One of the fondest memories people have is of their parents reading to them as kids. There’s something special about listening to a book, rather than reading it, that can capture the imagination and allow the listener to be fully immersed in story. Be it the inflection of the narrator’s voice or the ability to add a sense of drama, the act of listening to a story adds to the experience.
In Stephen King’s amazing book On Writing, one of his tips to becoming a better writer is to read as much as possible. A great way to do this is to listen to audiobooks. In the book, King says he’s listening every time he enters the car, does a chore or waits in line. But what does it take to get the words of the page into your ears?
Adventures in Poor Taste recently spoke with Sean Pratt, who most recently narrated David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest which was released on audiobook last month. Sean has been in the business for quite a while, narrating over 600 books from every genre imaginable. What better narrator to interview and learn the process from than the one that had to speak 1,088 pages of fiction, which translates to over 56 hours in the audiobook. In this book alone Sean had to capture dozens of characters in one of the most important works of the last twenty years.
There might be plenty of reasons voice acting sucks, but this interview just might quell them.
Who is Sean Pratt?
AiPT: First off, I want to thank you for spending the time to answer a few questions. An audiobook narrator seems to be a job not many people are familiar with. According to audible.com, you’ve narrated just over 140 books that are on the site. Considering an audiobook can range from 10 hours for a 200 page book to 50 hours for a 1000 page book, that sounds like a lot of work. How long have you been narrating books?
Sean Pratt: Oh Lord…well, let me start by giving you a number…660. That’s how many books I’ve recorded in 16 years; both under my own name and my “nom de vox” Lloyd James.
AiPT: How did you get your start in the business?
Sean Pratt: I got my start when I moved to Washington DC in 1996. I got the name of a narrator/producer, Grover Gardner, from an actor I knew and proceeded to call him up. Grover had me over for coffee and gave me the inside scoop on becoming a narrator, helped me cut a short demo and promised to shop it around. Well, I was so desperate for work at that point, I proceeded to cajole/bully/charm/pester him until he got on the phone to Books On Tape and Blackstone Audiobooks and said, “For the love of God, please send me something for this guy to narrate, he’s driving me CRAZY.” Not one of my proudest moments as an actor, but it worked…so, what can I say?
In the beginning, I told BOT and Blackstone, “I’ll narrate anything that no one else wants.” I knew that becoming a good narrator was going to take hundreds of hours of work and I didn’t want the added pressure of trying to make A-list material sound great. It was tough going but I learned a lot; researching information, engineering, keeping my voice in good shape, pacing myself throughout the day, speaking foreign languages.
AiPT: 660 narrated books is a lot. You must have tackled every conceivable genre.
Sean Pratt: I’ve narrated books in almost every genre you can think of….and some I’d rather not discuss…
AiPT: What are some of your favorite books you’ve narrated?
Sean Pratt: Favorites would include: Ben Hur, Raintree County, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Michael Burlingame’s Bio of Abraham Lincoln, The Drunkard’s Walk, many of the Robert Heinlein books and A Death in the Family…to name a few.
Two of the many books Sean Pratt has narrated.
AiPT: In many ways narrating an audiobook is like acting, probably harder in some ways since you can only use your voice.
Sean Pratt: I liken narrating an audiobook to being a musician playing in a symphony; you have this enormous piece of music (the book), with different movements, tempos, rhythms, melodies, etc. You have to be sensitive to the various changes in each chapter or scene, but also sustain the arc of the story line…not an easy thing to do under the best of circumstances. Also, you’re trying to find the author’s voice and make it your own and you’re hoping that they’re good with language. My background is in classical theatre. I was a member of The Pearl Theatre in NYC; a classical repertory theatre with its own resident acting company. So how words sound and flow together is very important to me. I can always tell when an author has taken the time to read their work aloud in order to hear what the words sound like.
AiPT: Do you have a favourite book that you would like to narrate?
Sean Pratt: Not really. Actually, I read very little for my own entertainment; recording 40 books a year will do that to you.
The Narration Process: What Does it Take?
AiPT: It sounds like it’s just as hard as breaking into film. Every artistic industry takes a certain tenacity. Since you’re trying to find the author’s voice what methods do you use to find it?
