Narrator: Neil Hellegers
Voice Range: Bari-Bass
Accents: Various Regional American, Regional British, Regional Irish, Scots, Original/Elizabethan Pronunciation, French, German, Various Scandinavian, Various Slavic, Various Middle/Far East, Australian.
Genres: Science Fiction (Time Travel, Cosmic Horror, Zombie Apocalypse), Non-Fiction (Education, History, Social, Religious), Fantasy, Thriller, Suspense, Noir.
Fluent Languages: Conversational Spanish and Hebrew
Tell us a little about yourself (Your bio).
I’m originally from north-east New Jersey, right on the New York border. After some time in Philadelphia and Providence, getting various degree-type things, I settled in New York City, where I was principally immersed in Shaksper (sic), teaching it to many persons in the NYC and Philadelphia area, and performing it locally, nationally, and internationally. These days, I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with my wife, quite-young son, and mutt, doing a mix of on-camera acting, stage work, Commercial VO, and, of course, audiobook narration.
How on earth did you get into narrating audiobooks?
That’s a good question, and very appropriately phrased. I have been, my whole life, an inveterate reader. Like that old Bill Hicks routine… “Looks like we got ourselves a reee-der.” Not just any old thing, but whatever piqued my interest, and then lots of that. Tons of sci-fi, King, Anthony, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, and so on, but later also Henry Miller, Turgenev, Dostovesky..recently Banks, Corey, Robinson, Stephenson, MacCleod, Novik, and others. And I’ve read a lot of YA. To be fair, my brilliant and lovely wife works in YA, but I’ve read more Gossip Girl than most adults you know. Anyway, ANYWAY: audiobooks. As an actor, you develop as many side projects as you can, and it’s very nice when that side project can actually make you some money. It’s also nice when what starts as a side project eclipses everything else you happen to be doing. Way back in the early Aughts, I spent lots of summers driving between Providence, RI, where I was going to grad school, and Cold Spring, NY, where I was working at a Shakespeare festival, and that drive was very well spent with whole swaths of audiobooks…Frank Muller’s narrations of The Vampire Chronicles, Craig Wasson doing Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand and others. I immensely enjoyed the form, marveling at how adaptable we are as listeners to take in literature in that manner, particularly with a distinctly talented narrator. So, skip ahead a few years, shortly after the birth of my son, as I rethink how I’m going about, well, life, and my mind comes back to audiobooks. After picking a few ears, most notably the excellent Christina Delaine’s–I mean she is excellent, not just her ear…though she has super-powered hearing; I’m not kidding– I figured out what and who to start listening to, where to get some training, such as Paul Ruben’s transcendental workshop, and how to put myself into consideration for narration. And also, how to assemble and maximize my home studio. The process from there has been much like any other narrator: how to improve my craft while marketing and networking sufficiently to utilize said craft.
What do you do when you are not narrating?:
These days I’m doing quite a bit of on-camera work, mostly commercials, specializing in goofy, man-child dads, or quirky professionals. I do the occasional film, tv, or webseries gig, and, sadly, even less occasionally, some theatre, typically workshops and readings for playwright friends. I use to spend an inordinate amount of time researching and putting together solo performances about the social phenomenon known as the Shakespeare Authorship Question, or SAQ, as it is commonly known…if you could say it was commonly known. [off of Paul’s puzzled look] You know…the history and current manifestations of those who believe that the person know as William Shakespeare did not write the plays and poems typically attributed to him…generally speaking, it’s tomfoolery, in my opinion, but FASCINATING stuff. And I appreciate the Oxfordians’–people who think it was actually the 17th Earl of Oxford– passion and discipline. There’s a Vimeo somewhere of me ranting about this.
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 some Commercial VO, here and there. I was the Voice of Qdoba Mexican Grill in 2010! Much of the VO I do branches out from my on-camera commercial work, as a component of the gig. I recently did the AVO for a toy commercial I also acted in, and *that* was living the dream. I’ve also done some Video Game VO, which was tons of fun, especially utilizing that character voice skill set employed for narration. The main hurdle I face is time management, such as “Well, if I didn’t have to haul into the city for this audition, I would certainly have time to finish this chapter, “ etc.
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?:
In my recent experience, it’s been about 33.3-33.3-33.3. I’ve auditioned and booked titles that piqued my interest and fit my criterion (like my most recent, The Chrononthon), I’ve been assigned books by publishers (which tend to be first-person non-fiction), and I’ve chosen books in the public domain that I’ve always wanted to narrate, and to fill out a slower work period (like the H. P. Lovecraft I’ve done).
