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Frank Muller è uno dei più famosi narratori di audiobooks americani. Di lui Stephen King ha detto “Quando Frank legge i ciechi vedono, gli zoppi camminano e i sordi ascoltano”. Un altro scrittore, Pat Conroy, afferma: “Frank Muller è il migliore, il principe del linguaggio”. Muller, per la sua qualità di grande interprete dei maggiori autori di letteratura americani, ha vinto numerosi premi come miglior narratore di audiobooks, tra cui i prestigiosi awards dell’A.P.A. (Audio Publishers Association), una sorta di Grammy degli audiobooks che si tiene annualmente in USA. Il suo stile è trasparente ed offre sia l’essenza dei caratteri presenti in un libro che l’eleganza di una descrizione paesaggistica. La sua bravura è tale che generalmente l’ascoltatore viene completamente assorbito dalle storie e dai caratteri, siano essi personaggi moderni oppure figure della narrativa classica. Sfortunatamente Frank ha avuto un grave incidente motociclistico il 5 novembre del 2001 che lo ha seriamente invalidato e dunque ha dovuto rinunciare ad una carriera forse ancora più straordinaria. Il mondo dell’industria degli audiobooks americana si è subito mobilitato per garantire a Frank la migliore assistenza possibile, con donazioni, appelli, manifestazioni pubbliche di letture ad alta voce. Anche il Narratore esprime l’augurio che possa ancora tornare a ridare voce ai grandi capolavori della letteratura in lingua inglese. Per maggiori informazioni su Frank Muller e sulle sue opere vedi il sito http://bitchen.com/muller/
L’ intervista che riportiamo è stata fatta dalla giornalista Staci Layne Wilson e pubblicata nel maggio 2000 dal sito web http://www.zealot.com/. In essa Muller parla della sua vita, della sua esperienza come narratore, delle difficoltà e delle gioie del narratore di audiolibri. Una grande lezione per gli appassionati di audiolibri.

An Interview with Frank Muller by Staci Layne Wilson

When I first heard Frank Muller’s voice, I was stuck in traffic. He talked me through over 10 hours of stop and go freeway nightmares, red lights that lasted small eternities, and idiot drivers who must have gotten their licenses from a Cracker Jack’s box. As I listened to the graphic descriptions of convicts being fried alive in the electric chair, I didn’t even blow my usual traffic-related fuses – I was completely entranced! I’d listened to a few audiobooks before that, but Frank Muller’s reading of Stephen King’s The Green Mile is what really hooked me.
Frank Muller is one of the most celebrated audiobook performers working today. He’s been bestowed with several industry awards, and he’s the top choice of bestselling authors such as Stephen King, Anne Rice, and John Grisham.
I was lucky enough to meet Frank Muller and his lovely titian-tressed wife, Erika, at their cozy California canyon hideaway, and ask him a few questions. I was immediately struck by how different he looks from his publicity photo; he’s got a grey beard, a cool ponytail, and he was comfortably, casually attired – not much like the English-professor persona he donned for his headshot. But there is that mischievous glint in his eyes… Frank Muller is a chameleon, and a very talented one at that.
Staci: Where are you from? What in your background has allowed this chameleon-like talent for characterizations? Did you “do voices” when you were a kid?
Frank: I was born in Holland, and immigrated to the U.S. with my parents and two brothers when I was five years old. Twins were born later, so I’m the oldest of five. So, technically, although we’re talking about a small child’s vocabulary, English is my second language. My parents made every effort to speak English from the beginning, believing it important that we learn it quickly. Of course, having European parents had a dramatic effect on my view of the U.S. and the world as I grew up. My father, while a pretty straightforward businessman, definitely had a wild streak, which I exhibited symptoms of having inherited early on. There are some pretty frikkin’ weird home movies on 8mm film.
Staci: Did you ever work in broadcasting, or have you done any voice-overs I might know?
Frank: I’ve worked as a professional actor since returning from a year of study in the U.K. after several years studying theater here in the U.S. I’ve done a shipload of commercials from deodorant to donuts in order to finance my stage career, like many other actors. I’ll show you my reel if you buy me a stiff drink.
Staci: How did you get your start reading audiobooks?
Frank: In 1979, a guy named Henry Trentman decided to start a company manufacturing audiobooks, a product nobody knew they wanted. He hired me, an actor nobody knew they wanted to listen to.
Staci: Were audiobooks at all popular 20 years ago? It seems their popularity has only taken off recently, in the 1990’s.
Frank: Henry and a very few others like him bit the bullet for several years. Then, slowly but surely, an audience began to appear. We were doing a lot of classics, because they were public domain titles, and therefore the rights were free. The New Yorker published a piece mentioning our recording of Jack London’s Call of the Wild, we got a few other worthwhile notices, and libraries began to buy and stock some of our titles.
