Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Going Public...In Shorts - Peter Berkrot

I am so excited to be part of the Going Public...In Shorts project that was spearheaded by voice artist Xe Sands for this year's June is Audiobook Month. Today is my day to spotlight Peter Berkrot and share his short story with you. Please...read on...

Project Summary

This June, the audiobook community is giving back! Spoken Freely, a group of 30+ professional narrators, has teamed with the Going Public Project to celebrate June is Audiobook Month (JIAM) 2013 by offering a serialized audio story collection: Going Public...in Shorts. 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.

Throughout June, 1-2 stories will be released online each day via the Going Public blog as well as on various author and book blogs, with each participating narrator hosted by a different blog. As a "Thank you!" to listeners, stories will be available to listen to online for free for one week following their release. The full schedule of story release dates and narrator appearances is available at Going Public.

In collaboration with Blackstone Audio, stories will also be available for download purchase starting on their day of release, with the full compilation available beginning June 30th. All sales proceeds go directly to Reach Out and Read, an innovative literacy advocacy organization serving more than 4 million children and their families across the nation, with an emphasis on serving those in low-income communities.

Going Public...in Shorts is made possible by the efforts of the Spoken Freely narrators and many others who donated their time and energy to bring it to fruition. Engineering and mastering provided by Jeffrey Kafer and SpringBrook Audio. Graphic design provided by f power design. Published by Blackstone Audio. Project coordination and executive production provided by Xe Sands.

Narrator Peter Berkrot

Typically when I do interviews, it's a series of emails back and forth, but I had the opportunity to chat with Peter Berkrot on the phone recently and we had the most wonderful conversation. I wish you all could have listened in on the conversation--I'm sure you would have thought the multiple Earphone Award Winner/Audie-nominated narrator  as fascinating and entertaining as I did. But since you couldn't, I hope my article today will do him justice.

Peter Berkrot is the youngest male child of his Jewish family and he describes himself as a "yammering, loud, obnoxious kid who did everything for attention." He wasn't adept at sports, but at the age of 12 he had the opportunity to see a show at City Center. There was an interactive element to the show and all of the kids were invited up on stage. For Peter's small part he broke out, unprovoked and without thinking, into a cockney accent. After the show people were coming up to him and commenting on how they enjoyed what he did and they absolutely thought he was British. Peter says, "people liked me for something I did and I did it effortlessly, without thinking, and I wasn't afraid."

That experience kicked off Peter's life of acting. He began taking acting classes and at 19 he landed a role in the famous comedy, Caddyshack. Despite his love of acting, the industry was brutal. "One day you're in Caddyshack and you have a great paycheck, but the next week you're waiting tables to pay the rent." While auditioning for parts that ultimately went to the likes of Rob Lowe or Emilio Estevez (he was auditioning alongside the Brat Pack in the 80s), Peter was a journalist and he picked up freelance work that ultimately didn't pay the bills.

Moving away from New York to Boston, Peter started teaching acting; he ran his own theater company; he was even selling Oriental rugs! And while he was getting parts here and there, what it all boiled down to was "spending  A LOT of time and making little money."  Some voice over work finally made the pieces all start clicking for Peter, and he got his first narrating gig reading books for the blind at the Library of Congress.

Growing up, Peter was surrounded by voracious readers. His father read crime novels and his mother loved murder mysteries. (Yay!) Peter, learning his zealous reading habits from those around him, was reading by the age of 3. He would read dozens and dozens of comic books; in high school he discovered "Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein, Joseph Heller. I was a big sci-fi fan." But mostly he read like the average reader--to himself, in his head. With the birth of his son, he started reading aloud.

When Peter and his son were reading Harry Potter, Peter went to Borders to buy the new book and volunteered to read aloud at the store for the Harry Potter release day festivities. They paid him in the form of a free copy of the book, so he eagerly volunteered to do the same thing with the next Harry Potter release.

Due to his acting training, experience and background, Peter found himself casting Harry Potter as he would read to his son--long before the movies were actualized; he was delighted to find those very same cast choices when the Harry Potter movies hit the big screen. As Peter explains, "a trained actor is going to break a [written] scene apart and see what's hiding underneath. They have an instinctive sense for the subtext and invest in the psychology. People hide, have alterior motives, hold back. Good writing has all of that built in and a narrator's job is to strip it down and find it." That's exactly what Peter was doing as he read to his son.

Peter was reading for the Library of Congress, reading for Harry Potter fans at Borders and reading for his son. How could he make the leap then to commercial narration? The first step in that process came while listening to the audiobook for The Traveler.  Peter considered writing to that narrator and asking for his advice. The narrator? Scott Brick! Scott's advice was "go to APAC [the Audio Publishers Association conference] and be patient." That's just what Peter did, and When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton became Peter's first commercial audiobook.

