AudioFile Column: 5 Questions with Narrator Michael Kramer
Five Questions with Narrator Michael Kramer
By Candace Levy
Most people will associate today’s Take 5 guest narrator with audiobooks set in imaginary worlds. Michael Kramer’s name is especially linked to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series; in fact, he’s narrated all of the books in that popular series, in collaboration with Kate Reading. Tens of thousands of fantasy fans have welcomed Michael Kramer into their lives via speakers, headphones, and earbuds as they listened to 14 audiobooks and more than 400 hours of action, adventure, war, and politics set in an ancient world.
Kramer is equally skilled at performing history, memoir, literary fiction, thrillers, children’s stories, science fiction, and more.
He was kind enough to answer a few questions for AudioFile about his life as a voice performer and beyond.
What is the one thing you wish you’d known before you recorded your first audiobook?
Don’t forget to tell the story! As a beginning narrator, you can get so caught up in thinking about technique, correct pronunciation, breath control, etc. that you forget to tell the story. All those things are important, but they are subservient to the story. It’s a bit like a musician who plays every note correctly but that isn’t making music. It’s your job to find the music, the story, that the author has created in the notes, the words, and their relationship to each other and the listener.
And don’t be afraid to make a mistake! You will crash and burn all the time. Narrating is all about breathing. The eye and mind don’t need to breathe, but the voice does. This seeming handicap is actually an incredibly expressive tool. Breath frames the thought, maintains or releases tension, but the eye just sees the next word. Ha, take that, Eye! The clues in a text as to how to employ breath, however, are often very subtle and discovered only in the moment of interpretation, belatedly—oops! Crash and burn! And that’s fine! Who knew you needed to breathe here to keep this thought together, or if you breathe there, you release all the tension in the scene? Yes, some will recognize the clues sooner, or more readily, but that is a skill in the craft that you will always be honing. Relax, take the insight from the crash, and then tell the story.
What are you doing when you’re not working?
These days I’m playing basketball, practicing yoga, gardening (I must have my hands in the dirt every so often), reading, following baseball and fantasy baseball, and paying attention to US politics and world affairs.
I’ve always been involved with athletics, as hard as that is to do when involved with theatre, but whether just running and working out or something more organized, it’s very important to me—and my health. About 10 years ago, I got into a regular pick-up game of basketball, which led to playing with an over-30 men’s league. It’s great to have a more communal activity, given that narration is so solitary. I started practicing yoga to try to enhance my flexibility and strength on the court. I have only recently begun to understand the conceptual and emotional sides of practicing.
Baseball has always been in my life. My dad played—he was really good, hitting .400-something with power for a state championship team—and when I was growing up the game was always on the radio. I have many memories of sitting in my grandparents’ kitchen playing bridge with a game on in the background.
I love to read, always have. Love stories, love finding out about things, love entering into dialogues with authors through books. I was always very inquisitive, and in a world without internet, only four channels of television, and phones with rotary dials, cords, and connected to the wall, reading was my way of exploring it.
Living in the Washington, DC, area, especially since the 2016 election, it has become really important to me to pay attention to what is happening in the world.
What are some of the particular challenges of narrating nonfiction?
The single most challenging aspect of narrating nonfiction is to remember that it is still a story, fact-based as it may be. I had the privilege of hearing David McCullough speak at the Library of Congress Literacy Awards a few years ago. He talked about coming to Washington, DC after Kennedy’s election as a young man and working as a congressional staffer. As I recall, he said he was tasked with doing some research at the Library of Congress about the Johnstown Flood, and as he gathered various photographs, accounts, and histories of the event, he found himself thinking: Why are the histories so boring? This is exciting stuff. Why don’t they write about it like it’s a play? He came from New York City with a theatrical background. And I believe he said that someone challenged him: Well, why don’t you? So he did, and the rest is, well, history. Point being that he is an author well aware that he is telling a story, and if you’ve ever read anything by David McCullough (and if you haven’t, please do, he is so good!), it reads like a thriller. Not every nonfiction writer is so concerned with the form of the content they are relating, but your job as a narrator is to . . . tell the story.
What’s your most embarrassing moment in the recording booth?
