Narrative Overtones: My Interview With Michael Goldstrom

29 06 2012

Michael Goldstrom is a relatively new to me narrator who has recorded books like A Confusion of Princess by Garth Nix. My first experience with his work was Variant by Robison Wells, in which I said he “has the potential to be a great narrator.” Well, in Mira Grant’s Blackout, he proved that statement true by giving an excellent performance in my favorite audiobook of 2012 so far. Michael Goldstrom was kind enough to answer a few of my hard hitting questions.

I want to thank you for taking the time out today to talk audiobooks. First off, could you tell me how you became involved in the audiobook industry and give a bit of an overview of you career?


Michael Goldstrom:  I’m really appreciative, but does your audience read? Part of me thinks I should narrate this. Anyway, I’ve always been an aural person (hello ladies), and have loved creating worlds out of sound by either recording sketches, radio shows, characters, or sound worlds in fake languages. With sound, our imaginations go wild, and we become our own filmmakers.

In college we had a phone system called the Rolm phone, where you could easily change voicemail greetings (and prank friends and connect them so they each thought the other called), and every day I’d change the greeting with different characters and scenarios: a mafia den, Brazilian carnival, an international whorehouse… those really were the days.

At Juilliard I up-leveled my skill set to perform classical text, and do mafia voices but with greater breath control. Then I worked as an actor in New York doing plays, musicals, television and film, and I also auditioned for Saturday Night Live. Now in Los Angeles I focus on comedy, both in acting and writing. I also performed as the narrator in Peter and the Wolf with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and  currently perform in Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon for the Cartoon Network.

I’ve always wanted to do audiobooks, because they merge the fun of characterization with the luxury of long form storytelling. Audiobooks are like deeply intimate films in the mind of the listener, and as the narrator, you have the power to help create those images. You dictate the pace, the tone, and create entire worlds, by…dictating. Literally. You are a dictator. This fulfills my German heritage.

You are relatively new to audiobooks. Is there anything about the industry or the process that surprised you?

Michael Goldstrom: I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, because every community has this, but the audiobook community is a relatively insular world consisting of stars , passionate fans, critics, haterspublishers, all centered around aural recordings of stories. I find that amazing, amusing and as the Spanish say: great.

Striking about the publishing industry though, is how much authors must actively self-promote their own work – primarily through Twitter. Imagine if Melville had to do that- “@mobynotthemusician New novel coming out – whales, natives and peg legs in a crisp 458 pages. Kindle anyone? Lol. Check it out!”

Through Twitter I also enjoy reaching out to the authors…they’re alive; why not take advantage?


Before I get into the book I really, really want to talk about, I wanted to talk a little about my first audiobook experience with you, which was your reading of Variant by Robison Wells. Variant is a sort of modern Lord of the Flies, with a host of wildly different young adult characters. What was you biggest challenge when recording this novel?

Michael Goldstrom: In Variant, the narrator is a jaded teenage boy, and all the main characters are within a four-five year age range, so differentiating the characters was a challenge. This was amplified by the story itself in which these characters have no contact with the outside world, so their personalities are in question. Also, their very existence is in question – once you get to the end of the story, you see why.

Before reading Variant, were you aware of the true phenomenon that the Young Adult market is?

Michael Goldstrom: While mentally I feel like a young adult, I definitely did not know the young adult market was a phenomenon.  Is it a phenomenon? What constitutes a young adult anyway – ability to not buy beer, or a penchant for zombies? This is a deep question.

As a narrator, do you feel your talents are more suited to Young Adult and Middle Grade books, or adult books?

Michael Goldstrom: My talents might be most suited to the “Pre-School Epic” genre. I love the fun you can have with young adult and children’s books. How often can you play an invisible bandapat in adult literature (aside from the deleted chapters in Fifty Shades of Grey)? That said, I love the richness and variety of genres, so my goal is to work in all genres at all levels: thrillers, mysteries, historical fiction, neuroscience. You’d hope four years at Juilliard would prepare you for anything, or at least that’s what I tell myself. Right?…Anyone? Hello? It’s very quiet here.

Now, I want to talk about Blackout, which, full disclosure, is my favorite audiobook of the year. Blackout is the third entry in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh Trilogy, and you are the third narrator to handle Shawn Mason’s perspective. Before taking this on, did you read or listen to the previous editions of this series, or did you go into the character cold?

