Narrator: Jeff Hays
Tell us a little about yourself (Your bio).
I’ve done a lot of media production through my life. My first true love was music. I went to a music conservatory, and after a year of air-bowing in the orchestra and still getting A’s, I dropped out. I didn’t want to learn to be a musical museum clerk, and it seems that’s what conservatories are shaping their students into. I wanted to make new music, and play on stage like my favorite rock and jazz favorites. I started an eccentric . . . eclectic . . . band. It was truly a labor of love, but eventually my band mates had more important things to do, and I sadly had to come to the realization that, so did I. I had been working for my parents managing rental property, but they ran into hard times and I could no longer count on having a job with them, let alone on taking over their business when they decide to retire. Nor did I want to. With my job as a maintenance man circling the drain, I scoured the internet for any creative way to make money. For a while I was shooting and editing wedding videos, web commercials, and MMA fights, but I wasn’t making it there. But then I found Voices.com and ACX.com, and I already had all the gear I needed besides a sound booth. This was only 2 years ago, but I feel like I’ve started a new life.
How on earth did you get into narrating audiobooks?
I wanted to do other VO work first. I knew the audio book jobs were out there, and from the audio books I had listened to, I knew I could do the job at least that well. But, compared to commercial work, audio books require a LOT more audio delivery per dollar. I wanted to get into cartoons and video games, though I wouldn’t mind documentaries or commercials paying the bills. But, I found that my first few audio book clients really liked my work, and I had a lot of fun doing it. I got to play every character in the story, so I got to exercise my range. Eventually I found the stipend jobs on ACX, namely M.R. Forbes’s Divine Series, and it allowed me to actually make a living doing audio books full time. Yea, it’s not as good pay as doing commercial work, but at least the work I’m doing is going into a product instead of wallowing in obscurity in audition files. It’s much easier for me to land an audio book audition than any other kind of job. Now my chops are top-notch, I have a quality troupe of actors (and actresses) in my head, and I hope they’ll help me land those animation and video game jobs!
What do you do when you are not narrating?
Reading, out drinking with friends, or practicing martial arts.
Many audiobook narrators do other voice over work, where else could we hear your work? Do you find there to any big hurdles to jump when going from audiobooks to something else or vise versa?
I’ve done web commercials here and there, a web series that never got off the ground (I still got paid though) some instructional videos, and even did a poetic VO for an art installment. No offense to my clients, but nothing I particularly feel like showing off.
Do you have the luxury of picking and choosing the projects that you work on or do you take as many as you have time for?
I definitely pick and choose now. I land auditions quite easily, so I can pretty much count on having a job on my schedule. Of course, when I first started out, I accepted some jobs that maybe I shouldn’t have, but at the time I felt I couldn’t miss out on the opportunity.
For those of us that are unfamiliar with your work. How would you describe your narration style and voice? What would the one audiobook you would suggest for people to listen to your best work?
I use Bruce Lee’s philosophy: “Be like water.” I try to conform to each scene or character to bring it to life to the best of my ability in a way that I imagine the author has intended from the text. My style is no style. I do what I can to make the audio book an engaging experience. My best work is usually my latest.
As a narrator, do you get compensated in a set amount or do you also receive royalties from the individual sales? Do you like one more than the other? Has there ever been an per finished hour book that you wish was a royalty deal, what book? Or vise versa?
I generally get both. For most of my jobs, I work with an indie author doing royalty-share, but I only audition for jobs that ACX also offers a stipend on. ACX’s system analyzes each title in their enormous stack of books holding auditions to make predictions on which might sell well. Whenever a book qualifies, ACX offers the narrator who takes that job $100 per finished hour upon completion on top of the royalty-share. This is my favorite deal, because I get compensated right when it’s done so I can sustain myself, and if it does hit, I make a bunch of money on royalties as well. I almost never do pure royalty-share work anymore, and my regular rate without royalties is $300 per finished hour.
M.R. Forbes paid me to do Dead of Night, but even though it isn’t selling as well as I thought it would, I now wish it was royalty-share.
What do you see as your greatest achievement as an audiobook narrator? What has been your most difficult moment?
