Kelley Hazen: narrating a book can be ‘quite literally, transcendent’

Kelley Hazen
Kelley Hazen

Today’s guest on Malcolm’s Round Table is Kelley Hazen, an artist who has appeared in multiple stage, screen and television productions. You may have seen her in “Nightingale in a Music Box,” “What Women Want,” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” She also lectures for the renowned Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, CA.

Recently Kelley founded Storyteller Productions in Southern California with her husband, Bruce Carver. The boutique, state-of-the-art studio offers full recording services featuring intuitive narration. My three-story collection called Emily’s Stories, from Vanilla Heart Publishing, was Storyteller Productions fourth audio book.

Malcolm: When I listened to your narration of “Emily’s Stories,” I was reminded of my childhood when parents and grandparents read my favorite books to me on long, rainy afternoons and before I fell asleep at night. How do you achieve the being-there-with-the-listener effect?

Kelley: We have an amazing microphone – the vintage  Sound Deluxe E49 – we selected that mic because of its perfect union with the timbre of my voice. As an artist and reader of audiobooks, I strive for a  sense of…almost “sitting on the listener’s shoulder,” a quality of being in their heads, in their imaginations – a very intimate experience. I think when you combine that artistic goal with the technical mechanics of the right hardware you  have the opportunity to create that sense of “being there with the listener.”

Malcolm: When you appear on the stage or work as a lecturer at the Griffith Observatory’s planetarium, there’s constant feedback from the audience. Is it difficult to change mindsets and figuratively work in a vacuum with voice-over work and audio book narration?

Kelley: No not at all, it’s actually strangely freeing because quite simply the story’s the thing. There is no hidden agenda, no coughing while I’m trying to make a point.  : ) It’s just me, the mic, the story.

emilyaudibleMalcolm: Can you walk me through what a typical narration project includes beginning with the first time you see the book or printed manuscript through the final production of the audio file? How do you prepare?

Kelley: We’ve usually gotten a feel for the book or the writer by either submitting an audition or pitch for the book, or because we’ve dealt with the publisher or author before. So we’ve either seen excerpts or been able to ascertain some sense of who we are dealing with. We believe that often, if not always, artists (writers/actors/publishers & editors if they do their job fully) have an underlying sense of how they want to be perceived in the world, what message they are sending, how they want to impact the greater good. At Storyteller we try to embody that – after all we are a conduit to get across the message that the writer is trying to convey by gathering these particular words together in this way.

Malcolm: I like that approach. Once you grok the story and its message, what additional preparation do you have?

Kelley: Then we just start breaking it down – a chapter at a time. That’s why it is most helpful when an author can send us the manuscript in electronic form. Although I will say our last two books were old school – regular ‘ol page-turning bound books. And it was a welcome respite from iPad’s and Word docs. But we always need two copies because the engineer, my husband Bruce, follows along as I record to watch for missed or mis-spoken words, but also has his own notations as he works for the editing and clean up. So I take it a chapter at a time – realizing the story, assessing the number of characters and their demands, looking up words I don’t know, learning languages.

Pine Siskin
Pine Siskin

Our last two books – I learned fragments of three different languages and multiple dialects for the 25+characters in Petty Magic. For Maria of Agreda: Mystical Lady in Blue, a nonfiction about the life and efforts for canonization of a 17th century cloistered nun, I not only had to go to school to understand the Old World process of becoming a saint, but since the book was almost entirely set in Spain, accurate pronunciations of Kings, Viceroyalty, Popes, cities, mountain ranges, etc. were essential. For Emily’s Stories I found pictures of the birds that became such important characters for Emily and clips on YouTube by avid birders who had recorded the cry of each of these birds. Then when I gave the bird characters voices or imitated their calls, I tried to make it sound as much like that bird in real life as I was able. Also something just as simple as knowing where to take the breath to maintain the understanding of a line as it is read. All this work is done beforehand.

Malcolm: The pine siskin in my story “High Country Painter” thanks you! There’s more pre-narration work involved here than I imagined.

In the Studio
In the Studio

Kelley: Then we go into the studio and begin to record. We have to make sure that I don’t consume too much dairy so there is not too much phlegm to cause constriction in my voice. I have to eat so my stomach doesn’t growl. You would be amazed at what the intimacy of and the quality of these current day mics can pick up. It’s like HD for the ears. We usually record in two hours sessions. We can often do two session a day depending on our schedule. We keep separate files of snippets of new characters when they come along, once I’ve found their voice, so that when we come back to them I can hear how I did it the first time and keep it consistent. Consistency is key for the structure of a good audiobook.

Malcolm: Do you alternate the studio work and the preparation ?

