We asked Jeff Hays, narrator for the audiobook of Chris Rogers’ 2014 release Emissary, to sit down with us for an interview. Fans may be familiar with his vocals, but now he is offering a rare and exclusive peek at the man behind the voice.
CHP: Hello, Jeff. Thank you for agreeing to speak with us. Is Emissary your first audiobook narrating experience?
JH: Emissary is not my first audiobook. It is my twenty-sixth.
CHP: What brings you to this arena?
JH: I remember the first time I listened to an audio book. It was awful. I don’t even remember what it was, I certainly didn’t absorb anything from it, but I do remember thinking, “I could do better than this! I hope no one paid this guy . . .” It was a Librivox book (free audiobooks of non-copyrighted work; so no, they weren’t paid), so naturally I tried and quickly dismissed a few other books I had always wanted to read until I found one I could stomach. It was “Walden” by Thoreau, narrated by Gordon McKenzie. I still wasn’t impressed (sorry, Gordon) but I was at least able to tune in once in a while because he at least tried to be expressive and actively engage me, and his sound quality wasn’t atrocious. So then, I figured I would check out the work of professionals on Audible.com and, lo and behold, most of those audiobooks sucked, too. I was baffled at how difficult it was for me to find something, especially in fiction, that I could enjoy, and especially when I looked up books I’d already read and loved. This experience was years ago when I still had a day job that only required a negligible amount of focus. Little did I know, this experience would lead to my current career.
I imagine that voice-actors rarely get into the industry with audiobooks as their goal. This is because audio books don’t pay nearly as well as commercial jobs when you look at the amount of labor that goes into them. When I first jumped in at Voices.com, I wanted to get into cartoons and video games more than anything. I picked up a few commercial jobs here and there, but after my first audio book job for Pearson Education, which was a production of “Freak the Mighty” by Rodman Philbrick, unfortunately not available for retail, I started to get really excited about landing audiobook jobs. I was getting all this practice developing interesting character voices, getting familiar with different narrative styles to match writing styles, and generally becoming better at telling stories through pure audio. It’s almost as if I was able to do what I wanted to do from the get-go in animation or video games, only with audiobooks I’m doing everything. I’m setting up the scene, I’m playing all the characters, I establish the pacing, I color the words, and I’m responsible for facilitating a listener’s absorption of the author’s words.
CHP: What is your method for approaching variations in voice? How do you determine who a character is, tonally speaking?
JH: First of all, the criteria comes from the book. Essentially, I read a novel as a script. So, I read through the book once before I start recording, and whatever information I gather from the text is my first clue. As I’m reading, I test the characters out. I’ll read the dialogue out loud. Throughout all the books I’ve produced, a troupe of actors have emerged in my mind. I name each of them after the first role they play. If I think one of those actors is a good fit, I use them for one character or another. There are some actors in my mind that get more work than others, which I think of as my favorites, and naturally they become more skilled than others. I get to play fun games where I don’t happen to include a favorite in the main cast, but they still make cameos as minor characters later.
The second stage of finding the characters is what I call the “Casting” process. After I read the whole book, I start recording a “Casting File,” which is a few samples of dialogue from each important character, and I send it to the author, or whoever has the rights to the audio version of the book. Then they send me notes back on how they feel about the characters, and I make adjustments until the author is satisfied.
For Emissary, along with the fairly elaborate and colorful supporting cast, there were also six different narrators! The three most important narrators were Kirk Longshadow, Ruell the emo space-fairy, and President Addison Hale. Kirk was played by Landon, the protagonist from my M.R. Forbes’s “Balance.” This actor sounds more like the real me than any of the other actors. Ruell was played by Fred, who is an accountant/vampire character I developed specifically to guerilla audition for an author named Drew Hayes. I didn’t actually land that job, but I’ve used that voice ever since. Then the lady president was played by Charis. She is also from M.R Forbes’s “Balance.” She’s actually a British actress, but isn’t it funny how easily Brits can do American accents?
