Tell us a little about yourself.
Equally at home in a vast variety of fiction and non-fiction genres, styles, characters and dialects, veteran actor Robert Fass has been reviewed in AudioFile Magazine as “masterful”, earning praise for his “crisp narration”, “personal touch,” and “distinct characterizations” in titles by such modern and classic masters as Bradbury, Oates, Asimov, Deaver and Steinbeck. A 7-time Audie nominee, he won in the History category in 2011 and again in 2013 for Audio Drama. His narration of Francisco Goldman’s autobiographical novel SAY HER NAME received an AudioFile Earphones award and was named one of the Top Ten Audiobooks of 2011.
A classically-trained actor, Robert studied with famed acting teacher Uta Hagen for several years in New York, where he has lived since 1984. He is a proud member of SAG-AFTRA and Actors’ Equity Association, having earned his AFTRA card in his teens performing in a radio play narrated by Wolfman Jack. An actor and director, Robert has appeared off-Broadway and on regional stages across the country. He was co-founder of a number of successful sketch comedy and improv troupes, including Washington, DC’s “Gross National Product” and NYC’s “Some Assembly Required”, and was the founder and host of “Radio Free Association,” an improvised radio drama series for children.
Robert has, as of this writing, narrated nearly 100 audiobooks and currently serves on the member committee of the Audio Publishers Association (APA). He resides in the Bronx, where he is fortunate to keep very busy in his home studio. He finds talking about himself in the third person like this a bit awkward.
How on earth did you get into narrating audiobooks?
I was a fan of the spoken word from a very young age. Having a librarian for a mother meant I spent a LOT of time in our local public library, where I would pore over the collection of spoken word LPs and bring home everything from comedy albums to original cast recordings of Shaw, Albee, Beckett, Shakespeare, and more. In college I had my own radio show and, while I mostly played punk rock music, I also occasionally corralled friends and did live readings of Firesign Theater scripts I’d run across in the campus library.
My father was a volunteer reader for the blind for over 25 years, eventually serving on the board of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic in Washington, DC. When he passed away in 1997, I began volunteering at the InTouch network, a radio reading service in NYC. I was extremely fortunate to land a slot co-reading The New Yorker magazine every week. After about 11 years of cold reading the best fiction, essays, criticism, and poetry anywhere into a microphone for a national audience of visually impaired listeners, I had pretty well earned my chops. Somewhere around 2004, a fellow volunteer offered me her invitation to an introductory seminar being given by the APA — which at that time was actively looking to bring more trained actors into the narrator community. I was encouraged to create a demo, which I did — a very ignore-the-rules affair which probably would never fly today — and sent it to every producer in the APA directory. I struck gold with a couple of them and, though it took over a year before I got hired, within a few years I had some pretty phenomenal authors under my belt and began getting more regular work. Eventually a title I narrated for BBCAudiobooks America (later AudioGO, now part of Blackstone Audio), BUYING IN by NY Times columnist Rob Walker, was nominated for a non-fiction Audie award and I was invited to attend the ceremony. We didn’t win, but it put me on a lot more radar screens and I began working more steadily as a result. By 2010 I was pretty firmly ensconced in the audiobook industry. When I moved to the Bronx in 2011 and set up a home studio, my timing turned out to be just right to coincide with the increase in publishers looking to hire narrators who could self-record. I still get out on occasion to record at studios in Manhattan, but these days I’d say 90% of my narration is done at home.
What do you do when you are not narrating?
I wear far too many hats than is probably healthy. While I make the majority of my living as a narrator, I also have an active career as an improvisational role player for training in the business world; I am a writer; an internationally-exhibited documentary photographer; and on rare occasions, a bass player in the rather insane and genre-smashing rock trio Carpbrain. On the personal side, I like nothing better than enjoying life and the outdoors with my lovely wife and family.
At the moment, I am proud to be part of an exciting arts project which will be on exhibit in September: I was selected to be a participating photographer in the Bronx Artist Documentary Project (BxADP), in which 30 Bronx photographers have photographed 80 Bronx visual artists at work in their creative spaces. There will be a large-scale exhibition opening September 13 and running through October 8 at the amazing Andrew Freedman Home on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, and it promises to transform the way the arts community here — and the entire borough — is perceived. Information is on the web at bronxartistdocproject.org.
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’m more or less working exclusively in audiobooks at the moment, though I do hope to eventually put some energy into pursuing commercial VO, animation, long-form documentary, and the like. I have done a number of radio plays, most recently with Sue Zizza’s SueMedia. The first hurdles I think of in jumping between audiobooks and any other form are that with audiobooks (i) you don’t have a director; and (ii) you need a completely different mindset, stamina-wise. I’m not the first to say that it’s like the difference between a sprint and a marathon.
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 rarely turn down a book unless it presents a schedule conflict. I can’t say that I’ve never turned down a job because I thought the book was crap; but I think that for the most part I was very lucky, right from the beginning of my career, to be offered quality books to narrate — by authors such as Ray Bradbury and John Steinbeck, for instance. And since then, I have reached a level where I usually am offered books, both fiction and non-fiction, that are well-written, a good fit for me, and which I’m happy to have the privilege to narrate.
