer). I overcame the first with a combination of obsession and sheer luck – decided to pursue coaching at the exact time that Pat Fraley was finally teaching a course in my area AND my (then) employer was offering a scholarship for artistic endeavors. The second was overcome by brute force, determination, lots of tears and even a bit of blood. Boy, do I understand the blood, sweat, and tears. I think these are the things that determine whether we truly are meant do to this—because we fight through it.
But perhaps the greatest stumbling blocks are the creative ones that we all hit in our careers. They come up cyclically, I think – essentially you take your skills up a notch and then you hit a plateau and have to reassess. I’m driven and obsessive about the voice side of my art, so when I feel like I’m not quite hitting it, that feels an awful lot like a stumbling block. Fortunately, I have been blessed with mentors and collaborators who give generously of their time, ears and opinions (and patience with my hair-tearing) – and that’s how I move forward, improve, grow…bring you something better. This all sounds familiar, I’m beginning to think as artists-either writing, audio, painting, etc we all hit this. Most importantly building yourself a support group of other artists is what keeps you going. I know it does me!
How long does it take to record a story? I know it is recorded in increments—what is the usual time and are there many retakes at times? Oh gracious – how long does it take? Well, that totally depends on the story and how challenging it is for me to narrate. And each narrator will find different things challenging, of course. One thing is universal, though: when we connect with the story and the book is well-written, it is far easier for it to simply flow through us, than when we have difficulty connecting and/or the writing is less than stellar.
But in general, I shoot for a ratio of 1:2 – one hour of finished audio for every 2 hours spent in the studio. Some days, this is easy-peasy; other days, not so much. Another thing we share. Writing can be just like that. Some days it flows...others is drags.
As for retakes – goodness yes! There are some words or phrases that just.will.not.come.OUT, which the next day, might come out smooth as silk – you just never know. Oh the hilarity of some of the things said after you’ve biffed it for the Xth time! Not for innocent ears…
This is intriguing. I know many writers who read their story aloud in the final revision to see if it flows and the dialogue works. (I struggle with dialogue and I have to go over it a number of times). Had to laugh at the words and phrases that just don’t want to be heard, I can identify.
What is the hardest thing about audio? The most fun? The easiest? Hmm. Well, the most fun is voicing characters that I really connect with who have great dialog. Sometimes banter can be just hilarious.
As for the hardest thing – I’ll answer that two ways. The hardest thing: living through the hell with your character so you can truly bring their experience through in audio.
A different hardest thing: breathing life into a truly poorly written book, or smoothly delivering lines that just don’t work when spoken aloud.
The easiest thing has got to be voicing something that speaks to you, just flows right up and out of you without effort. Those are beautiful moments. This reminds me a bit of when I am struggling with a scene. Sometimes it flows…sometimes it is just painful.
I know you utilize a voice coach, is it hard to shed the accent once you have it? What is the one that stayed the longest? The one accent that left the quickest? (I am odd, these are the little things that I like to know.) Ha! So funny that you ask because, yes, yes it is sometimes. This usually happens when I’ve got to work on an accent for a main character. Most recently, this happened with Finn’s Irish accent (from On Thin Ice, by Anne Stuart), and with Lily’s slight twang (from Secondhand Spirits, by Juliet Blackwell). Because I wanted to be able to deliver their dialog as naturally as possible, I spent days speaking like them to keep the accent natural – to keep it from detracting from the performance as a whole. I can personally attest that “On Thin Ice” by Anne Stuart, was very well done. In fact, it was your sample of how you decided on his accent and voice that made me buy the book. I just had to see how the whole product came together. I was impressed! You did a number of accents in that book and I could easily discern the characters. I did chuckle thinking you spoke with an Irish accent at home…
Ha! Well at least I didn’t have a spat with my daughter while using the accent (unlike when I was working on French…ahem). Ha..that is too funny. J
I just finished the truly amazing, The Bird Sisters, by Rebecca Rasmussen, which I will get gushy about in just a moment, and am just about to start the very useful, Freeing Your Child from Anxiety, by Tamar Chansky (both for Tantor Audio). That is so neat that you are affected by what you record. I like that, because as an artist-that is important.
