Thursday, June 17, 2010

Audio Book Thursday: Narrator Jeff Woodman

As you know - because I've been talking about it all month - June is audio book month. And while I hope to do many more of these, I'm so excited to tell you that in honor of audio book month I have an interview with audiobook narrator Jeff Woodman. If you are unfamiliar with Jeff's work, I STRONGLY encourage you to take a look at his audio-bibliography because I'm certain you'll find something that you would enjoy. He's narrated a wide range of books: adult and children's, fiction and non-fiction. If you read here regularly then his name should at least sound familiar because he is the voice of Danny Boyle; he narrates Chris Grabenstein's John Ceepak series.

Jeff has a million things going on in his life both personally and professionally, but he still took time out to chat with me at length and I'm so thrilled to share that with you today. Not knowing much about the recording process or about Jeff himself, my questions started out kind of general, but Jeff led those questions to many fascinating little nuggets of information. So let me stop yammering and put the spot light where it rightly belongs. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jeff Woodman!

Q: Tell us a little about Jeff Woodman the person. As listeners/readers, we don’t have as much opportunity to get to know narrators as we do book authors. So what could we expect to see on a Jeff Woodman bio page?
Jeff: Personal Bio:I was raised in New England, and graduated from the SUNY Purchase Conservatory Theater Program. I live in NYC and have been happily partnered for 21 years.(Of course I was a mere child when we met.)We split our time between the city and a house in the mountains, where our gardening efforts go to support the local deer. I'm an avid film buff, especially the great product of the “Golden Years” of the Hollywood studios.

Professional Bio: OK, I'm gonna cheat here and slug in the bio that I use in theater programs! Broadway: Cymbeline (Lincoln Center). Off-Broadway: Tiny AliceBoys in the Band (WPA), The Libertine (Theatre Row), A Pirate’s Lullaby (Rattlestick), Smiling Through (Theatre Four). Regional: An Ideal HusbandEnchanted April (Goodman Choice Award/San Jose Rep); originated the title role in Tennessee Williams’ The Notebook of Trigorin opposite Lynn Redgrave as Arkadina (Cincinnati Playhouse); McCarter Theater - Private Lives (Elyot), Design for Living (Leo), School For Scandal (Backbite); Old Globe, Seattle Rep, O’Neill Playwrights Conference, etc... TV: “Law & Order,” “Law & Order: SVU”(twice), “Sex and the City,” “Cosby,” “Guiding Light” (recurring). Audiobooks: 300+ titles, six-time Audie finalist (2007 winner), 18 Golden Earphone Awards, a People magazine “Annual Top Five” citation, one of AudioFile (Second Stage), (SF Critics Circle Award/Berkeley Rep); magazine’s “Fifty Greatest Voices of the Century.”
Q: So with all of these credits on your resume, how did you get started narrating audio books? Was it something you aspired to? Something that happened on accident?
Jeff: Total fluke! I was doing a lot of regional theater, and teaching speech & dialects at Sarah Lawrence to pay the bills when I wasn't acting. One day my agent called and asked if I could convincingly sound like a teenager. I said I could try, and he sent me to audition for the audio version of Robert Cormier's I Am the Cheese at Recorded Books.

I got the job, a reviewer at Audiofile very kindly gave it an Earphone, and the next thing I knew I was being handed another, and then another, and I haven't stopped since. It's been a great way to make a living between theater and TV gigs. (And I still get to play kids, which is something I obviously can no longer get away with onstage!)
Q: I've read that you enjoy dialects and you mentioned teaching speech & dialect. Have you had any special training yourself with languages and dialects? Or what do you do to ensure authenticity?
Jeff: I inherited my grandmother's ear. If she could hear it, she could mimic it, and I was lucky in the same way. When I did my acting training I learned the mechanics of speech and dialect, and then was able to teach it to actors in a classroom, or in a rehearsal hall as a production dialect coach.

When I needed to hear a dialect I didn't know, I used to go to the Rogers & Hammerstein Sound Recordings Collection at the Lincoln Center Library. Now I suppose I'd just use the internet - though it's been a couple of decades since I've been called upon to do a dialect I didn't already know.
Q. Do you have any favorite dialects?
Jeff: North Country/Yorkshire! It's so much fun to do that if I'm doing a book with a British narrator (Lord John/Curious Incident) I'm always on the lookout for minor characters who can be North Country. In fact, for 20 years now I've been intentionally driving Chris [Grabenstein]'s talented wife J.J. Myers nuts when we work together, by spouting the same Alan Bennett line in North Country when we're told to say anything so the engineer can set sound levels -- works every time!

