Here is Part Two of my feature about Nina Munteanu and her audiobook series The Splintered Universe, narrated by Dawn Harvey, presented in association with Audiobookworm Promotions. The Splintered Universe is science fiction, published by Iambik Audio, and consists of three separate audiobooks.
Here’s what Inner Diverse, the second book in the Splintered Universe series is, all about:
In Book Two of this metaphysical space thriller trilogy, detective Rhea Hawke continues her quest for truth and justice in a world that is not what it seems. Rhea’s search takes her to the far reaches of the known universe from the Weeping Mountains of Horus to the blistering deserts of Upsilon 3. Amidst the turmoil of an imminent extra-galactic war, Rhea holds the key even as those she trusts betray her. No one is what they seem…
And here is an interview with the narrator of the audiobook version, Dawn Harvey:
1. When did you know you wanted to be an audiobook narrator?
I knew I wanted to be an audiobook narrator the first time I ever heard an audiobook. I don’t know when that was but probably 30 or 40 years ago (now I’m just showing my age). Despite wanting to be an audiobook narrator, it wasn’t something that I could realistically consider. At that time, audiobooks were only produced in studio, and that pretty much meant either New York or LA for the North American market. Being Canadian, I would have had to obtain a visa to work in the US and that would have been difficult to do as I could not acquire the experience necessary to qualify for it. So, I didn’t give it a second thought.
Much later in life, I began to do voiceover work and, while exploring the multitude of genre options available to pursue in the voice over world, I was quite predictably drawn to audiobooks. My first audiobook narration class was in 2009 in Los Angeles with Scott Brick, a grand master in the industry, and I have never looked back. I knew immediately that audiobook narration was my home. I do work in other areas of voiceover, as well as doing film work, and I continue to receive acting and technical training in all mediums, but I have concentrated much of my continuing education and networking in the area of audiobooks since taking that first class with Scott.
With advanced technology came high quality, reasonably priced home studios making voiceover, including audiobooks, a career you can pursue no matter where you live. I can record from my home studio anywhere on the planet for clients from anywhere on the planet. That has made it possible for me to do the job that I may have been born to do.
2. How did you wind up narrating audiobooks? Was it always your goal or was it something you stumbled into by chance?
I began performing at a young age, falling in love with both acting and singing. In high school, while pursuing singing and acting, I discovered the law. It became a second love and I couldn’t decide whether to become an actor or a lawyer. So, I just did both!
In the late ‘90s, I ran into some serious problems with my knees. I was way too young for those kinds of problems, so I started to panic a little bit about how I would be able to perform if I could no longer walk. Where I live, the opportunities are rare enough without throwing a wheelchair into the mix! After an initial period of panic (it felt like years but it probably wasn’t), I had a eureka moment and realized that I could become a voice actor and perform just fine. So, within a few years, I began studying voice acting.
3. A lot of narrators seem to have a background in theatre. Is that something you think is essential to a successful narration career?
Today, everyone with a USB microphone and a computer thinks they can be a voice actor. But, they neglect to give weight to one very important word in the name of the profession, and that is “acting.” The profession and the art is “voice acting.” First and foremost, it is acting and that applies to every genre of voiceover.
And you should be thankful for that because when non-actors are hired to do this work, the outcome is often less than satisfying. In the corporate world, I have had to watch many eLearning videos on different aspects of the company and it was evident when an administrative employee did the narration as part of their job vs. when it was voiced by a professional actor. The former is often a very painful experience, through no fault of the employee. Acting requires training or, at least, good acting does!
When I consider the various forms of acting, it seems clear to me that audiobook narration is one of the most difficult acting jobs there is. Usually when we act, we only need to know how be one person. So, we work to understand that one person’s history, wants, needs, challenges, relationships to others in the story, and their part in the larger story that is being told. When we narrate an audiobook, we are everyone in the story and we need to understand the story from every character’s point of view. We need to figuratively leap in and out of people’s heads, including the narrator’s in the case of third-person fiction or non-fiction. We need to understand and portray every character’s personality, desires, problems, relationships, etc., to one degree or another, depending upon their importance to the story being told – not to mention that each must have their own “voice.” It is extremely focused and detailed work.
