What happens when a group of dedicated artists get together for a good cause?
“Going Public … in Shorts. I have the great privilege of speaking with Diane Havens of New Jersey, one of more than 30 voice artists who have contributed readings to the project to celebrate June is Audiobook Month 2013. Throughout June, 1-2 stories will be released each day on the Going Public blog and on author/book blogs.
Diane and I met several years ago when as a journalist I wrote a story about the effort by a hundreds of narrators who recorded several version of the federal health care reform legislation for the “Hear the Bill” project, a public service effort that produced recordings of the health care bills as they were being debated, free for online download. For Going Public … in Shorts” engineering and mastering are provided by Jeffrey Kafer and SpringBrook Audio. Graphic design provided by f power design and published by Blackstone Audio. Project coordination and executive production by Xe Sands.
MD: Tell me about “Going Public … in Shorts.”
DH: This project for June is Audiobook Month (JIAM) 2013. It was the brainchild of the passionate and prolific narrator Xe Sands. If there’s anyone who does more to promote audio as an art form I don’t know who that would be. She started a project a couple of years ago (my, that flew!) called Going Public, a site which hosts audio clips from public domain works or contemporary works shared through creative commons. It’s been a welcome weekly addiction. This special project “Going Public … in Shorts” grew out of that. Each narrator has recorded a short piece from the public domain, including the work of Chekhov, Twain, Chopin, Poe, Lovecraft, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Wilde and many others, even Lincoln’s pivotal Second Inaugural Address. All proceeds will go to the Reach Out and Read literacy advocacy organization.
MD: So this is a project that fuels several passions at once: Love of literature, public service and preserving important works in audio form.
DH: Literature has always been a passion of mine. And I think when you truly love something or someone you want to share it with the world, whether that world is local or global. I’ve gone from a little girl with a pencil writing and illustrating my own picture books to a grown woman with a home studio digitally recording others’ full length books.
MD: One aspect of this project is the connection between social activism and reading. I found out that Reach Out and Read is a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by Boston medical providers who promote early literacy and school readiness in pediatric exam rooms nationwide by giving new books to children and advice to parents about the importance of reading aloud. Reach Out and Read serves more than 4 million children and their families annually. Find out more at: http://www.reachoutandread.org/interstitial/?ref=%2freadtogether.
DH: I was particularly gratified to take part in this since I’ve always been active in social and civic causes. I’d volunteered at Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic (now Learning Ally) recording textbooks. And my most monumental undertaking was the Hear the Bill project, a public service (recordings of the health care bills as they were being debated, free for online download) which gargantuan task fellow voice actor Kat Keesling and I undertook with over a hundred VO volunteers from around the world — and I must thank you for being the first journalist to cover that story, after which it took off with the media more than I could have imagined. There’s great value in reading aloud to children, something I spent countless hours doing both professionally in my teaching and storytelling days, as well as my personal life with my own son since birth.
Also, audiobooks are a great way for beginning readers or second language learners to learn to read. You can listen and read along with the text, and for those who have no one to do that live and in person, an audiobook is a wonderful teaching tool. And there are some who just comprehend better aurally. Audio has long been used for the dyslexic and the blind.
MD: I was glad to have the chance to report on “Hear the Bill.” It was my first exposure to the possibilities of audio recordings. “Going Public … in Shorts” focuses on works in the public domain. Why is that important?
DH: Protecting free access to these works in important to me. I belong to a Linked In group called “The Public Domain: Preserving Our Cultural Heritage” created and moderated by Harald Azmann, who is working tirelessly in this cause.
MD: You chose “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde. Why did you select that work?
DH: The main reason is because Oscar Wilde is endlessly fascinating. Everyone is familiar with “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Ernest” — and his oft-quoted witticisms. Fewer know his many other works, the complexities and tragedies of his life, his philosophies and spirituality. I discovered his fairy tales many years ago, stories written in the traditional style as the ones read to a child, but whose themes are clearly not meant for children. However, this story has since been published as picture books aimed at the young, been orchestrated and turned into a ballet, such is its sad beauty and universal appeal. I cry each time I read it. (Though I obviously couldn’t for this narration, it took all I had not to.) So I hope to inspire reader-listeners to seek out more of Wilde’s work, especially in the context of his life and times.
MD: As they say, there’s a thousand stories in the Naked City. What’s yours?
DH: I had never listened to an audiobook before I became interested in recording them. I’d heard the early spoken word recordings on vinyl, treasures from T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, all reading their own works.
MD: So you’re a late bloomer, so to speak.
DH: Perhaps. I’d studied English, Theatre and Library/Media in college, and have a master’s degree in Theatre from Northern Illinois University where I was a graduate teaching assistant and worked with some great talent there, acting and directing. I went on to perform off-off-Broadway during those years avant garde theatre was in its heyday, but the very traditional operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan was my favorite long term gig, performing with the repertory company Light Opera of Manhattan. I still do live performance whenever the opportunity presents itself.
From there I began a teaching career — working with students from elementary to high school. I directed youth theater and college productions. Then a surprise blessing — a late in life child. I left teaching while he was still in grade school, but I didn’t lose my involvement in education. I still work with teachers developing ways to enhance literature study using performance.
MD: From there you jumped into voice over work?