In the mid-eighties, the major publishers, having caught wind of this new phenomena, decided they couldn’t afford to miss out on what they somewhat prematurely thought would be a huge craze in no time, and all started audio publishing divisions. They were wrong, and lost some bongo bucks. A few dropped out for a while, but now they’re all back. Audiobooks aren’t like a new Madonna video or a pepperoni pizza. What almost everyone in audio publishing has had to learn is that the audience in this age of instant gratification has to be educated to the possibilities of the medium. But once people are properly introduced – and which audiobook they hear first is very important – they often become fanatical. Lost time is returned to them in a very beneficial way. When a narration is well done, it is an amazingly immediate and visceral way to experience a book. Audiobooks are now the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry, expanding at something like a 15% annual rate. That’s damn good in any business.
Staci: Some people say that audiobooks are “anti-literacy” or are for people who are too lazy to open a book and turn the pages. No one seems to realize that it’s a carrying on of the ancient tradition of storytelling. Our history was entirely oral for centuries. Pulp and glue books may not even last the 21st century. Stephen King has forayed into the eBook world, possibly a first step in legitimizing that medium. Are you a computer person? Do you see yourself doing audiobooks as downloadable files in the near future?
Frank: As far as the literacy question goes, it seems pretty clear that nothing engenders a love of books and literature in a child more than being read to. Audiobooks are a medium for direct delivery of an author’s inspiration to the ear and intellect of a listener, with the added dimension of being a performed piece of work, which when skillfully done, serves to illuminate and enlighten. A recent industry study found that the original audience for audiobooks – literate people wishing to augment their reading and put lost time to better use, is now being eclipsed by an even larger group. All across the country, people who almost never read a book are devouring audiobooks by the truckload. That is a very pro-literacy development.
And yes, some of my best friends are computers. In my studio, as in all professional recording studios now, everything happens in the digital realm. We record straight onto high-performance hard drives. All post-production and mastering happens digitally as well, and finished work is typically delivered on CDs. Downloadable audiobooks, including some of my recordings, are available on the web now. This is mostly material originally intended for cassette or CD release, but web-only audiobooks can’t be far off.
Staci: Can you do any celebrity impersonations?
Frank: Of course I can. I do them badly and enthusiastically, when alone in the shower.
Staci: What is the most romantic book you’ve ever read? The scariest? The funniest?
Frank: The most romantic story I’ve personally performed is Cyrano de Bergerac. It’s a play, not an audiobook, but as an actor I immediately think of it when I think of romance. I’d love to do an audio version of the Brian Hooker translation. Just a magnificent version of Rostand’s wonderful play.
The scariest has to be The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. What fun. I have always wanted to record Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, but never have. I think it may be his most terrifying story.
As for the funniest, it seems to me that the best humor in modern writing grows out of character rather than plot. In the past, as in Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest for example, the plot is one of the cleverest presences in the play, and plot devices get some of the biggest laughs. These days the plot facilitates the characters saying funny things or making clever observations. An audiobook which comes to mind is Lawrence Block’s The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart. Block writes some of the cleverest dialogue around and draws wonderful characters. When I have to stop mid-take to laugh my ass off, I know something good is happening.
Staci: Has anyone ever recognized you in public or over the phone, just from the sound of your voice?
Frank: Yes, a few times. What happens more often is someone hears a commercial voiceover on the radio and thinks it’s me when it isn’t.
Staci: How do you learn accents? Do you have a dialog coach?
Frank: No. I’ve always enjoyed developing accents for characterizations I’m working on. You develop an ear not only for the details of what’s happening with an accent you’re hearing, but also for objectively assessing what’s coming out of your own mouth, which takes time to learn. There’s no substitute for listening to the real thing when preparing. There are tapes available, but I’m not shy about getting on the phone and talking to people from the region or country personally if I need a primer. For The Testament by John Grisham, which required that I be prepared to speak Brazilian Portuguese words and phrases as well as the correct accent when the Brazilian characters spoke English, I consulted a native who works with diplomats here in the U.S. I taped him speaking every Portuguese phrase in the text, and got the accent by taping our incidental conversation. Worked pretty well.
Staci: Do you read the books to yourself first, or do you read cold?
