Interview with Skyler Foxe Audiobook Narrator Joel Leslie

I am very excited to bring you the interview with my fabulous narrator, Joel Leslie. I think you’ll be surprised to know that he spends most of his time, not in front of the curtain, but behind it. He’s a fascinating chap and I’m lucky to be working with him. We’ve now done six audiobooks of the Skyler Foxe series with the new audiobook release of DESERT FOXE. Please welcome Joel Leslie. (By the way, I can’t shut up even in someone else’s interview, so you will see me comment in boldface. )

Tell us about you. I know you work in the theater but as I understand it, you are a more behind-the-scenes kind of guy. Narrating an audiobook, especially as lively as you do it, is decidedly downstage.

I hadn’t thought about that – but yeah, it’s kinda weird, isn’t it? I went to USC – my undergrad was in performance. I’m a major musical theatre spaz. Then while I was there I realized that, for an actor, I was very ‘in my head’…always analyzing and judging what I was doing. And I have a strong art background my professors pushed me towards directing and designing. So when the undergrad was done they convinced me to stay on for an MFA that was sort of specially tailored to me. But my major passion while I was there was dialects…the speech professor there kind of became my second mom. It’s kind of where the obsession with voices came from.

I worked in the West End for a while and then in New York as an assistant director and a director. Did shows with Maggie Smith, Stuart Anthony Head, and some other really cool people. Then my b.f. and I started producing and we wanted to start our own theater company. We moved from NY to Indiana and started a regional theatre in Indiana. We are looking now to relocate the business to a more urban area – but I directed and designed the shows. When we weren’t doing big productions we sometimes did a couple of “radio drama” readings where I would do performances of books like A Christmas Carol and Treasure Island – I’ve always loved great storytellers like Patrick Stewart and Jim Dale (the American audiobook narrator for the Harry Potter books). That made me think about taking a stab at audiobooks.

Weirdly the “being in your head” and the director background is incredibly helpful for audiobook work. As a narrator I’m basically shaping the entire ‘performance’ – casting it in your mind, shaping the pace and arc of the story, and directing your own performance. So the thing that was a hindrance as a stage actor became a strength.

I’ll say! When did you start narrating audio books?

This is just about my one year anniversary. I dove into in March of last year…and now I’ve done about 50 books. I’m really excited about how things are going and I’ve forged some relationships with some amazing authors. Believe it or not, Skyler Book 1 (FOXE TAIL) was the first contract I ever landed. (I’m so honored!) I know that Haley had been having a hard time finding the right narrator for the series…and I think it was just Kismet. It’s been an amazing gift. The funny thing is that because it was my first book I can really see my skills develop across the series. Audiobook narration really is its own art form. I am very theatrical – I love to ‘perform’ the material. But as a theater person, over time, I’ve learned that good audiobook narration is almost like film acting in a really tight close up. It’s incredibly intimate. So all the wild characters are still the same as in book one, but I feel like now the performance draws the reader in – as if the story is being told just for them. You want a sense that you are in the room eavesdropping with real people (however wacky), rather than listening to a play.

What kind of audiobook do you prefer to do? (The Skyler Foxe books of course!)

It’s easier to tell you what I don’t like to do, LOL. Books that have a bunch of straight/butch dudes having a conversation with each other are a nightmare. Without ending up doing cartoony or muppety voices it’s really hard to differentiate (at least for me). Although I was an expert with British and European dialects I’ve started to study American regionalisms now so that I can have ways of subtly differentiating those types of characters. I think I’m good with comedy…I also do a lot of British stuff. I grew up in Bermuda (a British colony) and had British teachers and friends so I kind of jump between UK and US sounds more fluidly than most people. I would LOVE a Skyler-Goes-To-London adventure! (Preferably with Maggie Smith doing a cameo… I do a killer Maggie Smith impression lol). (Tempting)

How do you prepare for it? It just looks incredibly daunting to me and I wrote the darned thing. Do you read the whole book first, read the part you are going to narrate first, or just give a cold reading?

Well – it depends, really. With a new book I send each author a character sheet…I ask them to tell me for each character their Hollywood dream casting (vocally), age, level of education, who they are related to or from the same region as (You might accidentally miss that on page 264 you learn someone is someone’s sister and they grew up in the same town and you’ve been voicing them from totally different regions). I also ask them what kind of animal the character would be…knowing an author thinks of someone as a bear or a snake or an owl or a basset hound really helps me find the voice. Weirdly, for me, the minor characters with a couple of lines are the ones that are the toughest sometimes.

It’s dangerous to not read the whole book first… I read the first three chapters of a book once, thought “I’ve got this,” and started narrating. Then on page 220 they finally mentioned one of the lead characters was black. Whoops. So yah – you need to do prep. With Skyler, now that I know the characters, I usually read about a third of the book. Most narrators would say this is NOT good – but with Skyler I like to discover the mystery unravelling as he does. I think it keeps it more fresh. But I do multiple takes of each line…I’m very, very didactic. A lot of narrators are quicker than me. So it’s not like I’m just reading it for the first time… I’ll read it… discover the paragraph in the moment, then go back and do it while the impression is informed but still fresh. But that’s because Haley and I are now on book six… I can’t do that with a lot of books.

