Jeff Pearlman

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Malcolm Hillgartner

#135
If you've listened to an audio book over the past decade, odds are you've heard this man's soothing, enrapturing voice. POSTED January 1, 2014

Screen-Shot-2014-01-01-at-12.35.36-AMThe Quaz has never been about headlines or showstoppers or making people say, “Dang, you got Walter Mondale/Spike Lee/Will Smith’s sister’s cousin’s uncle’s barber’s friend to do a Q&A!” No, there are few Mondales here. Instead, this is the ultimate mixed bag. John Oates, a KKK leader, Miss Black Iowa, Phil Nevin. If life is truly like a box of chocolates, the Quaz is a REALLY big box of chocolates. Week to week, you never, ever, ever, ever, ever know what you’re going to get. That, to me, is the fun of it all.

Along the serendipity line, today’s featured guest is no exception. Although odds are you’ve never heard of Malcolm Hillgartner, odds are very good you’ve heard Malcolm Hillgartner, one of America’s most prolific readers of audio books. In a word, Hillgartner’s vocal skills are awesome. He read my last book, Sweetness, and did so with such skill and precision and vigor that I found myself dazzled and moved.

Malcolm is also an actor, director and writer—as well as a man who prefers Dave Winfield to Public Enemy. You can hear his voice 1,001 places. Now, however, meet the guy behind the sound.

Malcolm Hillgartner, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Malcolm, I’m gonna start off with an odd one. You read the audio version of Sweetness, my book on Walter Payton. And I thought you did a masterful job. One thing, however, gave me pause. You’re a white dude from North Africa. Walter was a black man from Mississippi. You tried doing his voice—high, a bit of a Southern twang—and I was initially a bit uncomfortable with it; whether it came off as more mimic or imitate (ultimately, I came to appreciate and like it). My question is—how do you figure out how to do voices? When to go for an impersonation, when to just sound like yourself? What goes into such thinking?

MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: It’s not an odd one, it’s a big one, and one I’m still trying to work out in my work. In the audiobook biz the prevailing mode is to go for voices and characters at will in fiction but stay voice neutral in non-fiction. I don’t try to impressions per se, I’m not good at that but I do try to suggest a figure’s personality tonally, and with rhythm, if for no other reason than to help the reader keep the characters distinct and clear. And when the author lobs you a softball down the middle (“Kissinger never lost his guttural, thick German accent”), you go with it.

J.P.: I don’t have to exact figure, but it seems as if you’ve narrated dozens of audiobooks. I say this with all respect, but it strikes me as very isolating, very dull work. Am I off on this? What—besides money—do you get out of the process?

M.H.: My first audiobook, I was pretty nervous going into the studio and was sitting in the booth trying to settle my nerves when the disembodied voice of my engineer Raymond Scully came over my phones and said, “OK. Tell me a story.” And we were off. That’s the pleasure, the satisfaction—bringing an writer’s work to life in a context that’s as old as humanity. Best of all, you as narrator are in total control of what the listener will experience, you’re the madman at the controls of the carnival ride. It’s actually exhilarating.

J.P.: You appear once on the IMDB database—for “The Ruby Princess Runs Away,” which you wrote and appeared in. I’m sure there’s a story behind this—do tell …

M.H.: My wife Jahnna and I have written some 130+ books for children and young adults. They’ve sold about 8 million or so copies, and one of the most successful was a series for young readers called The Jewel Kingdom. We turned the first book of that series into a film, raised the money to produce it. Yes, I acted in it as one of the evil Darklings. The filming experience was a gas and it turned out well … wound up winning a few awards including Best Feature at the Burbank Int’l Children’s Film Festival, rave review in Time, a couple of “Best of …” lists. But we got burned by our distributor, they went bankrupt, we lost our shirts and our house, and I now refer to that time as a “character building experience.”

J.P.: So what, exactly, is the process for you? You’re assigned a book. In this case, we’ll use Sweetness. What happens from there? What do you do, step by step, through the finished product?

