Going Public…in Shorts – 6/29

John McLain joins us today, offering Mountain Man, by Robert Ervin Howard. As a special treat, we’re interviewing John right here, and his story is also being hosted by Jennie at Narrator Reviews.


portraitThe Interview…

Before we get to John’s reading of Mountain Man, let’s have a little chat with him, shall we? We shall!

GP: Welcome John! Thanks so much for participating in the Going Public…in Shorts project. Would love to have our readers/listeners get to know you a bit better. This is a frequently asked question, but for the folks who haven’t heard your particular story, let’s start with how you got into this crazy fabulous business.


JM: Well, my journey was a long and winding path that began in small market radio.  I caught that bug as a teenager, working for free.  Then came my first paying gig, at a little country/western station in Oklahoma doing evenings, and cleaning the bathrooms before I locked it up for the night.  The pay was beyond terrible, but the work was wonderful.  Eventually, I made it to mornings in Dallas.  But by then, radio had lost a lot of creative steam.  It had become corporate, plastic, and well, boring.  My muse was screaming for something new, so I began acting in the local musical theatre – just showed up for an audition.  I learned the craft from some wonderful and generous people who all told me that I had a gift.  Who knew?  I’d never tried it before.  So I began to study, and my radio background led me to voice acting.  I studied with the amazing Nancy Wolfson in LA for 18 months or so, and then I met my friends Pat Fraley and Scott Brick.  They worked through some audiobook stuff with me and both said, “You should be doing this.”  I’ve been immersed in audiobooks ever since.  It’s one of the most creatively satisfying things I’ve ever done.


GP: Having met you, you are anything but corporate, plastic or boring – I can see why your muse was screaming for something new! When we were prepping for the interview, you mentioned that you always enjoy hearing about the acting side of things. As a narrator, how do you find the acting craft differs between the various media – audiobooks, film, theatre, for example?


JM: A very wise acting teacher once told me, “Boiled down, acting is just playing pretend.”  Growing up in rural Oklahoma, my free time was consumed with playing pretend, so it really comes naturally to me.  So I think that idea provides a common backbone for all of the different ways actors work.  In the theatre, for example, everything is much more tangible.  There are costumes, makeup, props, one or more directors, an orchestra, and an audience.  Plus, there are other actors all around you.  The creative energy is thick!  In a musical, unless I’m playing a lead role, I’ll usually play up to 4 different roles.  In my audiobook performances, though, the craft is much more “raw,” if you will.  No director, no other actors, no costumes or live audience (though sometimes I will use props, as long as they are quiet).  What’s more, I’m not just playing one role or even four – but all of them!  Additionally, audiobook performance is much more intimate.  When I begin a book, I take the time to remind myself that the microphone is someone’s ear, and my job is simply to tell them a story “around the campfire.”  There’s a lot that goes into that moment, but it’s beautifully simple.  Despite all the differences, it’s still just playing pretend.

GP: Switching gears a bit, I noticed that you’ve got a fair amount of nonfiction in your audiography. Do you approach nonfiction projects differently?

JM: Yes, definitely.  I want to be careful to say that narrating a non-fiction title is still acting!  The difference in my approach is that, unlike fiction, I’m playing only one role – that of the author.  When I get a non-fiction manuscript, the very first thing I do is flip to the back and look at the author’s research notes.  Sometimes they take up a significant portion of the book!  It’s a reminder to me of the tremendous amount of work that went into creating this book.  The author cares about this subject – passionately so.  He or she has devoted countless hours – many times, years – to writing this book.  Therefore, my role is to pretend to be this author.  On the surface, it sounds like a simpler approach than fiction work, but I personally find it more challenging most of the time.

GP: I think that’s a great point – narrating nonfiction is still acting, even if their is a difference in approach.

So what’s the one piece of advice that you’d give to new narrators? Is there something that you wish you’d known or that someone had told you when you first started?

JM: This surprises a lot of people when I say this, but my advice has nothing to do with the acting.  Narrators need to understand that they are business owners.  They will be dealing with deadlines, contracts, and commitments of all kinds as they move through their careers.  My advice?  Integrity.  Start your narration business with unbendable rules about how you will behave.  Establish yourself as someone who can always be counted on, no matter what.  Publishers are very, very busy people, and they appreciate working with professionals that they can count on.  Be “automatic.”  I think it’s very seductive for new narrators to over-commit themselves when work starts flowing in.  My rule is this – my word is my word – period.  When I make a commitment, I stand by it regardless of personal cost.  I’ve missed vacations, worked all-nighters, and even lost money because of this rule.  But my integrity is not negotiable.  My clients know this, and I think it serves me well.  I had a publisher tell me once, “I love the fact that when I give you a project, I don’t have to worry about it anymore – I know it will be delivered early and with excellence without me having to follow-up.”  That’s the highest praise I’ve ever received.  