We’ve included a video with this interview—which is hilarious to watch—and there is a clicking sound you produce when you try out different ways to read. Can you tell us about that?

It makes me seem insane, huh? It’s a dog training clicker. When I make a mistake or want to try another ‘take’ I go back to the start of the line, snap the clicker right by the mic and then start again. When my editor (who happens to be my über patient boyfriend) goes back to cut everything together, he can just look for the spike on the visual audio graph, then he can find the exact place I mean him to trim. Otherwise he would have to listen to fifty different versions of the same line. And he would kill me.

On average, how long does it take you to record a whole book?

I can do about fifty pages a day. When I started I could actually do 100… but now that my style has evolved I try to keep the narrative much more specific and connected. So my output is less but I think the work is better. (Most people might not even hear a difference, but I do). 25,000 words a day is about my limit right now. But since I am doing multiple takes of everything, I’m probably SAYING 75,000 words a day and only getting 25,000 through the manuscript. A whole book can take between three to six days depending on the length. A Skyler is usually four days. But the latest one (that’s about to come out), DESERT FOXE, took way longer – about six days. It’s because it’s written with multiple POV and that really changed the approach. It was a challenge for characters like Jamie and Rodolfo to suddenly be front and center and have serious scenes…it took time to find the balance between being true to their eccentric nature but letting the dialogue feel real and honest to the moment. Time of day can actually be tricky…at the end of the day it’s harder for me to voice Skyler and easier for me to voice Keith cuz my voice gets tired and the pitch lowers. By the end of DESERT FOXE there were so many POV that I actually said to my b.f., “I honestly can’t remember what Skyler (the character) sounds like!” And it was book six! My brain was fried lol. (Skyler sounds just like YOU, you nut!)

After the entire book is done, then what happens?

I record. Then my editor cuts everything together. They say for every hour of audio it takes six hours to produce. The editor usually goes back and listens to make sure I haven’t skipped any lines or there are random dog barks in the background (we have two wiener dogs). Then we send the files to the author and they listen and let me know if there are any corrections they found. Haley usually catches two or three per chapter. I make those corrections, and then it gets sent to audible for quality approval. About two weeks later it goes on sale. Now that I am solidly booked, one thing I miss is the opportunity to listen to everything back myself when it’s all edited and make adjustments.

Which segues to my next question; Do you ever listen to the books again once they are on the market?

I try to. It’s a good way to chart my growth. To listen to some stuff from my first couple of books it makes me cringe (every narrator says this)…but I can really hear how much I’ve developed in this art form. There is one m/m book that I’m so embarrassed by… It was my first attempt at kind of hot and heavy butch romance and it is just an epic fail. I wish I could make it disappear. I was trying WAY too hard – and it sounds forced and silly. But with the recent ones, I do like to revisit them because I can listen with a critical ear but also appreciate that I’m developing. I won’t listen to a whole book…but I’ll skip around and sample various chapters.

Everyone makes mistakes. I’ll never tell you mine but have you ever realized a big faux pas that you’ve done narrating?

Oh yes. Ok, I had this one book, and I really liked the author and the story was pretty engaging. But they hadn’t been able to afford to get an editor. And the book had some really substantial sentence structure problems. It made it really challenging to read out loud. The author was really supportive and apologetic…but it took forever to record. And apparently after the book went on sale – all three of us (the editor, the author and myself) had missed a moment where I apparently, after an exhausting session, reached another obstacle-course sentence and said “Oh my god…I just CAN’T do this anymore”. And that never got cut out. I wanted to enter the witness relocation program. Luckily a really nice listener pointed it out in good humor and we went back in and fixed it asap.

Ha, ha! That’s priceless. That’s a collector’s item, folks. What’s the hardest thing about the whole process?

I think the hardest thing to be honest is that you are dealing with muscles… and they only have so much endurance. It’s a LOT of sitting… and sometimes my back will give out long before my voice has grown weary. And, if you are scheduled back-to-back like I am – getting sick is a nightmare. One bout of laryngitis set my recording schedule back three weeks… and then it’s a domino effect from hell.

Since my b.f. is my editor, I think one of the challenges we face that is unique to us, is that he isn’t passionate about audiobooks as a listener. He is a theatre guy too – but audiobooks just aren’t his thing. He hates listening to them in the car or whatever… like even Jim Dale or Simon Vance or the masters. So even though he’s the one listening to everything I do it’s hard for me to get aesthetic feedback from him as an objective source. But then again he also doesn’t like chocolate…so I think he’s clinically insane! (Agreed)

One of the hardest things I think is dealing with an author who wants an audiobook but doesn’t listen to audiobooks themselves. They have no idea by what criteria an audiobook is judged by the audience as being good or bad. I had one author who kept telling me that all the lead characters just had “normal voices”. What does that mean? Normal for who? Harvey Fierstein or Judi Dench or Christopher Walken? (Now THAT’S an audiobook I want to hear.)

