When you're a publisher looking for an experienced actor to narrate the audiobook version of your latest title, your short list of names will likely include that of Michael Boatman. Raised in Chicago, Boatman is best known for his recurring roles on ABC's "Spin City" and "China Beach" as well as guest-star gigs on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," "Scrubs," "CSI: Miami," "Hannah Montana," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Criminal Minds." But he's also one of the busiest performers of audiobooks, with recent titles including James McBride's National Book Award-winning "The Good Lord Bird," Dennis Lehane's "The Given Day" and "Long Walk to Freedom," the autobiography of South African icon Nelson Mandela, who died Dec. 5. (A film version, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," is scheduled to open in Chicago on Christmas Day.)
Printers Row Journal caught up with Boatman, 49, for a phone interview from his home in New York. (Boatman is an author himself, with a new novel set in Chicago coming out in the spring.) Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Q: How did you get into doing audiobooks?
A: In a strange way, it's an extension of both of my first loves. But it never occurred to me as something to do until, one day, someone called and asked me to record a book by E. Lynn Harris. I was still on "Spin City" at the time, and my agent called and asked if I wanted to do what was then called a "book on tape." And I said, "Oh." For me at that time, books on tape were what my great-grandmother listened to — you know, a 75-year-old woman sitting in her lonely apartment listening to a book. But I said yes, because I love books, and I love reading. And it was right around that time that I had started writing myself, and I figured doing the books on tape would be a nice intersection of all my interests.
Q: What year was that?
A: Wow. It was around 1999, I think.
Q: And you've done quite a few audiobooks since then.
A: Three dozen or so. I just love it. The very first book I narrated — that E. Lynn Harris book — I remember thinking, "I couldn't be happier." The only way I could have been happier was if I'd be recording it in a library! (Laughs.) I'm a rabid reader, and I'm an actor, so it seemed like a match made in heaven.
Q: So how does it work? You go to a recording studio like musicians would use?
A: Very similar, but typically it's a very small, airless, soundproof room. I stand or sit, depending on the role and the demands of the book. And there's an engineer sitting on the side, watching and recording, and usually there's a director or producer there to guide you. Sometimes it's almost a hallucinatory experience, because you're doing something that's emotionally demanding, and you're doing it in this very small, airless chamber for eight hours a day. But that sort of environment focuses me, in a way; it's easy to imagine the audience listening on the other end.
Q: How long does it typically take for you to do a book?
A: Depending on the book and depending on your schedule, it can take anywhere from three days to two months.
Q: Do you do voices that are distinct to each character, or do you do it all in your own voice?
A: I really try to bring a different voice to each character. Some books, that's not what's really called for, or appropriate. But most do require a certain amount of characterization. Of course, some directors don't want full-on screen performances; they want just a suggestion of the characters. The most challenging ones for me are the ones, obviously, where I'm doing a lot of acting — lots of voices, lots of characters to keep track of.
Q: In the Mandela book, I gather, you weren't trying to do an impersonation of him, but you did want to suggest how he sounds because his voice is so well known.
A: Yes. His voice is so distinct, and everyone knows how Mandela sounds. I've never been a mimic, in the sense that I don't do impersonations or impressions, but I have sort of a facility for accents — an ear for them, I guess, and I try to render them as honestly and authentically as I can. In the Mandela book, there were dozens of African and British dialects; there was even an Irishman or two in there.
Q: You also did a book by a favorite author of mine, Dennis Lehane's "The Given Day." You had to do Boston accents for that one.
A: Several of them, yes. There were Boston Irish accents, Boston Italian accents. They're so specific that they can swing wildly from character to character based on the neighborhood the character lives in, even if it's a bunch of Irish guys. They come from one county in Ireland or a different county. The director of that book came to the recording sessions with dozens of audio snippets of Irish people, Italian people, different parts of these countries. So we really got it nailed down. I'm always very nervous, because I know I hate it when actors do an accent poorly.
Q: So it's not just a question of walking in, picking up the book and start reading. You really have to do your homework.
