This week, our Audiobook Q&A Series returns and we chat with Johnny Heller about his recent work narrating The Postmortal, his latest projects, his significant experience ripping bodices, and the importance of always knowing where the restroom is located.
1. You recently narrated Drew Magary’s The Postmortal for Tantor. How was that experience? What was the biggest challenge?
Narrating always has challenges — the major one being that we narrators know that we will not be able to please every fan of a given book! Our job is to be a conduit for the author’s truth — I know that sounds all “actory” but it’s the best way I can explain what we do.
I don’t always get to narrate books I love or would willingly read on my own, but The Postmortal was awesome. I loved the book and I told Magary that I thought he was brilliant. It’s just a tremendous read that I hope is going to be a tremendous listen. My biggest challenge with this title was living up to my own expectations — of making my narration as excellent as the printed word. I think I did, but then again I’m biased!
2. This is the first book by Magary that you’ve narrated. Does that newness make the job of narrating an audiobook more difficult? Do you think that when you narrate multiple books by the same author, you develop a relationship with their work and are able to slip back into the author’s writing?
Absolutely. When you narrate a series of titles by the same author you get in touch with his rhythms and — hopefully — get to create recurring characters. I get to do that with the Richard Castle books (Naked Heat, Heat Wave, and Heat Rises), with Michael Wiley’s Joe Kozmarsky series for Blackstone, Michael Buckley’s NERDS series, Troy Soos’ Mickey Rawlings mysteries, and Dan Gutman’s baseball card time travel stories all for Recorded Books. Hopefully the author likes the way you handle his or her characters and it begins somehow more collaborative.
3. The Postmortal is a thriller about a pre-apocalyptic world in which people cannot die of old age — which must make for an exciting audiobook. Does reading a thriller make the process of recording the audiobook easier because you know readers will be engaged at certain points? Do you ever find yourself getting swept away by the story when you’re narrating a thriller?
I don’t know if I’m any more engaged in a thriller than in a biography or a young adult title. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job, the listener will have no idea that I like one book any more than another.
Truth be told — of course I like thrillers and funny books more than I like other titles I narrate. I think the audiobook moves along better and easier if the story is good and the author is good and I love the book. I’ve done lots of medical, motivational, and business titles, but it’s much easier to read a thriller — cuz they’re thrilling!
4. How did you get your start with audiobook narration?
I started out with Recorded Books in NYC. Richard Ferrone — a great narrator — introduced me to Claudia Howard and she was looking for a male voice who could convincingly portray young and teenage protagonists – or at least match their enthusiasm and lack of sophistication. That I am unsophisticated and hopelessly immature finally paid off!
5. What’s your proudest profession achievement as an audiobook narrator?
Good Lord — that’s the single most difficult question I’ve encountered since college trigonometry. I’ve won two Audie Awards and that felt great, and I’ve won almost every award I know of and that’s swell to,o but I think the fact that I have been able to narrate books for a living for so long is my greatest achievement. Many people — young and old — come to appreciate literature and learn to read and to dream because of audiobooks and that’s a great honor — to be a part of that. That and the fact that I have earned the respect of my peers and colleagues in this business.
6. Do you have a dream project? A book or author’s work that you’d love to record?
I have three “dream projects.” One is to record every book by or about my hero — Groucho Marx. The other is to record the entire Rex Stout Nero Wolfe library — I think I’d make a great Archie Goodwin. Number 3 is to record some military history books — I actually read those for my own understanding and enjoyment — although “enjoyment” may not be the right word given the subject matter!
7. Whose work or narration do you particularly admire?
I’m going to leave some people out here and I apologize to them, but I really like Simon Prebble for his wonderful characters and delightful British accent; Grover Gardner for his likable listenability; Barbara Rosenblat for her sheer brilliance; and Jo Anna Perrin for her authoritative style.
