Often I am asked who my favorite narrator is, and despite a lot of competition, I always come out with one name, Phil Gigante. Phil has narrated nearly 150 audiobooks in his career, winning Audies in 2009 in the romance category for The Dark Highlander, and in 2011 in the Science Fiction Category for The Stainless Steel Rat. You can find a list of all Phil’s narrations here. Phil graciously took some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of my questions.
Bob: Starting off with the basics, how did you get started in audiobooks?
Phil: I had been acting in other mediums, from stage to film, when I met a man named Jim Bond, who was a director of audiobooks. He introduced me to the publisher, I did an audition at their studio, and the rest kind of fell into place. I started slow, maybe three books my first year. Now, fortunately, things have picked up considerably. Actually, I did my first books years ago–a children’s book project for the Lighthouse for the Blind. I did those as a volunteer; I never thought you could make a living that way!
Bob: Your latest work has been narrating The Stainless Steel Rat series. The original novel in the series recently won an Audie Award in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category. Tell me about bringing this classic series to life, and working with Sci-Fi legend Harry Harrison.
Phil: The Rat series has been amazing, wonderful fun. A childhood dream realized for me! When I was a kid, I read the Stainless Steel Rat series and always wanted to play Jim diGriz, the main character, in the movie. Well now, I get to perform ALL of Harry Harrisons’ characters. I actually campaigned for the audio publisher to buy this series–the only book I’ve ever done that for. I just had such a love for the books, I felt it would be beyond joyous to bring them to life. The books are a fantastic combination of pulp sci-fi, intergalactic crime thriller and snappy, hilarious dialogue. And since Jim diGriz, Harry Harrison and myself have all been accused of being a bit "over the top", it was a perfect fit!
The best part for me was developing a relationship with Harry. Getting to meet a childhood hero and becoming part of the world he created is absolutely priceless. He has been kind, funny, extremely supportive of myself and the audiobooks; everything a literary hero that inspired a 10 year old kid is supposed to be. Having his work recognized by the APA Audie Award is testament to how beloved he and the Rat still are, 50 years down the line. At one point I even autographed a copy of the Rat audio for HIM—which to me is like autographing a basketball for Michael Jordan. Unbelievable!
Bob: One of the things I have really loved about your reading of The Stainless Steel Rat series is how much fun you seem to be having recording it. How do you prepare yourself for voicing such an over the top character like Slippery Jim D’Griz?
Phil: Bourbon and a good cigar….Actually, the hardest part is just deciding how to pronounce some of the extraterrestrial words. Once I have that down, I just let my innate sense of humor and fun play into Harrys’ words, and let ‘er rip! You’re right, Bob, I do absolutely LOVE to record these stories and Harry’s amazing dialogue. I was always amped to get into the studio with a Rat book; I’m glad that shows on the audio.
Bob: Another series that you have worked on is Andrew Vachss Burke series. Vachss brings a sort of Bluesy Noir feeling to his novels that you capture so well. Yet, there is also quite a lot of dark material in these books as well. What steps do you take to ensure you find the right voice for a character?
Phil: Andrew Vachss is a brilliant stylist: he gives lots of straight-up clues about how his characters sound, especially Burkes’ "family" in the series. For Burke himself, since the books are written in first-person narrative, I wanted to give him a voice that reflected not only his hard-fought life of being an abused child, doing hard time, smoking, etc.—but also to echo the tone of the gritty and harsh underbelly of the pre-"Disney-fication" New York where he lives. Andrew’s musical references in the Burke novels add a nice layer of mood to his voice too, depending on if Burke is listening to Delta blues, Chicago blues or Judy Henske. That all plays in my head as I narrate, helps me develop a "soundtrack" to Burkes’ voice. With Vachss–my other mantra is "keep it real"–his characters are anti-heroes. If they do good or noble deeds, it’s usually just a side effect of something that that blossomed from revenge, anger or a good con-job. They don’t care if we like them or not.
Bob: The series that I actually “discovered” you on is Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series. This series combines a lot of humor with some brutal action. It also involves some of the best give and take between the two protagonists that I have ever listened to. Is it hard to perform dialogue between two distinctive voices and have it sound natural? Are there any specific techniques you use to accomplish this?