A: Oh, absolutely. A really involving book, like "The Given Day" or "The Good Lord Bird" or the Mandela book, is as engaging for the narrator as if it were a performance onstage or in front of a camera with millions of people watching. You really have to do it right.
Q: Were there particular challenges in "The Good Lord Bird"?
A: Lots of challenges. Lots of characters, lots of voices. And it's a big book; the draft we used was 700 pages, something like that. And lots of vocal energy required for all of the characters, particularly John Brown, who was in quite a different register than mine. I spoke in this low, gravelly voice for him, which was very demanding.
Q: There's a unique tone to the book, in that it's about these very serious subjects, terrible events being described, but in an often very comic way. That had to be tricky.
A: It was surprising, because I'm so used to movies and books that deal with slavery, and those books are always, of necessity, very grim. So when I was offered the job of reading "The Good Lord Bird," I sort of mentally prepared myself for the slog through this horrific history. And very quickly, as I got into the book, I found myself laughing. Which was confusing. I'm like, "That can't be right! Let me go back and read that again." But it was really funny, which was a completely unfamiliar experience to find anything funny about the institution of slavery.
And so the challenge was to shift gears from what I had been expecting enough to understand what McBride was doing, which is subversive to what we're all sort of accustomed to when we're talking about slavery. It's sort of one of the holy grails of horror in humanity's history, and we don't take lightly to it being made fun of. And yet he does it over and over again.
Q: There's an additional layer of complexity in that the narrator, Onion Shackleford, is a child in the story, but he's telling it from the perspective of a quite older man looking back.
A: You know, you always struggle at the beginning of a book to figure out the voice. As a narrator, you have to figure out: How does this guy talk? Who does he sound like? What are the specifics of his speech patterns? In this case, it was harder for me to figure out the younger Onion than it was the older gentleman that he became, because the older man reminded me a lot of so many members of my own family, including my great-grandfather and my uncles. The older Onion's voice reminded me of the way I had heard them all talk around the table at family gatherings when I was a kid.
Q: When I interviewed him for Printers Row, James and I talked about Onion as an embodiment of the black barbershop raconteur.
A: That's the perfect description. I call guys like Onion "ghetto philosophers" — guys who can hold forth on pretty much any topic, and even though they may not have graced the doors of higher learning, they've figured out enough about life to come off as sage characters.
Q: Let's talk about your own writing. I gather you write in a subgenre of horror known as "splatterpunk," which is pretty violent but also funny.
A: You know, the very first short stories I published were deemed "splatterpunk," which is a term that I claimed at the time. I absolutely thought of myself as a devotee of horror, particularly comic horror — although I really blame "Monty Python's Flying Circus" more than any literary genre you can name. My first published novel, "Revenant Road," was a comic horror story that walked a fine line between, as a friend of mine said, "a scream and a laugh." That was, I would say, the first half of my writing journey so far.
The novel that I have coming out in April, "Last God Standing," is a departure from that. It's a comic fantasy with no real horror, no monsters, no vampires, nothing that goes bump in the night. It's sort of an updated take on the old movie "Oh, God!" with George Burns. It's about what God may have been up to, and what he's up to today. My protagonist is a stand-up comedian — on the South Side of Chicago, by the way — who, it is revealed, is actually the final incarnation of the Judeo-Christian God. There's a lot going on in his life, including the fact that there are other gods from the other pantheons — Greek gods, Roman gods, Norse gods, African gods — who are coming to sort of try and occupy the space he once held — to take his old job, basically. A friend of mine read it recently and said, "Hey, there's no horror!" And so I think my horror phase was just that, a phase.
Q: Who is publishing it?
Angry Robot, a great science-fiction and fantasy label in the U.K.; in the U.S. they're partnered with Random House. I have a two-book deal with them, of which "Last God Standing" is the first book. It will be out in April of 2014, and the sequel to it will come out in 2015.
Q: And will you do an audiobook of it?
A: You know, I'm not sure. I did the audiobook for "Revenant Road," and it seemed perfectly natural at the time, but at this point I'm not sure it was the right move. I may be too close to the material, and I think I may be more interested in hearing what another actor would do with it. We'll see.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.
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