Sean Pratt: How do they use language; what kinds of phrases, word selection, humor, etc. But much like looking at a piece of music and then playing it, there’s a certain amount of it that you can only get once you start speaking the text. Then you really begin to hear the rhythm and melody of their voice.
AiPT: It seems like picking the accent of a character requires delicate thought as well, considering it can say so much about the character. How do you prepare for narrating a book?
Sean Pratt: I see this breaking down into four different categories:
1) I tell the actors who come to my audio narration class that the first and most important voice you must find, is your own. A narrator’s ability to sound totally natural, as if what they’re telling you is spontaneous, is critical to drawing the listener in…especially if it’s non-fiction!
2) With fiction pieces, you’re looking for clues about how a character is described; where are they from, their age, etc. This leads you to building a voice from scratch that suits that character.
3) But sometimes one character voice is chosen in response to an earlier decision you’ve made. If there are four Scottish guys of approximately the same age in a scene, and one of them is our Hero, then you might just give this one a nasality, that one a higher voice and the other a slower tempo.
4) Sometimes you have favorite voices that just fit certain kinds of characters. My “Ronald Reagan” voice for the sheriff; My “Jack Nicholson” for a killer; my “Keanu Reeves” for some dude from California; though I’m not trying to mimic them exactly, I am trying to catch the flavor of their voices.
AiPT: Do you practice accents or characters on the side between projects?
Sean Pratt: All the time…everywhere I go…much to the chagrin of my wife and daughter….
On Narrating Infinite Jest
AiPT: You just completed Infinite Jest (I.J.) which ended up being 56 hours long. How long did it take you to complete this recording?
Sean Pratt: For my end of I.J., including prep time, recording and fixes….about 500 hours. For the total, including mastering? Lord, I have no idea.
Sean Pratt’s most recent work is the 56 plus hour recording of Infinite Jest.
AiPT: Was the process more arduous due to the length?
Sean Pratt: When I’m doing a book that’s more than, say, 15 hours long, I like to work on it in chunks; taking a break from it to work on something else in the meantime. After awhile you can’t see the forest for the trees…or should I say, the story for the words? Ben-Hur and Raintree County were also like I.J. in that way. This was also a necessity, because it was so hard to get John McElroy, the Producer/Director, and me in the same place for more than a week at a time every 3 months or so.
AiPT: David Foster Wallace is known for using footnotes to break the reader away from the main narrative. The choice was made to not record them for the audiobook. I can’t imagine how many more hours this would be if you recorded the footnotes. That said…how can they say this book is unabridged if the footnotes aren’t recorded?
[Editors Note: Hachette has informed us they are in the process of recording the footnotes.]
Sean Pratt: I believe the thinking goes that the text is the text and the footnotes are the footnotes. Of course, I.J. is an exception to this rule as they give some much back story, but generally speaking, in the audio world you NEVER record the footnotes unless asked to by the the author or publisher. Come to think of it, in 650 books, I’ve never recorded all the footnotes in a book, only selected ones.
There’s also the issue of continuity of the main story for the listener. If you have a really long footnote to listen to you may have trouble recalling where you are in the plot when the narrator returns to the story.
LISTEN TO an excerpt of Sean from Infinite Jest: Year of Glad
AiPT: I’ve caught a few mistakes when it comes to audiobook recordings over the years, which makes sense since making mistakes is part of the human condition. With the length of Infinite Jest far outpacing most books was it on your mind to catch any mistakes?
Sean Pratt: I have NEVER narrated a book that didn’t have a few editing mistakes; hey, editors are people, too. I can say that, for a book of this length, there were very few.
I think that’s because, and this is my opinion here, that Mr. Wallace must have read the book aloud when he was working on it; by “read” I mean “narrated” after a fashion. I can always tell when an author has taken the time to read their work aloud in order to hear what the words sound like. The flow is always better, the tempo is consistent and the words and phrases have a real melody to them. When you narrate a well written book, like I.J., it’s like a surfer catching a wave; it just carries you along.
AiPT: What is the hardest book you’ve ever had to read?
Sean Pratt: What, are you crazy? Infinite Jest, man!
The Life of the Narrator
AiPT: You write about being in charge of producing, acting, directing and engineering a production on your own here. Do you ever receive notes or outside direction from the author or the company funding the process?