Michael Goldstrom: I’m so thrilled you liked it! I went in cold. Very cold. Think Antarctica, add a dash of Siberia and top it with a WASP from Connecticut.

Personally, I thought you nailed Shawn Mason, but where you really excelled was in some of the peripheral characters, particularly Mahir. Can you tell us a little about your process for creating authentic voices that fit the background and personalities of the characters?

Michael Goldstrom: Very appreciated. Text analysis gives you clues to the characters.  It’s the same process when preparing  for theater or film. Usually, everything you need to know about the characters is either explicitly expressed or implied in the text.  For example, in Blackout, Mahir’s name gives us information about his background, then his schooling and family are mentioned, and of course how he relates to other people and his environment, and the actions he does and does not take all reveal information about how he might sound.

For Blackout, you co-narrated the novel with Paula Christensen, each of you handling a different perspective. How did the two narrator system work? Was their any interaction between you and Paula, or was their a director or other outside person that helped coordinate the recording?

Michael Goldstrom: Our truly masterful maestro of all things audiobook related, Bob Deyan of Deyan Audiobooks supervised the recording. Paula and I overlapped on one day and we briefly discussed some voices, then had lunch. ‘Twas a good day.

As far as your personal tastes, do you read or listen to audiobooks for pleasure, and what are some of your favorites?

Michael Goldstrom: I listen to audiobooks when I drive to Northern California to see my family.  It’s my traveling therapy before entering the storm.  Unfortunately, I’m a productivity book fanatic, so I listen to a lot of those kinds of books -”Getting to Yes, Getting to No, and my favorite, “Time Management for People Who Listen to Too Many Productivity Books.” I’m just now reviewing my audiobook fiction list so I can start to learn from narrators I like. When I heard Frank Muller’s audiobook of Orwell’s 1984, I couldn’t stop “turning the page.”

Is there one novel or author who you would love to narrate that you haven’t yet had the opportunity to take on?

Michael Goldstrom: Michael Chabon or Andy Borowitz or of course The Last Testament, A Memoir by God, with David Javerbaum.

When not performing, what do you do to blow off steam?

Michael Goldstrom: I was asked that in Central Park when I was 15. I was then asked if I wanted to “blow off steam” behind the bushes. Now I play piano, accost other people’s dogs, or write.

Besides being a narrator, you also act and perform comedy. If someone was to show up to see you perform live, what should they expect?

Michael Goldstrom: I’ll let the LA Times speak: “a tour de force that will leave you roaring”. Aw yeah.

Of all your performances, which would you consider the highlight of your career?

Michael Goldstrom: Sadly, Cabaret in high school.

Is audiobook narration something you plan to continue on a regular basis? Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to share?

Michael Goldstrom: I absolutely love narrating audiobooks, and look forward to the overwhelming plethora of literature demanding to be read out loud.  Snooki may need her autobiography read since she cannot speak language. But I do have some upcoming projects – and to be kept apprised please follow my Facebook Page or Twitter or Google + Page (yes I use it and love it).

Someday, when someone writes the story of your life, who would you want to perform the audiobook version?

Michael Goldstrom: There’s a lot of assumptions in that question, but going with it – hopefully I myself will be able to narrate it with advances in cryopreservation, or by having kept my brain alive and speaking through Siri. Although in that case I’m not sure where royalties would be sent.

 

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Audiobook Week: What Makes A Good Narrator?

28 06 2012

Who are your favorite narrators and why? What do you look for in a narrator? Have a preference between male or female narrators?

As someone who has listened to as many audiobooks as I have, you develop certain pet peeves. Yet, I’m attempting to stay positive for Audiobook week, so I am going to talk to flip it around a bit and call it my narrator pet preferences. I think this post will serve two purposes. First for listeners and fellow bloggers, when I do review an audiobook these are things I look for and the terms I apply to these aspects. Secondly, for narrators, when I critique your performance in a way that can be seen as negative. Typically it is because of one of these issues. Often times, I am not saying your performance is bad, but it could have been better for me as a listener if these things were achieved.

It should be noted that I am in no way an expert. I am a listener. Narrators have directors, producers, groupies and hanger-ons who probably give them better advice than me. So, take these bits of advice from a novice listener for what they are. When you are recording a book, ask your self, "What Would The Guilded Earlobe Do?" Then chide yourself for getting distracted.

