Tuesday, January 8, 2013

'Thoughts from Actual People' Vol. 5, January 2013 - Award-Winning Audiobook Reader Dick Hill

A new year has begun, and ‘Thoughts from Actual People’ is ready to greet January with its most sonorous interview yet.

A new year isn’t just a time for new things - it’s a time for new ways of looking at old things. For changing modalities and examining things from another angle. A remix of a once-tired song, a remake of a classic film, and suddenly what you thought you knew is presented in a wildly different light that makes you appreciate all the artistry you had grown familiar with - perhaps too familiar to continue seeing it for what it really was.

There might not be a better example of this modal shifting than the audiobook. Hearing a favorite, spine-worn book read by a talented performer breathes fresh life into the characters, scenes, and events that even the most imaginative reader might struggle to conjure. Likewise, entering the world of a book for the first time through the audio version can give you a very different perspective on the people and places within the pages. The humanity of what you may have thought of as ‘incidental characters’ is revealed, the tension of a scene you found inscrutable might be uncovered.

Audiobooks are a great doorway into the mind and imaginations of both the author of the work and the talented readers who perform them.

Few vocal talents in the world of audiobooks can lay claim to the long list of accolades and achievements that ‘Golden Voice’ award-winner Dick Hill has amassed in his career. (http://www.dickhill.com). Perhaps most famous for voicing Lee Child’s incomparable and beloved ‘Jack Reacher’ character, he has lent his voice to a sprawling range of material - from comedy writer Dave Barry’s semi-nonfictional knee-slappers, to the children’s classic ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ and beyond.

Perhaps no award or recognition could be a greater honor than having a body of work of the caliber and scope of what Mr. Hill has already amassed. That legacy, along with the sincere appreciation he receives from fans who are fascinated by the way he brings fictional characters off the page and breathes life into them, validates his work in a way that nothing else can.

We’ll be finding out what it’s like being an actor in such a unique medium, how it feels to be ‘living’ the work of so many different authors, and how being ‘the voice’ of human battering-ram Jack Reacher affects a man, in addition to exploring the effects of modern technology on the audiobook industry.

Me: Thank you very much for taking the time out of your clearly busy schedule to do this interview. I’m incredibly honored, as are all of my readers, I’m sure. I say ‘clearly busy schedule,’ because you do dozens and dozens of audiobooks each year. How does this process work? Do you go to a studio, or work out of your home?

Dick Hill:  I’m happy to say that I no longer travel to work.  Since putting in a studio, everything I do is from home.

Me: I notice that you frequently work in collaboration with your wife. Do you enjoy sharing the directorial duties with her? I’ve heard audiobook reader Craig Wasson describe the process of mapping out characters and voices before reading, and it seems intensely personal. Do you think you enjoy this all the more when you get the chance to work with her? How often do you have outside directors?

Dick Hill: Though in the past I sometimes directed Susie and other readers, with the home setup all I do is read, and Susie directs and engineers our work.  She’s an Audie Award winning narrator in her own right, but no longer cares to record.  No outside directors are involved.  I do a cold read with almost all our work.  Susie preps, going through and noting vocabulary to be checked, taking notes about characters’ accents, characterizations the author may have offered, things of that sort.  I look at that, then pick up the pages and start recording.  I never rehearse, and only pre-read certain military authors where it just makes more sense for me to skim through because of military jargon, things like that.  We were surprised to discover just how much we love working together.  The effect of our collaboration on our relationship has been nothing but good.

Me: One of the first things I noticed when listening to ‘Killing Floor’ was the use of audio ‘effects,’ such as a telephone effect applied to a voice speaking over the phone. These sorts of things can prove to be immersive. Do you prefer to employ such effects – overdubbing to demonstrate one character cutting off another, crackling radio sounds added in, that sort of thing – or do you prefer a ‘pure’ reading experience?

Dick Hill: Those effects were added by the publishers.  I don’t do any projects now where those are employed, and I think that’s a good thing.  I prefer to offer what you called a “pure” reading experience.  Between my efforts and the listener’s, I think the best experience can be achieved.  If you’re going to use effects to demonstrate phone, or military communications, then why not throw in the ambient noise of a crowded restaurant, or the echoing sound of a tunnel?  Then perhaps storm sounds, car doors, jets overhead?  Just the voice and the ear for me.

Me: You’ve read a lot of books by humorist Dave Barry. Do you have an issue recording more takes on these due to outbursts of laughter, or by the time that you are actually in the booth, have you poured over the material too much for it to take you by surprise?

Dick Hill: Not often.  When it’s something like Barry’s work, or any comic writing, I’m in character, even when doing narrative. Cracking up would be like breaking character onstage. Doesn’t happen often.  When it does it’s more often a case of finishing some passage safely then stopping to laugh in pure pleasure at what some writer has offered, sometimes comedy, but sometimes laughing in joy over the pure writerly magic, some truly elevated prose, or brilliant thought offered.  We just stop a second and marvel, share our appreciation.  Now that does happen several times a day. It’s one of the great joys of the work, being able to share that with the person I most love and admire.