When it comes to narrating now, Peter says, "if you really love a book, you want to tell a great story." And to do that, Peter looks for the character's internal traits. "Characters know less about themselves than the narrator does and acting is about living within the real dimension of what the character is living." Peter explains that people hide their feelings and so do characters. "They won't reveal those feelings until they can't help it anymore. We go to therapy to find out what we've been doing all our lives." In a book, "tension is a character trying to keep things under wraps until finally, they blow." It was this understanding of character that led Peter to the realization that "less is more: if you start at a high pitch, you don't have anywhere to go."

For gender Peter finds "female characters take more time, are more thoughtful and often are stronger than male characters." They aren't as determined to keep their feelings and secrets under wrap. "They say what's on their minds, whereas men are still trying to keep their cover up." So for Peter, narrating women requires him to "breathe in a different color breath."

Telling a great story isn't just about the characters, however. According to Peter, "narrating an audiobook is like being an actor in a movie, but it's like being ALL the characters AND the music AND the scenery." He takes that role very seriously, especially when he's preparing for a historical novel. One of the most challenging books Peter narrated was Cain at Gettysburg. In addition to 163 voices in the course of the novel, Peter made sure he kept the narration truthful, researching accents and habits and other details that reflect the accuracy of the time period. Sometimes when he has a book that requires a lot of extra research for the prep, he'll scale back how much work he's accepting during that month.

Peter's no longer acting on stage or in movies. But he's acting every day as an audiobook narrator. It's the first time he hasn't been scrambling for work, and it's the first time he's let go of the notion "I want to be rich and famous. I'm the happiest now that I've ever been." His life is still consumed by his work: he records during the day, preps in the evenings and ALWAYS has an audiobook in his car. He volunteers to run the errands just so he can listen to his books.  He's a big fan of John Irving and Pat Conroy.

Peter estimates that approximately 90% of his work is on books he never would have picked up if it wasn't for narrating them, but he's loved a lot of them. He isn't typically drawn to non-fiction but by working on these books he's enjoyed learning through them. For non-fiction Peter tries "to hear the author's voice, to find the action behind the writer." The content may not be thrilling to Peter, but the author was passionate enough about the subject to write a book, and Peter searches for that passion in order to express it in the narration.

The books aren't always great, though. "Sometimes you just have to laugh at how bad it is. Instead of honoring the writer, you honor the person who hired you." And Peter adds, "no matter how bad a book is I still have respect for the writer; anyone who can write 300 pages on a single idea, I respect." At other times, the book is great, but the challenge is dealing with the emotions it elicits. Peter says The Untold History of the United States was that challenge for him. "It was heart-breaking in the journey. It was like climbing a mountain with my tongue."

Peter's own journey has been a winding road that led him to audiobook narration. The young kindergarten boy who was asked to read to his class but pretended he couldn't for fear the other kids would hate him now reads for the world. But his most cherished audience is likely his 90-year-old mother. "My mother has a tremendous love of literature, but she's been legally blind for 10 years. She still has all her faculties, just not her eyes. And she gets great joy from listening to my books. I'm giving back now in a way I never thought I could."

Peter is also giving back through the Going Public...In Shorts project. He chose to record the short story "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Having waited to make his choice for a recording, he had to make a quick decision. He remembered having read and enjoyed Fitzgerald for The Library of Congress, so he decided on this short story for the series. You can below to listen. The story is available here for a week, but you can purchase the story for download or the  entire collection starting June 30th. They kept Peter busy for his part in this series; you can see his post at Going Public and check out some of the more than 140 audiobooks he has recorded. Plus, Peter's such a great sport that he agreed to come back on Friday for the Five on Friday feature this week! So be sure to check back.

And please be sure to enjoy some of the other stories in this month-long celebration of audiobooks:

Joining us today is Jeffrey Kafer over at Ken Holloway's blog. Yesterday my fellow blogger Beth Fish Reads hosted John Lee and tomorrow Vanessa Hart will be featured at My Bookish Ways.

I hope you enjoyed my feature with Peter Berkrot. I hope you'll check out some of the other wonderful narrators participating in the project and I also hope you'll find some great audiobooks. Happy Listening everyone! 


Beth F June 25, 2013 at 7:30 AM  

Shoot the audio sample didn't work for me. What a great article! How interesting that volunteering led to a new career!

Jen Forbus June 25, 2013 at 10:50 AM  

Well, crud! Let me see if I can get this to work!

Beth F June 25, 2013 at 11:10 AM  

It's working now!

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