At the Library of Congress Talking Books studio I was narrating a story by Rick Bass, I believe it was “Where the Sea Used to Be,” very poetic, as Rick Bass’s work is. It was set in the American West, I think Montana, and there were some Basque shepherds calling out, “Andale! Andale!” as the main—English-speaking—character was approaching. So I yelled “ANN DAIL, ANN DAIL,” thinking Andale was some breed of sheep and not sure why the Basque shepherds were so intent on informing the main character as to the sheep’s breed, but whatever. Of course, ándale is Spanish, pronounced “AHN dah lay” meaning “Let’s go”—the shepherds obviously were driving the sheep—but not obvious to me. Now to be fair, as I recall, the whole section was in italics and there was no accent on the first “a.” Fortunately, it was caught in corrections; but still to this day at the studio when there is a really silly mispronunciation, I will hear a chorus of “ANN DAIL, ANN DAIL!”
What are the pros and cons of recording a series?
The pros are that you’re familiar with the author’s syntax and rhythm and style, so you have a better idea of how to narrate the later books in the series. You have already distilled the characters’ voices and are familiar with the placements. The cons are that it can be several years since the last book of the series or a character who has not appeared since book 1 shows up in book 4! Good authors, like a Robert Jordan, a Brandon Sanderson, or a Donald E. Westlake, tend to provide at least a thumbnail or shorthand description in the new book, either to remind a listener of who the character is or to introduce the character to someone who hasn’t started at the beginning of the series. The challenge for both the author and narrator is to get this across in such a way as to not bore the returning listener while making sure the new listener gets all the background.
Also with a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, you have newly minted names and terms which exist only in this book’s world, so remembering how they are pronounced is challenging—especially before computers.
To discover more audiobooks performed by Michael Kramer, explore his audiography.
About Candace Levy
Candace is a full-time freelance book editor as well as a book reviewer and journalist. When she’s not working, you’ll inevitably find her listening to an audiobook while cooking, walking, making lace, or taking photographs. She was honored to be the 2016 Audio Publishers Association’s Audiobook Blogger of the Year.
Thrillers for the New Year from AudioFile Magazine
Happy New Year! AudioFile Magazine has selected five great mystery and suspense audiobooks to kick off a new decade of thrilling listens:
by David Baldacci | Read by Brittany Pressley, Kyf Brewer
From the beginning, narrators Brittany Pressley and Kyf Brewer are in full control of this audiobook with their talent and skill. It’s a fast-moving story of love, hate, and redemption that will keep listeners on tenterhooks until the very end.
by Kathleen Barber | Read by Rebekkah Ross
Simon & Schuster Audio
Narrator Rebekkah Ross keeps the listener’s pulse racing with her multifaceted performance of a story that explores what happens when old wounds are ripped open again. Previously released as Are You Sleeping, this gripping thriller is being re-released in conjunction with the upcoming Apple TV show. Ross’s vivid narration captures the fear of a woman who is trapped in a horrifying spotlight.
TWISTED TWENTY-SIX: Stephanie Plum, Book 26
by Janet Evanovich | Read by Lorelei King
Lorelei King returns to bring us our favorite characters in the Stephanie Plum series. Grandma Mazur, the star of the 26th addition, is married and widowed all in the first paragraphs. The typical chaos ensues. King’s narration keeps this audiobook entertaining and engaging.
THE STRING: Deadly Games, Book 1
by Caleb Breakey | Read by Jason Culp
Take deep, calming breaths—sit back and let Jason Culp terrify you with his narration of this violent psychological thriller about a sociopath, called The Conductor, who controls a string of compromised followers who commit crimes. Culp’s tense, crisp voice unravels the tangled plot in this unique pulse-pounding thriller.
THE NIGHT FIRE: Harry Bosch, Book 22, Renée Ballard, Book 3
by Michael Connelly | Read by Titus Welliver, Christine Lakin
Narrators Titus Welliver and Christine Lakin return to perform Connelly’s newest offering in the Bosch/Ballard series. Each narrator delivers the individual chapters of their character, and together they deliver the dialogue between them. Bosch and Ballard make an unstoppable team, as do Welliver and Lakin, who fully engage the listener.
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