"I'd just taken her tea up to her this morning when she said to me, 'Graham, you know I think the world of you.'"

There, I just made J.J. cringe in front of her computer!
Q. I would think that keeping voices consistent would be a challenge, especially with a book that has a lot of different characters. Is there a trick? Does it just come naturally?
Jeff: It's easier than you'd think, because ultimately you're not playing voices, you're playing characters. If you've got four pre-adolescent boys as the protagonists, all with the same dialect, the only thing that's really going to distinguish them is who they are, not how they sound. One is the braggart, one painfully shy, one logical and methodical, and one, well, let's just say "not bright." If you can latch onto character qualities and act them consistently, your listeners will know who's speaking without major changes in pitch or vocal quality.

And usually the only "trick" would be having the engineer drop a "bookmark" on certain characters. If I have a minor character who appears briefly on page 12, and then crops up again on page 290, I'll sometimes ask to hear a few lines of what I did earlier just to make sure it hasn't changed. But again, if you really know who the character is, his voice is going to be consistent.
Q. Paul Ruben was quoted as saying your most compelling quality is your "intuitive ability to empathize with characters and the author's point of view and, in turn, connect with [your] listeners, enabling them to suspend their disbelief and become fully involved with the story and the storyteller." First, I would not have said it quite as elegantly as Mr. Ruben did, but that was exactly what I thought when I first heard you read the John Ceepak books. You ARE Danny Boyle in all his youth and sarcasm. And then you ARE John Ceepak, rigid code and all. Are you able to tap into these qualities by talking with the authors? By reading the books? How do you make sure you nail the psychology of these characters?
Jeff: First of all, it has to be on the page. If the author hasn't written clearly delineated characters then you have to resort to vocal "tricks." "OK, since the characters are undefined and there's nothing to act, this guy is breathy, this one's nasal, this one's from Massachusetts, etc..." If the author hasn't done his job, I feel free to take whatever liberties necessary to do mine. There's a wonderfully accurate saying in the audiobook world, "A good book needs a good narration, but a bad book needs a great narration."

I think the key to Paul's generous quote is "intuitive ability to empathize with characters." Isn't that really just a great capsule description of what acting is? It really doesn't matter whether it's acting on stage, screen, or in audio.

I know Paul is approached all the time by people who say, "My friends all say I have a good voice. I think I should narrate audiobooks." But there's a reason that audiobooks are narrated by actors, not announcers. A "good voice" is the least of it. (What exactly does that even mean, anyway?) If you're not a good actor, you're not going to be a good narrator.
Q. O.k., so the most important skill is the ability to act. Having that, can you give us an idea of how the narrating process works? Do you simply get assignments or is it more like a freelance arrangement and you choose what you record? Then what happens when you go in to narrate? On average how long does it take you to complete your part in narrating a book?
Jeff: We're freelancers, so the work is all 1099 as opposed to W-2 - we pay quarterly taxes and our own Social Security. Some companies (Recorded Books, Audible) work on an AFTRA contract, so while they don't deduct taxes or pay our Social Security, they do pay into our Pension and Health fund, so that's how I get my insurance.

If a producer is non-signatory, that is to say not offering a union contract, I put my salary through a paymaster, who makes the appropriate tax/P&H payments, and cuts me a check for the remainder. I have an agent for stage and TV work, but I negotiate my own contracts for audiobooks.

Maybe it's because I consider myself a stage actor first and foremost, but I've never solicited audiobook work, I just take what comes. The phone rings or I get an email, and if my schedule can accomodate it, I generally agree to do the book.

While in hindsight there were several that I realized too late I should have said no "thank you" to, only four times do I recall having turned something down for reasons other than scheduling. One was Izaak Walton's The Complete Angler (1653), because I just couldn't find a way into it - it defeated me.

Another was the Left Behind young adult series, because I found it to be the most offensive kind of exclusionary religious propaganda. The others I'll have to tell you privately so I don't offend the authors! (I really don't care if I offend the Left Behind authors - they offended me first!)