If you are working from a home studio, you are usually also the director and the engineer. So when you actually do the recording part of audiobook narration, you are already wearing three hats; the engineer, the director and the actor. And as the actor, you are the person who must know all of the technical details of recording such as being aware of mic proximity, deftly handling page turns, listening for outside noise while you record, etc. You are also the narrator, and every other character in the book, responsible for understanding every character and for mastering pronunciations and accents to the point where they sound natural to the characters who are saying those words or who have that accent. So, if you think of the Game of Thrones, the first book in the Fire and Ice series, for example, the narrator created 224 different characters. I haven’t seen any research on the point, but I would venture to guess that an average novel would have between 30 and 50 characters if you take into consideration all of the minor or tertiary characters such as the server at the restaurant or the taxi cab driver. So, even in an average audiobook, the narrator must have either a very large toolbox full of characters or a method to create them.
When performing non-fiction, it is important to remember (as one of my coaches, Sean Allen Pratt, is fond of saying) that non-fiction is not non-acting. I’m sure we’ve all had the teacher who was so dry and boring that we could barely stay awake during their lecture, even if we were interested in the subject! That’s what happens when you try to listen to a non-fiction book narrated by a non-actor – a potentially dangerous situation if you’re driving!
So, the short answer is ‘yes,’ acting training is imperative in this work. But, that doesn’t mean that if you haven’t spent a career as an actor you can’t do this work. It’s just something that you will have to work harder at learning than someone who already has an acting background. Some people, through raw talent or other life experiences, need little coaching to get to a place where their acting skills begin to shine. And, like any profession, the training is never finished. We are always striving to get better; so the acting training should continue for as long as you continue to do the work.
4. Are you an audiobook listener? What about the audiobook format appeals to you?
Yes, I am an avid audiobook listener. I used to listen to audiobooks with my kids anytime we went on long drives, long before I realized it was an occupation that I could now pursue. Once I began working on becoming a narrator, I became a constant listener. I look for reviews of books that have won awards. When I find a review noting that a narrator is doing something that I want to master, I listen to that book to gain more knowledge about my craft. The bad thing about doing that is, because I’m usually only listening to the very best narrators, the storytelling is so good that I often forget I’m supposed to be paying attention to technique and just get lost in the story! In addition, I listen to non-fiction books on topics I’m exploring either personally or professionally. And, of course, anything written by Stephen King or John Grisham!
Part of the rise in the popularity of audiobooks derives from the fact that we all carry devices that can contain entire libraries. Anytime you are doing a task that uses a different part of your brain than where language is found, such as gardening, cleaning, ironing, exercising, driving, painting, knitting, etc., you can be listening to an audiobook. So, where I used to have shelves filled with books I didn’t have time to read, I now have apps filled with audiobooks I don’t have time to listen to! However, even with my overburdened schedule, I still manage to listen to about a book a week. Even if I’m just driving to the store – 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there adds up during the course of a week. I could never manage to read as much as I do were it not for audiobooks. And, if you actually have time to read as well, with whisper sync you can read when it’s convenient and then listen when it’s not because your book syncs to the place in one medium where you left off in the other. It’s the best of all worlds, really.
5. How closely do you prefer to work with authors?
The closer the better. I have such admiration for authors in general (now that I’m becoming one, that statement may start sounding a bit self-serving – LOL). I am in such awe and wonder over the ability of people to pull these incredible stories out of their imaginations, creating such real worlds occupied by real people and real emotions. Whatever we do as actors, we are only piggybacking on the creativity of the people who actually write the stories. So, if for no other reason than that I’m a fan girl, connecting with authors is always a treat for me.