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 think it can be fairly said my style varies depending on what I’m narrating, relating most closely to the emotional and intellectual life represented therein. My style for Dreamland by Sam Quinones, a gritty non-fiction about America’s heroin and oxy addiction, leans on the tones of a dire cautionary tale, while The Chrononthon, which follows a novice time traveller through the ages, reflects his wonder and wry sense of humor. These might share elements with my style in some of my Lovecraft narration, where the main characters are relating events they know are impossible to believe, but too important to the well-being of the world not to share. I do try to take each book as it’s own creature, and relate to the listener the emotional subtext with the narrative. My voice, as it is, can probably be termed more discretely: a bari-bass, leaning to the low end. I find myself employing my stage training often, though for subtlety, to allow emotional expression without pushing too hard, and to differentiate characters through different areas of resonance as much as pitch and dialect. I think The Chrononthon is a good representation; listen to that one coughcough plug coughcough.
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?:
In some cases, my royalty-books have worked out quite well, and some not so much. And I can see how the set amount removes one from the pressures of sales, so, yes, that’s always a good thing. It would seem the industry is moving in directions that will favor pay-per-hour schemes over royalties, so that’s the aim, for now anyway. Coming from the theatre, I’m also inappropriately accepting of the idea that early in one’s career, you work your proverbial tail off to establish a foundation that pays off later on. That being said, there are mouths to be fed, and, thereby, bottom lines to be drawn.
What do you see as your greatest achievement as an audiobook narrator? What has been your most difficult moment?:
Same answer for both: just getting started! I’ve spent a lot of time establishing a network with on-camera and theatre casting directors and agents, so to start from the absolute bottom with a whole new network has been challenging (still is) but rewarding! Wish-fulfillment level rewarding. My frustration these days is that I would love to be narrating all the time, but these pesky on-cam auditions and gigs keep getting in the way.
If you had to choose someone to rescue you from the jaws of certain death would it be a superhero, supernatural creature, or a space alien?:
I’m going to have to go with space alien. Since any one of them presumably saves my life, qualifying the existence of extraterrestrial life is of greater significance in the grand scheme. Not that metahumans or preternaturals are unimportant, but proof of universal life surpasses them, imho, as it signifies, ultimately, greater diversity of life and possibilities, even more than enhanced persons or living folklore.
If everyone came with warning labels, what would yours say?:
WARNING: CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE. THAT BURNS A BUILDING DOWN.
Care to share an awkward fanboy/fangirl moment, either one where someone was gushing over your narration/acting…..or one where you were gushing over another narrator/actor’s work?:
At APAC this past year (audiobook conference), I sat next to Mr. Scott Brick, who’s work I hold in very high, inspirational esteem, in the audience for a panel. I tried very hard to talk about everything except audiobooks. Ultimately, I failed, and admitted I had just been listening to his excellent narration of The Devil in the White City. Like, just, as in, right before.
What is a recurring or the most memorable geeky argument or debate you have taken part in?:
I think I’ve already said enough about my obsession with the Shakesper (sic) Authorship Question.
What is the first book you remember reading on your own? What do you remember most about the experience?:
I think the first I remember is Susan Cooper’s The Silver on the Tree, the first book of the The Dark is Rising series. It’s steeped in Arthurian lore, and deeply, deeply British. I remember thinking I wish New Jersey was as moody, foggy, and mystical.
You have to run an obstacle course. Who do you invite along (living or dead, real or fictional)? Will there be a tasty libation involved?:
Oh, my son, Edgar. He’s got crazy skills (for a two-year-old). Right now, he likes cold milk and grapes the most.
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?:
Opinions seem to vary about this among narrators but, coming from the theatre, I crave and thrive with collaboration. In my mind, the more artistic brains you put together, the better the results. With The Chronothon, Nathan Van Coops (the author) and I had a very smooth and beneficial collaboration. I knew I could always approach him with questions about a character or a moment, and we spent some good time being sure to nail the tone of the main character. We had that level of trust where we could both speak our mind, and, even if not 100% in agreement about this choice or that, we could arrive at a solution that served the story, and therefore satisfied both of us. Oh, Lovecraft sometimes visits me in my dreams to give me notes, and while they are insightful, they are deeply, deeply disturbing…so “less helpful” overall, I fear.
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 read and annotate, looking for major events, and how they would effect the tone and/or pacing of the narration. Much of this can and will change as I go along, but this way I can start the book at ‘A’, knowing when to pivot to ‘B’ and so on, till the right time comes for ‘Z’. Pronunciation of key terms is crucially important, as much as tracking characters, and both end up as embedded sound files in the text, for correct pronunciation, and consistent characters.
How do you flesh out how a specific character will sound?:
I start with the usual distinctions: age, disposition, regionality. After those choices are roughed out, if necessary, I alter for distinction between characters that interact most often. These changes can be drastic, such as a dialect, but often pacing, pitch, and vocal placement is enough. I will also sometimes cast the voice of an admired actor as that character, to give it distinction in my head. And, frankly, I’ve been more into the “less-is-more” school recently, as pacing and pitch can make the character alone, oftentimes. If there’s a “main” male character, that’s often just “my” voice, as a good, reliable, baseline. But, oh, when a Sri Lankan or Welsh character comes along? So long, subtlety.