I keep pushing myself to get better with each audio book. I think so far, technically my best performance has got to be Emissary, by Chris Rogers. I had to narrate from six drastically different POVs, and do countless other voices. But my best audio book is probably Dead of Night, by M.R. Forbes, if you consider the quality of the book itself and the performance together. The best novel I’ve ever produced an audio version for is Interstate Dreams, by the best fiction author to have ever lived, Neal Barrett Jr. I wish I could do a new version of his books every year so I could make sure they were always up to my quality standards.
Do you have a list of your own favorite narrators, who inspires you? Do you have a list of favorite audiobook that you have listened to?
I don’t listen to a lot of audio books. I generally don’t like them. I’m trying to find narrators and audio books that I like, but even when I do, I can’t listen to them while I’m working anymore! And, since I work on audio books or read all day, I usually don’t want to listen to them in my free time. Besides, I get most of my influence from actors in other mediums like film, animation, or video games. Here’s a list of narrators I can enjoy that springs to mind, but haven’t necessarily listened to an entire book by all of them:
Adam Verner (This guy landed two, likely three jobs I really wanted pretty recently. He did a good job on them, too, the bastard . . .)
What is your favorite thing to do? Pastime, hobby, obsession, etc.
My current non-work-related activity is watching MMA fights. I’m completely obsessed with this, the greatest game in existence. I also practice Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and practice striking on a heavy bag at home.
Do you ever get specific notes or ideas from the writer about how something should be read? What is a helpful note, and what is, shall we say, less helpful?
Helpful notes are comprehensible, and that’s really all that matters. As long as I can understand what the author is trying to say, I can use that piece of information to tailor my performance to more accurately meet the author’s vision. Authors are generally shy about giving me direction because they feel audio books are not their area of expertise, but how they intend for their writing to come across is their area of expertise. It’s my job to bring that out of the audio, so I need them in the director’s chair keeping me in line. Sometimes they don’t say a word other than, “Wow, I didn’t know an audio book could even be this way.” Other authors will give me a page of notes for each chapter, and I gladly accept them. An engaged author will always make a better product.
Do you have an initial process or routine by which you get to know the book you’re going to be reading? Do you mark them up, for example?
I ALWAYS read the ENTIRE BOOK cover-to-cover before I start production. If I know what each scene is supposed to feel like before I perform it, what each character is like, what plot points are important, what’s foreshadowing or what’s sarcasm or a joke, I have a better chance of getting it right on the first take, which is what ALL VOs want for every job because it saves us a tremendous amount of time. I work with a lot of indie authors, so I do have to highlight typos often . . . ahem. This is so they don’t trip me up while I record.
How do you flesh out how a specific character will sound?
During the first read-through, I’ll read their lines. I keep picking up clues about them as I read. Thankfully, authors will sometimes offer extra notes on them. If a book has a ton of characters, I will also record what I call a “Casting File” to send to the author before I start producing the audio book. This is to make sure I chose all the right actors and actresses in my head for each character. I record a few lines of dialogue from each character and put them all in the same file, and get notes from the author about what they liked and didn’t like.
Is your studio in your home? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this? Do you have something that you would consider unique in your setup? What is it?
It is in my home, and there are certainly advantages and disadvantages. I don’t have to leave my house. . . but I also don’t leave my house for work. I can fall asleep at work, and not get in trouble for it. . . but then again, I could fall asleep at work, and not get in trouble for it. Feel me?
What is the atmosphere like in your studio when you record. What’s it like, and are things very serious or not very serious?
I have a roommate, so my favorite time to record is when he is gone for work. Then I can loosen up and be a complete lunatic by myself (my dog’s presence does not deter me). In the booth, I only have the light of my kindle and my iPad, and I read with white letters on black background, so the darkness helps me lose myself and get into character. For the book I’m currently working on, “Hair of the Bitch” by Jeff Menapace, I’ve been using Scotch whiskey instead of water to help my character and the tone of the book in general, so lately it’s been even more mad. Outside the booth, I can sometimes get distracted by the interwebs, but I’m generally quite good at keeping my nose to the grindstone.
How long do you record at a time, on average? What is it about a book that will shorten or lengthen this?