In terms of the specific books that I’ve narrated, being able to work directly with the author allows me to have their input while creating their world and realizing their truth. Collaboration always results in a better product, so if the narrator and the author can collaborate, the resulting work will be so much more satisfying for the listener as well as for the author. I never want the author to listen to a recording I have done and flinch or cringe at anything. A simple point to illustrate this has to do with the name of the central character in the books written by Nina that are the subject of this podcast. The lead character’s name was spelled R-H-E-A. That could either be Ree-a or Ray-a. The audience doesn’t care which way I say it as long as it is consistent. However, if Nina had Ree-a in her head when she wrote the books and I kept saying Ray-a, or vice versa, it would bother her every time she listened to the books. I don’t want that for her. I want her to love the audiobook even more than she loved the written book because it is more; it has had a whole other layer added to it, and she should enjoy the benefit of that additional layer. So, I was very grateful for the opportunity to be able to collaborate with Nina and get her input on how those words sounded. Particularly as this series contains so many foreign, scientific and invented words. Again, the audience wouldn’t care so long as I was consistent, but I wanted it to be Nina’s vision and Nina’s words, not mine. I am but the vessel through which her story flows!
6. If so, which ones stand out to you most, positive or negative?
Yes, I do. Acting is a very subjective art. Acting in audiobooks is no different. Some people will love what you do while other people will hate the exact same performance. You can’t please all of the people all of the time so it’s important not to allow the reviews to damage you personally. For example, I had a book where two reviews in a row said the exact opposite things. One said something to the effect of “I do not know who hired this narrator but she should never work again. Listening to her is like listening to nails on a chalkboard.” The very next review said “I could listen to this narrator read to me forever. I’d listen to her read the phone book.” Must have both been older listeners; do they even have chalkboards or phone books anymore? In any event, this was the exact same book. So, you have to take those completely unconstructive comments with a grain of salt. I do, however, look for patterns. If I find a similar comment across numerous reviewers or numerous books, I will pay attention and consider that they may have a valid point and that this may be an area I need to work on. So I do see utility in the reviews.
And of course, people in general don’t take the time to say something unless it’s negative so the star count is probably a better indication of how much people enjoy your work. I know that I am guilty of not writing reviews. I almost always mark the star count but I’m generally driving when I’m listening to audiobooks so I can’t really take the time or risk involved to write a review at that particular time and I almost never get back to it later. A star I can pull off at a red light!
We are always appreciative of those who take the time to say something positive, and I will often use those reviews in my marketing materials. As actors, we are always looking for work so keep those (positive) cards and letters coming!
7. Who is your “dream author” that you would like to record for?
Well, of course, Stephen King. I fell in love with his work when I was 17 and read The Stand overnight in one sitting. I am truly his number one fan – and please feel free to remind him of this! I’m working on sending a message out to the universe for him to review my work and connect with me for the next book he releases that requires a female narrator. Most of his writing is male first person or male-third person. And understandably so. He does, however, occasionally write books that are suitable for a female narrator. And so, Stephen, the next time you do that, I’m your girl. And, of course, John Grisham. As a lawyer and an audiobook narrator, wouldn’t I be the perfect choice for John? So John, the next time you need a female audiobook narrator, here I am. And, for both of you, I will record these books for no upfront fee whatsoever. If you would like to just assign me one quarter of a percent of sales? One tenth of a percent? I’m pretty sure I’d be good with that. LOL
8. What do you say to those who view listening to audiobooks as “cheating” or as inferior to “real reading”?
I would say that they need to do some research because they would soon find that listening is not cheating. In fact, used in combination with the paper/e-book, it is an absolutely brilliant way for children to learn how to read and properly pronounce words and for everyone to improve their vocabulary and pronunciation. As a narrator, and I know I am not alone in this, a proof listener once caught me on a word that I had apparently been pronouncing wrong my entire life (and I have found some of those myself prior to handing it off to the proofer – look up “shone.” Most of us say it wrong!). Some words we have only read but never heard. We decide in our heads the first time we see that word how it is to be pronounced and then we always “hear” it that way when we read it. Sometimes we may look the word up when we first hit it but often we don’t. When listening to an audiobook, we hear the proper pronunciation of words (assuming the book had good narrators and proof listeners). When listening to an audiobook while following along with the written words, children not only learn proper pronunciation, they are able to listen to material that is several grade levels above their reading ability, increasing their reading, written and spoken vocabulary. Particularly for boys, who are generally not as interested in reading as girls in the first place, this means that they have access to a much broader range of materials and this may increase their interest in reading. And since earlier research has shown that better readers are better students, we are doing children a great disservice if we are NOT including audiobooks in their very early education.