Kelley: Anywhere from two to five chapters are prepped at a time. And during my prep time Bruce begins to edit. He listens to the whole thing all over again watching the book to look for missed words or times when I started again on a section but also any kind of outside noise or mouth noise or popping. He looks at an actual wave of my voice frequency–its in a program called Pro Tools. So he can hear but also see when extraneous sounds are present and cut them out or re EQ them by changing the sound around the errant noise. If I’ve missed anything or there is anything he can’t get out, we have a fix session.

Kelley also narrated "Hunting Heartbreak vy Vanilla Heart author Marie Hampton.
Kelley also narrated “Hunting Heartbreak” by Vanilla Heart author Marie Hampton.

Then he renders the files from a very sophisticated WAV file that is very “lovely dark and deep” to an Mp3 format which is a much smaller file and easier to download, etc. And then we “deliver” the book electronically to the publisher. Usually they have some kind of review process and if they find any mistakes, they write us and tell us, we fix it, send it again. And at some point they sign off and it goes up for sale. But just as important as consistency, there is a point where I must get lost in the story, become enveloped in it and in the world the writer has created. And that is the lift off, the miracle, the joy of it for me.

Malcolm: On your Facebook page, you said narrating a book is almost like living in your own imagination. How does this differ from getting in character and performing in front of a camera or an audience?

Kelley: When I am in front of a camera or an audience I am always aware they are there. That awareness gives me information to shape my performance to be effective. When I am reading in my dark little room behind my heavy sound barrier curtains and walls, I can be transported in my imagination anywhere I want to go, anywhere the authors take me, and no one is looking. I am there – wherever “there” may be. It is very easy to get lost in the moment, to be completely free. It is, quite literally, transcendent.

Malcolm: What led you and Bruce Carver to start a recording studio that includes the production of audio books?

Kelley:   When you try to make a living via your art, all the work you take is not always as fulfilling as you hoped it would be. Particularly for an ‘educated’ artist – I’m an MFA, Florida State/Asolo Conservatory and Bruce is a Masters of Music, Northwestern Univveristy. That sounds very snobbish. Don’t get me wrong. It’s great, fun work when you get it, but also, – well let’s put it this way – I’ve played  about a dozen different moms for TV whose child has been either murdered, raped, kidnapped, abandoned, abused, molested… the list goes on.

Likewise, I lost my dad in 2012 and that is always a big wake up call. Bruce and I at the same time came to the realization we wanted to do work we cared about, we wanted to do work that moved people, that felt important, we wanted to support other artists who were trying to get their voices heard, we wanted to work together, we wanted to hold the reins and we wanted to be able to take our dogs to work. Go to the Dog Blog page on my website. and you can meet Angel and Maggie – our husky and lab/chow that work on every book right beside us. They are Quality control.

Malcolm: I like the great critter pictures. Our three cats are constantly checking up on me while I write, purportedly for quality control purposes. In addition to the audio books, what other projects do you have at Storyteller?

Storyteller's home page backdrop.
Storyteller’s home page backdrop.

Kelley: We are  also very excited that we are about to embark on a new recording angle – audio description. Audio Description has been described as “a  literary art form. ” It’s a type of poetry – a haiku. It provides a verbal version of the visual: the visual is made verbal to convey the visual image that is not fully accessible to a significant segment of the population. These services apply in various multimedia settings including theater, dance, opera, television, video, film, exhibits, museums, educational venues, but also circuses, rodeos ice skating exhibitions and a sporting events.” The 2010 Telecommunications Act, signed into law by President Obama will, in a series of progressive requirements, make audio description a required part of our cultural accessibility. I am attending a conference this week, offered by the American Council for the Blind & the Audio Description Project to learn those skills and Bruce and I would like to make that a part of the services we provide in our studio.

Malcolm: How do coordinate studio work with the ever-shifting demands of the film and television productions in which you appear?

Kelley: Because film and TV are ever-shifting its become a way of life for us. Because our studio is in our house we can ‘go to work’ whenever we want or need to – Middle of the day or middle of the night. But also because our lives are ever-shifting  we decided to pursue our own business in recording for some structure, some calm, some control.

Malcolm: Where will film and television audiences see you next?

Kelley recently told the story of Mexico's Popocatepetl volcano as part of the observatory's "All Space Considered" lecture series.
Kelley recently told the story of Mexico’s Popocatepetl volcano as part of the observatory’s “All Space Considered” lecture series.

Kelley: I have a new independent film coming out this fall, BLACKMAIL – very fun, smart, black comedy about truth and consequences. Also a new comedy BOOT THE PIGEON is in production, about dating and the adult male. Bruce will be the signature sound for the upcoming Starz series (pirate prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island) out in Jan 2014, BLACK SAILS. Like us on Facebook at Storytellerproductions and we will keep you up to date on what we are up to.

Malcolm: Thank you for visiting Malcolm’s Round Table, Kelley.