Xe Sands has a job that sounds too cool to be real: she’s a professional narrator and vocal artist. Her work has been praised for its “sweet pacing and gentle vocal cadence, and one of her narrations (The Sweet Relief of Missing Children by Sarah Braunstein) was named one of the best audiobooks of 2011 by Audiofile Magzine.
When I heard a clip from her narration of CATCH OF THE DAY, I clapped my hands like a little kid. Her wry take on Maggie, the perfect pauses and emphasis on words…her beautiful speaking voice…when I say I couldn’t have done it better myself, I mean I DEFINITELY couldn’t have done it better myself, so when she agreed to answer some questions, I was thrilled. Thank you, Xe!
XS: Oh Kristan – you are so kind! I truly adored CATCH OF THE DAY (it’s among my favorite projects– no fib) and I was honored to narrate it.
The first thing I do after accepting a project is do a bit of research on the book, the author and even the readership (especially true with books that are part of an existing series). Next, I read the book in its entirely and send off any questions regarding pronunciations and such to either the author or the publisher (depends on protocol; like that pesky “Ayuh”). While I’m waiting to hear back, I might meet with a dialect coach if the project requires a new (for me) accent, and I often will work on initial delivery and pacing with my mentor. And once all questions have been answered, it’s into the booth to start actually narrating the final version. I try to build enough time into my production schedule to listen to the entire book for overall sound quality and characterization/dialog integrity, and make any desired corrections before sending the completed book back to the publisher. Their team will proof-listen word-for-word to the entire book, send back any required corrections, and once I’ve completed those, will do final mastering of the book for publication.
How did you become a professional narrator?
Well, a bit differently than many, I think. I did not come into the profession from an acting background, but rather from falling in love with narration slowly over the course of more than a decade reading to my daughter. Up until recently, we read together every night – a full storytelling experience. And as she grew and her desire for more sophisticated narration grew, so did my love for what I was doing. Eventually, I explored how to take it to the next level, found an excellent set of mentors, undertook training and began to approach publishers in search of that first book J
On your website, you list yourself as a narrator and vocal artist. Is there a difference between the two?
As for the differentiation between narrator and voice artist, yes, there is a difference in the role and artistic approach for each. With voice over, I am usually trying to sell you something – a car, a candidate, a cause – and will use various vocal tricks to get you to “buy” what I’m selling. But with narration, I’m not selling anything – I’m a storyteller, a conduit for the author’s intent. Sure, the author has a perspective on things, but it’s a more holistic experience and vocal tricks will not authentically convey the author’s intent
What makes you love book narration?
Oooh, first time anyone has asked that – great question! I think that, more than anything, I love immersing myself in the characters, their lives, their drama, their heartbreak and success. When I’m narrating, I’m a channel for all of them, so I feel what each of them feels. I get to inhabit all of these worlds and live all these lives, and then step out of the booth and back into mine J
What qualities do you think a professional narrator brings to a story that a professional actor might not?
Oh you’re getting into the tough questions now! Well, I’m going to assume that by professional actor you mean those at the top of the acting food chain, such as George Clooney, and not professional narrators who are also professional actors, as many of them are. (Kristan’s note: Yep! That’s exactly what I meant.) The narrator can only use their voice and must equally inhabit all characters AND the “character” of the narration itself (if third person narration). I think it’s this last bit that can be especially difficult for actors to deliver on – third person narration. A narrator dives into the subtext of the book and fully delivers the author’s intent with emotion (or dispassion, as the work requires), and that can be tricky. Audiobook narration is an artform unto itself and requires a specific skillset.
Here’s what does it for me: a great audiobook has a narrator who is acting like a storyteller, like we are sitting in a room together and s/he is speaking directly to me. I want to hear the emotion s/he is feeling (although only if voiced authentically, not melodramatically), and when characters speak, I want to hear it delivered the way people actually say such things. Because goodness knows, the author had an intent behind every word they wrote, each one designed to evoke SOMEthing, just as the author was certainly hearing her characters speak with authenticity. Often, I hear dialog that just doesn’t ring true – not because of the author’s words, but because the narrator isn’t full inhabiting them, isn’t in fact, acting, isn’t voicing the scene as if they were really in it.
As a listener, I also want to hear nuance and a natural conversational delivery vs. a more formal “stage” or theatrical read, but again, my preference. Sometimes, it sounds as if narrators are too present as “readers” and not fully engaged as storytellers with the straight narrative portions. Both can be particularly tricky with third person narration and I have certainly struggled with them myself.
But all that said, every listener has a different perspective on what makes for the best audio experience. And because no one perspective is correct, no one narrator will completely thrill every listener (although we wish we could!).
Do you have any pet peeves in book narration, either in people’s perception of what you do or the act itself?
Oh gracious yes! On the nitty gritty side, I despise mouth noise and external noise – the bleeds in during recording. Nothing is more frustrating that totally nailing a line, only to have a mouth “click!” or car zoom by at the last moment, thus ruining it. That and when my tongue simply will not behave – it will not for love or money say whatever word is tormenting me at that moment (yesterday it was “jujitsu”).