So I would say that those people are simply wrong and missing out on a really great thing!
9. What bits of advice would you give to aspiring audiobook narrators?
This is a very competitive business, as is all acting work. You need to understand that it is in fact “acting” and that having a “nice voice” is not necessarily part of the equation in determining whether or not you will be successful. If you are an actor, and even a voice actor, you will need to spend time studying this art form, as it is as different a medium as stage is to film. If you have no acting experience, you will need to train in acting. There are some “naturals” but, for most people, there’s a lot to learn, not the least of which is finding the courage to wear your heart on your sleeve and open yourself up completely for inspection by the world. That is the “bravery” that is being referred to when people talk about how brave actors are. Most people try to hide their pain and weaknesses; actors must bare it for the world to see, or hear in the case of audiobooks.
And, as many of us work from home studios, the learning involves many other areas. A fairly comprehensive list of the other skills you will need to develop if you don’t already have them include:
- deciding what hardware and software to buy
- understanding how to use the software and hardware
- building and using a home studio
- understanding proper recording technique from both sides of the mic
- story analysis
- character creation
- conducting online research
- learning accents
- pronouncing words in foreign languages (like you are a native)
- learning how to emotionally connect with material
- running a small business, and
The marketing part of the business is key, whether to increase sales of royalty share books, or to attract authors and publishers to your narration services. This is a business like any other and needs to be treated as such. Acting in general is different from most businesses because actors are constantly looking for work, even when they’re working. It’s nice to get repeat clients, and I think the audiobook world in general is probably better at that than many other types of acting work, but it is part of the job to do the marketing and treat it like a business, not an “art.” The actual narration is an art but if they don’t know that you’re out there, they don’t hire you. If they don’t hire you, you don’t eat. If you don’t eat, you need to change jobs.
It’s important to realize that the audiobook industry is small and relationships are important. The producers are regularly inundated with solicitations from people who have a computer and a mic and think, “Anyone can read out loud.” These are busy people who can’t afford to have their time wasted. They are very open to, and always looking for, new talent, but they also have to be protective of their time. They don’t have time to work with difficult or untrained people. And you need only one opportunity to make a really bad impression. They need to know that you are capable of doing good work for them, that you follow the rules, and that you meet deadlines. They care equally that you are a good person, that you are easy (better yet, fun) to work with, and that you make their job easier, not harder.
So, you absolutely need to learn good audiobook narration skills. But you still won’t get enough work to make a career out of this if you don’t also take care of all of the other matters. This is not a career for people who want to cut corners and take the easy way. This is very detailed, focused, concentrated work. If that is not the kind of work you like doing, this probably isn’t the job for you.
On the other hand, if this work suits you, it is eminently rewarding. This kind of storytelling is powerful and has an amazing reach, meaning you can have an amazing reach and impact. And, you are creating a legacy with every title you narrate. These are books. They’ll be around for as long as we are (or longer but who’d be here to listen?).
I narrated “Alice in Wonderland” a few years ago thinking North Americans might like to have a North American accented version for their kids to listen to. Unfortunately, it came out a week before Scarlett Johansson’s recording of a North American accented version, so you can imagine how that went for me! But my cover is absolutely beautiful and hers is not, so take that Ms. Johansson (it really is, here’s a link – Alice)! In any event, that book is never going to go out of style and assuming we don’t completely destroy the planet first, my grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to listen to me read it to them. That’s pretty special, and not something common in voiceover work. It’s a pretty amazing job, but you need to be committed, resourceful, willing to accept criticism, able to withstand rejection (standard actor stuff), willing to work to improve, and just willing, in general, to work really hard. For some of us, it is completely worth it. In any event, it all feels like play when it is your passion and I get to say “People pay me to read stories to them!” Does it get better than that?