1. Find A Distinctive Voice:

While this applies most to First person narration, it can also include third person as well. Most narrators have what I call a “default narrative voice.” This is the voice you typically hear when they are reading Third Person Prose. Yet, often, when reading first person tales, their default narrative voice doesn’t necessarily fit with the main character. This is when a good narrator creates a distinctive voice. Let’s face it, if your main character is a New York City early 1800’s roughabout, then he or she probably shouldn’t sound like a professional voce over artist. There are times when a narrator actually enhances the character development of a story by creating a distinctive character voice. There are some narrators who are simply amazing. If you have listened to Nnedi Okafor’s Who Fears Death you may be surprised to learn that Anne Flosnick is not a young African girl living in Post Apocalyptic Kenya, and neither is MacLeod Andrews, narrator of the wonderfully dark Sandman Slim series, a 90’s era punk who just escaped the darkest pits of hell.

2. Flavor

This is a term I use a lot when discussing the overall feel of an audiobook. When you eat chicken, you want the protein rich avian flesh substance to taste like chicken. When a book takes place in China 3000 years in the future, the audiobook shouldn’t feel like its taking place in The Valley in 2012. There are many ways to achieve flavor, through the proper use of accents, distinctive vocal styling, rhythm and pacing. I think this is one of those aspects of an audiobook that is part preparation and part instinct on the narrator. If you want examples of excellent use of flavor by narrators, check out Phil Gigante in Throne of the Crescent Moon and Cassandra Campbell in A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True.

3. Consistent Choices

Narrators need to make a lot of choices when narrating a book. Often times these choices are not just about what works best for a novel, but also what will highlight the narrator’s strengths and downplay their weaknesses. The most important pieces of advice I can give on this topic is, first, know yourself and second, stay consistent. If you are going to read a third person account that centers on a Irish character with an Irish accent, then you should continue that trend when voicing perspectives involving Chinese, Lithuanian or Venusian characters. I reviewed one audiobook where the narrator read the female characters dialogue with a female voice, but her internal monologue with a male voice. Don’t do this. It makes me sad and a bit confused. Two narrators that always make smart consistent choices are Bronson Pinchot and Katherine Kellgren.

4. Don’t Be Riddley Scott

I love action films. Heck, I love action. But when I watch action movies I like to see the action. I cannot stand Riddley Scott’s extreme closeups during action scenes that muddles the ability of the audience to follow what is going on. Narrators sometimes like to speed up their reading of action scenes, to increase the urgency and excitement. This is affective if done right, but some narrators lose control of the pace, and the action becomes muddled. Some narrators manage to slow down the pace of the action, yet still display the same sense of urgency that the speedier narrators are attempting. Two narrators that always help me visualize the action, no matter how intense, are Ray Porter and Hillary Huber.

5. Why You So Serious?

I tend to read a lot of science fiction. I love me some strange and weird characters.  Big tentacle monsters, fuzzy cat like sentient aliens, fallen angels, demons, creatures from Mazzugalh 5 in the Delta Quadrant, all these characters make me happy. What I really like is when I realize these characters are making the narrator happy too. I love when you can tell that a narrator is having fun. It comes out in their choices, in the wonderfully weird character they create. You guys might not know this, but we listeners can hear that sly smile on your lips. I love when a narrator just goes all out. If the script calls for over the top, go for it. Let’s face it, Oliver Wyman makes me laugh on a regular basis, whether he is voicing my favorite loveable serial killer Serge Storms, or the cast of crazy creatures in Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International. And, I challenge anyone to listen to Khristine Hvam’s narration in A Beautiful Friendship and not want a Tree Cat. It cannot be done! One little secret, when you are having fun, I’m more likely to have fun when writing my reviews, and my fun reviews tend to be my best and most popular reviews, even if they are about sexy dragons.

