Interview with Narrator:
Lance Eaton: Is narrating audiobooks your full time means of income?
Grover Gardner: It’s pretty much my main job at this point. I got into it when I was college in Florida in the late 70’s. A friend of mine had a contract to record some magazines for the Library of Congress. I thought that was a very interesting thing to do and then when I moved up to Washington [D.C.] in the early 80’s, I auditioned for the talking book program at the Library of Congress. I was accepted there and worked there for about twelve years. And then in the mid-80s, Flo Gibson, a narrator working at the Library of Congress here in Washington, started her own studio. She got involved in commercial audiobooks which were just coming up then and invited me to come and work with her. And it kind of went from there.
Eaton: What got your interest in narrating books?
Gardner: Oh, I always wanted to do it. I don’t know why. I don’t remember when—I was in college and had studied acting but was also interested in radio and broadcast and it always struck me as an interesting thing to do.
Eaton: And roughly how many audiobooks have you narrated?
Gardner: Awe, it’s over five hundred now.
Eaton: Do you work for any particular publisher or do you just contract out to various ones?
Gardner: I’m freelance. I’ve had a long association with Books On Tape and Blackstone Audiobooks, which has been very nice. But I’m self-employed.
Eaton: Do you have a particular favorite book that you narrated?
Gardner: Well there have been quite a few. I think the Will Durant series [The Story of Civilization] for Books On Tape was certainly a highlight. And doing “The Civil War” for Blackstone audiobooks was certainly a treat. I think some of the Hemingway things that I’ve done and Faulkner. The wonderful book by Richard Rhodes, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” is still one of my nonfiction favorites. And “The Cider House Rules” by John Irving. The novels of John Gardner—“October Light,” and “The Sunlight Dialogues” stand out in my mind.
Eaton: What are some of the challenges you faced being a narrator while in the studio and with various books? If any?
Gardner: There are always challenges. There are many languages, accents, pronunciations of words—I still find myself saying things wrong. We had a saying at the Library of Congress; they had a big sign hanging across one of the doorways that said, “But that’s the way I’ve always heard it.” And you always have to double-check; even if you think you know it. I’ve certainly gotten caught up any number of times, but I think most listeners are forgiving.
But I think the biggest challenge is that I just have one voice and one style. I think because I’ve done so many kinds of books the challenges are trying to capture the author’s tone and intention and style without always sounding the same. And I think in some books I’ve been more successful than others. I think my Hemingway comes across pretty well. I did a couple of Mitchner books for Books On Tape some years ago and I don’t know, they didn’t feel right to me, they didn’t sound right. And I think someone else do the rest of them I told them I just didn’t feel comfortable and didn’t feel I was getting the tone or style that he was after. On the other hand, John Irving was a good match.
Particularly difficult is when you start a classic like a Faulkner or a Hemingway or a Dickens or something of that nature—it’s a little intimidating. Imagine trying to read the first line of Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” You know there’s a lot of weight attached to that. There’s a lot of expectation on the listener’s part. So I always get a little nervous when starting a well-known book. I think “Oh, this is going to disappoint people,” or they’re going to think, “Well, that’s not how a great book sounds.” I think you kind of have to forget about it and plunge right into it. It’s still a little daunting. Some authors are more difficult than others. Cormac McCarthy is difficult to read, it’s a clipped, flat, dry style that’s very objective and lends itself to underdramatization—I think you have to find the right balance.
|Eaton: For the different styles and genres of books that you’ve read, do you have a particular favorite or has one given you more trouble than another?
Gardner: Well, nonfiction generally is easier. You don’t have to deal with characters and voices for the most part. I’m kind of a history fan myself--that’s always interesting to me. On the other hand, after doing a string of nonfiction books, you yearn for a plot and the chance to act a little bit. But do I have a favorite? I like hard-boiled detective fiction. I love Ross MacDonald, I’ve done some of those for Blackstone. I enjoy books about golf and sailing. I like non-fiction and contemporary history a lot. I would have given anything to read “Seabiscuit”, but nobody asked me to. What a wonderful book!
In terms of fiction, John Gardner was hard to beat. That was a nice match between myself and the author. There are certain genres that I don’t feel comfortable in. I don’t think science fiction is one of my strengths for some reason. Maybe it just isn’t as interesting to me as others. I think I’ve done some good science fiction books, but I don’t think that’s the first thing people think of when they think of me as a narrator.
|Eaton: Do you have a preference for abridged or unabridged?