M.H.: It isn’t rocket science. Hopefully (and it’s often not the case) you’re assigned a book with enough time to prep it. I read it through with a yellow pad handy, noting and looking up unfamiliar words and names, foreign language pronunciations, etc. I’m also making notes to myself about the arc of the story, where tension mounts, what patches are drier than others, what I’ll do to sustain the listener’s engagement through those patches, etc. If it’s fiction I make choices with character voices, looking for simple hooks that will help the listener navigate passages of quick dialog easily and clearly. If it’s nonfiction I troll YouTube for clips of the actual personages speaking, to get a sense of their rhythm and sound when speaking. I’ll make reference samples of voices I want to use for each character on a handheld recorder so I can refresh my memory on a character during the reading, which on a big book, can take weeks.

I used to write my notes onto the manuscript pages but these days I, like most narrators, read from an iPad (no noisy page turns, you can read fluidly for longer) and use an app called iAnnotate to load a PDF of the book, and mark it up on the screen. And then I go into my studio and start recording. Again, like many narrators today, I do my own engineering, running my recording software from inside my home booth (a 4×4 foot enclosure I affectionately call the Pit of Despair). In audiobook narration you’re paid by what’s called the finished hour, that is the final edited patch of narration that’s heard by the listener, not the time spent in the studio making mistakes, rethinking your attack on a passage, etc. A good ratio to aim for is 2:1—two hours in the studio for every finished hour. Most skilled narrators do better than that; I fall into the 1.5:1 range. So I try to get three finished hours in a day. Usually I get there in less than six hours. Fiction reads more quickly than nonfiction, for lots of reasons, not the least of which it’s usually more fun. But good nonfiction develops a narrative thrust that equals that of fiction and can fly by with the same intensity of engagement you get in a good story. I had that experience with Sweetness, and more recently with a book by Scott Anderson called Lawrence in Arabia. After a session there’s busy work cleaning up the files, checking for and editing out noises, converting them to wav files, uploading to the publisher’s FTP site, where their in house production people take over, and gussy everything up for the actual audiobook publication. If they find mistakes in proofing I redo those sections. And then I move on to the next project.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 12.35.05 AMJ.P.: I know you’re from North Africa, I know you act and narrate. But what’s your life path? Where were you born? Raised? How did you end up in America? And how did you end up doing books? In short (or long): What the hell are you doing here?

M.H.: I grew up in Tangier, Morocco but I was born in Indianapolis. My dad was a radio engineer at WIBC and joined the fledgling VOA (Voice of America) shortly after I was born. VOA had a relay station in Morocco and that was his first position (we later went to Thailand and Sri Lanka). North Africa was a great place to grow up as a kid. Although Tangier has the reputation of being the Tijuana of Africa, that experience is for tourists, not people who live there. Tangier has a beautiful wide crescent of a beach about five miles long; the apartment we lived in was right across from it. Summer was spent in a bathing suit, swimming, getting sunburned, playing beach soccer, pickup basketball, meeting girls. My school was like a model UN, mostly Moroccans but kids from everywhere. I was 6-foot-2 in eighth grade so of course I played basketball and stood out like a sore thumb (my teammates used to call me Snowflake) but they were some of the best guys I ever knew, mostly Arabs and Berbers but my best friend from kindergarten through high school was a Moroccan Jew. We’re still in touch, he lives in Madrid these days.

