I clicked the submit button. My audiobook, A Man of Honor, or Horatio’s Confessions, zapped from Findaway Voices’s post-production domain into wide distribution. Excited, I emailed my narrator, voice and stage actor Alex Knox. Not only did I share the news. After having kept so many questions about audio narration at bay while the
project was in progress, I asked if, through an interview, he would part the curtain to show me the art of fiction narration. What was it like to narrate a novel? Alex graciously and thoughtfully replied.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
How long have you been a book narrator? How many books have you narrated? Do they have a common thread or theme?
I narrated my first audiobook in 2017. As of now, I’ve narrated around 20-25 books. I’ve been lucky to narrate books in a wide range of genres, from thrillers and mysteries to LitRPG [the genre called Literary Role Playing Game].
Do you personally prefer to read in print or listen to stories in audio? Who do you listen to that inspires you?
I love reading in print, but I definitely listen to more books than I read. I’m inspired by George Guidall, who has narrated around 2,000 audiobooks. I think he’s captivating to listen to because his narration is so vivid –he’s able to capture the emotional essence of the scenes he’s narrating. I also enjoy Richard Armitage. Listening to him was an inspiration for my work on A Man of Honor.
How do you select a book to narrate? Do you prefer a specific genre or types of characters?
I would say that my favorite audiobook projects have involved characters that are wrestling with something, whether it’s their sense of self, or some other internal conflict. Books, unlike other mediums, give the audience a chance to experience a character’s thoughts, so those internal conflicts really come across! (This is also true in Shakespeare’s plays, of course, whenever a character soliloquizes.)
How much of the book do you typically read before deciding whether you will enjoy the project? What else figures in your decision to either accept a narration project or look to a different proposal?
Most of the time, I’m only able to read a small sample before accepting a project, and sometimes not even that. If I’m referred to a project by a platform or publisher that I know and trust, I’m usually open to the project.
When did you decide to add book narration to your artistic portfolio? Was is an evolution or “a moment” of realization? Something in-between?
Narrating books appealed to me for many reasons. I was excited by the challenge of playing not just one character, but every role in the story. In A Man of Honor, I got to play Horatio, Hamlet, Gertrude, Ophelia (and others from Shakespeare’s play) and all the wonderful characters created for this book. I also get to be my own director and decide how I want to express the scenes written by the author.
What special or additional skills does it take, if any, for an actor to also be a book narrator? How did you develop your narrative skills?
In addition to loving books and language, I think actors who want to narrate need to have stamina – it takes serious focus to maintain a story for hours and hours over hundreds of pages. It needs to sound consistent. It’s not like doing one scene and saying a sentence or two in a television show.
Is there a book narrator who you admire or was your mentor? If so, what did you learn from that person?
I have listened to many great narrators as inspiration, and I consider them my teachers, even if I haven’t personally met them. James Patrick Cronin is a great narrator and I’ve had the pleasure to meet him and work with him. Edoardo Ballerini is another inspiration – his narration sounds so effortlessly “real” and intimate. To me, it has a “confessional” quality. He was another great model for me as I worked on A Man of Honor.
Is there a scene in A Man of Honor, or Horatio’s Confessions that you especially enjoyed narrating, or that was especially difficult to narrate? What was it and why?
I had such a great time with the various dialects, but I confess that it was not easy to switch back and forth. Reynaldo has a Spanish accent and a lisp, and sometimes he would be in scenes with characters speaking with a French accent. Meanwhile, Horatio the narrator has a British accent. I had to check myself to make sure the accents stayed consistent and didn’t bleed into one another.
I enjoyed performing the scene in the tavern when Cristiern is revealed to the audience – that one is vivid in my mind. I also loved the scenes between Horatio and Margrete.
Would you share an unusual, exciting, or awkward moment in an exchange with an author that you may not forget? Why is that moment memorable for you?
I once had an author tell me that my voice sounded exactly like his when he was younger, and that was one of the reasons he wanted me to narrate his book!
How long is your typical recording session in your studio? Do you record everything and then adjust or revise, or record parts? Ever out of order or always in order?
I always record in order, from start to finish. I use a recording technique called “Punch and Roll,” which means that I edit as I go. If I misspeak a word, I stop recording and “punch” back in where I made the flub. I used to do all the editing at the end and soon learned that it was way too arduous.
You narrated A Man of Honor, or Horatio’s Confessions, which is 23 chapters long; we didn’t have a ton of time for preparation before production started. In a case like this, how do you go about learning the story before production starts?
I made sure to read the book before recording, and it the author’s production notes were a big help. My familiarity with Shakespeare’s Hamlet came in handy, too.
In A Man of Honor there were two dozen main and minor characters but you were the lone actor. In such a case, where you have a lot of dialogue or characters to play, how do you decide on the voices and tone? And how do you keep it all straight and organized for your successful performance?
I learned early on that the way to keep voices straight is to have a folder of sound clips of each character’s voice. That way, when I come back to a character after several chapters, or I’m switching back and forth between characters, I can always refer to that “voicebank” and hear how each voice needs to sound.
As a professional voice actor are there special techniques you use to care for and condition your voice?
Yes! I have learned that the most important thing is to stay hydrated, get enough sleep, and not strain my voice when I’m not recording. I also use my vocal warm ups that I learned as a theatre actor.
What do you love most about narrating audiobooks?
One thing I love is setting my own schedule. Since I have a home studio, I can record any time of the day or night, and this has made it possible to record audiobooks while being involved in others’ projects.
Reflecting on your body of work to date, as a professional stage and screen actor and as a book narrator: which projects have meant the most to you and why?
One of my favorite projects was a one-person stage play that I wrote and performed. One of my favorite collaborators from graduate school developed the show with me and directed it. I loved being a writer and drawing from my life experience to craft a play. I also enjoyed revising it and fine tuning it over several iterations. In some ways, I learned that I enjoy the writing process even more than performing.
What one thing would you ask authors to bear in mind as they work with their audiobook narrator? What can we authors do, as audiobook project partners, to help toward the best possible results?
One of the greatest things is when authors present me with a character breakdown and synopsis. This is not required, but is extremely helpful, as it gives me a head start on knowing the main characters and their defining qualities. It can also be helpful for authors to express how they hear the characters’ voices in their heads or mention who would play them in the movie version.
What qualities make a great narrator? What tips or advice do you have for aspiring voice actors?
I think a great narrator needs to have a great imagination. As a narrator, I need to connect with the text that I’m reading on an emotional level. I have to find a way that I can relate to it, and that allows me to come across as authentic in my narration. The audience of an audiobook is just one person, so it’s a different quality than performing in a theater for 1,000 people. The listener is spending many hours listening to my narration, and even if the writing itself is excellent, a bad narrator is difficult to listen to. A great narrator brings creativity, passion, and authenticity to every page.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
Thank you, Alex, for your superb narration of A Man of Honor, or Horatio’s Confessions.
After interviewing Alex, I realized that audio narration is a boundless, flexible art form and profession. And, I believe that for my novels to exist in storytelling’s purest form—the spoken word—I will continue turn to talented artists to give my characters their voices. I hope to hire Alex again!
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
Alex Knox is the narrator of StoneHeart by Charleston Baer (Pulitzer Prize Nominee), of the Dead Hollow Trilogy books by Judy K. Walker, and more. Alex is a voice actor with experience in audiobooks and ADR Looping, and he is a SAG-AFTRA member who has performed in the country’s top regional theaters, from the Pasadena Playhouse to Yale Repertory Theatre. For more about Alex Knox, please visit http://alexknox.net