6. Know Who You Are

This topic is a bit more controversial. Well, controversial in the fact that it resulted in my only negative interaction with a narrator. Casting is quite important for the listener. Now, I understand that narrators have little if any control over casting, and they have families to raise and cats to feed so they can post funny pictures of them on the internet.  Yet, make smart choices when taking on a role. More often than not when you are miscast in a role, the casual listener will blame you. If you choose a role that doesn’t suit you, it probably will result in bad reviews, and more importantly, one bad listen may keep a consumer from buying future audiobooks you narrate. Nobody but internet trolls and snooty pipe smoking critics like bad reviews. Two narrators that make very wise decisions on what roes are appropriate to them are Wil Wheaton and Grover Gardner. And yes, I know one of the reasons this is is because they are able to make these decisions, but it’s still true.

I love narrators. I have done many things with narrators by my side. I like writing good reviews and praising your performances to the heavens and petitioning the government for a national narrator holiday. Today I talk a bit more about the relationship between narrators and the listeners in my review of Ken Scholes Lamentations. Make sure you check it out. There will be a test.

Don’t forget to check out all my narrator interviews this week. Today’s interview features the awesome Khristine Hvam.





Audiobook Week 2012: Mid-Week Meme

27 06 2012

Today, Devourer of Books does half the work for us, asking us to answer her Audiobook Week Mid-Week Meme. I am happy to oblige her whims.

 

Current/most recent audiobook:

I am currently listening to Survivors: The Morningstar Strain, Book 3 by ZA Recht and Thom Brannon, narrated by Oliver Wyman.

Impressions:

This book is special for me because the Morningstar Strain series was the first Zombie series I listened to on audiobook. ZA Recht passed away in 2009, and this book was completed based on his notes and early chapter he had written.  So far, I’m enjoying it, helped by the fact that Oliver Wyman is narrating.

Current/most recent favorite audiobook:

I have talked a lot about Blackout by Mira Grant, probably my favorite audiobook of 2012, but my surprise favorite has to be The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. It’s a first person tale of a woman who is the top bureaucrat at a secret British Magical Agency who loses her memory and discovers someone is trying to kill her. It is a lot of fun and Susan Duerden gives an excellent performance.

Favorite Narrator You’ve Discovered Recently

I love female narrators that are not that typical perky, soprano voice you hear quite often, particularly in young adult novels . Recently I’ve listen to audiobooks narrated by Lorna Raver, Maggi-Meg Reed and Vane Millon, all of whom brought a unique gravitas to their reading.

One title from your TBL (to be listened) stack, or your audio wishlist:

14 by Peter Clines, read by Ray Porter. This is one of those titles I try to avoid reading too much about, because it has such a mysterious feel to it, I am trying to avoid spoilers. In general, it’s a horror/mystery about a man who moves into a Brownstone and discovers each room as some strange mysterious element. Plus, come on people, Ray Porter…. Ray Porter.

 

Your audio dream team (what book or author would you LOVE to see paired with a certain narrator, can already exist or not):

I spend way too much time in my life casting narrators for books I love. OK, my dream production would probably be Phil Gigante reading Neal Barrett Jr.’s Through Darkest America and Dawn’s Uncertain Light. These are two amazing Post-Nuclear war novels with one of the most disturbing twists I have ever read. They have a western feel to them that I think Gigante would handle well.





ArmchairBEA 2012:The One Where I Talk About Audiobooks

8 06 2012

Today’s topic is Ask the Experts, and I am not really an expert on anything. So, I will talk about audiobooks… again. I think if there is anything that I can say I am knowledgeable enough about to feel comfortable writing about its audiobooks. Because, well, I listen to and review a lot of audiobooks. So, for today, I will post some statements about audiobooks. These statements are meant as discussion topics so feel free to agree or disagree with me at you leisure. I won’t be insulted if you call me a moron.

Audiobooks Are Not a Passive Activity

This is an argument I had been known to make in the past, that with audiobooks you are not actively engaging with the text, it is being displayed for you, aurally. I was wrong. Active listening is a skill. A learned skill. Think back to your favorite subject in high school. The one you learned the most from. Chances are, you liked that class not based on the books you were given but based on the teacher. A good teacher encourages active listening. You interact with what is being told to you. Your imagination is tickled. I can actually still hear the voices of my favorite teachers in my head, many years later. Audiobooks are similar. Since embracing audiobooks, I have become a better listener. So ladies, if your men have a tendency not to listen, maybe you should introduce them to audiobooks.

