This week we’re shining a spotlight on Colleen Crimmins, the audiobook narrator of The Sunset Gang, the critically-acclaimed collection of short stories that inspired the beloved PBS trilogy.
What do you look for in a project? Is there a particular genre you gravitate towards? What initially drew you to The Sunset Gang?
I’m drawn to works of fiction with vivid characters. When I saw the audition script for The Sunset Gang I could tell it was rich with interesting characters and I wasn’t wrong. It was both a big challenge and lots of fun to narrate the book. I’m also an avid reader of the self-development genre and enjoy books on mindfulness meditation, healthy diets, improving productivity, you name it!
Tell us a bit about your background. What inspired you to become an audiobook narrator?
I am a veteran of Chicago Theatre, I teach middle school drama and I’m an on-camera spokesperson (for the last 21 years) for PBS. I’ve fantasized for years about working behind a mic, bringing characters to life in an intimate setting. Not having to worry about make-up and costumes is also very freeing.
What was the most unexpected thing about narrating audiobooks that you didn’t foresee going in?
The technical knowhow needed for audiobook narration has surprised me. Having your own home studio is just about a requirement here in Chicago. I had to learn how to build that, then how to master some complicated software. A lot of people think that if you can read expressively you can narrate books, but there is much more to it than that.
The Sunset Gang deals with the joys and challenges of life after a certain age. What advice would you give your teenage self?
When I was a teen I couldn’t imagine myself in my 30’s let alone 40’s and beyond. I would remind myself of potential longevity I can expect to enjoy beyond my teenage years and rather than be frightened of old age when it happens, be grateful, embrace it, and respect the depth of wisdom that a person of a certain age carries with them.
Is there anything you learned about yourself or life in general after completing production of The Sunset Gang?
Completing The Sunset Gang has caused me to be picky about my next project. The writing has to be very good. I’ve been spoiled.
What are the top three pieces of advice you would give to an aspiring voice-over artist?
1) Don’t wait as long as I did to finally follow your dream and begin working behind a mic. I wish I had gotten my foot in the door years ago, it would have been a wonderful addition to my other acting work.
2) Don’t break the bank with a super expensive home studio and recording software. Start small and upgrade as you get more work.
3) Never stop learning. I am continuously taking classes as they are inspirational and keep me on top of my game.
Tell us a bit about your work flow. Do you work from home or do you commute to a studio?
Rather than work flow, I’d call it a work tsunami! My work in the arts is diverse and much of it is freelance so some months are more hectic than others. I have to be very organized with my time and often need to work through the weekends during those busy periods in order to meet my obligations. I do have a home studio which is both a blessing and a curse. I enjoy just being in close proximity to my work but that means tackling all the technical aspects myself. Sometimes, the thought of walking into a recording studio with a technician at my side sounds pretty nice.
What were some of the joys and challenges of narrating The Sunset Gang?
Most of the characters in The Sunset Gang were from the same area in New York and, as such, had very similar accents. The challenge was to make each character sound different. I spent hours going back and listening to my previous characterizations making sure to create something unique for the next one. It was a blast when I felt I had accomplished that!
You bring to life such a variety of characters in this audiobook. It must be hard to articulate, but can you tell us about your process? How do you become these characters?
The text was my guide. I’d scour the text for character descriptions and then start talking to myself until the voice sounded right. For example, in “Itch,” (the second story in The Sunset Gang) I read this description: “He was a thin man with gray hair and a sunken chest, and when he smiled he revealed gaping holes along his gums.” Instantly I got strong visual image of what this man looked like and what his voice might sound like, especially with lots of missing teeth! Fortunately for me, Warren Adler had lots of wonderful character descriptions for a narrator like me to draw from and experiment with. Not all authors offer up such vivid images. I got lucky.
What inspires you?
Artists who are at the top of their craft and yet strive to learn more.
What do you think makes audiobooks so appealing? What does an audiobook offer that a book cannot?
I would get through far less books if it meant finding time to sit and read. I’m constantly on the go. Audiobooks have given me the opportunity to enjoy lots of wonderful books I’d otherwise be missing. I listen in the car, while I’m cooking, while I’m exercising, etc. It’s fantastic. Plus, there’s something about listening to a great narrator. When my husband and children and I drove to Colorado on a family vacation, we listened to several Harry Potter audiobooks narrated by the great Jim Dale. They were so entertaining that we never wanted them to end. Even when we got to Colorado my kids wanted to stay in the car to finish a chapter. Now those are great stories, of course, but Jim Dale’s narration made them come to life in an incredibly memorable way.
Which story in the collection did you enjoy narrating the most? Why?
“Yiddish” was my favorite story to narrate because I adored playing Genendel and I loved the drama between Velvil and his wife Mimi. It was like sinking your teeth into a good sandwich when you’re starving – it fulfilled my artist cravings. Though the mother in me also liked “The Braggart” because I was so touched by it.
How would you compare narrating an audiobook to acting?
It’s a different kind acting – but it is still acting. I teach drama and I’m always talking my students about the difference between film acting and stage acting. Those are two dramatically different styles. Audiobook narrating is yet another style of acting. It’s very intimate. It’s like a conversation with your best friend. There’s still a great deal of artistry involved. You play characters, you intimate mood, you lead the reader along the author’s path while always keeping in mind that you are usually talking to one person with earbuds in their ears.
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?
Water, water and more water. This keeps the the voice in better working order and keeps your tongue from clicking on inside of mouth out of dryness.
I used to sing a lot and still use many of those warm-up exercises to keep my voice limber.
I’m obsessed with eating a healthy diet. Do I always succeed? No. But I certainly try harder if I’m working on a project. I try to avoid foods that dehydrate you, like coffee.
How often do you listen to audiobooks?
I have a subscription to Audible and listen to my book du jour just about everyday.
Do you think audiobooks will one day replace reading?
No, I think we’ll always have both, though I do think audiobooks will continue to grow in popularity and may someday give paper copies a run for their money.
What has the reaction to The Sunset Gang been among your fans?
I am relatively new to audiobooks that are on Audible and Amazon. Most of the recordings I’ve done have been children’s books for schools and educational institutions. So, while I’d love to talk about my fans, that may be a bit premature. I’ve read some very good reviews, however, for my work in The Sunset Gang, so maybe those listeners will follow my future work. That would be wonderful.
What’s next for you? Do you have a project you’re itching to work on?
I can’t wait to narrate another adult novel or self-development book (though I prefer the former). The children’s books have been great, but it’s time to let my freak flag fly! I have a Right’s Holder considering me for a project right now. We’ll see.
Listen to Colleen read from Warren Adler’s The Sunset Gang here.