What are some of your favorite audio books and why? Do you ever buy an audio book because of the person narrating it, rather than for the subject matter?
The problem I’ve had of late is that I just don’t have time to listen to many audiobooks because of both my production schedule and the “hairy eyeball” my family gives me when I walk around the house with earbuds in.
But I was able to squeeze a couple in over the past year and subsequently developed two new narrator crushes : ) The first was The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield, narrated by Jill Tanner and Bianca Amato. It was an excellent story made truly exceptional by the dual narration. The second was The Snowman, by Jo Nesbo, narrated by Robin Sachs. The latter was definitely outside my usual reading comfort zone, but Sachs’s narration compelled me to listen.
Which brings me to the second question, which I can answer with a resounding, “Yes!” With audiobooks, the narrator is paramount for me. I am extraordinarily picky in what I listen to, so I have to love the narrator to commit to spending 10 or more hours with them. So I will pick an audiobook based on the narrator – although the content also plays a significant role.
What qualities do you think you personally bring to narration?
You know, thanks so much for asking that because I believe that while every narrator won’t suit every listener, we do each bring something unique, something special to the experience. I believe that I bring an ability to truly connect with the characters and voice them authentically and compassionately, regardless of who they are and what they are doing. I also bring a fairly uncommon, intimate delivery. When married with the right text, I think this creates an nuanced and poignant listening experience. That said, I recognize that it’s not for everyone and have to be at peace with that.
Oh gracious – pretty much anything, LOL! First and foremost is external or internal noise (cars, planes, stomach growls). Second, equipment failure or issues with sound quality (especially when you are working from your home studio – you don’t have a tech crew to come in and troubleshoot it for you). There can also be artistic issues such as realizing that what you’re hearing in your head simply won’t come out of your mouth and having to adjust and carry the author’s intent a different way.
How long did it take you to narrate CATCH OF THE DAY?
It took me about 4 days of solid recording, another two for prooflistening and one last one for minor tweaks I wanted to do before sending it back to the publisher, so one week, start to finish.
Throat Coat tea! Seriously, I have to live on that during the final days of recording any romance novel because of those “deeply voiced” sexy guys. Also, constant hydration and getting enough sleep (that last one is tricky tricky tricky). For the reading style itself, as soon as I start biffing it every other word, it’s time for a breather – time to step out of the booth, do some stretching, refill the water bottle. And artistically, after a particularly emotional scene, I usually take a quick break so I can come back to the text fresh and appropriately removed a bit from the emotion of the previous scene (you can imagine which one did that to me in CATCH, I’m sure…).
Is there any accent that’s harder for you than others?
A “Mainah’s” – LOL! And Bostonian (hey, I’m a Connecticut girl – everyone knows we don’t **have** an accent). Also German – every time I do a German accent, even with my dialect coach’s firm approval, I feel like I am somehow making fun of all my German-speaking friends.
Do you see the market for audio books growing?
Oh absolutely. I think that many people are realizing that (a) listening IS reading and not cheating, and (b) that they can read so many more books by using audiobooks. Yes, they take longer to read, but you can also read them in the car, while knitting, while doing household chores, exercising, etc. When I worked in an office years ago, I used to listen to audiobooks while I pushed papers around – it was a wonderful way to read while I worked!
I also see interesting things on the horizon in terms of more and more books making it into audio. With Audible’s new production platform, ACX, there is direct access for authors and narrators to collaborate on projects together. Together with established publishers, I think this offers the potential for far more books to enter the audiobook market.
Oooh, now see THERE is an ongoing debate – nay a FEUD even! Some adamantly claim that audiobooks don’t count as reading, while some claim there is no difference. I have to say I disagree with both. Audiobooks DO count, but there are admittedly differences between the two. I see the key difference being all about the experience you have. I feel that an audiobook takes the reading experience and offers another dimension – a soundtrack (voice, not music). For some, this is a beautiful thing as they love the enriched experience (it’s also why it’s crucial to have the perfect match between narrator and text). For some, this is distracting or frustrating because the narrator can’t match what they hear in their own head as they read.
Other difference: tactile, no doubt about it. I love holding a print book, turning the pages, feeling the words flow over me (and for some, they enjoy holding an eReader ) That isn’t present in an audiobook, obviously. Also, the way we experience the two media can be different. For some, reading the text with their eyes allows them to fully process the author’s deft turns of phrase and the pacing of the story. For others, such things “pop” more easily when heard – they don’t gloss over them as easily.
Thank you so much for answering these questions, Xe!
What do you think, gang? Do you love listening to audiobooks? Interested in doing it more often? I’m thrilled to say that Tantor, who produced the audio version of CATCH OF THE DAY, very graciously offered to donate a copy to one commenter!
To hear a snippet, visit http://www.tantor.com/BookDetail.asp?Product=B0824_CatchDay
Hope you love it as much as I do!