Frank: I wouldn’t think for a moment of working cold in any other medium, and I wouldn’t do it in audiobooks either. I want to do work that will stand up 50 years from now. That said, I know that some do it cold. A facile actor can certainly get away with a lot, but I feel that a totally cold read shortchanges the audience. Of course, it would be wildly impractical to rehearse a 400 page book in detail. Even after a careful read-through taking vocabulary notes and thinking through major character choices – which is what I do – a read is still essentially a cold read. Investing such a rapidly assembled performance with full realization of all the nuance and intricacy an author has woven into his or her manuscript is the principal challenge of the medium for performers, and the reason that a strong theatrical background, with its almost mandatory love of language – not to mention its training and discipline – seems to find its way into the resumes of all the top narrators.
Staci: I absolutely loved your reading of Stephen King’s The Green Mile. I listened to it twice, actually! I can still hear your voice describing Mr. Jingles’s “oil drop eyes.” That story must have been quite a challenge for you as an actor, having to personify everything from an old woman to an illiterate black man. Did you see the film? If so, what did you think of the casting – were the characters as you imagined them?
Frank: Honey, I saw the film when I first read the book. Stephen King has always provided me with phenomenal challenges/opportunities as a performer. His wonderful self-deprecating humor has always worked to increase my respect for him particularly when I find it imbedded in beautiful stories like The Green Mile and Shawshank Redemption, as well as lesser known stories like The Reach (from Skeleton Crew), and The Body (better known as its film adaptation, Stand By Me). In the Dark Tower series I found myself playing an insane and rapidly deteriorating 1,000-year-old computer voice playing a life and death game of riddles on a speeding train, and doing John Wayne and Bert Lahr impressions. Couldn’t take refuge in the shower for those. If you wanna hear ‘em, you’ll have to buy the audio. Not so sure about the John Wayne, but I do a pretty good Bert Lahr…
Staci: Which books are your personal favourites? Any reading of yours you are particularly proud of?
Frank: In addition to Stephen King, especially in the case of Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption, which was recorded in 1984 by the way, and Wizard and Glass (Dark Tower IV), I loved doing the Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles. I was Lestat for the entire summer of 1994. Even my wife, who loved the books, started looking at me sideways. Mere mortals never understand. I’m also a huge John Le Carre fan, and the George Smiley stories are among my all-time favorites.
Staci: Anne Rice consistently pronounces her vampire character’s name as “Les-tot” – yet in the film version, it’s pronounced at “Les-tat” – How do you handle the pronunciation of tricky names?
Frank: Whenever possible, I submit questions to the source. When that’s not possible, I make the most educated guess I can, which usually involves combining consideration of technically correct pronunciation with colloquial usage. There is often surprisingly extensive research involved. A recording is forever.
Staci: Personally, I think some of the least satisfying performances are those done by the authors themselves (most notably, Rebecca Wells’s reading of her Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood – I thought she sounded like a rabid Texas cheerleader on crack and had to say ta-ta to the Ya-Ya’s about halfway through the tape). Have you ever had an author tell you they were unhappy with your delivery of their story?
Frank: Fortunately not. Which means either they like what I do, they have no clue what I do… or, they’re too furious to speak.
Staci: I understand that you record and produce your readings in your own WaveDancer Studio with the assistance of your wife, Erika. It must be wonderful to work at home, and have that much freedom to do your stuff. Are you a good self-starter? About how long does it take to complete the process from having the book in your hand to sending out the completed master tapes?
Frank: I do work at home, but not exclusively. In fact, like any other narrator, I regularly work at studios all over town. Depends entirely on the client’s needs and preferences. In 1995, however, I built my own studio in order to provide one-stop-shopping for audio publishers who found that convenient, and it has, thankfully, worked out very well. We do whatever the client audio publisher wants, which may mean just doing the raw tracks, or taking it through the rough edit and proofing stage, or all the way to full post-production: the final edit, producing and/or mixing music, and mastering to cassette and CD. Most audiobook versions of new novels are produced on a very tight schedule. The audio has to hit the stores on the same day as the hardcover release. We often do our preparation from galley proofs or uncorrected manuscripts, in order to go into the studio prepared the on the day we get final text. Editors work right behind us as we finish chunks of material, and deliver the finished product a few days after the last tracking session. It can be a fairly high-pressure situation, so it’s always good to work with seasoned pros, who know the drill and don’t panic when things go slightly awry. The team I work with on projects for Random House these days, for example, is very professional. Smooth as silk – the way we all like it.
Staci: Have you ever “checked out the competition” and listened to audiobooks performed by other readers? Any notable standouts among your peers?
Frank: Yep. George Guidall. Barbara Rosenblat. Jay O. Sanders. Will Patton. Martin Jarvis.
Staci: I’m sure most people picture you like the vintage radio actors, standing in front of a big microphone – my own romanticized vision of that was shattered when I learned that you sit in a one-piece (squeakless) plastic chair. Have you ever listened to vintage radio shows on tape? Any favorites?
