Today’s guest is radio and television character and voice actor R. Scott Adams who narrated and produced the new audio edition of my comedy/satire novel Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire. Scott claims—and I have no reason to doubt him—that he “fell out of the womb a natural mimic and began telling jokes and performing skits almost as soon as he could talk – much to the chagrin of his family.” His Seattle company, offering “The Whole World in One Voice,” is called Dialects on Demand.
Malcolm: I liked your approach to the narration of Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire because it brought out the attitudes and eccentricities of each of the characters. With your focus on voices and dialects, do you automatically “hear” the characters in novels whenever you read a book for pleasure at the end of a busy day?
Scott: Hi, Malcolm, thanks for having me here today to interview. Yes, when I read, I rapidly come up with a voice in my head for each of the recurring characters. I usually don’t have one when I start off a book, but as their personality or primary character traits appear, their voices start coming to me and before I know it, I am hearing each specific voice in my head as I read their dialogue.
I think that ability does make it easier for me to come up with the appropriate voice for characters that I am performing. For instance, your character Coral Snake Smith struck me as someone who has a high opinion of himself and talks down to Jock. From Jock’s point of view, Smith is useful, though kind of disgusting. How to combine that? Give him a somewhat self-righteous, “better than thou” voice, but make it unpleasantly high and nasally.
Malcolm: As Jock would say about Coral Snake Smith, “you got that right!” What led you to add novel narration and production to your work at Dialects on Demand? Was it an intuitive and natural extension of the business or did a muse out of nowhere suddenly present you with the idea?
Scott: Looking back on it, I consider it the culmination of a number of semi-related events. I love books, and have been a reader since I was a child. I still read voraciously. In my career I worked in several bookstores, and, among other duties, often wound up reading stories to children in the store and even in local schools as part of the stores’ literacy outreach program. I received a lot of compliments and requests for return performances from the teachers and parents. I found I really enjoyed doing this, and even read mainstream fiction to a couple of my girlfriends, who told me I should do it for a living.
Malcolm: Reading to children is a good way to get into the business. If you can keep their attention, you’re in the groove.
Scott: Fast forward a few years. I’ve started Dialects on Demand, but it hasn’t occurred to me to focus on reading novels as part of my primary business. A good friend of mine, Laura Holt, told me about a new web site called Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), wherein I could audition for any book on the exchange that drew my attention and was seeking a male narrator. I was immediately drawn to this idea, and after looking over the site and seeing how it worked, began seeking a novel that I liked and felt would be a strong match for my repertoire of voices. I laughed out loud at the opening sentence of “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire,” so it was a no-brainer to submit my audition for it as soon as I could book time with Ben Shenberger, of Subzero Audio (http://subzeroaudio.com), where I do all of my recording work. I was really excited when I heard back from Kimberlee Williams at Vanilla Heart Publishing, that I had been selected as the voice for “Jock Stewart.”
Malcolm: As I listened to your narration, I thought of the old-time tradition of storytellers traveling from town to town with entertaining stories. How do you achieve the old-style storyteller-spinning-yarns around a campfire effect in audio book production?
Scott: Thank you for saying, that, Malcolm. I consider that really high praise. The short answer is that, as I narrate a story, I see it unfolding in my head, and it then falls to me to add the inflection and pacing needed to best convey the feel of each scene, as well as that of the characters.
To add a bit more context, my father was a born story-teller, and I apparently inherited the gift. I’ve already mentioned I was a mimic from the get-go; as it happens, I was a raconteur as well. I began adding sound effects and giving characters individual voices any time I told an anecdote when I was still a little boy. I think it was a natural extension of the mimicking, really – I made up the different voices, so shouldn’t I also include the various sounds that set the scene? This ability improved with age and experience to the point where people would let me know my stories made them feel like they were right there in them as they happened. This, of course further encouraged me, so that now I can’t really imagine telling them any other way.
