Monday, February 27, 2012

Xe Sands, Voice Artist

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!

Tell us a bit about yourself, what area do you live in?
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.

Have you always lived where you are?No, although I have lived here the longest. I spent the first 12 or so years on the East Coast, followed by a similar stint in San Francisco, before moving here with my husband in the early nineties. But my heart remains with the Sutro Bath ruins, Telegraph Hill, and Trader Sams Tiki Bar on Geary. San Francisco is my favorite city as well!

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

What are you working on now?
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

What other projects interest you? And do you have an alter ego?  I run a weekly project called Going Public.  
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: 
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?

M.V. Freeman

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.  


Livia Quinn said...

Oh my, Mary. I'm thrilled you had Xe on your blog and what a lovely picture! I have been fascinated with audiobooks and performing books for years.

Xe, I'm intrigued with your experiences with various books and genres. And love your voice, obviously so well trained. The narrator can make or break a novel for a listener.

I looked into being an audio artist but I would have to build my own studio and so far haven't been able to find information on that. Where would someone find out how to build a home studio for audiobook recording? And how would you find a coach?

I'm going to check out your 'Going Public' page and Librivox. With the growing popularity in Audiobooks your great narrations should bring you much success in the future. Fascinating post.

Callie James said...

What an intriguing interview. Thank you, Xe, for stopping by. Thanks Mary for interviewing.

Xe said...

@Livia - thanks so much for your kind words! And you've hit on a stumbling block I didn't call out specifically - the necessity for a home studio. I realized early on that (a) I would need one and (b) I had no clue how to build one myself :) So I opted to order a pre-fab WhisperRoom and create a home studio with it as the base. But if you are handy (or know someone who is who owes you a HUGE favor), there are numerous resources and forums addressing building a home studio. Keep in mind that much of what you may find is aimed at voiceover work. Audiobook narration requires a much cleaner, more pristine bit of quiet and hence a more sound isolated and proofed space. And it looks like there is an interesting discussion happening over at Audiobook Community on getting into narration, if you're intersted:

For coaching, I recommend checking in on Pat Fraley, Scott Brick or Barbara Rosenblat, to see if they are running an audiobook workshop somewhere near enough for you to attend. A group workshop is a great way to start, and also a wonderful way to make connections regarding coaching. My coach was co-teaching Pat's course.

Hope that helps - good luck!

Livia Quinn said...

THANKS sooo much, Xe. I've already downloaded SoundCloud and listened to the most wonderful poem on your site. Wow! "Long Song" Mary, you have to hear this.

I'll check out the audiobook community.

Xe said...

@Callie - thanks for reading! If you win and listen, I welcome your thoughts.

@Livia - aw, thanks so much. That one is near/dear to my heart as I was thinking of someone I cherish very much while recording it :) Just realized I need to get the most recent offerings up on my site - eep!

Carla Swafford said...

Mary, you are so shy! LOL! You meet the most interesting people.

Xe, thank you for letting us see the other side of the audio world. Considering how I stutter and mispronounce words . . . the horrors that run through my mind.

Xe said...

@Carla - oh gracious, do I ever stumble over words! There are some that just don't want to happen. If I never have to say calla lillies again, I will be very happy...

M.V.Freeman said...

Hi Livia,
Xe is such a fun person--and I will have to download a few of the poems.

And a home studio, I didn't take into consideration how the area soundwise had to be.

I love learning about this. :)
Glad you stopped by, you asked great questions.

M.V.Freeman said...

Thanks so much! I'm glad you dropped in. It was a fun thing to do for me.

M.V.Freeman said...

You made me laugh--funny, I am a bit of an introvert, but since I started this writing journey I've certainly moved outside my comfort zone. Plus, Xe was so easy to talk to.

M.V.Freeman said...


That is one thing I forgot to ask, and Carla brought it up about tripping over words. Wow, I know too in some books you have to switch accents in one scene. I bet that can be a challenge. You make it seem effortless.

Also, editing--do you do that or does the company you are reading for do that?

Too bad we couldn't do this in a podcast. Each question spurs more for me. :)

Xe said...

@Mary - good to hear that it comes off at effortless because OY the blooper reel that I could make - LOL! I could make a sailor blush some days, I tell ya.

