This week we’re shining a spotlight on Steve Ogden, the audiobook narrator of Heart of Gold, Warren Adler’s bestselling new historical thriller about a mysterious inheritance that reveals dark secrets from the past.
Click to listen to the interview below:
What do you look for in a project?
I like projects with a diverse cast of characters sparking off each other.
Is there a particular genre you gravitate towards?
I guess I’m drawn toward action stories more than anything else, but it’s nice if it has a good bit of character development and drama, so that I have more to work with as an actor.
What initially drew you to Heart of Gold?
I was lucky enough to have been contacted by Warren Adler’s people who had come across my other work on Audible through ACX.com. The story had a lot going for it – the diverse cast of characters, a good bit of action, and some good scenes of drama and character moments, and was pretty hard to resist. It’s one of those books that is a little like watching an exciting movie.
Tell us a bit about your background.
My background as a vocal performer comes from being a singer in several bands in my misspent youth. When I read, I treat the narration and dialog like lines of a song. You really use the same muscles and techniques. It’s all expression and pitch and phrasing. Add to that the possibility of inhabiting characters with different speaking styles and accents, and it’s a lot of fun.
What inspired you to become an audiobook narrator?
I was inspired to get into audiobook narration specifically by hearing Neil Gaiman’s read of Stardust a few years back and I guess you could say I was hooked. From there, I discovered a bunch of compelling audiobooks that I have really enjoyed listening to, and re-listening to, and getting lost in those stories. I can look back on that as a moment when I thought – yeah- I want to do this! I wanted to give other people the same experience I’ve had listening to audiobooks. That’s why I do it.
What was the most unexpected thing about narrating audiobooks that you didn’t foresee going in?
Before I started a few years ago, I didn’t realize how much time was involved. Maybe, if a book is 12 hours long or whatever, I assumed that was just how much time the book took to produce. You know, some actor went into a booth for a couple of six-hour days and voila, all done! I assumed there would be some editing, but not much.
At least the way I do it, it’s not like that at all. I record for an hour, and then spend another hour or two editing to get 30 minutes of finished, polished audiobook performance. It’s getting better as I do it more, but getting a good product out of it is pretty time-intensive. At least for me.
Is there anything you learned about yourself or life in general after completing production of Heart of Gold?
Funny – I was just thinking about this – during the recording and production of Heart of Gold, I realized just how much I enjoy doing audiobooks and although I have a perfectly fulfilling job, I would be perfectly happy to just create audiobooks as my full time job for the rest of my career.
That wasn’t really something I expected to ever think.
What are the top three pieces of advice you would give to an aspiring voice-over artist?
I’m far from an expert, but here’s what I wish someone had said to me before starting:
1. Be patient. It took the author a really long time to get every word right. You’re not going to come in and be One-Take Charlie. You will have redos. You will make mistakes and mispronounce words, and breathe in the wrong place, and cough. You have to go back in and fix those things. So patience is a virtue.
2. Get clean audio. The cleaner your read is, the better your final product will be. That means not trying to record right after a meal – but also not if you’re too hungry – or you get mouth noises and all sorts of noises. It means not trying to record on a pretty spring day when your neighbors are mowing the lawn, which you can still pick up through the walls. And it means recording in a room that has as little background noise as possible.
You can cure a lot of ills with editing tricks and noise-reduction plug-ins, but the less of that stuff you have to do, the better, because it’s really time-consuming. So, a clean read up front is best.
3. Don’t read. Perform. This is the big one. Anyone can read words off a screen. The trick is not to let them sound like words on a screen. You have to inhabit the characters, and remember even the narrator is a character. You have to become them in a way. Their hopes and dreams and desires become yours, and once you allow that to happen, it gets a lot easier to put the right em-PHA-sis on the right syl-LAB-le. Or something. 🙂
Tell us a bit about your work flow. Do you work from home or do you commute to a studio?
I work in my home, in my spare time. I use a condenser mic, recording directly into my laptop (which sits on the other side of a little baffle in the room, to minimize the laptop’s fan noise.)
Then, I edit the raw performance down, removing extraneous noises, errors, and so forth, and mix it down to final audio files.
What were some of the joys and challenges of narrating Heart of Gold?
There were a lot of different accents in Heart of Gold, and a lot of them were new to me. The Polish accents in particular were a challenge. My producer Lia did me a favor and pointed me to Meryl Streep’s performance in Sophie’s Choice and I studied that pretty extensively. I’m still not sure I got it right all the time, but at least it helped me understand better how to approach the accent.
Another challenge, which actually turned out to be a real joy, was the character of Nicolas Liszka. He is described as having a clipped British accent with a hint of a foreign accent underneath. That’s a highly specific speech pattern, and getting the balance right was tricky. Most of the time, he sounds very British, which is consistent with the character’s background, but once in a while, I would toss a word in with a strange pronunciation, or elongate one of the consonants, so that you get the impression that English is not his first language after all.
You bring to life such a variety of characters in this audiobook. How do you become these characters?
I think the key to it is to forget that I’m reading. I mean, there’s still all the reading stuff, techniques I have to use – pitch, tone of voice, accent, phrasing, pace – but focusing on all that stuff can make it sound overly technical or even forced, and that’s something that I try to avoid.