Malcolm: As a writer who majored in radio/television and then strayed over to the dark side of print, I’m fascinated by the ways a narrator approaches an audio book production. When a new book arrives, how do you approach it? Do you have a series of steps you follow for each book before you step into the recording studio?
Scott: Well, you have to keep in mind that this was actually my first audiobook recording. Some things were obvious, but I’ve also learned a number of things the hard way that I am definitely bringing into my process as I prepare for and narrate future books.
The first thing I do is to read the entire novel. I want to know the whole story so I can pace scenes and know where to place the most tension and suchlike. It’s a little bit like thinking about what the background music of each scene should be in a movie. Most people don’t really consciously notice the music, but take it out and the scene comes across very differently. It’s the same here – if I don’t pace things correctly, the book loses something – in a really severe example, it could even fall flat.
I take notes of any questions I have while I’m reading, so once I’ve read it, I’d really like a chance to ask the author any questions I have, though sometimes speaking with the editor will also work fine. For instance, when Kimberlee confirmed my impression that Jock Stewart took place in a small Southern town, it really helped open up my voice repertoire. I grew up in North Alabama – I can do Southern voices and dialects for days.
Malcolm: Those of us who live in the South notice right away whether an accent purportedly from our neck of the woods is Hollywood phoniness or genuine! Alabama is a good place to learn Southern.
Scott: Once I know the story, basic pacing, and have answers to my questions, I go back through the entire novel again and literally highlight each character with a different color marker. If there’s a scene with a lot of secondary characters in it, I may even write one or two word notes to remind me which voice I’ve assigned each of those minor characters. That latter is of course not needed with the major characters, but for instance, in that one news room scene in “Jock Stewart,” you had over a half dozen background characters – none of whom, if I recall correctly, showed up in the rest of the book. I definitely needed notes for the voices in that one!
Malcolm: In the studio, how much do you read at a time before your voice needs a rest?
Scott: Usually 45 minutes to an hour. I can stretch an hour out a little, but sixty minutes is my average for a session.
Malcolm: How is the production of an audio book different from, say, a commercial with characters in it or a television or film narration project?
Scott: Most television and radio commercial spots are done in straight single-voice narrative. If two major characters are speaking, you’re generally working with a second voice actor doing the other voice. Either way, in commercials pacing is always important, but time is the critical factor – the spots are set length duration – often thirty seconds, and you have to fit all the words the client wants to include into that short, specific length of time without sounding rushed.
As to film narration, I have only done business film work, no movies, but again, I use a single voice. There the main thing is, again, pacing, but also speaking with the writer or business manager beforehand to ensure I know what should be emphasized versus what is more of a detail.
Malcolm: If the radio dramas of past years ever returned to popularity, would you be one of the first actors in line for a chance to play a role in a modern interpretation of “The War of the Worlds,” “The Lone Ranger” or “The Shadow”?
Scott: Absolutely! Performing characters in animation and/or radio drama would be my dream job. As to the specific broadcasts you mention, I am a huge fan of pulp stories from the 1930’s and 40’s, so “The Shadow” would be perfect, though I’d thoroughly enjoy doing any of those you listed.
Malcolm: Where can fans of your work find you: commercials, films, plays, other audio books?
Scott: I appreciate your asking, but up until “Jock Stewart,” the vast majority of my work was for private companies or small Southern businesses. I’m looking around for some regional theatre here in the South Seattle area, so hopefully I’ll be in a few plays around Puget Sound in upcoming years, but nothing specific at this time. I definitely hope to be found as the narrator on an increasing number of audiobooks, and people who are interested can always reach me through my Dialects on Demand web site.
Malcolm: Is there anything I should have asked you about voices and dialects?
Scott: I’m hoping to get a chance to explore a wider variety of the various accents and dialects that I do in my future work. I had a lot of fun doing all the different Southern voices and dialects in “Jock Stewart,” but I have a lot of breadth across different accents, so doing a book in, say, a series of British dialects or something like that would be great.
Malcolm: Thank you for stopping by Malcolm’s Round Table.