This varies a lot for me. Difficult voices can limit my time in the booth. I narrated an entire book as a female recently, “Witch for Hire” by N.E. Conneely, which is painful and uncomfortable, and fatigues my voice very quickly. I could only really spend 45 minutes a day in the booth for that book. When I tried to . . . to um, man-up and stay in longer, the quality of my voice deteriorated drastically and I had to redo large portions of the book due to this. Bad or formal writing can also be taxing because of how often I have to retake, or stop to interpret a phrase or sentence before performing it properly. This isn’t physically exhausting, but mentally irritating, and causes me to work harder and longer to produce what I would normally be able to in that amount of time. One time I was so frustrated at how poorly the book I was reading was written, I stopped and left my house for the rest of the day to cool off. Bad attitudes hinder performance.
What is your favorite genre to narrate? Why?
I’m really enjoying urban-fantasy right now. I get to do a bunch of colorful characters, fun action scenes to narrate, and because fantasy just tends to clash with modern times in a lot of ways, there’s usually a nice element of humor for authors to exploit in it. Plus, people buy it.
What has been your favorite character? What character has given you the most grief?
My favorite character has been Conor Night, from “Dead of Night” and “Dead Lucky” by M.R. Forbes. Noir is my favorite genre of . . . pretty much anything, but Forbes has a very timely wit about his writing that makes Conor a perfect anti-hero. Dark, brooding, smart-ass, but just relatable enough to forgive, but not forget, his questionable decisions, and root (how do you spell this word in this context?!?!?) for him when he’s in a bind.
How do you stop yourself from laughing or crying at some of the things authors write?
Why would I want to do that? Embrace emotions in the booth, and wait for them to pass so that they color your performance.
I have heard that many in the industry dislike the term narrator. What do you prefer and why?
I don’t particularly dislike the term, but it doesn’t fully describe what I do. I can’t think of a better term. Maybe there’s a writer out there who will invent one.
How do you view audiobook narration/production: Art or Science?
Art. There is a science to the production, as there is in the production of all art, but the product simply expresses the vision that the author’s work awakens in my mind. Nothing can be proven about it. It has no practical purpose, other than to tell a story.
Do you have a philosophy of how to create the perfect audiobook experience?
I believe my job is to create an experience out of the material, rather than to simply recite text. The reason I don’t like audio books, is that I just hear a guy in a booth reading text. This is not engaging. I have to focus to make sense of these words and figure out what the author wants me to see. I want to do this for the listener. Audio books are expensive, in both time and money, and there are plenty of other mediums out there that require less of both those things that have far bigger production budgets through which a person can experience a story. I want to make my audio books worth my listeners’ time and money. I don’t want them to have to work to put the picture together out of words in their heads. I want to lose myself and the text, create scenes and characters with the authors’ words, and feed them straight into the listeners’ ears so that all they have to do is absorb.
Do you have a preference for reading fiction or nonfiction for pleasure? And is what you read for pleasure what you’d prefer to read for audiobooks?
I prefer reading and listening to non-fiction books for pleasure. I prefer to consume my fiction through other mediums.
Do you have any advice for other aspiring narrators?
Retake. Don’t settle.
What has been your favorite project and why?
“Dead of Night” by M.R. Forbes. Though it isn’t the very best piece of literature I’ve produced, it’s definitely very high-quality entertainment, it was really fun to do all the characters, and it was a breakthrough for my performance standards.
Do you believe that listening to an audiobook should be considered reading? Why or why not?
No, but this is semantics. I think it’s an alternative to reading, and can be just as fulfilling or educational, but it’s listening, not reading.
Are you working on any special projects?
I’m working on a costume for Planet Comic-Con here in Kansas City. I’m going to cosplay as Conor Night from “Dead of Night” by M.R. Forbes, get in character, and try to promote the book there. I’m going to film the process and make a promo video. Hopefully it will get Dead of Night more listens, and also promote the next book in the series which M.R. Forbes has predicted he will publish in April, called “Dead Red.”
I’m slowly working on an audio version of “High Water” by R.W. Tucker. It’s a kung-fu stoner zombie book, and I’ll be producing it as my first full audio play, complete with a score and SFX. It’s gonna be dope.
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