Today our Audiobook Q&A series returns — AND HOW! — to help celebrate the conclusion of Audiobook Week and June is Audiobook Month with an in-depth talk with one of our favorite narrators, Xe Sands. During our interview — which Listen Up is posting in conjunction with Sands’s Going Public — Xe thanks the narrators who have helped her during her career, offers tips for aspiring audiobook narrators, and tells us what’s she’s working on next.
1. In one of his June Is Audiobook Month videos, Robert Fass describes you as “breaking out this year” with a string of very successful and well-received audio productions. Do you see this as a breakout year? Why or why not.
I was honored that Robert included me in his excellent JIAM video series and his wonderful introduction gave me something to think about. It’s tempting to consider your first year or two working steadily or in which you begin receiving industry recognition as your “breakout” year, but I would counter with this: breaking out implies pushing past the boundaries of whatever box you’re in — expanding and growing. Positive reception and professional recognition is a part of that, but I’d offer that there also needs to be that “something else.” This year marks a sea change in my approach to narration. With the help of a very insightful mentor, I’ve spent the better part of 2012 diving into my delivery to identify what is/isn’t working for listeners, and what should or shouldn’t change. It’s been a remarkable and sometimes painful process of falling out of love with how I sound and into love with what I do. If this process has led to a more fulfilling experience for listeners, it has been well worth it. And by that measure, I would consider this a breakout year.
2. How did you get your start in audio narration? And what tips would you offer aspiring narrators?
It started with the many years I spent reading with my daughter, bringing whole worlds to life together. I loved it and wanted to pursue it more than any other art form I had experienced. So, I volunteered and sought out training which, together with a smidge of talent and lot of hard work (and no small amount of luck and serendipity), has brought me to this point.
My usual suggestions for aspiring narrators focus on finding training, volunteer opportunities, etc., but this time, I’d rather go to very heart of it:
- LOVE IT. You have to really love doing this for many hours at a time, every day, sometimes with books that don’t light you on fire.
- Don’t Rush It. Ira Glass, producer of This American Life, offered candid, excellent commentary on this: “For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.” Although harsh, Glass hits on something rarely talked about: the learning curve. It’s a natural part of professional development and the creative process. The talent is there, raw and malleable, but it needs time and effort to hone it. So don’t expect your very best work straight out of the gate. His advice is golden: keep working, keep producing, keep learning and growing, and don’t give up.
- Know Yourself. What makes your delivery, your voice YOU. Figure that out and then own it. Don’t fear it or try to be what you think others want — bring your particular gifts to the fore and let them shine.
3. Do you prefer solo narration or working with other narrators? What do you see as the challenges of both types of narration?
I am a fairly solitary creature when it comes to artistic expression so my comfort zone is solo narration. That said, working outside my comfort zone offers tremendous opportunity for growth and I welcome it. I find the challenge comes in matching the overall tone and specific characterizations presented by the other narrator(s) to create a cohesive and complementary performance. I was fortunate to narrate Ties that Bind alongside Bahni Turpin (Blackstone Audio) and playing off her warmth and approach helped me find just the right balance in mine. And this week I collaborated with Robin Sachs on some beautiful poetry for Going Public, the result of which is far more powerful than I would have achieved on my own. So I find that the reward of complementary voices coming together far outweighs any recording challenges.
4. Do you have a preferred genre of book to narrate? And do you think narrating different genres requires different skills?
I’m passionate about the poignant, emotionally difficult first-person reads: what a friend and I call “messy” fiction because of the way it leaves you — broken, bereft and yet strangely satisfied. There is nothing quite like inhabiting a book fully through the eyes of the main character as she goes through the emotional content of her life.
As for skill set, it’s more that certain genres lend themselves to particular strengths. For example, if a narrator is strong in authentic delivery of dialog and first-person narration, they might find delivery of genres that feature heavy dialog and a high emotional content to come easily (romance and YA come to mind). If that same narrator struggles with engaging delivery of straight narration, they may find literary fiction and nonfiction more challenging. The skill set is the same — it’s a matter of owning your strengths and being aware of (and working on) your vulnerabilities.
5. You founded Going Public — for which you and other narrators record audio editions of works in the public domain. Tell us a little about that project and how it got started.
Oh, see now…now you’ve touched on something very near and dear.
Last August, I witnessed the giving of a wonderful gift via Twitter: Robin Sachs and Tanya of Dog Eared Copy collaborated on a recording of The Wreck of the Hesperus for Megan Fitzpatrick of Hachette Audio. It immediately reminded me of three things: forgotten literary treasures, the power of giving back, and the joy of recording something just because you love it. By early September, I decided to post a weekly recording of public domain or Creative Commons licensed work and invite any and all to join me. To date, we’ve done famous letters, poetry, flash/micro fiction, short stories, fairytales, blog posts, original work, and even an audio/visual storybook.
