It’s back-to-school time, and August is National Crayon Collection Month. I didn’t know about this until I started researching blog topics—don’t ask, my mind works in scary ways sometimes. Anyway, there’s this cool non-profit organization aptly named Crayon Collection that gathers gently used crayons and distributes them to schools in high-poverty areas. This does two things: keeps perfectly good crayons out of landfills and puts them in the hands of children to encourage their creativity. Who knows, they may be the masterminds writing our mysteries of tomorrow!
Based on titles in the genre, our past and current scribes were likely influenced by the wax art supplies of their childhoods. Although they don’t get quite as creative as the marketing gurus at Crayola—laser lemon?—crime writers (and their publishers) make use of color frequently in titles. John D. MacDonald started the themed series fad using color names for his Travis McGee titles (THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY, A PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING, etc.). David Handler followed suit with his Berger and Mitry mysteries (THE COLD BLUE BLOOD, HOT PINK FARMHOUSE), while many other crime writers had single titles featuring a veritable rainbow of color names.
A freelance book and audiobook reviewer, I have also written numerous interviews of authors and narrators. Story entrances me and if I'm not reading for myself I love having a story told to me. In addition, I'm an avid photographer, where stories are in the images!
Famous for his resonant voice, narrator John Lee chats with AudioFile
When Golden Voice Narrator John Lee agreed to hop onto Goodreads for a narrator interview, we couldn’t believe our luck! John Lee is famous for his resonant voice, thoughtful characterizations, range, and stamina. He’s won awards for everything from serious history books to mysteries to Ken Follett’s sprawling novels. He has had many titles reviewed by AudioFile reviewers over the years, including the Earphones Award Winner Sweetland. Read a selection of our readers’ questions and John’s thoughtful answers below.
Q: I adored your performance of Georgina Harding’s The Solitude of Thomas Cave: A Novel, which takes place mostly in the Arctic winter. How did the situational details affect you while you were narrating?
John Lee: Some books excel at what I call mood. The Solitude of Thomas Cave seemed to have a sort of mournful music under the whole thing. It’s not quite the same as having an imagined soundtrack, it’s more like that unidentifiable hum you hear sometimes which catches your attention and you can never quite figure out where it’s coming from. That tone informs the whole reading and a book such as this requires a poetic approach or perhaps it might better be described as a musical approach: my tone needs to match what feels like the tone of the book. I certainly ended recording sessions on Thomas Cave with a sense that I was emerging from another world. It was very immersive.
Q: You are the historical fiction king—in my (audio)book. How do you decide if you’ll use an accent for characters or the narrative text? How do you prepare for speaking in an accent?
John Lee: The decision to use accents is always a tricky one. I just did a book about a historical Irish character and it was clear that both the narration and the characters needed to be in an Irish accent. Yet, if I am doing something like the Ken Follett’s The Century Trilogy there are dozens of accents and the narration needs to be in my voice simply to distinguish it from the Welsh and the German and the Boston ones. I prepare for doing accents mostly by trying to call up the voices of people who speak that way. It’s partly a visual recall of the people and partly a sort of recording I have in my head of their way of speaking.
Q: Can you tell us how you engage emotionally with your characters and how you manage tension and pacing?
John Lee: Pace is the heart of the matter. There are two basic schools of thought—one that the ear or brain takes in information at a certain speed, and that speed is quicker than you might think. The other is that a book is different from pure information and needs to be read a little slower. Because English people tend to speak more quickly than Americans, directors are always asking me to slow down. Speed, though, helps raise tension in the right places. And tension is that indefinable middle ground where the silence and the speed are just right. Engaging emotionally is a matter of basic acting. I am a creature of the theatre and came to audiobooks from a world where you know if you’ve paced yourself and held the tension well simply by sensing the audience’s reaction. I think of audiobooks as my personal theater space.
Jump over to John Lee’s narrator page for more of the interview, and come join the conversation in the Audiobooks group on Goodreads so you can take part in our next narrator Q&A!
Hear John Lee’s performances of The Century Trilogy that includes FALL OF GIANTS, WINTER OF THE WORLD, EDGE OF ETERNITY.
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” —Joseph Campbell
AF: What do you think a new generation might gain from being introduced to The Hero with a Thousand Faces?
TH: I hope they gain a new perspective on our history–not just of the Americas, but of humanity as a whole–a sense of the unity of humanity across cultures and societies. Chinese, Indian, African, American, European–look at this, guys! Look at all these wonderful stories we have in common!
AF: Did you have any connection to the book prior to your selection as director?
TH: There were two linkages. I first made Mr. Campbell’s acquaintance when I read Hero as part of one of my university classes. I was blown away. I watched this incredible dance of humanity spin before my eyes, and it was an awakening for me. Many years later, I directed an abridged version of the work–I wanted more, but at the time it was the best I could do. It was a wonderful experience, nonetheless. And then the third time, this time, was my personal charm. This time, I got to tell the whole magnificent story.
AF: Why three narrators?
TH: I think the three-voice structure was a brilliant way of helping listeners–as opposed to readers–keep track of what’s going on. Readers can always flip back a page and check out the story flow. Listeners can’t. So how do you keep things clear? In this case, you put Mr. Campbell’s narrative in one voice; then there are literal and psychological excursions that depart from the narrative, and those you give to a discreet voice to set them apart; finally, there are a number of first-person female narratives in the text, and/or text that I believe is more effectively expressed through a woman’s voice. I think the totality of those voices helps the book in its audio incarnation.
AF: What was your greatest challenge during the recording?
TH: First, identifying which text was to be read by which readers. I went back and forth on many sections of the book to apportion it to “the best” narrator. In the end, this whole process ultimately worked best when I stopped trying to figure out the book and let it tell me what to do. Linked to this, I had a four-page recording log to keep myself honest and make sure I actually recorded every word. The book was about a 250-piece jigsaw puzzle by the time I was done, and I had to be very careful not to lose a piece. Second, the work’s pronunciations. Many of which were ancient and/or arcane, and/or nearly impossible to track down. But I think that ultimately we got them all right. I thank my lucky stars for three really, really smart readers who already knew many of the words and allusions and could back up my homework. Related to this, consistency of pronunciation was also a challenge. Keeping hundreds of names straight through 400+ pages was often a daunting task.
AF: Anything else you’d like to share?
TH: I’ve always thought that four of the greatest words in the English language are: “Tell me a story.” And what I do, my vocation, my avocation, as it has been for so many years, is tell stories in the grand sweeping context of this wonderful, amazing thing we call The Oral Tradition. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to do what I do–and what I did here was to tell one of the grandest stories of all: us. And I told it by directing one of the greatest books ever written about us: THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. And reading the story are three of my favorite talents–Arthur Morey, John Lee, and Susan Denaker–with whom, cumulatively, I’ve probably recorded a hundred books over the years. How could it possibly get any better than that?
Narrator John Lee was AudioFile’s guest on GoodReads on Wed. & Thurs, Feb 15 & 16. Follow the conversation with John about his audiobooks in this discussion.