DH: I’d started doing voice over work when I left teaching, a little bit of everything, mostly narrations — web videos, business presentations and museum tours, that sort of thing, and I still do — but started toying with the idea of running the marathon of audiobook narration, when I plunged head first into deep water with a self-published author, successful west coast lawyer Will Nathan, on his first book, a legal novel based on a true story, “Book of Business.” And I loved it. And Mr. Nathan loved what I did with it, so he enthusiastically signed me on for his second book “Bad Law”. I received advice and support from audiobook master narrator, the ever generous Scott Brick who introduced us to the delightful Jessica Kaye of Big Happy Family Audio for digital distribution.
Since then, I’ve recorded both fiction and nonfiction titles — some from wonderful small press authors. Loved narrating the poetic and touching “Alcestis” by Katherine Beutner, a novel which won the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction in 2011. Another of my favorites is “The Fear Principle” by Barbara Chepaitis, the first in a series, so compelling one reviewer compared it to “a really good dark smoky whiskey.” I’ve also recorded several books from the Bible, King James Version, of which the meditative “Book of Psalms” continues to sell very well.
MD: This seems to be an industry that is growing as technology changes.
DH: Yes, indeed. Audiobooks as we know them today really didn’t take off until the 1970s and 80s on cassette and then CD. Today, fueled by the internet, artists and readers are presented with a wealth of options. The ubiquitous iPod and other digital audio players have forever altered how we listen to music, work assignments, books for learning or pleasure or all forms of audio. The ability to buy and instantly download audiobooks online has made the market for them grow exponentially. Now that most narrators have their own home studio set ups, the industry is changing and expanding like never before — indie authors, small press and back list titles are now being produced in abundance when that would never have been economically feasible just a few years ago.
MD: Who makes up the audio book community? What draws them to the field?
DH: There are so many great narrators — actors, really — it’s all acting. The Audio Publisher’s Association (APA) is a wonderful organization through which I’ve gotten to know some really fine actors. And it is an art more than a craft. Each of us brings who we are to our storytelling — we create something unique from a written work and turn it into a theatre of the mind experience. Every reader does this when reading silently, and sometimes it can be jarring to a listener who’s read the book in print — or even more so, the author — to have new voices and new inflections and even shades of meaning revealed that were either intended or unintended.
What draws us to the field is different for each of us. For some, it’s the ultimate acting job — one gets to play all the parts! For others, it’s driven by the love of literature. For some, it’s a welcome creative outlet when most of our other VO work is mundane or commercial. Many who do mostly nonfiction enjoy the educational aspects, both their own and the sharing of it with others.
MD: Do you have a favorite narration?
DH: A great narrator can take a book that a reader may not want to tackle or might give up on half way through. That book, for me, was “Miles: An Autobiography” narrated by my own favorite narrator, Dion Graham. An amazing performance. He took a 17 hour not-so-pretty tale and made it so absorbing I couldn’t stop listening. I’m a fan of Miles Davis music and I love biography, but I couldn’t get through the book in print. This is the power audiobooks can have.
MD: You were gracious enough to record several pieces I wrote. When I listened to them for the first time, I heard the characters’ voices in a way that was hard for me to imagine when I wrote the stories. Their thoughts and emotions were so evident. Can you describe that process?
DH: The process each of us as actors takes to a work is as individual as we are. So I can only speak to my own. First of all, I am very selective about what I take on. With your pieces, it was the immediate connection I felt to the characters and their (your) choice of words — I understood them instinctively, even those very different from me, but something in them struck a chord with me, that it was a pleasure for me to perform them, to speak for them.
With a full length book, there are a great many hours a narrator must spent in its “company” — and it’s much easier to put in that time when it’s love at first sight, when the book is a good fit. Then there is the business of prepping it. I read the book through, making notes for any unfamiliar terms, names, places or other items to research, and for fiction character voices, any accents or distinguishing speech patterns needed. For fiction, I visualize each character as I see them from the text, come up with a physical “trigger” for them and then the voices will usually emerge. When it feels natural, organic, then I know it’s right. There’s a story arc to be created, builds and fades, as in music. So much about an audiobook can be compared to music. The voice is the instrument. Some people prefer a piano, others an oboe. Depends on the piece. There’s a tone, a mood to create, a tempo to follow, to vary. Pauses, or rests, to take. Try not to hit a clunker.
MD: How do you get from the written word to the spoken word?
DH: I write poetry mostly, though I used to write plays quite often when I directed youth theater. That same approach applies, in a way. It must sound natural, unforced, even on occasion when there’s rhyme, strong meter or alliteration. Performing the poem is the same — I read it for sense not pattern. Poetry to me is akin to visual art, an impressionist sketch, a photograph. A moment caught in time and shared, which speaks to the soul.
Also released today: Please enjoy , Scott O’Neill @JT Kalnay’s Blog is reading The Nice People, by Henry Cuyler Bunner.
Use the following links: http://www.jtkalnay.com/
For the releases on June 13, please visit:
Released June 15, Hillary Huber @AudioGals is reading The Necklace, by Guy de Maupassant
The link: http://www.audiogals.net/
Please enjoy Diane Havens reading, “The Selfish Giant,” by Oscar Wilde.
The link: http://wp.me/p2vJbd-gd
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Thanks for reading. Please visit Going Public for samples of audio books, too.