Phil: I agree with you; the dialogue between Hap and Leonard is absolutely perfect. It is sincere, sharp and so funny I’ve had to stop recording because I was laughing too hard to continue. I think the interplay comes off so well because Joe Lansdales’ writing allowed me to create very detailed pictures of the guys in my head. I lived in the East Texas that Joe writes about; I know these guys. Haps’ voice is mostly me, with a bit of my brother David thrown in for twang. He’s a good ol’ boy with a strong moral compass, a goofy sense of humor, and sometimes does incredibly stupid things out of the best of intentions. Leonard comes from my caustic side, a real smart ass—but one who deep down has strong feelings of love for Hap. It is easier to switch between Hap and Leonard, since Leonard had the deep bass rumble and precision of words, and Hap is so easy going. Joes’ words allow me to put on Hap and Leonard like a second skin at this point. It would be second nature to have a dialogue in real life as either of them now! There are always techniques you use in the studio for different voices–different pitch, speed of delivery, speech patterns, etc. It’s nice when the characters are so well defined you don’t have to consciously think of those things in the studio, as with the Hap and Leonard books.
Bob What kind of books go you enjoy reading when you don’t have to do it out loud for the pleasure of others?
Phil: Funny you should ask! I was just telling someone that as big a book junkie that I am, I have very little time to read for pleasure anymore! For me that translates to "I’ve only got two books open and in mid-read in the house, rather than six!" I grew up reading, and still read, hard science fiction; Clarke, Asimov, Dick, as well as the "pulp" masters like Harry Harrison. I enjoy a good mystery, and fact-based historical fiction as well. I’ve read the classics, and still revisit Conan Doyle and Dickens and Agatha Christie. Odd things, too–Anais Nin for example. I’m also a "true facts" junkie. I’ll read books of facts on anything, and I love behind the scenes books about everything from NASA to Eastern European history to Monty Python! I’m re-reading all my Neil Gaiman books now. That’s another thing about my books–if I like a book, if it means something to me, I’ll read it ten times and enjoy it just as much each time.
Bob: If you decided to write your memoirs, who would you like to be your ultimate ghostwriter, and who would you want to narrate it?
Phil: Ha! Great question! I don’t want to offend any of my author friends…but I think I’d love Douglas Adams or Neil Gaiman–they are great at taking the mundane and surrounding it with weirdness, which pretty much sums up my life! Or, Vachss could write of my misspent youth, Lansdale could be my semi-moral compass…and Karen Marie Moning could do the love scenes! And if I didn’t narrate it myself, I may have to choose Jim Dale, because no matter the material, he would give my life a touch of much needed culture and class.
Bob: Last Question. I have been told that your reading of Karen Marie Moning’s Fever and Higlander series has gained you a lot of female fans. So, for the sake of the ladies, what upcoming projects are you working on, whether they are audiobooks or something else?
Phil: The (mostly) female listeners of my romance titles have been absolutely wonderful to me! They are very passionate, intelligent and have inspired me to really give my all to narrating Romance books; something I never read before in my personal life. I’ve recently done some continuing series in the genre by Diana Palmer (hot, rugged cowboys), Sandra Brown (hot, rugged photojournalists) and Karen Moning (hot rugged Scotsmen and…paranormal…studs!). I’m chatting with M.J. Rose about some new projects as well. I’ve also recently done some Fantasy titles; the "swords and dragons" kind, not the "sword and hot tub kind"! Terry Brooks’ new "Shannara" title, and Tracy Hickmans’ new "Drakis" book are both amazing. I have some work in other media, as well as some audio titles I’m extremely excited about—but I’m not allowed to reveal those yet. So I guess I’ll just have to tease the lovely ladies a bit longer! The best thing about doing audiobooks is the cross pollination of fans; the romance listeners are now picking up the "Stainless Steel Rat" and Vachss titles, and the sci-fi and mystery fans are getting Karen Monings’ "Fever" series and giving the Urban Fantasy a go. It is an honor and a joy to be able to bring all the various genres and fans together. Sharing the love and passion for the the books is the best reward for me.