Name: Neil Hellegers
Tell us a bit about yourself: I am an actor, educator, and narrator who lives in Brooklyn, NYC. I’ve been acting professionally for about 16 years, in basically every way an actor plies his or her trade: Shakespeare, on-camera commercials, film, tv, experimental theatre, commercial VO, video game VO, etc.. I’ve also taught acting for the University of Pennsylvania and The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. In addition, I’m an inveterate reader, which is what brought me to audiobook narration.
How did you become involved with audiobook narration and production? Like many folks these days, I came to audiobook narration via the growing trend of home studio recording and production. I’ve worked in-studio as well, but my start came relatively recently, as I was looking for a way to productively fill the time between auditions and the like. I had always listened to audiobooks, during many years on the road for acting gigs, so the challenge was setting up a viable recording arrangement, learning how to use the darn thing, and finding work. This was, of course, on top of commuting my existing skill set actual act of narrating itself. Setting a consistent tone and pace is one thing, making a professional-quality recording of it is another thing entirely. Thank goodness we live in an age where almost every production issue imaginable has been hashed out on the internet! So, after about a year, I’ve reached a place where I’m confident in my home studio, freeing me to elaborate on my story telling skills. The veterans I’ve met tell me they usually settle in to that aspect after about 20 books or so, so at least I’m about halfway there!
Tell us about some of the titles you’ve narrated. Do you have a favourite amongst these? It’s been fairly varied. My first was a really unique contribution to the very-popular zombie genre, called Dead Drunk: Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse One Beer at a Time, by Richard Johnson, a great book that has the grace to be exactly what it sounds like. After that I did an instructional book about Zen meditation by Howard Fast (author and screenwriter of Spartacus, among many others). These two books had a surprising lot in common, if also totally different. More recently I’ve been working on a cycle of the works of H. P. Lovecraft, which has been very rewarding. There’s been a significant revival of attention to Lovecraft, both in spoken and written word, and I’ve always been a fan. My approach was not to read these tales as “horror” but as testimonies of awe and wonder…which then turn horrible. I’ve completed The Shunned House, which takes place, as much of HPL does, in Providence, RI, where I completed my MFA some time ago. I also just released an original collection called Precipitous Tales: Origins of Mythos, which contains four, early works. Putting together and naming a new presentation of Lovecraft has probably been my favourite endeavour.
Do you have a preferred genre? Do you have a genre you do not produce? Why is this? In my personal reading, I’ve been mostly working through a lot of science fiction, like Iain Banks’ Culture novels, which are amazing, but I also read quite a bit of fantasy and other genre fiction. That being said, I go through phases where I back away entirely from both of these, in favour of non-fiction, or new popular fiction. The bottom line for me is the writing and the story telling, and I would say the same goes for narration. Again, I’m far too new to the game to declare an area of focus, but if the book has a compelling, unique story to tell, that’s what I prefer. At this point, nothing is ruled out.
What are you working on at present/Just finished? I just finished Veil of the Dragon: Book One of the Prophecy of the Evarun, by Tom Barczak, which certainly fits the aforementioned criteria. There’s obviously a great deal of Epic Fantasy out there, but it takes a strong hand to craft one that offers something new, that resonates with the humanity of its audience, but doesn’t simply re-tread new ground. Veil of the Dragon did that for me. Tom has a gift for world-building, generating an array of cultures with distinct mythologies, but also has a very lyrical sense of environment, both of which made for a gratifying narration experience. The audiobook just became available, and I know Tom’s busy with the sequel.
I just started prep for a great non-fiction book, Whatever Happened to the Metric System?, by John Bemelmans Marciano, that I’m recording at Audible next month (which I’m very, very excited about). Lots of fascinating political, military, and geometric research to sort through.
Tell us about your process for narrating? (Be as elaborate as you like.) There are some consistencies for every title, such as being sure to not only read the whole thing beforehand to get a sense of structure, pace, and theme. I usually move through the text slowly, taking notes, and planning out how I want each section to fit the next, develop, and conclude. Beyond that, the process varies depending on the demands of the book. If applicable, character lists and voices have to be generated, to have a distinct sound for each, but also how each character grows and/or changes as the book goes on. In the case of Veil of the Dragon, Tom and I had long conversations about the varied cultural origins of the characters, and how one grouping might sound in contrast to another, but also how exactly to pronounce the original language of names and places, while creating consistency for said cultural groupings.
Once all that preparation is done, I lock myself in my studio, and get to work. I’m constantly refining my recording process, always looking for better sound, and a more efficient procedure. Though as immersive as the technical aspects are, they are all in the service of the story telling. Time allowing, I listen back to make sure I’m meeting the developmental goals I set for myself, or altering set goals as I go. I try to do as much proofing as possible along the way, so I can later focus on just the storytelling. I’m rapidly approaching that place where I can outsource my editing, but for now, I’m applying a “sweep the stage floor” approach from my early days of acting: The more I know about every aspect of audiobook production, the more effective a narrator I will be, even if my only task is to show up and read.
What aspects do you find most enjoyable? Storytelling. Dialects! The intimacy you create with the book, which is so much more than simply reading for pleasure. The collaboration with an author (which I try not to take for granted, as many of my authors are long dead). Listening to it when it’s all done, trying not to cringe too much at the quirks that I’m pretty sure only I can hear, and taking in the complete project I’ve done.
Do you consider royalty share when looking for books to narrate? If not why is this? At this point I still do, as I’m working to build a list of books in genres I’d like to work more often. That might not still be true in the near future, but for now I’m lined up to do sequels of previous Royalty Share books. That being said, I wouldn’t take on a RS if it the Rights Holder or author hasn’t created a considerable fan base, has a definite marketing plan, and, most of all, is telling a story I want to read.
Do you listen to audiobooks? These days more so, though admittedly often in a clinical manner, to get comparisons for style, pacing, and technique. I listen to hundreds of samples, though, which is mostly born out of the press of time and finances.
With many people owning MP3 players do you think this is the future of storytelling? I certainly think it’s a fixed manner of story telling, and the technology has certainly made it easier to record and listen to audiobooks (remember those tomes of cassettes?). I don’t think audiobooks will trump other performance mediums, no, but will continue to serve their particular niche.
Why do you think audio books are becoming so popular? Audiobooks have a place no other medium can fill. On one level, you can’t read while operating heavy machinery or doing chores around the house. Moreover, audiobooks are an extension of the literary tradition that also stretches back to the earliest form of storytelling. And aside from giving fans a second way to take in their favourite books, its something people can actually do together. Having an app certainly makes this all easier, but I think people (like myself) who have always loved to read are coming to see audiobooks not as a substitute for reading, but as yet another way to absorb a story, with one that makes the most of the collaboration between author and narrator, and in that way, offers more than a solitary read.
Can you remember the first audiobook you owned? Yes! The Vampire Lestat, by Anne Rice, narrated by Frank Muller. Great stuff.
Has ACX/Audible fulfilled your expectations? (such as earnings, ease of use, workload etc.?) They have been an excellent platform for getting started, and I’ve met a great community of narrators and authors from my work there. It takes a bit of close reading and follow-up on their policies, but such is life.
Have you ever had a negative experience producing a book? Again, I’m new. But I really haven’t had a bad experience; I’ve been lucky to work with great authors and great publishers, dead and alive.
Please tell us a silly fact about yourself. I own a real broadsword.
Where can we learn more about you? You can read about what I’ve been up to, watch samples from my on-camera work, and listen to my voice work at the aptly named neilhellegers.com.
Social Media links:
@neilhellegers on Twitter
neilhell47 on Instagram
Neil Hellegers on FB