The industry standard now is working a higher "finished hour" rate (10 hours pay for a 10 hour books) rather than a lower "studio hour" rate (one hour's pay for each hour spent in the studio, regardless of how much gets accomplished).

I realized early on that, being a demon for preparation, I was shooting myself in the foot by agreeing to a studio hour. I had producers saying, "It's a 10 hour book, so it'll take 20 hours to record, so you'll get 20 hours pay totaling 'x' dollars." Then I'd finish the book in 15 hours, and get 5 hours less pay than I'd been told I could expect, effectively getting penalized for being prepared and efficient.

A week or so before going into the booth I'll usually submit a vocabulary list for any words or foreign phrases that I was unable to find myself, and it'll be ready for me when it's time to record.

Some narrators like to do 2-3 hour sessions, but I prefer to do 7-8 hours at a stretch. I find after 2 hours I'm just getting warmed up, and I always warn my engineers that they need to stop me when they want a break, because I get on a roll and forget that other people have bladders and appetites!

I'll eat something before we start, and then I'll keep a bagel or muffin in the booth to nibble on, just enough to keep the stomach gurgles to a minimum. Every time we stop for a stomach noise, my hourly salary effectively goes down, so I tend to record with pillows stuffed around my abdomen so I can gurgle undetected!

Ideally, I'll take a 10 minute break at the halfway point, drink a can of Ensure, and go back for the next half. I generally put an hour in the can in just under 90 minutes, so a 10 hour book will usually take me two full days in the studio.
Q. You've narrated both adult and children's books. And you've narrated in different genres. Fiction and nonfiction. Even the Bible. Do you have to prepare differently for different books? What kinds of things do you do in preparation for recording? Any special rituals?
Jeff: Every narrator has his own shorthand, it seems. Some color code, but I can't carry around that many pens! I keep a character list as I go, noting the page on which a character is first mentioned, and then the page on which he/she first speaks. I jot down anything the author has to say about the voices along the way. (Frequently we meet a character on page 10 and find out they have a "breathy voice" on page 247.)

If an author provides few (or no) clues as to a character's voice, I cast it in my head with an actor I think would be cast in a film version, or with someone from my life. (I'm amazed at how frequently my brother-in-law shows up in my narration!)

I'm often asked how male narrators play females without resorting to some kind of falsetto. First of all, what is a "woman's voice" supposed to sound like - Betty Boop or Bea Arthur? The simple truth is that one never plays gender (or race, for that matter, another potentially thorny issue), one plays character. I just play the character's intention, the same way I would on stage or on camera. The challenge is to create as fully rounded a character as I can without the use of two major actor's tools: my face and my body. It's like trying to play basketball with one hand tied behind you and your ankles shackled.

(Pet Peeve: When a friend asks what I'm doing at present and I say I'm recording an audiobook and they reply, "Oh, so you're not doing any acting right now." I want to say, "I'm doing a ton of acting, I'm just doing it with a major handicap!")
Q. Do you have a kind of book that you prefer working with? Maybe one that makes you more happy to go to work than others?
Jeff: For purely mercenary reasons, I like self help and non-fiction. Aside from scanning them ahead of time for any unfamiliar vocabulary, I can very often "cold read" them, since there are no vocal/character choices to make, and no plot to which I have to know the resolution before I begin. So I wind up with the same salary without investing the prep time, which generally equals the actual recording time.

Beyond that, I like books that are heavy on dialogue, because a really well written dialogue scene is so much fun to play. (Making a three-page description of a cathedral come alive for a listener is a chore, no matter who gorgeous the author's prose might be.)

I'm an actor because I love acting, and playing dialogue scenes is acting, even if you're playing all the parts yourself. That's why first person narrations are my favorite. Right after saying "Chapter One," you're playing a character, one who in effect is saying, "Hey, let me tell you what happened to me."

Danny, Ceepak and all Chris [Grabenstein]'s characters are so vivid they practically play themselves. And the weird thing is that when J.J. told me that Chris had just had his first book published (Tilt-A-Whirl), my knee-jerk reaction was, "I want to do the audio version!" It was she who put us together - me taking it on faith that the book was good, and Chris taking it on faith that I was a decent narrator. Happily, it's been a good match, and a great deal of fun.