8. What do you do to prepare before going into the recording booth?
I have to have read and understood the book! If there are words I don’t know, I need to have a list of them with their pronunciation phonetically spelled out. I need a character list — this is very visual for me. I write the character’s name and who I see them to be — what I perceive them to look and sound like. I need to make sure that Bob on page 23 sounds like Bob on page 223. I also need some water or tea, some tissues…a clear understanding of where the restroom is and where I can get lunch!
9. What’s the biggest challenge to narrating an audiobook?
As I said at the top — the narrator must be a conduit for the author’s truth. We must be every character and every word. We must understand what the author is saying and we must take the listener on the author’s journey. We don’t have to like the book and we don’t have to like the writing or the subject — we do have to tell the story — using every bit of our acting training. It’s a very organic and fulfilling process. On a more basic level, we need to have some stamina. Recording sessions can be anywhere from two hours long to eight hours long and we need to maintain our energy and keep the listener for the entire time.
10. What advice do you have for aspiring audiobook narrators?
Listen to audiobooks. I am shocked at how many people believe that they can do this job and want to do this job and don’t even listen to the product. Listen to people who got hired. There’s a reason that happened. See where you fit in the market — what do you bring that only you can bring? Don’t make a demo tape before you are ready and don’t send a demo tape highlighting your ability with bodice rippers to a children’s book publisher! Don’t send the steamy sex bits to eChristian! Study the producers web sites and title offerings and plan your approach to them based on their needs — not yours. Take a course or at least practice the art. If you’ve never worked on a mic, work on one! Also, be professional, polite, fun, and most of all, believe in yourself. If you don’t believe it’s in you — it isn’t! If you believe that you must act, you must. It’s really that simple.
11. I’ve talked to a lot of narrators who describe the long hours in the recording booth as “grueling.” Is that sometimes the case?
It can be “grueling” when you get tired and can’t produce the sound you need. If you’re too beat and can’t carry on, you should stop. I find that just leaving the booth for a few minutes can be refreshing. My big “gift” is my high energy, but if I start to sag, so does the performance — if it’s not working, take a break — get a snack — whatever you need. It can also be grueling if the book is really, really bad. Nothing is harder than trying to make something wonderful from something terrible — but sometimes it happens.
12. Do different genres demand different skills from you? Are there particular genres you enjoy recording or find more difficult?
Some narrators stick with only a few genres. Some cover the gamut. For example, I have never done a romance. Never. I’ve ripped hundreds of bodices in my day — but I’ve never narrated a bodice ripper and I’m not likely to as I get embarrassed and start giggling. You need an authoritative sound for motivational, self-help, bios, and history. You need an engaging sound for social commentary and politics. You need a youthful sound for young adult and a good sense of humor for comedy titles. I’ve done all the Dr. Oz books and I find them difficult because of the medical jargon, the many graphs (which don’t translate to audio,) and the sheer volume of stuff they suggest we do to live better and longer. I love film noir type titles, humor, and YA titles because I naturally gravitate to them.
13. How does the process of solo narrating an audiobook differ from a collaborative, multi-narrator project? Are different skills required? Do you prefer one to the other?
Outside of theater I’ve never really done a multi-narrator project. I recall only one time where another narrator was in the booth with me and that was only for a few pages that couldn’t have been done any other way. I assume it requires listening skills and a larger studio. My narrations are solo and before that I did stand up which was also solo … hmmm. I wonder what that says about me?
14. How much interaction — if any — do you have with the authors whose work you record?
I have more interaction than one might expect. It’s not always:
“No! Great narrating!”
Lots of times we need the author to tell us how to pronounce something. I like to write the author to tell them thanks for writing the book.
15. What are you working on next?
My next project is another Dan Gutman baseball card book — like Satch & Me (a recent Earphones and Best Voice of 2011 Winner), it’s about young Joe Stoshak going back in time — this time to prevent Pearl Harbor and meet noted great hitter and total jerk Ted Williams. I’ve also been teaching and I’ve begun looking into doing more auditions for ACX.