Instead, I try to go for the emotion of the moment. I try to think about the characters, who they are and what they want, and how they interact with one another. A story with a lot of dialog and interesting characters like Heart of Gold really makes it a lot easier to inhabit these characters.
What inspires you?
I’m inspired by people who I think have a real gift for performance. For instance, Jim Dale did a fantastic job on the Harry Potter series. Neil Gaiman, as it turns out, is as a gifted a reader as he is a writer, although George Guidall’s performance of American Gods is pretty epic. And Craig Wasson did a stellar job bringing to life a host of characters for Stephen King’s 11-22-63. Sometimes, you’d swear there was more than one person reading.
Really, it’s those last three – Gaiman, Guidall and Wasson – that I really look to in terms of performance.
And of course, growing up with Looney Tunes cartoons, I always wanted to be Mel Blanc. But who didn’t? Growing up, my friends and I were a bunch of smart alec kids making funny voices. We all wanted to be Mel Blanc. I love that at least I get the chance to try.
What do you think makes audiobooks so appealing?
I think it’s that you can do other things while listening to an audiobook. I can drive to work while delving into a new chapter of an audiobook, but I’d run off the road if I tried to read while driving!
Beyond that, though, I guess it’s the power of performance to bring the world of a novel to life. If you’re lucky to have a compelling story, and you can add a compelling performance, I think you get something greater than the sum of its parts.
Which part of the novel did you enjoy narrating the most? And why?
There’s a scene early in the book between New York native Milton Gold and Harris, a good-ole-boy from West Virginia. I grew up in Virginia and spent a good part of my early adulthood in New York and New Jersey, so these were two accents and two characters that were second nature to me. I enjoyed just letting their voices roll out of me and enjoying the sound of them verbally sparring.
Better still, Warren set the scene in a bar, and really evoked the feel of a classic crime detective novel. That’s a note he returns to over the course of the book to great effect.
How would you compare narrating an audiobook to acting?
Audiobook narrating has its own challenges. There is so much of an actor’s performance you don’t get to use in audio – facial expression, posture, physicality. You have to convey it all with the tone of your voice.
But you learn how to bring a smile to a vocal performance, or to make your character growl with a frown, or to moan with pleasure. That’s the big magic trick of audiobooks, maybe, to bring the author’s words not only to life in your performance, but in the mind of the listener.
Do you have any rituals you practice while you’re recording an audiobook? Certain foods you’ll eat or stay away from? How do you take care of your voice?
I don’t have a ritual per se. I do have a schedule. I have to record around my work schedule and my family schedule. One thing I’m adamant about is finding the time to spend with my family in and around my recording and editing schedule. Otherwise, it would just be working all day in my day job, and then working all night on the audiobook. I think everyone would forget what I look like (though probably not what I sound like!)
As for taking care of my voice, I take vitamins and try to keep rested. And I drink water almost exclusively during the course of a production. Everything else either dries out my vocal chords or gunks them up.
How often do you listen to audiobooks?
All the time, really. And during the weeks and months when I’m actually producing an audiobook, I listen almost solely to other audiobooks, to always reinforce the performance aspect of the job.
Do you think audiobooks will one day replace reading?
I’m not sure. People keep imagining the death of the book as each new thing takes our attention. I think the biggest threat to books currently is not audio or any other technology, but people’s busy lives and overall lack of time. Audiobooks help combat that, by letting people enjoy books while multitasking.
I will say as an aspiring author, that audiobook creation is absolutely a given. If anything, I think audiobooks are breathing new life into stories and giving people more options, more ways to enjoy books, and I can’t think of creating a book without also planning for the inevitable audiobook version as part of the production.
What do you hope fans will take away from Heart of Gold?
Certainly the aspects of culture, ethnicity and prejudice are strong contenders, along with a shifting sense of identity which is pretty central to the story.
But strictly in terms of my performance, I hope the listener comes away with a sense of the epic scale of this book. The sheer number and type of characters make the world seem huge and even unsafe, and that is appropriate, given the elements of the story.
What’s next for you? Do you have a project you’re itching to work on?
I just finished narrating an autobiography of Frederick Douglass. That was a fascinating read, just heartbreaking in its portrayal of the horrors of plantation slave life, and awe-inspiring in the tale of Douglass’ self-education and ultimate escape from slavery.
I also recently performed Jerry is Not a Robot by Gregory Marlow, which fans of Isaac Asimov would absolutely love. If you enjoyed my work on Heart of Gold, be on the lookout for those.
As for what is next, I have several novels in progress, which I intend to write and then record as audiobooks in the near future. One is about a boy who goes off into the snowbound wilderness to rescue a sacred artifact from the hands of mythical beings and save his village from starvation. Another is about a modern-day relative of Pandora’s – she who opened the forbidden box – who winds up with a world-wide demon problem that only she can solve.
If you enjoyed my work on Heart of Gold, be on the lookout for those in the next year or two.
I’d like to thank everyone at Stonehouse for this great opportunity; my awesome, detail-oriented producer Lia Manoukian; and of course the brilliant Warren Adler, without whom there would be no Heart of Gold. ■
A big thank you to Steve Ogden for chatting with us!
Buy Heart of Gold on audio here.