CHP: Did you have the opportunity to meet Chris Rogers? Did the two of you discuss methodology or expectations?
JH: We’ve communicated through email only, but I hope to have the pleasure of meeting her in person some day. When I produce an audiobook and I have direct communication with the author, I put them in the director’s chair. Granted, not many of them actually know what to do when they’re in it, and mostly point out idiotic technical errors I make here and there, but I encourage them all to be as critical as they think is necessary in order to get the best performance out of me. Thankfully, Chris was a thorough listener, and though she was content to let me handle things through most of the process, she also pointed out moments when I would sometimes start to drop key attributes of a character’s voice that I may not have picked up on through my last quality-control listen. I think the best understanding I got of Chris as a person was through reading and acting out her book. The composition of this novel leads me to believe that Chris Rogers has a clear understanding of what she wants, and knows how to make it so. Based on this and our few email interactions, I imagine she is a very down-to-earth and deliberate person.
CHP: Do you think the audiobook is a distinctly different experience for readers? What do you consider to be your role in setting up that experience for them?
JH: Audio is a distinctly different experience, for better or worse, depending on the policy of the producer, writer, and listener. When I read books, I allow my mind to naturally construct the images and sounds that set up the scenes and the story as a whole. I imagine everyone has this experience to some degree. The author has a vision, and their goal is to use nothing but the English language to put that vision into a reader’s mind. My role is to use my interpretation of the text to communicate the author’s vision to a listener instead. Whether or not I deliver the right tone, rhythm or inflection for a scene, or a monologue, or dialogue, has a drastic effect on whether or not the listener stays engaged, or even how they take the meaning of phrases. The better job I do, the less work the listener has to do to understand, and the more an author feels comfortable having their work represented in audio form.
CHP: What is it you enjoy most about your work? What is most challenging?
JH: More than anything, I enjoy making authors happy. There’s usually no one more pleased to see an audiobook produced than the person who wrote the book in the first place. A book is filled with people and places that authors spend a lot of time with, and I imagine that hearing those people and places come to life is a liberating and satisfying experience. It might be like discovering that the voice inside your head is a real living entity and not a brain tumor. I like to think I’m providing that for authors.
The most challenging part is marketing. . . and taxes.
CHP: What are you working on next?
I’m currently polishing off another book I was working on in clumsy tandem with Emissary. It’s a Young Adult Urban-Fantasy by a fresh new indie author named N.E Coneely called Witch for Hire. In a world (I couldn’t help myself, I’m a VO) where humans are at the bottom of a food chain dominated by all the classic supernatural beings we know and love in our traditional fantasies, a young clanless witch named Michelle Oaks runs a magic consulting firm who contracts her services out to various police departments in and around Cobb County, Georgia. . . Hey, shut up alright, yea, it’s embarrassing to narrate an entire novel as a female, but you know what? The author picked me, and I’m good at it. And this book is selling really well, and it’s the beginning of a series, so I couldn’t pass it up! Should be on Audible within three weeks. I literally just got off the phone with a former member of the notorious Mongols Motorcycle Gang named Scott Junior Ereckson five minutes ago, and it looks like I’ll be producing the audio version of a memoir he published called The Unknown Mongol. Lastly, I’m not positive I’m doing this one because there hasn’t been a stipend attached by ACX yet, but I’m looking at a sci-fi novel called Starship Eternal. I probably will do it because it’s by my favorite client, M.R. Forbes. Plus, I made the mistake of starting to read it before knowing the money for the job is there. . . and now I don’t want anyone else to ruin it. It’s that good. Also, it’s only been out a couple of weeks, and it looks like it’s already selling really well and getting good reviews.
A note from Megan here: Thanks for the interview, Jeff. I’m a big fan of Drew Hayes as well! What a fun surprise to find out you auditioned for his vampire accountant book. And for the uninitiated, don’t peek at Drew’s web serial unless you’re in the market for a new addiction. If you are, start with “Super Powereds”.