GP: Oh I think that’s EXCELLENT advice, and some that we don’t hear that often or that bluntly: narrators are business owners – there is another side to this whole fabulousness that has nothing to do with the artistic craft. But speaking of the “artistic” side of all this, what are your favorite types of scenes to narrate?


JM: As an actor, I’ve always been fascinated with villains.  Their motivations fascinate me.  I love them when they are written sympathetically; that is, when the author gives us a glimpse into why they behave the way they do.  Was it a traumatic life event?  Brainwashing of some kind?  Envy, lust, addiction?  I love narrating scenes where we get that little glimpse into the bad guy’s motivation.  The Phantom of the Opera comes to mind.  I always cry for him at the end, despite the fact that he is a manipulative, ruthless murderer.  While I’m a firm believer in human depravity, I think it’s exceedingly rare for someone to simply be “born bad.”  Something happened to them along the way that turned them.  I love that discovery.


GP: I completely understand. That moment of discovery is wonderful for listeners too! OK, lastly…do you have any words that you just cannot stand that sometimes crop up in a book? if so, care to share?


JM: Every narrator has their list, I suppose.  I think authors sometimes abuse attributions; the “he saids and she saids” within dialogue.  For the most part, they’re “throw-away” words in the text that just get in the way of the scene.  I mean, if I can’t go three lines without an attribution, then the conversation must not be very real.  Also, I laugh out loud sometimes at the ways writers try to be cute with them; how many different ways can I say “she said?”  But in fairness, trying to put casual human communication on paper has got to be a pretty tough job.  Another thing that drives me nuts is when dialogue is written without regard to gender.  Men and women communicate very differently in the real world!  Many times I’ve been reading a conversation between two men and thought, “Two guys would never chatter on this way.”  But again, I’ve never written a book, and even thinking about that prospect now gives me a deep appreciation of the author’s craft.


GP: Thanks so much for taking the time to give us a bit of insight into you and the inner workings of a narrator’s brain, John! And without further ado, here is John’s wonderful reading of Mountain Man.


Listening & Downloading… 

Mountain Man is offered in full for online listening through July 5th. You can also purchase a download of this story via Downpour, with proceeds going to Reach Out and ReadThe full compilation will be available for download from Downpour on 6/30.


Mountain Man, by Robert Ervin Howard

Breckinridge Elkins lived the good life – wild and free.  Until one day his old Pap gave him an important chore: ride on out to Tomahawk and fetch back a letter that’s arrived at the post office.  Simple enough, but young Breckinridge – who’s never been 30 miles from Pap’s cabin – soon learns that nothing out on the trail is simple – no, not at all.  After a fleet-footed robber strips him of more than just his dignity, a bizarre case of mistaken identity and a sheriff on the take sets him at the business end of a brute’s fist – and a gun.  Good thing he knows a few tricks of his own…

John McLain is a professional voice actor who has performed over 60 audiobook titles from thrillers to non-fiction, westerns to mysteries, and more.  Highlights include Before The Night, The Dark Lady, The Test, The Judge, The Vow and Home Run.  John was nominated for an Audie Award in 2012 for his performance in the historical fiction novel, The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 1: The Witnesses.  John has also appeared on the musical theatre stage in Dallas and Phoenix.


Today’s Blog Host: Narrator Reviews

I began listening to audiobooks in the late nineties, they were my salvation. I delivered medicine to different towns and was on the road late at night and it gets boring listening to the same news over and over, even talk shows lose their shine after a while. Then I saw I could rent books on tape (no CD’s yet) and I was hooked. Only problem was in the early 2000’s and late 90’s there were not as many books available.

Audible, to the rescue, CD’s started replacing tapes, then MP3, and now we have an industry producing audiobooks in all formats with a huge amount of new narrators. I was in awe at their talent, some even sounded like a stage play of many characters.  In the early 2000’s when I worked as an auditor for R. J. Reynolds and once again was on the road, audiobooks kept me happy.

Since then I’ve given my television away and listen to audiobooks. You can do craft projects, clean the house, do some gardening and always have a good book to listen to. I haven’t turned a page in a hardcover book in years and have never looked back. My hearing has become very tuned into the narrator and I came to realize how important they were to the success or failure of a book’s popularity on audio. I do love audiobooks and they are my obsession now.

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One thought on “Going Public…in Shorts – 6/29

  1. Great piece!

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