Sean Pratt: In general, no. That’s one of the hats they’ve hired me to wear. I’d say that of the 660 books I’ve narrated, all but a handful were done by me, wearing all four hats, on my own. Every so often, if I have contacted the author during the research phase of my prep work and I have any questions, I’ll bring up those issues. That’s not to say that I don’t research the book online; I did a fair amount of work looking into I.J., for instance. Also, I generally have the audio company do the proofing on their end….after that many books, I can’t bear to listen to myself say it twice. Then I take the proofer’s notes and either integrate them into the recording or do them “wild” and send them to their engineer to cut and paste into the recording.
AiPT: Having been in the industry for 16 years do you get to choose your projects or do they come to you?
Sean Pratt: Actually, the more accurate question is, “Do I have to audition for my projects or do they come to me”, that’s because you never know what’s coming up for an audio company to produce. So the answer is…sometimes the former, but now (Thankfully!) mostly the latter. I’ve established myself with about 8 different companies in the US and they will contact me and say something like, “We’ve got this project in mind, here’s the synopsis, the deadline, etc.” and any other pertinent details, and then I’ll see if I can fit into my schedule. You have to be very careful and not over-promise to too many clients; you can only record so much on any given day; I call it “eating the elephant.” Then, every so often, I’ll be asked to audition for some project where the author or publishing company has a say in the casting. When I auditioned for, “A Death in the Family” by James Agee, his widow was the one who signed off on me getting the project.
AiPT: Audiobooks seem to be getting a lot of traction now that audible.com and iTunes are making it easier and sometimes cheaper to purchase audiobooks than in years past. A Month or so ago audible.com anounced they will pay authors 1 dollar per sale to gain the rights to record their books.
Being inside the industry would you say business is better than ever?
Sean Pratt: The growth has been exponential and recession proof….knock on wood. Which is why it’s such an exciting field for performers to get into, though the bar is set pretty high when it comes to the quality of recording, etc. Unfortunately, a lot of performers, and even non-performers (or muggles, as my acting students refer to them) think that just because they’ve read for their kids, or have a theatre background, that they’re a shoe-in for becoming a narrator. It’s so much more involved than people realized, as my article about “Four Hats in One Box” touches on.
AiPT: Many people argue, my friends included, that listening to a book is a lazy way to complete a book. They argue reading and looking at the words is a different experience and possibly better for retention. Care to comment?
Sean Pratt: Lazy?! I beg to differ! Yes, they are two entirely different experiences, but audiobooks meet the needs of avid readers everywhere who, for a variety of reason, can’t find the time or have some extenuating circumstance that prevents them from reading.
The woman who flies all over the country selling her company’s products; the college student who needs to squeeze in extra study time during his night job; the busy mother who lives her life as a taxi service for all her kids’ activities; the blind senior citizen who misses reading her romance novels or mysteries; the child who discovers the power of storytelling and gains interest in reading; the man who can cope with a hellish commute because he can stay current on politics or history. ALL these people want to be entertained, engaged and enlightened and audiobooks allows them to have that. Harrumph!
Tips on Breaking In
AiPT: For any reader who might be interested in joining the field do you have any advice to get them started? I’m curious if there’s an area they should move to in order to break in similar to Los Angeles for actors.
Sean Pratt: Though there are audio companies scattered throughout the country that have recording studios, you can live anywhere as long as you have a home studio. Of course, that’s another topic entirely! The key is to take the time to build it right, understand the engineering involved and network to find out whose casting what and where.
For beginners I’d say to look around your area for:
1) Volunteer work such as reading for the blind, etc.
2) Look for classes in audiobook narration, either locally or online.
3) Go online and join the various narrator chat groups to read up on the industry from our perspective.
4) Practice, practice, practice…I tell the performers who take my classes to record yourself, put it on your iPod and listen back to it. How do you sound? Did you put yourself to sleep? How could you do it better?
AiPT: What upcoming projects are you working on?
Sean Pratt: How to be Richer, Smarter and Better Looking than your Parents by Zac Bissonette, The Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts and Screw Business as Usual by Richard Branson
AiPT: I’m about 40 hours into Infinite Jest right now and can safely say I’ll be looking forward to those future releases as well as picking up some of your previous work. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I appreciate it.
Sean Pratt: Any time.
Sean is a regular contributor at Suite 101 where he contributes articles on the business.