In one of our many road trips from New Jersey to North Carolina, my wife and I listened to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, narrated by Sissy Spacek. I had never read the book before, and the ten hours went by quickly. One of the things I’ve worried about since then is if someone asked me whether I’d read Mockingbird, how would I answer? I haven’t exactly read it in the literal sense, but I can speak somewhat intelligently about its characters and scenes and plot — even how the novel moved me.
Our continued celebration of Audiobook Appreciation Month has brought us to this interview with audiobook narrator and writer in his own right, Dane Elcar, who recently narrated our 2015 Coil Award Winner for Best Independent Book, Eric Shonkwiler’s Above All Men, a grim and gripping novel of place, with echoes of John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. Much like To Kill a Mockingbird, I haven’t “read” AAM; however, I did listen to the audiobook, performed beautifully and darkly by Elcar. Here, we discuss the ideas of audiobook as adaptation, reading as performance, and among other things, favorite voices.
Dane Elcar is a published writer and audiobook narrator, with fiction appearing in literary journals Fiddleblack, Necessary Fiction, and Puerto del Sol. Dane is a regular contributor to the Fiddleblack Podcast, and he is currently writing his first novel. Brought up in Santa Paula, California, he now lives, writes, and records in Westfield, New Jersey.
Kevin Catalano: You are a Californian, right? What are you doing in New Jersey? Isn’t that manifest destiny in reverse?
DANE ELCAR: Yeah, I’m a Californian in New Jersey! What the hell happened, right? Nah, I love the East Coast. I love being close to New York. I was born and raised in Southern California, but I’m not a total stranger to these parts. I’m lucky enough to be bi-coastal. I have family out here, and I lived in New Jersey in my early twenties. Karen, my longtime girlfriend, is Puerto Rican and has ties to the area. We met out here. I had an apartment in Jersey City then. I’d take the PATH into Manhattan every day. I later lived in Brooklyn for a time. I suppose my exterior demeanor shows a much more laid-back Southern Californian, but on the inside, I’m boiling like any MTA employee.
What is your favorite sound?
I have many, but I’m particularly fond of the sound of flame and embers popping in a fire pit at dusk.
How did you arrive at doing audiobooks? Do you have experience with sound recording, singing; were you in a band?
I was told I sang in a band once for about a four-month period. I don’t remember any of it.
Recording audiobooks was a strange and gradual necessity. Elements seemed to line up and once the ball started rolling, it just felt right. My first experience with audiobooks was when I very young. My father went blind due to glaucoma when I was seven years old. He was an actor and an insatiable bibliophile, so audiobooks became a very important part of his life. I would dig through his tapes and listen. In those days, a lot of the books were read by volunteers, and the narrations could be very flat.
We’d also sit together, and I’d read to him. I wasn’t a very good reader then. I’d read plays by Shakespeare, Pinter, and Beckett, stories by Conrad, and even books on boat building. And, I would always skip lines. He was very patient with me, and I got better in time. Since I can remember, I’ve always been writing prose and plays, but I never thought about recording anything. It took years before I finally got behind a microphone. After having published a short story with Fiddleblack, Jason Cook sent out an email about a podcast where authors read their work. I must have been one of the first to respond, if not the first. It didn’t hurt that one of my good childhood friends, Jeff, is an audio engineer. He helped me record the story in a large closet at his house. That podcast, in which you read one of your stories, Kevin, was the catalyst to an insane number of email conversations with Jason — still going on, I might add — that have led to me recording audiobooks with Fiddleblack. I love the idea of focusing on small press literature. That’s where a lot of the good stories are these days. And I’ll never look at a closet the same way again.
I remember sharing a podcast with you. I recorded my story on my computer next to the furnace (It was the only private space in our small house.), and every now and then, you can hear the furnace cut on while reading. When our podcast came out, and I heard you read, I was so embarrassed by how good yours was!
Ha! Thanks. I remember really liking your story and your reading of it. It’s hard to find a quiet spot sometimes. My apartment in LA was a nightmare. The woman above me would walk around in high heels, and I’d have to stop and re-record all the time.
How do you keep your voice consistent throughout the reading? Do you do a kind of warm-up before recording? Do you listen to how you read the previous chapter/s? Do you record at the same time of day, when your voice is at its “peak”?