If there was ever a project that has rewarded me for every ounce of energy invested, it is this one. It offers rediscovery of lost literary loves, new connections with emerging authors, and professional collaborations. And because all pieces contributed are chosen purely because they move the narrator, that love bleeds beautifully into the listening experience.
I’ve recently launched a Going Public website to better showcase the project and in celebration of JIAM and Audiobook Week, I’ve encouraged as many narrators as possible to jump in with me today (6/29). I also decided to offer new content each day this week (including the Lawrence pieces with Robin Sachs and a serialized version of The Yellow Wallpaper). With the push for JIAM, it’s great week to check out the project.
6. You’re also quite active on Twitter (@xesands). How has that helped you connect with fans and other people in the audio industry?
Such the hot topic lately! Here is my take on it — your mileage may vary. At its finest, Twitter is a place for discovery and conversation. It’s like being in 10 parties at once, having those wonderful side conversations by the punch bowl. While we all use it to broadcast “Hey! Look at my Cool New Thing,” it is far more effective as a platform for many, small, intimate connections. Because Twitter is an open forum and the perfect equalizer, it allows me to approach/be approached by listeners, authors, poets, publishers, and bloggers in an organic way not necessarily related to promotion on either side. I have been able to connect with some industry insiders because we can skirt the traditional narrator-publisher waltz, and just discuss whatever appeals to us, outside professional interests. Same holds for listeners and bloggers. Conversations branch off, leading to other connections and collaborations — but not always related to narration. We talk about books and poetry and music and, well, anything. Here’s what I think most miss: Twitter comes down to relationships, authentic connections. I made a decision some time back that I would be real and responsive and take what came, and the connections I’ve made have enriched my life— any career enhancement has been secondary. And I believe that’s how it should be.
7. Who are some of the narrators that you most admire? Who have helped you in your own career?
That would be such a long list that I’m going to sidestep the question and say this: if we were sitting at a cafe somewhere, just chatting, and you asked me (off-record, of course), “So if you could be any other narrator, who would it be?” I would, without hesitation, tell you that I wanted to be Barbara Rosenblat and Bianca Amato (hey, it’s a fantasy, so I can be both). But of course, that would be just between you and me.
As for who has helped me, too many to name! Alright, I’ll just name a few of those who have mentored me and/or given me a crucial break: Carrington MacDuffie, David Drummond, Scott Brick, Tavia Gilbert, Paul Alan Ruben, Jo Anna Perrin, Johnny Heller, Robin Sachs, Anne Flosnik, Simon Vance, Grover Gardner, Dion Graham, Peter Berkrot, Pat Fraley, Rosalyn Landor, Hilary Rose, and Tanya Perez. Not to mention Jennifer Conner and Kelli Nichols, and all the listeners that have shared their feedback and support. You see? Lengthy, and still woefully incomplete!
8. What is your proudest professional achievement to date?
While I am very grateful for the Earphones for The Bird Sisters because it was simply a gift to narrate, I have to confess that what meant the most was being voted the Favorite 2011 Debut Romance Narrator in the Speaking of Audiobooks listener poll. The romance listening community is an exacting and passionate lot. To have garnered their support was an amazing honor.
9. Do you have a dream project? An author whose work you would love to record? A book you would love to narrate?
Can I cheat and have two? One would be narrating any of Kristina Riggle’s novels, preferably Real Life & Liars. Her work is real and raw and wonderful. The other would be a full Stephen Dunn poetry retrospective collaboration with Robin Sachs. Both would be make my artistic world go round in different ways.
10. Before you step into the recording booth, what do you do to prepare? Is your preparation process always the same or does it vary from book to book?
My prep is essentially the same. It’s the amount of time devoted to each task that might differ. Initially, I read the entire book, making note of pronunciation questions, characters, and accents. Next, if needed, I meet with my dialect coach to develop any necessary accents. Once the pronunciation guidance comes in, it’s into the booth for some rough characterizations, and for some projects, I shoot a bit of initial audio to my delivery mentor for direction. After that, it’s all systems GO!
11. What are the three biggest challenges of audiobook narration?
I’ll pare it down to two:
- Becoming transparent and letting the story speak for itself — the listener should be immersed in the story, not the nifty things you’re doing with your voice.
- Being fully “in the moment” for both dialog and straight narration.
12. Do you ever have any interaction with authors prior to recording audiobooks? Do they ever offer tips? And if so, is this helpful?
Yes! While it may not be the norm for every narrator, I’ve been fortunate to work directly with authors on most projects. In doing so I have developed some wonderful friendships and worked on cross-promotion of the print and audio. I think of it as a joint journey. It’s important to me that an author feels honored and respected by the process of adapting their work so I endeavor to connect with them at whatever level they are comfortable. In each case, the audiobook has emerged stronger for the interaction, and with the full support of the author. As for offering tips, they generally don’t, although they will offer guidance when asked.
13. What are you working on next?
I’m just about to start the first of five books in The Chesapeake Diaries series written by Mariah Stewart, a cozy romance series set in my native New England.