Me: This is a bit of a technology-oriented question. Nowadays, I listen to audiobooks almost exclusively on my Android phone via the Audible.com application. This gives me the option to listen to books at slower speed (which I never do) or to listen to them at one-and-a-half times, double, or even triple speed. I have to admit, I prefer listening to intelligible readers at maximum speed most of the time. Do you think giving audiences this option limits or inhibits them from the experience you intend as an audiobook reader? Or are you pleased that people can listen to more books in the same amount of time?

Dick Hill: Haven’t a clue how to answer that one Troy.  I’m not in the least bit tech-savvy and had no idea such capabilities existed.  I deliberately choose the pace, the timing, of everything I record, and feel that it’s the best I can offer in that regard.  Am I happy to think of someone listening to it at a higher speed?  I’d have to say no.

Me: You must have an incredible set of vocal cords to spend so much of your time reading and still maintain that rich, full tone. Do you have some sort of strange concoction that you drink to keep your throat lubricated and in-shape? I have heard people say they drink strange lemony/honey-based serums when doing voice-over work, or what have you. Is this largely a myth or is there some truth to it?

Dick Hill: No concoctions, just lucky to have been born with iron pipes.  Don’t often get tired, luckily don’t often get sick.  I’ll keep water in the booth, occasionally tea or coffee.  once in awhile if my lips or mouth are sticking, making detectable noise, I’ll grease up.  My preferred product is BURT’S BEES Beeswax Lip Balm.  I like the name, and the connect with nature through the thought of bees wax.  It feels so natural.  

I wouldn’t say anything people advocate is a myth.  What works for me may not work for anyone else, and vice versa.

Me: What percentage of the audio work you do is collaborative? Have you ever participated in one of those ‘ensemble cast’ pieces where each character is voiced by a different actor? If so, how did you find the experience? If not, what are your thoughts on doing audiobooks in that style? Does it take some of the fun out of finding the voices for the cast of characters within yourself?

Dick Hill: Done a couple ensemble pieces and hated it.  Much wasted time, not properly set up for the sort of interaction that makes multiple actors desirable in the first place.  I think that was the nature of the particular projects I was involved with.  I know many other multi-voice projects are handled far better, and I’m willing to bet are great to listen to.  You’re also right about the feeling I had of chafing at the bit, wanting to play ALL the characters.  However, I’ve done several dual reads with Susie and sometimes with other folks, and those were very enjoyable.

Me: Speaking of ‘finding the voices of the characters,’ do you have a special process for this? In the past, you’ve said that getting inside the head of a character is your favorite part of the process, and that you are not as attracted to repeating the same performance over and over. Do you find that doing books in a series, such as the seventeen ‘Jack Reacher’ books, stops you from doing this? Or do you like counterbalancing series work with fresh challenges?

Dick Hill: Getting in the character’s head and finding a way to express character and intent vocally is a large part of the process, but getting in the author’s head is equally important.  Recognizing the author’s intent and doing everything you can to support and further that.  I love the challenge of doing that, and think I do best with spontaneous, cold reads, letting the words take me where they will.  The truth is Troy, I just read the s***, and enjoy the hell out of doing it, and consider myself blessed because so far, I’ve been getting away with it.

Me: For all your range of work, you get a lot of action/thriller type books thrown your way. I can’t help but think this is because you have such a precise, aggressive way of dealing with scenes of intensity, and you really bring out the humanity of the characters. Was it your intention to establish yourself so firmly in that genre, or was it just something that happened naturally after the success of certain titles?

Dick Hill: I do certainly get a lot of that type of work, but I never targeted the genre.  I’ve been lucky enough to record a very wide variety of work, and I’ve generally felt pretty good about most of it.  Dostoyevsky, Pynchon, Faulkner, Barry, Steinbeck, Dean Koontz, Terry Brooks, even The Bible, and plenty of non-fiction.  I can find enjoyable challenges in them all.

Me: Finally, I’ve been trying to hold off on this one: What’s it like being the voice of Jack Reacher? I know there is so much more to your career than this one character, but in light of the huge fan revolt against the casting of Tom Cruise in the film version (one of my twitter followers even told me that she wished that you had been cast in the movie), it must be a true honor that so many people absolutely adore your take on the character. He certainly sounds like you in my head when I read one of the books. Does his voice come naturally to you?

Dick Hill: I’ve enjoyed my association with Lee, and hope to continue voicing Reacher indefinitely.   Reacher is so very well drawn, and so memorable and unique, that people really connect with his character. That’s true for both print or audio fans of the series.  No question I get more mail from people about Reacher than anything else I’ve ever done.  I think I was just lucky to get in at the start and establish the connection with Reacher.  If some other actor had done so, I imagine that HE would be the “voice of Reacher” in everyone’s minds.  Provided he got it right, of course.  (laugh)

Me: Thank you so much for your time, and we all look forward to ‘hearing’ more from you in the coming year!

Dick Hill: My pleasure Troy.


  1. Another great interview, Troy! Maybe he'll voice one of your books.

  2. Great interview. Thanks Troy and Mr. Hill.