Frank: The one-piece squeakless chair has saved my ass on countless takes. So I sit instead of stand in front of a big studio mike. Big deal. As The Shadow knows, I’m puttin’ in serious hours! Call me lazy and pass the Prep-H.
Staci: You lube your tubes with Earl Grey tea – a favourite of many rock stars! Anything else you do to keep your vocal chords in shape? (And don’t tell me you destroy hotel rooms!)
Frank: Yep. That’s it. Hotel rooms. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. Saves a fortune on your shrink tab.
Staci: What do you do when you have a cold?
Frank: Throw paper airplanes into the swimming pool. Eat ice cream. Groan while I do paperwork.
Staci: Were you a book lover before all this? Do you ever read for pleasure, or do you run screaming at the sight of bookstores now?
Frank: When I was in high school I devoured the library. I read all the dog books ( I’d love to record an Albert Payson Terhune collie story ), then all the pirate books, then hot-rod stories, sports books, etc. I graduated to classics – Defoe, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Steinbeck… These days, reading a book I’m not narrating – purely for pleasure – is a rare and highly treasured luxury and indulgence. I don’t do it often enough.
Staci: Why do the publishers use different readers for the abridged and unabridged editions? It seems to me it would be easier and less expensive to simply edit the unabridged reading down. Can you explain the methodology?
Frank: Wouldn’t work. Apart from the tight scheduling problems I mentioned a moment ago, the pacing and flow of the abridgement would be adversely affected by an attempt to edit down the unabridged version. Abridging also often includes rephrasing or restructuring of a sentence, as well as bridging sections of narrative text and dialogue. They could be done by the same reader, but would have to be recorded separately.
Staci: In a “Celebrity Deathmatch” who would win – Anne Rice, or Steven King?
Frank: Not a fair question! If there were major sex involved in the competition, clearly Anne Rice would win, appendages down. For sheer and joyful devilishness, though, Stevo’s grin would win.
Staci: Paper or plastic?
Frank: Paper in plastic. The yogurt won’t roll out of the bag on the hairpin turns coming up the canyon.
Staci: If you could have dinner and a chat with any of the fictional characters you’ve portrayed, who would you choose?
Frank: Hmmm. George Smiley wouldn’t tell me anything. Both Lestat and Hannibal Lecter would have me as the main course. Blaine the Train would be doing those fucking Bert Lahr impressions….
Staci: Ever read anything that made you blush?
Frank: Anais Nin when I was twelve. But that’s a long time ago. Still makes me feel good, though.
Staci: Even though it is more like a radio play, I’ve yet to listen to a “full cast” audiobook I have liked. They’re just too schizophrenic for me. What do you think of them? Have you ever been a part of one, or are you strictly a one-man-band?
Frank: Never been asked to do one. But you’re right – they are more like radio plays. A full-cast audiobook, like anything else, can be done well or badly. There’s lots of room for new approaches and innovation, but clear vision is necessary if a work is to make sense to an audience. There is an intimacy and directness about reading a print book which is preserved in a single-voice recording, but often lost in a full-cast performance. That creates problems, because unless the text is actually adapted as a play for radio it won’t work well. And the minute you start leaving out “he said” and “she said”, it becomes an adaptation. Then there is great temptation to use a door slam, or a tire screech, or footsteps, or outdoor ambience, instead of narrative exposition, and before you know it, you’re in a radio play. Which of course is a perfectly valid exercise, but is no longer a novel.
Staci: In the movie Pulp Fiction, there was an outtake scene in which the Uma Thurman character surmises that there are two kinds of people in the world: Elvis people and Beatles people. Which are you?
Frank: Beatles, definitely. Much as I love rockin’ round the clock… Words of wisdom. Let it be.
Staci: Even though I myself am a Beatles person too, I’m going to go back to the King once more. His motto was TCOB – “Taking Care of Business.” What’s yours?
Frank: Maybe if had a motto, I’d be a big shot now. I’ll work on it.
Staci: I understand you’ve had some small roles on television. Would you like to explore that avenue of acting more, or are you going to stick with audiobooks?
Frank: I love the theater, where I learned my craft, as well as TV and film. Going from one to the other helps recharge the batteries. I’ll always work in as many different ways as I can.
Staci: What are you working on now?
Frank: In the middle of Special Circumstances by Sheldon Siegal. Excellent book, first-time author. Intricate courtroom drama with very clever humor. Later we’ll be recording Tom Clancy’s new book, The Bear and the Dragon, a huge international intrigue story with the Jack Ryan character at the center. Great stuff.
Staci: Thank you, Frank!
Frank: Thank you, Staci!

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