I was also a musician, my brother and I had a rock band with some local guys, we were playing clubs when I was 12. Heady times in the mid-60s. I came back to the states after my sophomore year of high school and suffered culture shock on a grand scale. Going from a lively city with stuff to do 24/7 to a sleepy agricultural college town in California was tough—a few weeks after starting school in California, some guys invited me to hang out one Saturday night. Naive me thought we’d hit some clubs, hear some bands, etc, go to a party, maybe. But no. Explained one guy with great excitement, “We’re going to go to the 7-Eleven, boost a few cases of beer, go out to the levee and drink until we puke!” Sad to say, I made the adjustment without much problem … went on to college at UC Santa Cruz and Davis, became an actor, worked the regional circuit here and in Europe until my early thirties. My wife and I started writing YA books in New York City as something to do between acting jobs. The contracts started coming, the books took over, and we realized we could write from anywhere. So we went to Maine, Oklahoma (don’t ask why), Virginia, Montana (we had our son in Virginia so he could be president, our daughter in Montana so she could ride rodeo) and wound up in Oregon, writing books, scripts, plays, musicals, catalogs, industrial films, commercials, whatever paid the mortgage and, more recently, tuition. I kept acting, too, but only from time to time. Friends kept saying, “You have a great voice, you should do audiobooks.” I put together a demo CD, sent it to Blackstone. Grover Gardner called me and had me read some more, and gave me my first audiobook. I’ve done more than 100 since November 2007.

Malcolm and Jahnna Beecham, his wife, as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre.

Malcolm and Jahnna Beecham, his wife, as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre.

J.P.: Do you think print is doomed for death? Is there a way to save it? Do we need to? And how does the rise of all things digital impact your career?

M.H.: No. But it will be a niche medium, I think. When you can put a library on a tablet and take it anywhere, it’s hard to justify shelves of paper and cardboard. Hardcovers will be reserved for collectible editions. I think textbooks will—and should—be completely digital. But there’s too much pleasure and convenience in handling a print version of a book for it to go away forever. Personally, I live the tactile joy of opening and reading a new book. (And I much prefer being hit in the face with a book when I fall asleep reading in bed than a Kindle or Nook.)
As for my career, things digital have made all the difference. Jahnna and I could never have written 130 books with a typewriter and cut-and-paste editing with scissors, et al. Digital recording software has made it possible for me to record from home affordable; and I doubt audiobooks would be as popular as they have become without the advent of downloads.

J.P.: What separates the crap narrators from the good ones from the great ones?

M.H.: Good narrators do the right things, the story flows, the characters are vividly defined and the listener is engaged and delighted. The difference between good and great? Only my opinion but … with a great one the narration appears effortless, it’s seamless storytelling, never flashy or showy. You’re so involved you’re barely aware they’re there. Too many narrators work too hard to entertain, you hear the work involved, it’s too self-referential, “Hey, look how many voices, accents I can do!” Not the great ones. I aspire to that quality.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 12.34.21 AMJ.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

M.H.: In audiobooks it’s all been pretty good. However, I’ve only been doing this for five years or so. As a writer it has to be getting the go-ahead to write two series in the same week. That was a big day, followed by a year of absolute hell writing a book a month, doing rewrites, correcting galleys with overlapping deadlines. So that was a hi-lo twofer.

J.P.: How does the quality of a book impact your narration of it? How does your interest in a book impact your narration of it? Is it hard to bring you’re a game if you’re bored as hell?

M.H.: Quality is huge. Badly written books are agony, requiring so much more effort to just make presentable. You have to tweak lines over and over with emphasis and inflection just to make them comprehensible. Great stuff is like buttah. Like driving a classic Mercedes 500 SL. Smooth, silky, powerful. Bad ones? I have been known to stick my head out of the booth and scream, “This guy sucks!” at my 13-year-old black Lab, who parks herself outside the booth while I record. Thank god she’s deaf and doesn’t notice.

A younger Malcolm Hillgartner in Tangier, Morocco. A younger Malcolm Hillgartner in Tangier, Morocco.

J.P.: Would you/have you ever turned down a project? Let’s say you’re asked to narrate Sarah Palin’s book? Or Barack Obama’s book? Or some KKK skinhead’s book? How does that work for you? Are there conflicts within?