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?:
My studio is in my “step-in” closet in the center of an old, thick-walled brownstone, which acoustically works quite well, despite the elementary school facing the front of the apartment. It is still subject to the occasional banging-hammer-next-door, but nothing chronic. For each book, I’m always trying out some new element, or experimenting with recording techniques, but, for my recording set up at least, reliability is valued over variability.
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 like to record in the dark, with only the light of the monitor. This has been true for each book, and while it’s partly a technical choice, as lights occasionally make noise, I like the intimacy it creates. I do the same when I’m in a pro studio.
How long do you record at a time, on average? What is it about a book that will shorten or lengthen this?:
It depends on my workload. I try to do as much as needed, in accordance to my schedule and deadlines, while not pushing past reasonable vocal limits. In my home studio, the seasonal effects (heat, lack thereof) definitely effects how often I really gotta open that door.
What is your favorite genre to narrate? Why?:
I’ve been reading mostly Science Fiction these days, and thereby tending to narrate more Sci Fi (which I consider both The Chronothon and H.P. Lovecraft to be). That being said, there was a period earlier this year where I was exclusively doing Non-Fiction, which was also great; each book was like a brain dump on a different subject matter.
What has been your favorite character? What character has given you the most grief?:
Definitely Ben in The Chronothon (the first person narrator) has been my favorite. Since I try to emotionally relate to the character’s experience, his roller-coaster of thrills, his ever-present sense of humor, his warm sense of companionship, and his ingenuity of using the mechanics of time travel to problem solve dilemmas has been a great experience in which to immerse. And I don’t know if it qualifies as ‘grief’, but in that same book there’s a chapter with about a dozen distinct pirates, and thereby a dozen distinct pirate voices. There was a lot of back-and-forth during the editing phaze on that one.
How do you stop yourself from laughing or crying at some of the things authors write?:
As I mentioned, I’m sitting alone in the dark, so no one can see if I am laughing or crying, so effectively, I’m doing neither…
I have heard that many in the industry dislike the term narrator. What do you prefer and why?:
I’ve liked the “Read by” vs. “Narrated by” attribution recently, but I don’t hate either.
How do you view audiobook narration/production: Art or Science?:
Do you have a philosophy of how to create the perfect audiobook experience?:
It’s in constant evolution, but sure: my goal is to tell the story with clarity and detail, while conveying the human experience in such a way that the listener can enjoy the narrative as it unfolds, and relate to the emotional story that supports it. Also: Let the author’s work do its work.
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 do love non-fiction, but I mostly read fiction. And these days, mostly sci-fi. I recently finished Iain Banks’ brilliant Culture novels, and I believe they’ve been recorded in the UK, but I’d love another crack. And nowadays, I always imagine I’m narrating what I happen to be reading, so yes.
Do you have any advice for other aspiring narrators?:
Find what you love, and read it. Invest in a decent microphone and pre-amp, and then buy a better one with the money you make using the first one. Use Reaper as your DAW, it’s inexpensive, adaptable, and has a cool name. The internet is your friend, and also your advisor, but not the boss of you.
What has been your favorite project and why?:
I believe I’ve pretty much already heavily implied this one, but right now it’s The Chronothon. It has many virtues, but mostly (and I would not say this lightly) I believe it has the best-thought out and most high-potential time travel concept that I’ve ever read, seen, or heard. For reals.
Do you believe that listening to an audiobook should be considered reading? Why or why not?:
Reading’ is the term that we use to designate the ocular experience of taking in content, while ‘listening’ is the audible experience, but it ultimately goes to the same place. Something in the same way that we adapt to reading by Kindle vs. Paper, we are very flexible. Provided the narration doesn’t intrude, and that the listener can maintain the same focus, they are functionally equivalent. That being said, there are books that I would prefer to hear rather than see, but that’s more of a personal choice about how I go about my day to day, so I can’t speak to anyone else’s.
Have you ever gotten a poor review on your narration? What do you do with such reviews?:
Oh yes. I go through the process that I think most narrators do: shock, then anger, then disbelief, followed by anger again, then a weighing for genuine opportunities to improve, then a shrug, and after that, lunch. From my theatre days, I’m used to taking such things in stride, or ignoring them…that being said, if you ignore them, you have to ignore the good ones, too.
How do you feel about authors that choose to narrate their own audiobooks? Any advice to them?:
As for authors self-narrating, I wish you all the best! Too bad about the lost opportunity for a fantastic collaboration, though.
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