When I'm going in to record one of Chris' Ceepak stories, I can't wait to get in there and play Danny! Chris has written the characters so well, and writes such great dialogue scenes, that my job is actually fun! Ditto any of Diana Gabeldon's Lord John series, or something like Mark Haddon's amazing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
Q. Any other authors you think do an especially good job with dialogue?
Jeff: Marc Acito (How I Paid for College, Attack of the Theater People) who not only writes great dialogue, but throws in musical numbers as well, which are great fun to do. Ironically, I've recorded some really lousy books with ludicrous plots that had some nifty, playable dialogue. Go figure!
Q. What book was the most challenging to record and why?
Jeff: For sheer number of characters I'd have to say The Westing Game and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, especially because all the characters in Midnight have the same damned Savannah accent, so you can't toss in a little North Country to help differentiate them!

But for overall difficulty, I'd have to say a Young Adult title called Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway? by Avi. It's written entirely in dialogue, without a single, "said Uncle Joe," so I was 100% responsible for letting the listener know who was speaking. Claudia Howard, the head of the Recorded Books NYC studios, engineered the book herself, and did so without the printed copy in front of her, thinking (rightly) that if she couldn't tell who was speaking without reading along, neither could the listener.

In one particularly difficult scene, six or seven characters are tearing around in a frenzy, shouting broken lines of dialogue and interrupting one another all over the place. I think that was probably the hardest thing I've ever recorded.
Q. To date, how many books have you narrated?
Jeff: I kept on top of the number for years, but I honestly lost track around 300 - probably somewhere around 500 by now.
Q. You have also performed both on stage and in front of the camera. How do your experiences in those venues help you as a narrator? And on the flip side do you have to recondition yourself at all, maybe break some stage habits or something, to be able to do your narrating work?
Jeff: Acting on stage or camera is about figuring out characters and bringing them to life - so it's all helpful to narrating. The flip side you speak of, though, is the opposite of what you're supposing. I've had to break audiobook habits when I've returned to the stage!

When I was doing Private Lives with a director with whom I'd worked several times, he said, "Lay off the words. Why are you over-inflecting everything?" I realized that my voice had been carrying the burden for so long that I'd forgotten that my face and body were now doing a lot of heaving lifting, and that I could relax a little vocally!
Q. Where do your own personal - for fun - reading preferences lay? What do you take to the beach with you?
Jeff: I tend to prefer non-fiction. I love biographies, histories and memoirs, and I read so much fiction for work that they make a nice break. It's sometimes hard for me to work up a lot of interest in things that never happened to people who never existed. When a story is true it has an extra fillip of fascination for me.

An unfortunate side effect of narrating is the loss of pleasure reading. Either I pick up a book for fun and feel guilty that I'm neglecting one I should be prepping for work (as I sit and answer these questions, a 593 page epic which is due in a week and a half is sitting across the living room singing "I'm Still Here!"), or I'm unable to turn off my narrator brain and just enjoy. I recently read a bio of Dashiell Hammett and decided to read some of his fiction, so I picked up The Thin Man. Of course I heard William Powell and Myrna Loy in my head, but when they were interrogated by a beat cop, and I found myself wondering if the cop should have a slight NY Irish lilt, I had to say to myself, "Knock it off - this is supposed to be fun!"

As far as beach reads go, my secret guilty pleasure (dare I confess this in a public forum?) is the oeuvre of Jacqueline Susanne. I have two copies of each of her four novels, and they live permanently on my nightstands in the city and the country. They're perfect for the 15 - 20 minutes of reading I do before falling asleep. You can dip into them at random and they're all equally, resplendently cheesy!

Once, faced with a 10 hour flight, I thought, "Wow, I could read Valley of the Dolls cover to cover in one sitting, like a junk food binge." But I was so ashamed of what I was reading that I grabbed the paper jacket from a trashy novel I'd recorded and wrapped it around Ms. Suzanne's opus. When I pulled it out on board, I realized that I had successfully disguised crap as crap.
Ha! At Printers Row last weekend, I found a great book cover you could have used just for that purpose, Jeff!

Q. How about audio books? Do you listen to audio books yourself - for pleasure not for work? Any readers you especially enjoy? Or maybe a match-up between reader and book that you feel is perfect?
Jeff: Not often, as I don't have much of a commute, and I've loaded my iPod with 300 hours of the Jack Benny radio show, so that gets me through my work out at the gym! I recently had to paint a shed (exciting, huh?) and got to listen to J.J. reading Chris's YA novel, Crossroads, which was great. I then emailed them and told them that the 3 of us had just painted a shed together.

