While I was at BEA last month I had the chance to catch up with several narrators, a warm and welcoming bunch who seem to all be genuinely passionate about their craft. Here, I talk to Hillary Huber, a veteran narrator with nearly 200 titles to her credit, an Audie Award finalist, AudioFile Earphones Award winner, and one of AudioFile’s Best Voices of 2010 and 2011.
If you could only recommend one audiobook, yours or someone else’s, which one would it be?
My very favorite audiobook of all time, the one that really hits me first, is called The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty. The author is a playwright, and a narrator, and an actor, and he wrote this book and he couldn’t get it published. Nobody wanted to publish it. He narrated a lot of Stephen King’s books and he was having lunch with one of his audio publishers one day, and he was lamenting the fact that he couldn’t get his book published. So she said, “Let’s just go straight to audio with it. Forget it, let’s go straight to audio,” and they did. He sent a copy to Stephen King, who loved it and took a full page ad out on the back of Publishers Weekly that said, “The greatest book you’ll never read.” And within a week he had movie deals and book deals.
What’s your favorite part about your job?
Reading a really great book. I think that all of us who do this job and really take it seriously, got into it because we have a love for books. To be able to have an opportunity to act every character, and embody a book, and tell a story in a meaningful way really speaks to my heart. I love to read. Just the fact that I get to do that as my job is unbelievable. I don’t always get to read a great book but a lot of the time I do, and that feels really meaningful to me. I come from a world of commercial voice over work and I did that for many, many years. And it’s great. It’s great work, I’m fortunate to have had a good career doing that, but at the end of the day, leaving behind some 7-Eleven spots on the planet does not feel terribly meaningful to me, but leaving behind a really beautiful story feels meaningful to me.
How is the experience different reading a really great book when you’re narrating it, reading it for other people, than when you’re just reading a book for yourself?
Well, you know, it’s funny. I have a friend who’s a musician, a composer, and he says, “I can’t listen to music because it’s all I think about it.” And that happens to me now when I read for pleasure. It’s changed how I read for pleasure. I’m always thinking about what voice I would do in my head, and how I would perform it.
What’s the most challenging project that you’ve ever done?
I did a non-fiction book on the Vietnam War. It was about all the political aspects and I had language and words and names, just hundreds and hundreds, probably 900 unfamiliar words and phrases I had to say.
How did you manage that?
I got the author involved. The author was an American but of Vietnamese descent. I sat with her on the phone. I had to keep a list of everything that I needed help with and I emailed it to her. We spent a couple of sessions on the phone with her saying it and me writing down the phonetics and also recording it.
I read that you’ve said in the past that you really enjoy it when you have great collaboration with the author. What does that collaboration look like?
You know, they’ve created a baby. And they’ve spent years, sometimes, creating this gem, and poured out their heart and their soul onto the pages with these words. I think it’s really terrific to hear their take on characters. Even to hear their voice, not that I ever will try to do their voice, even if it’s a non-fiction memoir, I’ll never try to do their voice. I haven’t had anyone really try to direct me or try to impart “this is what I hear in my head.” I’ve been fortunate that no one’s micromanaged me in that way. But just knowing that we’ve talked and collaborated a little bit about the characters and what some of them may sound like, how old they are if isn’t mentioned, and what drove them to write that story makes them feel good that I’m narrating their book, which ultimately makes me feel good that I’m taking their baby and they trust that I’m going to do a good job with it. There are times when we don’t get access to the narrator. And if I were the author that would bum me out. Who is this person who’s going to read my book out loud? So it just gives me, sort of selfishly, it gives me just the comfort and the safety net that they are OK with the process.
I read a memoir recently, such a good book, called My Gentle Barn [by Ellie Laks], about a woman who rescues abused and abandoned animals, farm animals, primarily. She rehabilitates them and heals them and they live on her farm in Santa Clarita, California. But then during the week she invites foster children, at-risk teens, and kids with disabilities to come and bond with the animals. It’s a phenomenal story because every animal has a story that correlates to these kids. … I went to one of her book signings. I actually didn’t have a chance to meet her before I read her book. I just showed up at her book signing. And she was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re here. As my husband and I were driving here, I listened to you because I’ve never done this and I wanted to hear. It was so weird at first because it wasn’t me but within five minutes, 10 minutes, you went away and it was my story.” And that is the best compliment I can ever get from an author or a friend of an author, or really just a listener in general, is for me to go away. I don’t want to get in the way of anything. It’s about the story and delivering that author’s intent.
We encourage you to check out some of Huber’s recent and upcoming work:
Remains of Innocence by J.A. Jance, published by HarperCollins Publishers, 7/22/2014
Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea, published by Brilliance Audio, 6/10/2014
Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts by Emily Anthes, published by Tantor Audio, 6/24/2013
You can also get a taste for Huber’s excellence in the clip below.
The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver, published by HarperCollins Publishers, 4/22/2014