Audiobooks are NOT Cheating

You often hear the question asked, "Is Audiobooks the same as reading?" I hate this question with a fiery passion. I find the question pretentious. It’s one of those gotcha questions like, “Do you still beat your wife?” Of course listening to an audiobook isn’t the same thing as reading. Listening and reading are two different actions. Yet, people will use this question as a way to declare the superiority of reading over listening which to me is absurd. It is the same material. Whether you read to gain information or be entertained, audiobooks work, for many people, as well or better than print books. To place a value judgment of the delivery system pushes close to the elitism. If the action of reading is inherently better than the action of listening than the material doesn’t matter. Which would be better, listening to the audio version of Mark Twain, or reading a manual on the proper installation of a toilet? It depends on your intent.

Added note: I have no qualms saying I “read” an audiobook. Language changes and verbs are often adapted to encompass more than just their originally intended activity. If you want me to give you a sticker saying you are technically correct, then I have them printed out for you. I also have no problem calling the rage victims from 28 Days Later zombies. You can have you technical victories, and I will keep my adaptive language.

A Good Narrator Can Enhance a Book

Many people don’t like audiobooks, because they see a narrator as an added layer between themselves and the text. I can understand this. I have had some bad experiences with narrators, who will mispronounce words or use totally unauthentic sounding character voices. It takes you out of the narrative. Yet, a good narrator can effortlessly immerses you into the world of your novel. When listening to a novel, there is no skimming, and a good narrator can actually help you better embrace the entire text. Often, a narrator will suck you so far into the narrative, their voice almost becomes part of the world the author created. I often will listen to audiobooks I struggled with in print form. For instance, I had attempted to read the classic science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner multiple times. I really couldn’t get into the structure and style. Then I listened to Erik Bergmann’s excellent narration of the novel, and enjoyed it. I still had rough spots, but Bergmann’s performance helped smooth those out.

Audiobooks are Great for Rereads

So, the latest edition of one of your favorite series is coming out, and you want to refresh yourself on what has gone on before…. why not try it as an Audiobook. People often say they have trouble focusing when listening to audiobooks. Again, see Active Listening as a learned Skill. With a book you are already are familiar with, zoning out a bit won’t be as problematic. Using books you already read will help you develop the mad skillz of an audiobook listener. I recently reread two of my all time favorite novels The Stand by Stephen King and Swan Song by Robert McCammon as audiobooks. I have read the print versions of these novels multiple times, yet listening to them in audio allowed me to pick up things I never did. I found a new poetry in the rhythms of the language, and picked up facts I had neglected in the past. If you don’t want to reread books, maybe try an audiobook of an adapted film.

The Audiobook Community is Awesome

I have met some of the most wonderful bloggers, narrators and industry professionals as an Audiobook Blogger. Narrators on Twitter and Facebook are some of the most engaging people I have met. One narrator, who reads one of my favorite series, has sent me a birthday message from a favorite character, and produced a sound clip based on a joke I made on twitter about Christopher Walken narrating Charlotte’s Web. Xe Sands has a weekly feature on her site where she reads small public domain clips, and encourages professionals and amateurs alike to do the same. We have events like June Is Audiobook Month, and Audiobook Week, and celebrate and make predictions for  the Audies with Armchair Audies. If you are interested in reviewing audiobooks, many companies are blogger friendly, offering advice and review copies. Audiobook Jukebox highlights audiobook reviews and offers a reviewer program. If you want advice or recommendations on audiobooks, feel free to email me or comment on the blog. If I don’t listen to your genre, I probably know someone who does.

You Don’t Have to Like Audiobooks. I Will Still Be Your Friend.

I don’t judge people by their entertainment choices. So, whether you listen to Zombie Fiction, or read 50 Shads of Grey, it’s all good. I love bookish people, and enjoy interacting with them. Audiobooks are not for everyone, and I know that. Yet, fair warning, if you somehow feel your “reading” is better than my “listening” the snark will come out. Remember, the vast majority of Audiobook fans, are also readers. I read print, maybe not as much as some, but it’s still one of my favorite activities. I started listening to audio, because they still haven’t created a safe way to drive, walk my dog, perform physical work activities, and cook while reading. Then, I fell in love with the experience. So, remember, audiobook people are book people too. And nobody parties like book people party.

Also, check out my review of John Scalzi’s Redshirts today. It contains Wil Wheaton. Ummmm…. Wil Wheaton.

So, that’s my “Expert” post. What do you think?