And you can't go wrong with Barbara Rosenblatt. In fact, I have a commercially unavailable recording of her reading Daphne du Maurier's The Birds (in a fabulous Cornwall dialect) which I've listened to countless times. It's brilliant, and a brilliant match up of actor and material.
Well, unbeknownst to you, Jeff, while you were painting a shed with Chris and J.J., you may well have been mowing the lawn with me!

Q. If you could record ANY book that you haven't already done, what would you want to record and why?
Jeff: L. Frank Baum's original Wonderful Wizard of Oz because I used to read it aloud to myself repeatedly as a kid, and after all that prep work I wanna get paid!

Seriously, Wizard of Oz, Walter Lord's A Night to Remember (because I'm a major Titanic buff), and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, just because it's got the most chilling opening (and closing) paragraphs I've ever read. The first two somebody beat me to, and the rights to the latter are being withheld by Jackson's heirs.

And even though it's about 3 female protagonists, I'd love to take a crack at Valley of the Dolls!
Q. Anything you wish the common person knew about recording audio books that we haven't talked about?
Jeff: That it's really a huge amount of prep work, at least for me. I wish I had a nickel for every time I've been asked, "So, do you read the book first?"
Q. I've asked many authors if they were to write their memoir in six words, what would their six words be. So, now you get the privilege of the question. What would Jeff Woodman's six-word memoir be?
Jeff: "He has a face. Who knew?"
I love it! It's definitely going in the scrapbook! Thank you so very much, Jeff. Your responses made this one of the most fun interviews for me; I hope you enjoyed it as well. I hope all of you stopping by to read have enjoyed it as much as I did. Since I'm an audio book fan, I find this all absolutely fascinating, but I really think it would be interesting even if you didn't listen to audiobooks like I do. AND maybe it just might entice one or two of you to give audios a try. It is Audio Book Month after all; what better time?

Thanks everyone! Happy Reading!


Bernadette in Australia June 17, 2010 at 4:57 AM  

Great interview Jen, and Jeff. Fascinating to know how the Ceepak books i love listening too are created and I'll be seeking out some more of Jeff's narrations now :)

pattinase (abbott) June 17, 2010 at 7:42 AM  

I'm reading Dan Chaon AWAIT YOUR REPLY on audio. Can't say I'm enjoying it because the reader makes all three narrators sound the same. And they are similar enough without that. As my son always says, the narrator is as important as the writer in an audio book.

Jen Forbus June 17, 2010 at 8:00 AM  

You're absolutely right Patti! A narrator can make or break a book on audio. I know there are several narrators that I can't listen to who seem to have an exaggerated flair for the dramatic. Some people like that, but for me, if it isn't appropriate for the character then knock it off!

Hi Bernadette! Thanks for stopping by. I was fascinated by all of Jeff's responses, too. I fell in love with his narration of the Ceepak novels the minute I started listening. A lot of times it takes a little while for a voice to grow on me, but Jeff was Danny Boyle from the get go! The Westing Game was the very first mystery I ever read and I love it to this day, so I want to hunt that one down and listen to it. He also narrated some Beverly Cleary, which I loved growing up. Jeff definitely has a lot of narrations to choose from! Let us know what you find and enjoy.

Beth F June 17, 2010 at 8:39 AM  

I absolutely loved this interview. Wow! But then I absolutely love Jeff. Okay, so we haven't actually met or anything, but I am in love with his voice. If Jeff Woodman is the narrator, I'll likely listen -- he is just that good.

From the Ceepak novels to the Stolen Child to Lord John to John Green--Jeff has read such a variety of books and does such an amazing job.

I'll stop gushing now before I embarrass myself further.

le0pard13 June 17, 2010 at 9:32 AM  

Fantastic interview, Jen. Being an audiobook fan, I really appreciate when the narrators come to the forefront and we get to learn about them. Great stuff. Thanks for this.

Karen Henry August 22, 2010 at 6:14 AM  

I've been a fan of Jeff Woodman's narrations of the Lord John audiobooks for several years. Just found this interview today, and I think it's fascinating to see how he works. Thanks for posting this!

Karen Henry
blogging at Outlandish Observations


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