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?
My voice has been described in reviews as everything from a thin tenor to a rich bass. I personally would describe it as being smack in the middle of those two poles. Style-wise, it’s difficult to say because I work in such a wide variety of genres both in fiction and non-fiction. My overriding objective in all my narration is to make sense of the book for the listener and to get out of the author’s way. I like to think I bring a kind of intelligence and an emotional truth to my reads, and publishers often call on me to narrate material that’s complex in language, concept, or both. It’s hard for me to recommend a single work for the same reason that I work in so many genres. For memoir, I’d suggest LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI; for historical fiction, the “Liebermann Papers” series of mysteries by Frank Tallis, set in fin-de-siecle Vienna; for WWII on a personal scale, I think NO ORDINARY JOES is a remarkable book.
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?
As a member of SAG-AFTRA, there are negotiated rates for narration that represent the minimum rate I can be paid per finished hour. These vary somewhat from publisher to publisher, and I am lucky that I can sometimes achieve a rate higher than the minimum. I don’t participate in any royalty share deals.
What do you see as your greatest achievement as an audiobook narrator? What has been your most difficult moment?
Winning and being nominated for awards is pretty damn great, I have to admit. But as far as “greatest achievement,” it’s the times that I’ve received an indication from an author, a listener, a publisher, or an engineer that tells me I’ve done my job: fully served the text and gotten out of the author’s way.
Most difficult moment in recent memory was when I learned that Ned Vizzini had lost his battle with depression. I was honored to narrate IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY and was aware that it had made a tremendous difference in the lives of many, many young people who had struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide. I didn’t know him well, but I’d spoken with Ned by phone and he’d been very helpful and supportive when I was researching the book, and I greatly valued his public praise for my performance after the audiobook was released. To hear that he had ended his life and left behind his young family was profoundly sad.
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?
Yes. But I will take a page from Ray Porter’s interview on this one, and for the same reason.
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?
Almost never. Only once did an author ask me to alter a character’s voice – he’d envisioned him as being several years older. Luckily, that was a 10-minute short story so I had no problem making the change.
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 am one of those who believe it’s essential to read the entire book before starting. There have been occasions when, due to publisher deadlines, it hasn’t been possible to do that, but those are few and far between and, luckily, have always been non-fiction — where there’s a much lower chance of discovering on page 417 that your main character has a thin, piping Bantu accent. But it’s not only about avoiding those kinds of pitfalls. It’s about grasping the narrative arc of the story; finding the subtext; detecting the connections between the various elements in the book; acquiring the author’s viewpoint and voice.
For fiction, I make a list of all the characters along with whatever clues the author provides about their sound, their physical appearance, their physical and psychological behaviors. Then I note whether they are primary, recurring, or incidental, and pay attention to which characters appear together. And then, yeah, I dive in.
Chapters vary in length. I try to take my breaks between chapters (especially if there’s a change of scene) but if the chapters are long I find logical stopping points.
How do you flesh out how a specific character will sound?
First and foremost, I take what the author provides. Often, that’s enough for me to make a choice. Sometimes I will find a mental picture to associate with a particular character — it might be someone I know, it might be a public figure, a particular performer – not to try and imitate them, but to inspire something… an attitude, a melody, some quality that I can bring that feels right for that character. I’ve been known to place a photograph on my reading stand to bring me to a specific character too. If I know that multiple characters will be speaking in the same scene, I look for something that will distinguish them in some way — pitch, rhythm, diction, etc.
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?
Yes, I have a comfortable double-walled WhisperRoom which used to be an NPR booth. The advantages are huge — from the fact that more and more publishers have been seeking narrators with home studios in the past few years to the fact that I can spend all day in my pajamas (as long as they aren’t made of a noisy fabric). The disadvantages are that I am working alone, self-directing, and self-engineering. I have embraced self-recording as a necessary evil, and I like to think I’m good at it, but I prefer partnering with an engineer and a director so I can focus solely on my role as performer and interpreter of the text.
My setup is simple in terms of my electronics, nothing unique there; but the booth did come with some cool antique glass lighting sconces… If I were to single out anything practical that’s unique about my setup, it would be the enhancements to the ventilation. WhisperRoom walls are generally pretty good at blocking sound, but the lengths of flexible ducting they include to connect the various ventilation pieces are made of a really thin-membraned material which is extremely porous, sound-wise. David Shinn of SueMedia, who set up the booth for me, enclosed those duct pieces with thick insulation, added additional curving attenuators that gave the air a greater distance to travel (which further diminishes the chances of sound penetrating the environment), and found a terrific inline fan to move the air. Called a TDSilent, it was brand new to the US market at the time and I was able to convince the manufacturer, Soler & Palau, to donate one in exchange for my blogging about it on the old Audiobook Community website.
What is the atmosphere like in your studio when you record. What’s it like, and are things very serious or not very serious?