Gardner: Well unabridged I prefer. Abridgements are difficult. I was recording an abridgement in New York once. It was a Star Wars script for Random House and at one point during a break, I turned to the director and I said, “Boy, these abridgements are tough.” And he looked at me funny and said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Well, as a narrator you feel a responsibility to make everything sound seamless, as if there are no breaks whatsoever in the story. But with abridgements, often you’re jumping from one place in the story to the next, and a good abridgement does that smoothly, but still as a narrator, it’s a lot of work to make it sound like there’s nothing missing.” The characters don’t always get flushed out; you don’t get all of the dialogue; you don’t get all of the narrative passages that fill in the background. So, I think they’re more work and it takes a lot of energy to convey the sense that nothing has been left out.
Eaton: What are some of the behind-the-scenes parts of the productions that you like or dislike?
Gardner: I work mostly out of my own studio, though I’ve done productions in New York and other places. I think that the difficult thing about working in your own studio is like any time you work for yourself, you have to motivate yourself to get the work done. If it’s a great book, you can’t wait to jump back in and get back to the story. If it’s a complicated book or a difficult book, you have to motivate yourself to get in there; keep the energy up; keep the whole book sounding the same; even some very good books are difficult. “Master of the Senate” was a huge job and Robert Caro has a very distinctive writing style that takes a lot of energy to pull off. He goes into a lot of detail in the book and as fascinating as it was a memorable book and one that I enjoyed doing, it was a lot of work to keep up the energy in a book that long. And research can be frustrating sometimes, although God bless the Internet, because that’s made it a lot easier. Often you can pop online and find things that even the author or an editor wouldn’t know or figure out.
|Eaton: Have you worked with a director and how has working with a director affected your performance? How do you feel about working with a director?
Gardner: Well, I’m of two minds of it. On the one hand, it’s nice to go into a studio, where somebody else is in charge and all I have to do is read. I just do my thing and there’s somebody there who will say, “Oh, let’s do that again.” Or “I’m not sure that’s as good as you can do it.” And I can relax and just sit there and do it. In that kind of situation, I’ll do an eight hour day in the studio.
When I’m working at home, it’s more work. I have to edit myself, listen more closely and review the material that I’ve done. On the other hand, if I have a particularly strong feeling about a book or a take on the book, it’s nice to just be able to do it my way, you know! But I’m sure there are books that I’ve done in my own studio that a director might have made better. I think for the most part they turn out pretty well. But I always enjoyed the experiences that I’ve had working outside my own venue. I haven’t come across a bad audiobook director yet.
|Eaton: So what do you think of audiobooks as a medium?
Gardner: What can I say—they’re fantastic. I mean around about 1990, if you’d ask me if I’d still be doing this now, I would have said, “Oh no, it’s a fad.” I thought, “This is great for now but people will get tired of them” or something. But with technology and working habits the way they are now in the United States, people don’t have time to read. I think that what’s great about audiobooks is that people listen to things that they might not read otherwise. I think that it’s been a great boon. I can understand wanting to read to yourself, I do at home; I don’t listen to audiobooks at home, I prefer to read to myself, but other people feel differently. Some people just love to be read to; that’s just how they absorb almost all their books. I don’t see anything wrong with it and I can’t see that you’re diluting or cheapening it in anyway. You’re getting the vocabulary, you’re getting an interpretation; you’re getting the ideas. It’s hard to beat, I think.
Eaton: Do you find yourself using your “narrating” voice while reading for leisure?
Gardner: Well, it can drive you crazy. If I’m reading a book just for myself and I come across something that I don’t know how to pronounce, it drives me crazy. And I have to go look it up because I can’t sit there and read the book—even in my head—not knowing how a name is said or a word is pronounced. So it sometimes interferes. It’s a little hard to relax and sometimes I’ll be reading a particularly difficult book that has complex ideas or complex sentence structures and I’ll start getting bogged down because I think “This will be really hard to narrate!” But then I have to stop myself and say, “But you’re not, so forget about it.” Narrating certainly changes the way you read to yourself. You tend to be more scrutinizing as a reader. I’m very aware of bad dialogue in a book. Even reading it in my head, I think, “I can’t stand this. I couldn’t perform this, it’s so bad and now I can’t stand to read it.” Sometimes I have to throw the book aside. You’re certainly more aware of typos, poor syntax and incorrect usage. I’m very picky when I go into bookstores. It takes a long time to find one that I’m going to feel confident that I’ll be able to relax and just sit back and enjoy it for myself without worrying about bad writing or anything like that.
|Eaton: Do you listen to audiobooks or audio products at all?
