Meet the narrator of the two new Elite Ops audiobooks and my new friend, PJ Ochlan. A veteran stage, screen, and television actor, PJ is also a dialect coach and audiobook narration instructor as well as one of the co-founders of the Deyan Institute. We met last fall through Twitter when PJ posted about his work on Hard Target and Personal Target.
As we chatted back and forth online, it turned out that we had some friends in common. I knew next to nothing about audiobooks or audiobook production and asked if we could do an interview when Elite Ops was released in audio. PJ generously agreed. I hope you’ll enjoy learning about his process and audiobook narration as much as I did.
Kay: What led you to voice acting/narration?
PJ: I started acting professionally when I was 11. Shortly thereafter I got my start behind the microphone doing commercial voiceover work. Some time later I spent about nine years with shows and features on several different Southern California radio stations. But it was when I was on stage in L.A. doing Shakespeare that led to my becoming a narrator. In the production I spoke seven different languages and played a couple of accented characters. A castmate introduced me to a prominent audiobook producer she worked with who had come to a performance. That was a few years and about 75 audiobooks ago.
Kay: Wow. Seven different languages? How do you prep accents for that many characters?
PJ: As a dialect coach, (www.DrDialect.com) accents and foreign languages are a bit of a specialty for me. Where it gets really challenging with audiobooks, is that I often have to portray multiple characters from the same place – like a dozen different Australians, or twenty different Mexicans, etc. in the same book. In these circumstances I take a bit of license in the world of the accent to prioritize differentiating the characters. It's also important with audiobooks to keep accents intelligible and not let them become a distraction. A fine line for sure.
Kay: When narrating a book with several characters, how do you make each voice distinctive (particularly in a series where you might have that person as a lead character down the line)?
PJ: I have a bunch of tricks and techniques I use to modulate my voice for different characters. They range from pitch and placement to cadence and melody, vocal attributes and accents when possible, even breathing differently. Dealing with future leads can take some creativity – especially when the material hasn’t been written yet. If I've gone with a more extreme or 'charactery' voice for someone who becomes more significant down the line, then an adjustment would be far preferable to maintaining something that could be unpleasant in a prominent role. I'll never forget a sci-fi series I did which featured a giant lizard creature in the first book. The creature only had a few lines, so I gave it my best raspy, guttural, growly rumble. In other words: thoroughly abusive vocally. You know where this is going. These creatures became the stars of book three.
Kay: Ouch! I’m guessing that throat lozenges are your friend, yes? Audiobook narration sounds quite complicated (and demanding) compared to other types of voice acting. I’m still stuck on the seven different languages.
PJ: It's performance work that's loaded with technical considerations – such as clear character differentiation and consistency, clean but natural diction, pacing and breath control, and (in the increasingly common world of self-engineering and self-directing) operating recording equipment and software – all for many hours a day, while being mindful of movement, noise, etc. Other than that it's a piece of cake.
Kay: So how long does it take to record an 80,000-word book? How many hours of work—editing, prep, etc.—go into one finished hour of an audiobook?
PJ: It's around 9k words per finished hour, so an 80k-word book is approximately nine finished hours of audio. The professional standard is two-to-one, meaning it takes about two hours to complete one finished hour. So a nine-hour book takes about 18 hours of recording time in the studio. Add in a couple of days of prep, and then a few more days for proofing, recording corrections, editing and mastering.
Kay: What kind of prep work is involved in narrating a book? What are the differences in and similarities to prepping for a stage or screen role?
PJ: Prep is huge! And it's something I really stress in the audiobook classes I teach. A lot needs to be figured out before recording begins, such as the tone and rhythm of the book, character choices, research, etc. In a sense, the narrator has to be an authority on the material and the big picture perspective that comes from thorough prep is the only way to achieve that.
It's usually a more involved process than when I'm prepping for stage and screen roles, but one big upside with audiobooks is I don't have to memorize all my lines.
Kay: To figure all those details out, how many times did you have to read the books through before you started the actual recording process with Hard Target and Personal Target? Do you have any particular tricks or routines you’ve developed?
PJ: My usual process is to read each book once and mark it up as I go with character notes, ideas, questions, things I need to research, etc. Then once I have the full context of the book, I go back and confirm or adjust my choices and hunt down answers to any questions that came up. Hard Target and Personal Target are great examples of books that also set up some mysteries, which can create unique challenges in audio. For example, a story may keep the identity of a certain character under wraps, and while a secret like that is easy to protect on the page, it can get tricky when we hear that character's voice. So avoiding 'spoilers' sometimes takes a little creativity.
Kay: What do you enjoy most about recording audiobooks?
PJ: Storytelling is a really rewarding type of performance. And I especially appreciate being able to do it and to work steadily as an actor – it's a truly challenging wing of the industry that isn't for everyone. Plus, I often joke about the bit in A Midsummer's Night Dream when Bottom wants to play all the parts. With audiobooks, I get to do that!
Kay: With Romance there is always at least one of "those scenes"—How do you handle reading them?
PJ: As with any other scene involving intense emotion or vulnerability, I commit fully. If an actor, whether behind the mic or in front of the camera, is uncomfortable and 'comments' rather than commits, the performance rings false. The added challenge with audiobook narration is that it's acting in a bubble, so you don't have another actor to connect and find emotional honesty with. But I like to keep in mind that I'm performing the story for one listener – and that helps to bring about intimacy not just for romantic scenes, but all of the emotions in a book.
And then I think about all of the soundbites that'll get in the way of my ever becoming a senator ;)
Kay: PJ, you’ll have my vote anytime. What else have you narrated that Romantic Suspense listeners might want to hear? And where can they learn more about you and your work?
PJ: Google stalk me to your heart's content ;). As for other audiobooks, I've narrated many across all genres, and most of them are available through Audible and Amazon. Just go to either of those sites and pop in my name. And find me on Facebook and Twitter and I'll keep you posted on new releases.
Check out an audio sample of PJ’s work on Personal Target at the Soundcloud icon below. And be sure to enter the audiobook rafflecopter giveaway on my website contest page for a chance to win a set of the Elite Ops audiobooks.
HARD TARGET links
PERSONAL TARGET links