The Narration Nest segment is designed to give readers a way to connect with audiobook narrators, learn more about the process of recording an audiobook and get a better sense of the individual behind the voice.
It's Neil Hellegers who flies into the Narration Nest on this New Year's Day. Neil's blossoming portfolio notably includes the SciFi trilogy In Times Like These. Continue to the end of the interview for more about Neil.
Are you an audiobook listener? What about the audiobook format appeals to you?
I certainly am a listener, and have been for years, back to the binder-full-of-cassette days! I should say, I also have the bad habit of sometimes preferring a good old paper book read (or the odd eBook), but aside from enjoying an excellent narration, I have come to understand that listening to audiobooks is necessary for a narrator. Not to promote imitation of other narrators of course, but to widen one’s comprehension and practice, to be familiar with certain standards of pacing or structure, the industry at large, etc. Beyond that, what I love about audiobooks is the unique collaboration between the author, narrator, and the listener that elevates the text to a distinct level. It can draw the listener to reflect and resonate on certain ideas or themes that might not have been the focus of their own, internal read. Or it can expand the scope of a certain character beyond first impressions. The format can also be passive, which is what really distinguishes it from reading, but even then, when it draws you in, you know it’s good. Add to that the massive potential for education with Non-Fiction, read to you by someone who’s done their research, knows how all those fancy words should sound, and is driven with a passion to impart that knowledge directly into your brain! In any case, I’m an inveterate reader and lover of literature, and I’m thrilled that this is my job.
How do you respond to those who say audiobook listening is inferior to book reading?
Honestly (and this might be bad business practice), audiobooks aren’t for everyone! I’ll again admit there are certain books I would prefer to read than listen to. And while I’ve not (yet) been directly confronted by someone poking his or her finger into my chest and declaring audiobooks to be a sham medium compared to a paperback, if I was, I’d probably tell that person (gently) to take a look at my list, and I’d gladly gift them a copy of whatever looked interesting, and they can check it out. Hopefully they might come to at least see audiobook and book reading as two distinct possibilities, as opposed to, I guess, enemies? I have come to see audiobooks as not a replacement or a substitute for reading, but as another possibility, another chance for people to absorb literature. Especially those who listen when they can’t read, while driving, cooking, cleaning, working out, juggling or whatever.
Do you consider audiobook narration a performance? How does it compare with other types of work you've done?
Oh, absolutely. I get caught up sometimes with the “voice actor” vs. “narrator” vs. “actor” distinctions, because I’m not sure where the lines are...but, anyway, yes: the investiture of creative energies to generate work that evokes an empathetic, potentially cathartic response from an intended audience? I think Aristotle would agree: that’s performance. I believe that any kind of storytelling is inherently performative. My background is in live theatre, mostly Shakespeare, so I’ve come to see that the distinct challenge of narration is that the voice has to do all the work. Live theatre, as well as on-camera, obviously uses a gestalt of mediums, though Shakespeare, typically, relies much more on just text/voice to tell the tale. However, in a way, suspension-of-disbelief can be that much more sublime, when the audience/listener only has really just one thing to focus on: your narration. My goal as a narrator is to achieve that balance of emotional point of view with content to evoke that response. It’s tricky, and I’m learning all the time how to better hit said balance, but it’s the same task that goes all the way back to the first known performances of campfire-storytelling. But now, they have an app for that.
How do you care for your voice?
I drink lots of water. Lots. Like gallons. All the time, but especially on narration days. During a narration week, I try to severely limit my sugar intake, and get as much sleep as possible (which has recently depended greatly on the sleeping habits of the boy, but he’s been pretty solid in that respect). Otherwise, I always warm up for ten to fifteen minutes before starting work, based on a system I learned in grad school, where I was blessed with excellent voice teachers. It’s a mostly vocal, but also very physical warm up, as the voice is quite certainly a part of your body, and especially if you’re going to sit in a chair for six or seven hours, it helps to be loose. I try to maintain set hours each narration day if I’m working in my home studio, but even if in an...office? studio, I take frequent breaks (drink water) and a small, non-dairy lunch (with water). On days when I’m not narrating, aside from staying generally pretty healthy, trips to the gym and the like, I’m always thinking about my voice, about new dialects, bad habits, and alleviating the jaw tension that life tends to impart. This frequently takes on the appearance of muttering to myself as I walk down the street. C’est la vie.
How closely do you prefer to work with authors?
Really, as closely as possible. Especially considering so much of the work will happen alone in the dark, I always seek collaboration when it can be found. It’s not always part of the deal, as sometimes there are layers between me and the author (publisher, agencies, etc.), but if I have the chance, I always try to clarify unclear pronunciations (especially for SciFi/Fantasy world-building), and at the very least ask one, key question: “What is your ideal response or reaction from your reader or listener?” I then try to translate that answer into my super-objective, which is an acting term for one’s overall goal with this particular project, and direct all the bits and pieces toward that end. Given the chance for a conversation, we’ll talk individual characters, events, and/or themes, until I feel we’re on the same page. If possible and necessary, I’d shoot the author an email about a moment while recording, and drop a marker in the file to revisit that spot, if need be.