I found gargling with bourbon and sand a good warm up for Above All Men. I’m kidding, of course. Part of my pre-production process is to record bits of all the characters, including the narrator’s voice, so I can reference them throughout the recording. I spend a good amount of time listening to what I’ve recorded so it matches up. I do warm up my voice, but I am not a creature of habit. There are many things I do, from singing while playing guitar to doing insane-sounding voice exercises that I’m sure my neighbors hate. What’s key is maintaining an energy and focus. I work around a day job, so I have to time myself. I have to save up my voice for the read. Four hours in a booth performing can drain you. I used to smoke cigarettes, and that’s long gone now. I keep searching for that alleged “peak” voice time; I’ll let you know if I ever find it.
I love the way you shaped your voice for Danvers and softened it for Helene. Reading, especially the way you do it, is performative: you become the characters in the dialogue. Do you have acting experience? How do you create the voices?
I grew up in a theater. I mean that literally. My father was co-founder and artistic director of a professional 90-seat theater in Santa Paula, California. Some of my first memories are of stealing prop swords and running through the dark velvet curtains, finding my imagined nemesis atop the seats, dueling it out. Then around 8 o’clock, all the adults around me would do the same — just they mostly kept it on the stage and had lights and fancy costumes. The seats I’d jump on became full of warm bodies eager to watch the play. I’m sure this experience has greatly affected my expectations of adulthood and of real life, but I wouldn’t trade it in. In the very least, I can say my father taught me how to properly put on make-up. So, it was only a matter of time before I wanted to play like the adults did. And I do like to think that I am performing the book. There are a lot of good narrators out there who do this. The Brits are particularly good at it. I find it incredibly boring when you have a narrator with a good voice who sounds like he or she should be selling you life insurance or some pharmaceuticals but just so happens to be reading you this book. I learn more about what works and what doesn’t the more I do it, but there needs to be emotion. I love finding the voices. That really comes from reading the book over and again. It’s all in the words. Of course, it can be a bit stressful. Once you make a decision on a voice, you have to go with it or it can lead to a lot of extra work. I thought I had Danvers down, but I didn’t really find the tonality of his speech until a few chapters in, so I had to go back and re-record him. All the characters and emotions are there — beautifully written by Eric. I just had to make some choices.
Did you ever involve Eric in any way during the recording of his novel? Did you ask for his feedback on anything, send him some snippets for his review?
I am always open to any feedback from an author. But with AAM, I just recorded a sample and sent it to Eric and Jason Cook. They both liked where I was going with it, so I kept at it. I didn’t talk to Eric again until it was done.
Do you read your own writing aloud to revise for rhythm and voice? Do you record it and listen back?
Yes, recording my stories and listening to them has become part of my editing process. I write the first few drafts by hand or typing. And, I write in silence. After that, I’ll get in the booth. See how it sounds. I’ve become just as fast at cutting and editing audio on my computer as erasing and retyping in a Word doc. I actually wouldn’t mind releasing stories just on audio. It’s a direction I’m thinking about.
I’m excited for the release of the next audiobook of Charles Dodd White’s incredible, A Shelter of Others. Your narrative voice and cadence in reading Above All Men are stylistic, for lack of a better word. Will your reading of A Shelter of Others, be similar, or does each project dictate your style?
A Shelter of Others truly is a masterfully written book, and I’m excited to be recording it for Fiddleblack. White’s prose is profound and lyrical and naturally lends itself to being read aloud. My narrative voice and cadence evolves through rehearsals, so A Shelter of Others will inevitably have its own style. I’m in the middle of recording it now, and even when I know I’ve got the take I’ll use, I’ll read some of the sentences again, just because they floored me. I can’t wait to share it.
Do you feel that listening to an audiobook is the same as reading it?
I love reading. I love books. I don’t own an e-reader. When I record, I hold the book in my hand. There is a special, intimate relationship one can have with the author when reading. However, listening to someone tell you a story is one of the oldest and most human things we do. So, reading your work aloud or having someone read it for you is something we desire. It’s amazing that in an age with all this excessive stimuli, a person can stand up and start telling a story, and people still want to listen. In terms of audiobooks, when the narration serves the story and the words, it can be an amazing experience.
If you could hand-pick someone to read your obituary aloud at your funeral, who would it be?
Can we make this anyone alive or dead? In that case, I’d like a sweaty, half-drunk Richard Burton, circa 1966.
Interview originally published on 6/23/15.