As for editing, it depends, but for most publishers, I provide the clean content (meaning no mistakes content-wise) and they do all the post-production processing to "finish" the sound and master it for publication. But being the obsessive person I am, I do like to listen back to everything I record (time permitting) before sending it back, so I can tweak bits here and there to ensure the best possible listener experience.

M.V.Freeman said...

I understand about the tweaking part--I think that is the artist in us all. We want the best possible product.

And a blooper reel...just think it could be like the America's funniest Video--except audio..LOL

Xe said...

@Mary - Ha! Sadly, wouldn't be safe for all those innocent ears out there. There might be a *wee* bit of profanity after a long, frustrating day...

Xe said...

Well, actually...for those who haven't already heard it, I do actually have one blooper I can share (no foul language!). This is the actual footage from a session during which I found a spider crawling on my arm while recording - gah! Please note: the stomping is NOT me squishing Mr.'s me jumping up and down to make sure he wasn't on my pants. The screaming actually comes afterward, once the horror of it actually set in.

Melanie said...

Great interview - Xe, you're so pretty. :) I loved hearing how you started in the business, the transformation and steps you took. So glad you did so, too!

M.V.Freeman said...

I laughed when heard the blooper. I'd like to say I could handle it as graciously as you--but no. You did very well!

Thanks so much!!

M.V.Freeman said...

Hi Melanie,
So glad you could stop by! ;)


Xe said...

@Melanie - Aw thanks so much, on both counts :)

Chris Bailey said...

I love audio books! I "read" probably twice as many audio books as I do print, because I spent twice as much time in the car as I do in a comfy chair enjoying a good read. An awesome reader can make a slow story sound compelling, and a fabulous writer mesmerizing. In fact, listening to lyrical prose while driving might be as bad as texting. I, too, have read for a small not-for-profit for blind readers. Reading for an hour at a stretch is taxing. It would be awesome to turn that into a paying gig! I'm so fascinated by the process. Thanks for giving us the skinny, Xe. And Mary, thanks for the excellent questions.

Chris Bailey said...

Oh, and speaking of stumbling over words: nurse anesthetist comes to mind. Either one is easy. The two together? Not a normal combination.

Xe said...

@Chris - oh I hear you! There have been times while listening in my car when I've almost had to pull over. I've definitely had moments on the bus when I've missed my stop :)

And gracious, I do not ever want to have to say "nurse anesthetist." Ever.

M.V.Freeman said...

I didn't know you read for the blind, that is so cool.

I'm glad you liked the interview! Xe is fun to talk to! ;)

M.V.Freeman said...

You are the winner! See the post, I put my email there. :)
I hope to you hear from you!


Lexi said...

Before I got a contract, I read two or three books a week. Sadly, with my writing schedule, reading for pleasure has suffered. I have solved that dilemma through audio books! I'm a huge fan and the right Voice really brings a book to life. I think of what you do as performance art, because you really immerse yourself in the characters. Fascinating!

M.V.Freeman said...

I'm with you on reading via audio books. I haven't had the chance to read--but audio yes!

I've become addicted. :)

Xe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Xe said...

@Lexi - same thing happened to me when I started narrating professionally - so little time to read for pleasure. How ironic is that? But audiobooks have been perfect, when I can squeeze them in. I find that not only are they fab for long car trips, but also while doing chores (especially dishes...I loathe dishes).

Tasha B. said...

Nice to finally "see" you, Xe! This was a great interview. I don't know much about audio recording, but it sounds really fun (and difficult).

I'm happy you included some examples of your art pieces, too. Very cool!

Xe said...

@Tasha - Aw, thanks! It was fun to do, too :)

And I'm glad you enjoyed the artwork. Since I rarely share any of it, always curious what folks will think.

As for seeing me finally...funny because of all the things I share (narration, art, etc), the hardest is always sharing an actual photo - LOL!

ClaireLA said...

A wonderful and informative interview, Xe!

Lee Ann Howlett

Xe said...

@Lee Ann - thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

Hmmmmmmmm..very thought provoking Xe thanQ 4 ur blog sheds some awesome light on storytelling. Ive loved storytelling 4as long as i can remember myself.I have found wonderful memories of some grand master storytellers that paint my world with vivid unique array of colors..ooh wowthese skilled patriarchshave had such an astounding effect on how i see thelife ,the world .The most interesting thing about these storytellers is their natrual ability ..wowee it was magic...! U no im glad that i grew up with they will 4 ever b apart of me..! Yes i luvvv audio READZ!!!!