What genres have you covered?
Hoo - let’s see…I’ve done romance, romantic suspense, paranormal romance, YA, urban fantasy, literary fiction, historical fiction, biographical fiction, nonfiction, self-help, thrillers, mystery, classics, magical realism and if you count my Going Public work, also poetry, personal letters, and fairytales J Oh, Urban fantasy—that is what I write. I’m going to have to go check that out!
Urban fantasy is so fun to voice! I can only imagine how fun and freeing it is to write as well. J-I love it. I can take the characters to places that would be hard in the contemporary genre.
What has been your favorite story so far?
Oh that is always such a difficult question to answer because each project gives me something to love, and leaves a bit of itself behind. But right now, it’s a tie between the beautifully written and heartbreaking The Bird Sisters, by Rebecca Rasmussen, and gorgeous and lyrical The Silence of Trees, by Valya Dudycz Lupescu, both of which should release in March. I connected so deeply with both books – voicing them has been a truly moving experience and a joy. I love that you connected with these stories. The fact you did makes me want to read them.
The most unusual?
Definitely The Vanishers, by Heidi Julavits, which also releases in March. It was such a surreal mind trip, cerebral (to quote a recent review at LitStack) and yet also very visceral. Can’t wait to hear what others think of it. That also sounds very interesting. Now, do you get to choose which projects you work on? Or are you presented with an offer or assigned?
Technically, I always get to choose as I can always say no to a given offer or assignment. But, usually work is either offered and I have the choice to accept/decline it, or I am asked to audition for a particular work (or ask to audition myself). Now that is interesting, I’m glad I asked that. I bet the auditions can be nerve-wracking.
What do you hope to accomplish in audio?
I always hope to open myself fully to the author’s intent and deeply connect with the characters, their history, their stories – and simply allow them to come through as they need to. I always hope to be both fully present and yet completely by the wayside – simply a vessel for the inherent voice of the work to come through so that the listener is completely transported. If I can consistently do that, I’ll have done what I came here to do. Well, it is my time to gush—you did that for me with “On Thin Ice” by Anne Stuart. I was totally captivated by the story. I didn’t even consciously hear the narration. I know, that sounds odd, but that is a skill I don’t have. I certainly appreciate it!
I am truly touched that you were so affected! And that you didn’t even hear the narration is the highest praise you could bestow – thank you! J
Can explain more about that?
Ah, now you want all my secrets! Oh why not ;) I’m like that…and I’m insatiably curious- a curse and a gift.J
I do run a weekly project, Going Public, featuring recordings of work in the public domain. The idea originated from an off-the-cuff recording by one of my friends and colleagues of The Wreck of the Hesperus. That got me thinking about all the pieces that I would love to record, but would never be professionally contracted to – letters from Beethoven, fairy tales, D. H. Lawrence, etc. Since starting the project back in September, several other narrators have joined in the fun and it’s become the highly anticipated ending to my week, when I can dive into something that truly appeals to me just FOR me – and then share it with the world. It’s wonderfully freeing…and sometimes, others even enjoy the pieces ;) If anyone wants to check it out or join us, all pieces can be found on my website: http://www.xesands.com/going-public
This sounds marvelous. I really will stop by.
As for my alter ego, she’s a visual artist. Most of my artistic energy goes into my voice work these days, but the visual artist sits at the core of my being, biding her time. These particular pieces were *supposed* to be expressive of motherly angst, but (ha!) they took themselves in their own direction, obviously. I adore visual art—and I love Between, but there is something so visceral about Taken…! I hope you continue this as well.
I think you summed up my feelings about them both too. J
Thank you, Xe, for stopping by, I hope I can persuade you to come back.
Thanks for having me, Mary. It’s been my great privilege to be here.
As for everyone else—has there been an Audio book you’ve loved?
Xe Sands is graciously giving away an audio copy of "On Thin Ice" by Anne stuart. Please comment for a chance to win. Unfortunately due to shipping costs it is only open to those in the continental U.S. Please write your email at the bottom of your post: janedoe at yahoo dot com. I will post the results tomorrow. Thanks so much! MELANIE, you won! Congratulations, I do hope you enjoy it.