Gardner: When we take a trip, yes. I mean I don’t commute. I listen at home; I try to listen online. I try to listen to at least get a taste of new narrators, new books, different books. I try to keep up with the trends in audiobook narrating, because there are trends. Styles of narration come and go. Twenty years ago, you just read the book and that was good enough. Nobody complained. Well, now everything needs to be dramatized. Listeners have different expectations. They expect a performance. I try to keep up with what publishers employ what kind of narrators and what styles they use and how they approach the material. I mean you can’t stray to far from what you do well but I certainly try to stay current with what consumers are expecting to hear.
|Eaton: How do feel when you hear one of your own finished products?
Gardner: Oh it depends. Sometimes I think, “Boy, that sounds really good!” And sometimes I think, “Oh my God, what was I thinking?” And sometimes books I thought didn’t work out so well end up sounding just fine, and I think, “Well that was all right. It’s all there. It makes sense.” I always do my best to replicate the author’s style and intentions. And you have to always remember that people want to hear the book, period. If you don’t at least accomplish that, you’ve really blown it.
Eaton: What’s the process like in your own studio from the time you speak with the publisher to the time you send the finished product back?
Gardner: Well, they send me the book and it takes me about a week to read it, think about it, do my research. If I need to, I try to reach the author. Usually they’re very helpful, although they themselves don’t always have the answers I need; sometimes they’ll say “Gee, I’ve never had to say that name out loud so I don’t know!” Then I have to go to some other sources. You get very creative about research when you’ve spent twenty years of tracking things down on a daily basis. When I feel I’m ready and have most of my research at hand, I set up the computer, step in, and read the book. I work about 3-4 hours a day, sometimes more, depending on the production time frame. And then I review the material—either I review it myself or send it out to someone else for review. If the schedule is really tight, I review it myself. I do some corrections. Then I burn the thing on CDs and send it off.
| Eaton: What kind of interaction have you had with authors and have you received feedback from them?
Gardner: Usually no news is good news! But I’ve gotten some nice feedback. I got a very nice letter once from Shelby Foote, who was very appreciative of the job I did on “The Civil War.” Although, of course, he pointed out some mispronunciations. Fiction authors, you usually don’t hear from, though I did get a letter from Gregory MacDonald who told me I made his “Fletch” books sound better than he thought they really were, which was very amusing and flattering. Non-fiction writers for history books or social issues, if it’s very current stuff—for instance I recorded, “In Harm’s Way” by Doug Stanton, and the book had become very popular. There had been a lot of television interviews with the survivors who were featured in the story. Some of the names were difficult. So I had to call him—I didn’t want to mispronounce these people’s names, after all they had gone through to survive the sinking of the Indianapolis! And Mr. Stanton and I talked at length about a lot of things in the book and about the pronunciation of the Pacific islands, where some of the events took place. Sometimes I’ll even receive instructions from the publisher to contact the author because they want to be sure that things are done a certain way.
Eaton: What kind of awards have you received for your work in audiobooks?
Gardner: To date, I have 13 Earphones Awards from AudioFile Magazine. I think something I worked on received an Audie Award from the Audio Publishers Association. There have been a couple of Publishers Weekly “Best Audiobook of the Year” and things like that. They’re no Grammys but most unabridged books aren’t submitted for that. AudioFile Magazine puts me in their annual Golden Voice update which is very nice of them.
Eaton: Do you have any new projects?
Gardner: There’s a new series of Will Durant books that Audio Partners is publishing. It’s wonderful to come back and read more Durant. They asked me if I was tired of it, after doing the huge series for Books On Tape, and I said, “Oh, I couldn’t be.” It’s always a pleasure to narrate his things. Books On Tape just released “Franklin and Winston” by John Meacham, about the relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill during World War II. And there’s a book coming out soon about Arnold Rothstein, the famous underworld figure who fixed the 1919 World Series, really terrific--that’s for Blackstone. Fortunately there’s always something coming along. I’ve been lucky to survive a lot of changes in the audiobook industry and still maintain some great relationships and continue to do this job that is so wonderful and interesting.
Grover Gardner's Narrations include: