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An Interview with Scott Brick, the Voice of Something More Than Night

December 8, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Scott Brick is a legend in the world of audiobook narrators, with over 600 books to his credit.   He's also an enormously talented actor and writer.   So I was over the moon when I heard his audition for the SMTN audiobook.  Within a few sentences, I knew Scott had absolutely nailed the characters and their world.

In fact, when I now go back and reread portions of the book, I hear it in Scott's voice.  He managed to replace the voices in my head with his own—that's… well, phenomenal.

So imagine my delight when I received a note from Scott thanking me for the opportunity to work on Something More Than Night, and letting me know how much he enjoyed the project.  (And it turns out Scott is an avowed fan of both SFF and noir stories—as Bogart famously said, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.")

Scott graciously agreed to let me toss a few interview questions his way.   Below the cut, read my conversation with the man who gave voice to Bayliss, Molly, and—oh yeah—the Voice of God. 

IT: With 600 recordings under your belt—250 of those in just 5 years, or about one per week!—you are something of a legend in the audiobook community. You've won dozens of Earphone Awards, multiple  Audie and Narrator of the Year awards, and you've even been nominated for a Grammy. When did you realize your voice was something that authors and publishers would crawl over broken glass to have attached to their work? Did you enter the field already knowing you had something special, or was it a serendipitous discovery after you gave narrating audiobooks a shot?

SB: Okay, well, first and foremost I’m blushing.  Sorry, I do that.  I’m honored when people say things like that, but it’s rarely something I think about.  I’ve never really thought much about how authors and publishers feel about my work unless they tell me, but after a while it does sink in and I’m appreciative.  I see some narrators sharing awesome reviews they get online, which I’ve done too, very occasionally, but when it happens over and over, I always think, ‘Our job isn’t to sit around and lick ourselves like cats, our job is to tell the author’s story.  Period.’  I love a compliment as much as the next guy, but I almost feel that if a review doesn’t mention me, then I’ve done my job.  It’s about the author’s words, not my storytelling.  But again, I’m as shallow as anyone else, so I appreciate the compliments!  To answer your question more specifically, I was first made aware of how powerful the voice can be back when I was studying theater at UCLA.  One of my favorite professors, Gary Gardner, who just passed away, sadly, said to me after an audition, “What did you do to your voice over the summer?”  I was surprised, as I hadn’t done anything, but he insisted he heard something different in it, that I’d developed it in some way.  I told him it was probably just a natural aging thing, maturity sinking in, perhaps.  “There’s power there now,” he said to me, whispering as though to keep it a secret from the others around us, “it’s like a weapon.”  I’ve thought of that moment often, it was the dawning awareness of something vital in my life.  Still, as I tell my audiobook students, your voice will never get you a job; it’s how you use that voice in telling the story that will.

IT: You're also an actor. When I listen to your work, I think of every book as a specially calibrated performance. Are acting and narrating distinct activities in your own mind? Has your approach to acting changed as you've established yourself as a narrator?

SB: Absolutely, to me there is no difference between narrating and acting.  Still, there are adjustments that have to be made in any medium, and there are those that are particular to audiobooks.  For instance, on stage, if you look down while your face scrunches up in anguish, then the audience sees only the top of your head, not the pain you’re trying to project.  On screen, if you look up during those moments but show the same amount of anguish, then you’ll be considered a ham.  Film is a far more subtler medium, whereas in theater you have to be big enough to be seen in the back row.  Audiobooks are the most intimate of any medium, and you have to find the right balance, you have to learn how much—or how little—to show.  As for my other acting work, the hardest thing I have to let go of is my tendency to narrate.  I was doing a play years ago with an old girlfriend—a terrific recipe for disaster, don’t you think?—and she gave me a wonderful bit of direction while I was doing a monologue in rehearsal: “Please stop reading it, just say it.”  I remind myself of that often.

IT: You're also a screenwriter and a novelist.  Has your work as a narrator changed the way you approach writing? When writing prose, do you find yourself evaluating the work with a narrator's perspective?

SB: Absolutely, it’s impossible to keep the two parts of my brain separate anymore.  There are times when I will make huge changes to something simply for the reason that it wouldn’t sound right.  Sometimes it’s little things, names that sound too similar for instance.  I once had to do a book where one character was named Canidy and another was named Kennedy.  And they had scenes together!  And dammit, the author kept using their names in the attributions.  “Hi,” said Canidy.  “Hello,” said Kennedy.  “You new around here?” said Canidy, and on and on and on.  Well, in audio, that sounds farcical.  But there are other times I’ll make larger changes, I’ll alter how much a character yells, because too much of that in audio is fatiguing to the listener’s ear, and has a tendency to take them out of the experience.  That kind of thing should be done sparingly, so if I notice I’m doing it too much, out it goes.

IT: How much time do you have to spend reading and thinking about a book before you formulate your approach to the work? Do the character voices tend to come quickly to you, or do they require experimentation?

SB: It’s always come rather quickly to me, and I wonder if it’s because of my writing work.  I’ve studied various genres a great deal, and immersed myself in others simply because I love them so much.  So, for instance, I know that when reading a hardboiled detective novel, it’s always going to be about the sexual dynamic of the main characters, to a certain degree.  Writers weren’t allowed to write about sex back then, so they put it into different contexts.  Therefore, when a femme fatale walks into a shamus’s office and says, “Will you take my case,” what she is often really meaning is, “Will you take me?”  It’s not the entirety of the story, by any means, but it’s there and you have to know that before you start.  Fortunately, I’ve never had to read all 400-someodd pages before discovering that, I’ve been able to formulate my plan of attack early on, so to speak.  It was a bit different in Something More Than Night, of course, because of the story’s unique spin on various hardboiled detective plot devices, and the dynamic between Bayliss and Molly is more, well, dynamic is a good word, which was a great deal of fun and also took a bit more thinking on my part.  As for the character voices, well, in theater we learned about the archetypes most characters spring from, so that’s helped a great deal as well.  For the most part, those decisions have always come swiftly.

IT: I've read that your recording projects can run anywhere from a single day to several weeks. What is a typical recording session for you? How long will you read in a single unbroken stretch without needing to give your voicebox a rest?

SB: I typically break about every ninety minutes or so.  Go longer than that and you’ll really fatigue your mind, if not your vocal chords.  I try to get about three hours of finished recording done a day, and by finished I mean edited, which often takes six hours, or sometimes more.  But that rule is meant to be broken: some days I can do four finished hours, others only one.  A lot of it depends on fatigue, on hydration, on how much sleep I got the night before, a number of things.

IT: You've recorded books for a remarkable list of authors, including many of the biggest names in thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy. Does becoming the narrator for a book that you've already read and loved change the way you experience the work?

SB: Oh, absolutely.  I think people can hear it in your voice when you love something dearly.  Not consciously, perhaps, and not everyone who listens to it will pick up on it, but I’ve had a number of reviews that said something like, “Scott’s passion for the material shines through,” and I love reading that every time.  When you do voiceover jobs, quite often the director says, “Smile when you say that line.”  The reason why is that, by altering the shape of your mouth, you alter the sound of your voice as it emerges, so the listeners can actually hear you smiling.  Well, it’s subtle, but I think passion for the project alters it as well.  I’ll never forget recording Fahrenheit 451, a fairly small book by today’s standard, a book that we could easily have recorded in only two days, but we took three to do it, because we didn’t want to rush ourselves.  The director and I would often stop, shake our heads and marvel at what we were working on, the language was so beautiful.  That book is a love letter to books, and we savored every moment of working on it.

IT: When I listened to your take on the opening pages of Something More Than Night, I knew instantly that you absolutely understood Bayliss. In fact, when I now go back and read the book, I hear it in your voice! I love the way you deliver the noir patter with such fluidity, as though you've spoken that way all your life, while still somehow humanizing Bayliss. How in the world did you strike that balance?

SB: Thank you, that’s a wonderful thing to hear, that really means a lot to me.  I’m so happy I got to do this book, as it’s the type of book I’d have read when it came out, and I’d have eaten myself up with jealousy if anyone else got to narrate it instead.  As for the patter, well, I’m a huge fan of Humphry Bogart, and he really set the standard for delivering lines with that hardboiled pattern, but still expressing his humanity at the same time.  I’m such a huge fan that I spent my 18th birthday watching a double feature of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, in fact, which remains one of my favorite birthdays ever.  Plus, I’m such a fan of those movies that I took a screen capture of the moment we see Sam Spade’s door and had it faithfully recreated in my office, right down to the suite number and the word ENTER written beside the doorknob.  [IT: See below for a photo of Scott's office door.  It's amazing!] I also got some healthy practice recreating that cadence a few years before I got to do your book.  Years ago I was hired to narrate the prequel that the Dashiell Hammett estate commissioned, Spade & Archer by Joe Gores.  It’s funny, the audio producer wasn’t really thinking of having me narrate it, but I showed him a picture of my door and that’s what did the trick!  I tell you, there would’ve been trouble if anybody else had done that book.

IT: Likewise, your performance of Molly Pruett captures perfectly her fright and confusion when the book begins. And, when Bayliss and Molly chat, you make it sound easy to flip back and forth between two characters with very distinct voices. Is it difficult to record dialog when the voices differ so widely?

SB: No, it’s a blessing, really.  On Molly’s lines, I can basically just be myself, despite the fact that I’m not a woman, of course.  Still, she reflects the audience perfectly, asking 'What’s going on here?'  And despite knowing as much as I know about the story before I begin, there’s obviously plenty more than I don’t, so it’s natural for me to slip into that confusion, wonder and awe.  So as a result, I’m not coming up with two unique characters for those scenes, but instead only one, Bayliss.  Molly is me, and I’ve got me down pat.

IT: You're an avowed lover of noir fiction, as the door to your office attests:

With whom would you rather paint the town red: Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler?

SB: Oh my God, that may be the hardest question I’ve ever been asked, because I revere them both.  It would be so much fun to be along with both of them, simply to be a fly on the wall, because Chandler was greatly influenced by Hammett.  Still, I would probably say Chandler, for three reasons.  First, there’s no way we could paint the town red without booze, and it’s well documented how much booze ruined Hammett’s life, and I’d feel guilty afterward.  Second, Chandler set most of his work in my home city, Los Angeles, and has written about it so eloquently.  (Which means he’d probably know all the best watering holes!)  Lastly, Chandler wrote about the craft of writing, a terrific treatise on his approach to detective fiction, and I always respect and admire authors who take the time to do that.  It starts, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.  He is the hero; he is everything.”  How could you not want to drink with the guy who said that…?!

IT: Getting back to your work as a novelist, you've written a supernatural thriller, and you're currently working on a new project intended for audiobook narrators. How did that come about?

SB: Well, the thriller came about when I was asked by one of the publishers I work for if I’d ever considered writing a novel.  I said no, not a chance, but rethought it after some coaxing.  I remembered an old screenplay I’d written, but ultimately abandoned because I wasn’t satisfied with how it turned out and wasn’t sure I knew how to fix it.  Well, all those years later, I began to think I could fix it if I had the luxury of writing in prose.  Now, many more years later, I’ve finally shipped it off to my agent.  The narration book, well, that came about when I started teaching narration classes in LA and New York.  It’s something I’m passionate about, but don’t have enough time for.  I’m asked to teach far more often than I’m able to.  At some point, when I turned someone down who was seeking one-on-one coaching, I said something like, “I don’t have time to do a three hour class with one person, because I’ve got ten people who need that and it would take thirty hours.  I do, however, have six hours I can spend with all ten of you at once.”  That time management idea sparked something in me, and made me realize, if I wrote it all out in a book, then I could not only help a lot more students, but save even more time down the road.  Of course, with all the time I’ve spent writing it, that idea was shot!  But I’m hoping to be able to start offering it on my website within the next year.

IT: In addition to your never-ending quest to record every single book ever written, which I take as a given, what new projects do you have in the queue?

SB: Well, I just finished the final installment of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson, which is easily my favorite series of all time, simply as a book fan, and it gave me a wonderful sense of pride to be chosen to narrate it.  But even though it’s the last volume Donaldson will write in the series, we still have more of the previous installments coming out on audio, so there’ll be more fun in my future.  Plus, I’ve also got another book in the Dune series to record in my near future, and those are always a deeply rewarding experience for me, Frank Herbert fan that I am.  And speaking of Frank, Blackstone Audio bought the rights to ten of his backlist titles and has asked me to narrate them.  I tell you, the science fiction fan in me is geeking out right now.

IT: On your website, you talk (literally) very frankly about your remarkable experience with cancer. You're also writing a book about it. Do you feel a responsibility to share your experience with others, given the frustrations you've had with the current approach to dealing with cancer? I'm wondering, too, if your expertise as both a writer and narrator has given you a set of tools particularly well-suited to telling such a personal story. Or have you found that the critical process works differently when you turn the microscope on your own life?

SB: I only wish the process worked differently, because it would be far more comfortable.  But I know that the most satisfying stories I’ve read personally are those where the author not only turns the microscope on his or her own life but jacks the magnification up full blast, well then, so be it, I’ll do the same.  It’s much like my approach to cancer itself: it’s not easy, but great achievements never are.  When walking to my doctor in New York, I would pass by a building with a wonderful quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the outside, and I remind myself of it whenever the process becomes difficult.  “There is no gain without struggle.”  And yes, I absolutely feel a responsibility to share my experience, because my frustration stems primarily from the medical community’s refusal to discuss the impact of food on our health, not merely in terms of causing illness in the first place, but more specifically, in healing it.  I’ve had doctors tell me that I could eat anything I wanted, no consequence!  Well, that’s just crap.  So, if my frustration is because nobody’s talking about it, then I damn well better.  Hence, my coming out on my website.  Though I don’t have the time to become a full-fledged advocate, I’m doing my best whenever I can.  I’ve had a number of people approach me about my treatment and how they might do the same.  Plus, as I mention in the piece I wrote, my girlfriend and the food website she runs has been instrumental in restoring my health, and God bless her, she’s written a cookbook that debuts in April, The Blender Girl.  It’s been getting massive pre-orders and Random House is hugely excited about it, so my hope is that together we’ll be able to help a great many more people.  Not everybody wants to take my approach, of course, which I understand and honor; anyone who gets cancer is entitled to make their own choices, and not have others’ thrust upon them.  But for those willing to walk down a road that’s a bit more challenging but far more rewarding, well then, I’m happy to hold their hand as they start out. 

Thank you, Scott, for letting me pepper you with so many questions!  And for doing such a remarkable job on Something More Than Night

Scott's website is ScottBrick.net. 

More information about Something More Than Night can be found here, including the hard-boiled slang glossary that I compiled while writing it.

Comments

Den Wesolowski December 13, 2013 at 6:56 am
Awesome! I love Scott Brick's work!


Ian December 13, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Me, too!  I only had to hear about 10 seconds of it before I realized that I'd won the audiobook-narrator-lottery.

Rob December 14, 2013 at 9:11 am

Great interview.  I've just pulled "Something More" down from Audible and am looking forward to digging in over the holidays. 

Ian December 14, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Thank you very much!  I hope you enjoy it.

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