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 Interview with the Narrator:
Mel Foster


Tell us about yourself--what you do for a living (do you narrate audiobooks full time or have other means of income)?
I actually worked in advertising for more than 25 years. I spent 21 years at J. Walter Thompson in the Detroit office. I was an executive creative director. But as I worked my way up the ranks, I would often go to recording sessions for voice-overs for television or radio commercials. Because I had a decent voice we would edit the picture of a television commercial using my voice as the “slop track” or “scratch track.” We’d play it for the clients to get their approval, and then we’d go to New York or Los Angeles to record the “real” voice who, in some cases, would make a lot of money. Often, the audio engineer would say “Why are we replacing this voice [he didn’t know it was mine] with the one that we’re recording? It’s not as good.”

I heard that remark one too many times. I told myself that if I ever left advertising, I was going to try voice work. When, finally, I did “quit my day job” I put together a demo and waited for my phone to ring. It was a long wait. I found that I needed to pursue both commercial voice work and audiobook work. The commercial voice work obviously pays much better but the audiobooks are just a wonderful treat to read. What I like to believe is that I bring something to the party as a narrator by bringing the story to life for whoever is listening to it. I add a little interpretation to it, but I also like to think that this is the interpretation the author intended.

How many audiobooks have you narrated?

I have narrated three so far. My first one was “Firehouse” by David Halberstam. The hardcover reached number five on the New York Times Bestseller list. It was an account of a fire station in Manhattan that responded on September 11th. It’s a somber book and proved to be a really educational experience for me.

What are some of the challenges you faced being a narrator or doing narrations?
The biggest challenge is learning not to self-direct. When I record, I’m with an engineer, and a director. On my first day of my first book, the director very wisely said, “Let me be the director. Don’t try to direct yourself.” I think that’s one of the harder things on Earth to do. So many times while reading, even though I’d read the book in advance, I’d be halfway through a phrase before realizing, “Oh this is a parenthetical thought and I haven’t read it that way.” So I’d switch tone on the fly to make it sound parenthetical. If I were my own director, I would have stopped, backed up, and reread it. That was my ear, however, and my mind game. The director obviously thought that it worked, or else he would have stopped me. The biggest challenge, I find, is turning off my mind and letting the other person direct. It’s very hard. I would probably take many more hours to record an audiobook and everyone would lose money just trying to satisfy my own ear.

Are there different challenges for each style and genre of book? (ie. Fiction/Non-fiction, Christian/non-Christian, third-person/first person)?

Obviously with fiction, the challenges are keeping all the voices separate and distinct. Even in the nonfiction that I’ve read, there has been dialogue and two or three different characters.

The hardest part for me with this audiobook, was having to quote chapter and verse so frequently. It would always interrupt the flow of the thought for me. And, being Jewish, I wasn’t fluent with the names of all the New Testament books. I tripped over my tongue several times. Matthew? Luke? No problem. Ephesians? That proved a little more challenging.

What are some of the "behind the scenes" parts of the production that you liked? Disliked?
I absolutely dreaded the page turn. It’s amazing, it became a real game. One part of my mind would be reading this book and concentrating on that and the other part would say, “Ok, I’m going to turn this page—you’re not going to hear the page sound—no no no no!” Of course, nine times out of ten, they would hear it. I made most of my mistakes while reading the bottom paragraph on a page in anticipation of the page turn. Also, there are words that your brain just locks on and you can’t pronounce them. Any other hour of any other day of your life, you can pronounce it perfectly a million times in a row, but on this day, you can’t pronounce it. You wind up reading that sentence 15 times before you can get through it. The director said, very wisely, “If you ever get through it and you say that word correctly, pause after iteven if the text doesn’t indicate a pause there. Just pause slightly enough so that we can edit another ending onto it. So long as we have it pronounced correctly once, we can move on.”

How long did the narration take you to complete in the studio?

It depends on the length of the book. “Firehouse” took two eight-hour days, I believe. “The Anatomy of Greed” was two eight-hour days and one nine-hour day. A cassette has about thirty-three minutes per side and recording it in fifty minutes is a decent pace.

Did you meet the author or receive any feedback from the author?
No I haven’t, but I’ll tell you one anecdote from “Firehouse”. The book is a true story. All but one of the firemen died on September 11th. Some of them had some pretty complicated names. I had no idea how to pronounce them and I didn’t know what to do. Someone had told me it was the director’s job to figure out how to pronounce words, but as a good narrator, you should figure it out as well. I didn’t know who the director was, so I called the Manhattan Fire Department and asked to be connected to the station house in the book. They transferred me to public relations instead and I explained my situation, but received no help. So I called Manhattan information and asked for the author and they gave me his phone number. I told him I was going to be recording his book and needed to know how to pronounce all the names. He knew most of them, and gave me the phone number of a fireman who knew the rest. I would have felt terrible if one of their names were mispronounced.

How did you feel once you heard the finished product?

Today, I have been listening to “Firehouse” for the first time—I recorded it a year ago. Unfortunately, as I suspected, all I hear are the flaws. “Oh man! That ‘s’ hissed too much and you slurred that word. You could’ve interpreted that better.” Listening today, my internal critic had a field day.

Any new projects on the horizon?

I’m going to the Audiobook Job Market next week. I’ve met with the people twice before. The first year I was brand new, but a bunch of people were complimentary. A producer from New York told me that I was one of the two or three people in the whole group that he might be interested in. Then he added, “But I’ll probably never hire you because you live in Detroit.” The next year, a lot of people said I’d improved quite a bit. (Mind you, I had done commercials, but no audiobooks in the interim.) This year, now that I have narrated a few books, I believe it will give me some real credibility and I hope to land a few jobs in New York or Chicago.

Check out some of Mel Foster's great Narrations!
Hearing God's Voice - Audiobook on CD
Hearing God's Voice - Audiobook on CD

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