What about Nathan Van Coops’ writing made you want to narrate the In Times Like These trilogy?
Well, right off, the sub-genre, Time Travel, had me interested. I’ve always been a fan, so that’s what initially caught my eye. But the sample that I read for the audition wasn’t overtly Sci Fi, even though The Chronothon (which despite being Book 2 was the first I narrated) is pretty much a non-stop, time-hopping, interplanetary thriller. Instead, it was a scene about a guy watching a rocket launch with a girl. Sure, the rocket happened to be Apollo 11, and he goes on to talk about how they caught the Beatles in Candlestick Park the day before, and sat near Salvador Dali that morning at breakfast, but the first person narration was about how it felt to be with this fascinating, mysterious woman. Right away, I knew this was a writer who understood that the best stories are grounded in real human relationships, and that the fantastic can most amazingly take off from there.
How did you decide how each character should sound in this trilogy?
As with any trilogy or series, especially of the length and scope of ITLT, there are many, many characters. Almost all of them had clearly defined personalities, countries (or planets) of origin, or descriptions of vocal characteristics. When I prepare a text, I create a spreadsheet of characters that list those features, when they are introduced and removed, and who they talk with. Using Ben (the main character) as a base (with pretty much my voice, for dialogue and first person narration), I try to be sure, first and foremost, that everyone is distinct from everyone else. Attributions help, but if two characters are both about the same age, and come from basically the same place (like many of Ben’s friends in Book 1), then they have to be pitched differently, roughened up, etc. I then create a folder of short samples of each character, so I can refer back as I continue on, keeping them consistent and distinct. It’s a fair amount of work, but actually very enjoyable, as dialects and accents are loads of fun, and if I do my prep earlier, I can focus on acting them as real characters later.
What type of review comments do you find most constructive?
Unadulterated, rapturous praise. Kidding (mostly). But seriously: I consider myself rather new to narration, at a mere 50 titles. I’m still very much refining my technique and process, which, really, will continually be the case. While the general rule is to ignore reviews, realistically, I take them in to best get a sense of how my work and my style is coming across. Reviews that describe vocal qualities, patterns, habits, or how the listener was affected are of the most interest, to that end. Even when it’s not a positive response, I can always try to glean some useful critique (once I halt the despair cycle HA). I’m not going to transform my narration based on a listener review, but any and all feedback is weighed and given its due consideration.
If you could narrate one book from your childhood/youth what would it be and why?
Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series. So, so good. A brilliantly told Arthurian tale with twists and revelations, and a smorgeboard of British dialects. I haven’t read it since the second grade, but I’m sure it’ll hold up...
If you have the power to time travel, would you use it? If yes, when and where would you go?
Okay, so if we’re talking about Nathan’s time travel mechanic, what I’d be a little more interested in, rather than traveling to one specific time and place, is to travel across different current timelines, to see how various divergences resulted in distinct parallel realities. One of the things that I absolutely loved about Nathan’s approach was to look at time travel as happening in a multiverse, where, as Dr. Quickly says: “You can’t change what happened, but you can change where you live.” In other words, the Back To The Future model, where there’s a monolithic timeline that has you in the photo or not, is rather limited (and is at odds with quantum mechanics, to boot. #hugheverettwasright). In other words, Marty’s parents not meeting wouldn’t erase him, but actually create a new timeline without his being born. Given the right materials and means, he could go back to his own timeline, or stay with this new reality (shorter movie, I know). The characters in the ITLT trilogy are traveling through time and space, but also across various timelines, all of which they have to track. So, I would gather the anchors (just listen to the series) from a smattering of 2016 timelines that were tied to specific world events (wars, scientific discoveries, elections) with different outcomes, and visit all the different versions of now.
Bonus question: Any funny anecdotes from inside the recording studio?
Well, the industry standard is “What happens in the booth stays in the booth!” so I should probably leave it at that. But thanks so much for the opportunity to talk shop. It’s greatly appreciated!
Thanks to Neil for taking time out of his busy schedule to give us some insight into his work! You can read my reviews of the "In Times Like These" trilogy here.
Neil is a narrator, actor, and educator who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, son, and orange mutt. His voice work can be heard in numerous commercials, video games, and audiobooks (Tantor, Blackstone Audio, Audible Studios, Dreamscape Audio, Listen2ABook, Deyan Audio, and others). On stage, he has performed Shakespeare with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Aquila Theatre Company, and others, in new works in NYC, regionally, and internationally. On camera, Neil has appeared in film and on TV (GOTHAM, THE BLACKLIST, BLUE BLOODS and other), and numerous commercials. Neil has taught Shakespeare and Acting Technique to students of all ages. He has a BA from the University of Pennsylvania in Theatre Arts and Psychology, and a MFA in Acting from Trinity Rep Conservatory. He is a proud member of AEA and SAG-AFTRA.