There is a really big m/m publishing company that I have worked for quite a bit. They are awesome and I love recording for them BUT they have a policy that you don’t consult with the writer during the process. I understand why – they are producing dozens of audiobooks at a time and they want the process to be streamlined and not held up by minutiae – but as a narrator I find it so scary because I want the author to love the result… and sometimes you just have to go with your best guess. I had a book where I was 90% sure a character was supposed to speak with an Italian accent, but I wasn’t sure… and it was really scary to know that two months later the author could listen and be peeved that I’d done something off base.

How many books have you done to date?

I think by the end of March I’ll be at 50. I record under two names… Joel Froomkin and Joel Leslie. I use my middle name (Leslie) for grown-up stuff. It’s not because I’m ashamed… it’s because of the way audible book recommendations work. Under Joel Froomkin I do children and young adult books quite a bit, and when you buy a book audible always lists “other books by this narrator you may enjoy”. So someone could buy “Flopsy the Bunny goes to Unicorn Town” and then get a recommendation for “Prison Jocks Fraternity Bondage VI”. Which could be awkward. It just keeps the audience separate. But Skyler fans should definitely check out the Joel Froomkin stuff… they might like some of it 

*I completely understand the “branding” issue (and get your minds out of the gutter folks. Not THAT kind of branding!). It just means one has a different pen name for different genres. Haley Walsh, for instance, writes LGBT mysteries, while under my real name Jeri Westerson, I write medieval mysteries.

Here’s a problem near and dear to my heart as a mystery writer. I’ve heard from other audio book narrators that it can be difficult recording a mystery, especially one where the voice characterization might actually give the mystery away. What are some of the tricks you come up with to invent different character voices? And how do you keep them all straight?

That’s pretty much the biggest challenge… when there is a mysterious voice on the phone etc… or you are doing a conversation with the murderer but the audience isn’t supposed to know who they are yet. It’s so easy to do in a book… but in an audio form, if the murderer is a woman or from Tennessee or French… it pretty much screws the pooch on the mystery. I’ve found the best solution is usually whispering as much as possible.

Some of the Skyler Foxe books have some, well, shall we say, detailed sensual scenes in them? I know that I wouldn’t feel comfortable reading those parts aloud to an audience. How do you handle it? Do you get your mind set that it’s just another scene?

At first it was pretty hard not to blush doing that kind of material. But now I do so much romance and m/m material that it’s actually something that I don’t even think about. I guess it’s kind of like being a gynecologist lol – seen one, seen them all. I actually find it kind of a relief when those sections come along, because it’s no characters, no voices… just narrative. It’s actually some of the least complicated stuff to do… you can’t get it the way of it too much. I will say “orgasm sounds” are always something I’m never sure about in audio books… I don’t really want to listen to a narrator to suddenly sound like I’ve turned on Skinemax…but it has to sound engaged. So, to all authors,
“oh yeah, oh yeah, OH YEAHHHHHH” is not my favorite thing to figure out.

So noted. What, for you, is the best part of the process?

I’ve already found a couple of people who are consistently looking out for and reviewing my work on audible. The fact that I have a couple of ‘fans’ who buy a book not because of the author, but because of the narrator, makes me feel so special. I read the reviews on audible constantly… even when they hurt. I know that I’ve developed and learned from some of them. But when someone takes the time to share that they love a performance – it makes my day. And I’ve learned how important reviews are to authors and narrators… If you read something you enjoy – leave a review… you have no idea how much it helps the visibility and potential success of that book.

Your acting abilities truly make the audiobooks, at least for me. I actually do listen to them from time to time. Some of the voices you do—especially Rodolfo and Philip—are now the voices I hear in my head when I write them. That is a huge compliment, by the way. This creative ability usually spills into other aspects of the arts (I myself was a graphic artist, a professional singer, and would-be actress for years before I turned to writing novels). Have you ever had a hankering for writing yourself?

I really enjoy theatrical adaptations of literary classics… I’d love to try and do my own staging of A Christmas Carol or Pride and Prejudice. The stage version of Nicholas Nickleby is what made me want to go into theatre. But in terms of writing a novel… I’d much rather play with other people’s words!

What’s next for you, either in narration or real world work? Is it something you feel free discussing?

We feel like we’ve taken our Indiana theater as far as we can with our potential audience. We spent eight years learning a lot, developing some really interesting new skills, and creating some work that we were really proud of. Indiana has changed a lot socially since we moved there and we really want to move the company somewhere that can engage a wider audience demographic. We are looking at Florida… it would be great if we were able to make it work. But the great thing about audiobooks is that I can do them wherever we go. (What about southern California!!! Just saying.)

Wow, Joel. Thanks so much for stopping by. As my readers/listeners can see, audiobooks are hard work. And take it from me, a narrator can make or break their success. A good narrator is pure gold, and that is my man Joel Leslie. Thanks for taking the time today and thanks for being my stellar narrator. Please check out the other books Joel has done by clicking here, and don’t forget that DESERT FOXE is now available on audio! More books to come!

Check out a bit of Joel’s session recording DESERT FOXE below.