In the summer, the atmosphere is kinda sweaty. I have to turn off the AC while I’m recording.
It’s serious in the sense of being focussed on the production, but I tend to maintain a degree of lightness due to the fact that I enjoy what I do. The complexity and/or intensity of the book can definitely affect things though — a 400-page WWII account of a Marine slaughter in the Philippines or torture inside a Japanese prison camp is quite different from a breezy, swinging ’60s detective novel that comes and goes in 160 pages.
How long do you record at a time, on average? What is it about a book that will shorten or lengthen this?
I’ll typically record for 6-7 hours, including breaks.
What is your favorite genre to narrate? Why?
Literary Fiction and Memoir are my favorites, simply because I love great writing with an emotional subtext and those two genres are where I’ve most often found it.
What has been your favorite character? What character has given you the most grief?
Unfair question! That’s like trying to decide on your favorite child. For main characters, I think I become most attached to the protagonists in the series I’ve done, like Max and Oscar in the Liebermann Papers mysteries by Frank Tallis. It stands to reason, as they’re the ones I’ve spent the most time with alone in the dark. I quite like Ellery Queen’s dad, Inspector Richard Queen, in the Ellery Queen mysteries. And, maybe because I’ve just finished the latest installment in John Verdon’s Dave Gurney series, PETER PAN MUST DIE, I greatly enjoyed once again slipping into the troubled, cerebral doggedness of the Gurney character. For supporting characters, there are way too many to list, but I’d have to say the cast of “crazies” in the late Ned Vizzini’s wonderful IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY rank way up there.
The most grief? Two come to mind. The villain in PETER PAN MUST DIE is a psychotic assassin of indeterminate middle-European origin who looks like a child and has a voice the author describes as “shrill” and “metallic”. That, plus I had to sing “Ring Around the Rosies” in his voice. Happily, the proofer at Dreamscape wrote me that in the end it had the perfect degree of creepy. The other was the deranged doctor in JOE GOLEM AND THE DROWNING CITY, who, towards the end of the book, begins screeching his lines until the authors describe him shredding his vocal cords and finally screaming out his last words in a “bloodcurdling shriek that ravaged his voice, so that afterward he could only open and close his mouth in a sad pantomime.” Fun.
How do you stop yourself from laughing or crying at some of the things authors write?
I don’t! Why would I deny myself the full emotional ride of the reading experience? I want the listener to experience it, so it needs to resonate within me. But, of course, you’re asking about behind the mic, and that’s a different story. In that sense, I never want to indicate or “demonstrate” for the listener what she or he should be feeling. If I find that I’ve crossed an emotional line in my recording, I’ll go back and reel it in. During the recording of SAY HER NAME (Francisco Goldman’s amazing novel drawn from the real-life experience of finding and then losing the love of his life), I would sit sobbing in the booth trying to collect myself whenever the wave of the narrative would crash over me. But that’s not on the recording. Publishers Weekly praised the fact that I kept an even keel throughout the narration. Little did they know!
Do you have a philosophy of how to create the perfect audiobook experience?
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?
Do you have any advice for other aspiring narrators?
If you don’t have acting experience, start taking classes. Get your physical instrument in shape. Develop your technique.
Educate yourself about the job — its demands and rewards.
Be patient, focus on the work, and don’t expect to make a ton of money.
Listen to a bunch of different top-drawer narrators and get a sense of the range of styles and approaches that work.
What has been your favorite project and why?
That’s another tough one. Usually whatever I’m working on at the moment is my favorite project. I do admit to a soft spot for the Liebermann Papers series, though, because they’re set in Vienna: a city for which I have great affection, having met and married my wife there. (And she came in extremely handy when it came to research!)
Do you believe that listening to an audiobook should be considered reading? Why or why not?
Yes. I think that at this point it’s largely a semantic question. Call it what you will; however you choose to take in a story — through your eyes or your ears — you’re either listening to an external voice or the one inside your own head. (Hopefully there’s only one; otherwise you might want to seek professional help.)
Are you working on any special projects?
Funny you should ask! I am, as of this writing, on the verge of realizing a long-held dream of narrating a cult mystery novel which I have admired for decades: Russell H. Greenan’s amazing IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON? This is the first time that I have obtained the audio rights to a book and will be acting as both narrator and producer. IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON? is one of those books that, if you came across it at a certain age, you still remember practically every line. It’s a brilliant, eccentric, wondrous, unique tale about art, genius, God, corruption, and, of course, murder. I’ll be making a lot more noise about it in the months to come. Watch for it in December (makes a great gift!).
This is for the question you wish I would have asked but didn’t.
I have heard that many in the industry dislike the term narrator. What do you prefer and why?
I haven’t heard of this. Why was I not informed? Is it too late for me to dislike the term narrator as well? (Actually, I like the term narrator just fine. If someone comes up with something more better, maybe I’ll like that too.)
How do you view audiobook narration/production: Art or Science?
An alchemical hybrid of both, perhaps. Where there’s enough science at work to allow the art to happen.
Where can readers/listeners stalk you?
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