M.H.: I’ve considered it. I lean to the left and I’ve read stuff by people way off to the right that made my gorge rise. But, just as lawyers represent the guilty, I feel everyone has a right to be heard. The First Amendment thing. And the actor in me finds it fascinating to get a glimpse inside a mindset I may disagree with or find reprehensible and find a human commonality in there. So yeah, I’ve squirmed with it but so far haven’t reached the, “Not that … no way!” point.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 12.32.42 AMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH MALCOM HILLGARTNER:

• If your name weren’t Malcolm Hillgartner, what would you like it to be?: Chuck Yeager.

• Five all-time favorite books?: Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles; A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean; Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard; Kim by Rudyard Kipling.

• Without looking, tell me five things about Walter Payton: He was from Mississippi; He played for the Chicago Bears; He was one of the best running backs of all time; When the Bears finally won the Super Bowl, he couldn’t enjoy it because he wasn’t the star that day; He might be one of the saddest celebrities I’ve ever read about.

• Rank in order (favorite to least):  Nelson Mandela, Twitter, Dave Winfield, Hartford, Men Without Hats, Twix Bars, the number 77, MacBook Pro, “Candle in the Wind,” Whitney Houston, 10k road races, Public Enemy: 1. Nelson Mandela: one of the most impressive figures in history, period; 2. Hartford (only because Mark Twain lived there); 3. MacBook Pro (been a Mac guy since the Mac II); 4. Dave Winfield (don’t have strong feelings about Winfield—who seemed more talented than his career turned out to be. But I like baseball, although I came to it late as a fan, having grown up overseas. My first Major League game was July 31, 1971 at Candlestick Park, a 13-12 slugfest between Giants and Pirates. Willie Stargell homered twice, Mays made one of those eye-popping catches he was famous for but a San Francisco rookie named Dave Kingman stole the show with his first Major League grand slam in the seventh. Funny how you remember that stuff.); 5. 10k road races (don’t actually run these but I feel I should); 6. Twix bars (Meh. I’m a Snickers guy myself); 7. The number 77 (only ranked this high because I dislike the rest intensely); 8. Twitter; 9. Men Without Hats; 10. Whitney Houston; 11. Candle in the Wind; 12. As for Public Enemy, can’t comment. They may be ranked 44th on the Rolling Stone’s all-time greatest groups list but they had all their mainstream success in late 80s-early 90s when I was living in rural Montana and my kids were little and my musical universe consisted of Raffi and Barney and Reba and Garth et al.

• What’s the greatest word of all time?: Yes.

• If someone offered you the opportunity to never have to go to the bathroom again, would you take it? Why or why not?: No. Like a good thriller, both types of human elimination provide perfect avenues to deliver the exquisite double whammies of tension and relief.

• Would you rather have to spend two years repeatedly narrating the same three pages, or have to spend that time cleaning the toilets at Citi Field?: This is a choice? Pass.

• Which guy has more talent, Hall or Oates?: The one with the mustache. Since he was never the front man in their partnership you have to figure he was the genius in their songwriting team. They wrote some good songs in their early days, She’s Gone, et al. And Hall’s solo efforts were just awful. And being a guitar player I always go for the axe over the keyboard.

• Why do you suspect breakfast cereal costs so much money?: They have to recoup all the money they spent thinking up all those stupid offers and pseudo-giveaways on the boxes.

• You and your wife, Jahnna Beecham, wrote a musical, Holmes and Watson Save the Empire! Give me the plot in, exactly, 22 words: What is Queen Victoria’s secret? Who is the Nightingale of Nuremburg? And why is Watson wearing her dress? Holmes must find out.

  • Mike

    Jeff,
    Enjoyed reading and learning about Malcom. Thanks!

  • John

    This is another great Quaz. I really enjoy learning about things like this — i.e., something that prior to reading this I hadn’t really thought about, but now have come to appreciate.

  • Lachman Balani

    Not only have I heard of Malcolm but went to school with him. Nice to know all about his life after 10th grade through this Q&A. Dash interesting and mighty cool!

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life