Unabridged Access

27 June 2016

Talking Audiobooks with Narrator Holter Graham

June is Audiobook Month! To celebrate, we’re sitting down with narrators to give you the scoop on everything you want to know (and didn’t know you wanted to know!) about recording an audiobook. Check back each week to hear from a new narrator and listen to excerpts from audiobooks they’ve recorded for Macmillan Audio.

This week, we’re talking audiobooks with Holter Graham. Holter’s narration credits include Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Chronicles of Nick series, Michael Punke’s The Revenant, and more than 100 other audiobooks.

Q: What’s the best part of being a narrator?

For an actor it can be a wonderful workout. Rarely in our careers do we get to literally be the whole story, and the concentration and flexibility required, while tiring, leaves you with a great feeling when it goes well.

Q: Do you retain all the books you narrate?

In my head? Not unless the book leaves a mark on me personally. I find it similar to reading a book for myself–the good ones stick, and the not-good ones don’t. I find that–since I do some of non-fiction–certain factoids from those books stick with me and I will pull them out of the air in a later conversation.

Q: Do you feel nervous before recording?

Again, only if I have been moved by the book or the subject matter. And I wouldn’t call it nervousness as much as just the drive to do the job well; tell the story the way it deserves to be told, and create a world for a listener that will seamlessly take them in. It can be a lot of pressure, but it is a pressure I look forward to and thrive on.

Q: What’s your favorite audiobook that you have recorded?

Hard question, as there are aspects of a few. I was lucky enough to narrate Stephen King’s Christine. There is a pivotal scene near the peak of the book where the teenaged wallflower protagonist turns into a demonic alcoholic old man over the course of a few pages, with very little punctuation and under intense dramatic tension. I had put very specific vocal traits on both characters–completely different voices in pitch, register, cadence, and clarity. I got through it in one take, and the director and I agreed that we both needed a rest afterward. As an actor it felt really pure and powerful, and exhausting. I discovered later that I was ill with leukemia when I performed that.  I have since gone through lots of treatment and a bone marrow transplant and am in full remission and good health; but to have performed the way that scene demanded–and for an author for whom I have worked and have a great deal of respect–under such personal strain remains something of which I am extremely proud.

Q: What’s the most challenging aspect of being a narrator?

I think it is physical. This may just be me, but I need to keep a close eye on my hydration and food intake during the narration, and my behavior the rest of the day and night. In my opinion, if you are not pretty spent at the end of each day recording, then you have not given the book your entire self as a performer. But doing that over multiple days can be rough, so you have to take care of yourself. I learned after my treatments weakened my system a little that I should wear compression socks like I wear when I run, because sitting all day and expelling all your hot air for hours on end can make your feet and ankles swell. All part of the job.

The other challenge is giving that level of dedication to a book that isn’t very good. Sometimes it is an even more interesting challenge to try and make the book better than it may have been when you got to it. There are ways of creating a world and themes and emotions using words that, alone on a page, aren’t really very impressive. Committing to each book, working to make the listener come away with a sense of having spent worthwhile time listening to you: these responsibilities can be an easy joy, or quite a challenge. But my job is to make the book as good as it can be in audio format, and I take pride in doing my job well.

Q: Do you ever listen to audiobooks that you have recorded once the program has been edited?

To be honest, rarely. I am old-fashioned in that I still want to hold paper in my hands and read–I have only used an e-reader twice. But my wife and I listened to some John Steinbeck short stories I narrated because she loves “The Red Pony.” It was an interesting experience and I am glad we did it. But I also caught a mistake that I made that made it past everyone down the line from me, and was mortified.

Q: Does your voice sound the way you perceive it sounds when you hear yourself on an audiobook?

I have been doing voice-over of many types since 1994, so I know what I’ll sound like now. But I vividly recall back then how strange it was to hear myself coming out of a speaker, and sounding different from what I thought I sounded like. When I speak to would-be narrators, or when I work with writers on performing their work, the first thing I tell them is to call their own voicemail and read a few sentences–don’t talk: read. Then wait a while, call back, and listen. It is almost always something of a revelation.

Q: Do you have any dream books or authors that are on your wishlist to record in the future?

I am a big fan of Ian Rankin and Scandinavian mysteries, but I always seem too late to the book and it has already been narrated–often by a colleague I respect and am happy for.

I would love to narrate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short stories, and some of the formative books from when I was young and started my life-long addictive love affair with reading: The Book of Three, The Magician’s Nephew, Rocketship Galileo, Bridge to Terabithia, Henry V, and This House of Sky. In the modern world I would love to read Ian Banks and Neal Stephenson because their language is so deep and rich that I would have to hold myself to a crazy-high standard to do them justice. And in non-fiction I would love to read David Simon’s original book that became the TV show Homocide.  And I would love to narrate one of my late father’s books on American Political history. And Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down.

Q: What’s something about narrators that listeners might not already know? 

You can assume we’re not dressed well. One of the glories of voice-over is that nobody but the poor editor and director–if there is one–sees you. For an actor like myself who has to go on visual auditions and appear at screenings and in general look presentable a lot of the time, there is nothing so freeing and lovely as just throwing on a heavy metal t-shirt, a pair of jeans and sneakers, and going to work.

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