BEHIND THE MIKE: Juliet Blackwell & Xe Sands

I had no idea what to expect when I first spoke with my narrator, Xe Sands (r.). I’d never had a voice artist read my books before! But when we chatted on the phone about a few pronunciation issues in my “Witchcraft Mystery” series, I realized Xe was one of those people with whom I feel an immediate and easy friendship. Then it turned out that Xe and I have lived a sort of parallel life—we had gone to the same high school and our parents retired to the same area in the Puget Sound. She did such a wonderful job with the first series that I was ecstatic when I heard she was hired to narrate the “Haunted Home Renovation” books. [See the review of the first in the series, If Walls Could Talk, p. 51.] I told her that the character of [home renovator Mel Turner’s] dad was based on my dad and laughingly suggested she talk with him directly. And then she did.—Juliet Blackwell

JB: My dad’s a real character—opinionated, a storyteller, cantankerous but loving. Did you speak to him long enough to get a sense of him as a person? Did it make sense to you that I wanted to base a character on him?

XS: Definitely. He’s an amazing person—the stories he told me speak to a life fully lived with passion (and some crankiness!). But what came through most clearly was his absolute love and support of you, your sisters, and your mother. It makes complete sense to me that you’d want to base a character on him, and “Bill” is wonderful to voice.

XS: What is it like to base a character on your own father? Has he read the books? What reaction has he had? And I can’t help but wonder if Mel is based on you. If so, how much of your real life makes it into the “Haunted Home Renovation (HHR)” books?

JB: Mel’s father in the books, Bill, is younger than my father, who is 84. But he hasn’t changed that much. I visit frequently and follow my dad around with a notepad, writing down phrases and sentences that capture his view of the world. He’s maddeningly conservative, cranky, and set in his ways, yet also extremely kind and one of the most upstanding, fair-minded men I’ve ever met. One of the reasons I’m so thrilled that the books in the series will be available as audiobooks is that my dad’s eyesight has been failing in the last couple of years, so he’s very excited he’ll be able to listen to them instead of reading. I think he’s somewhat bewildered, but also flattered, at being portrayed in the books—he thinks the character of Bill makes a lot of sense.

I always claim my heroines are not based on me, but then I suppose they all must be, in some ways. I did work for years in home renovation, and many of the houses in the series are based on homes I worked in. But beyond that…I don’t “see” ghosts, and though I am divorced, I am friendly with my ex. Still, Mel says and does some things I have often been tempted to do and say.

JB: As an author, I always go into a new series or book determined to make it distinct from the last but worried that I’ll repeat or fall into old patterns. Do you have the same sort of issues as a voice artist? After reading my first series, was it hard to come up with new voices and characterizations for the HHR series?

XS: I definitely worry about that as well…I mean, I’m just one person with one voice, you know? But if I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing—acting as a conduit for your intent—the voices naturally differentiate. For your series, you’ve done a great job of differentiating the main and supporting characters so that they don’t feel like the same characters with different accents or some such. They feel to me like the different people they actually are, which makes my job much easier.

XS: As a visual and voice artist, it is always disconcerting for me when someone else interprets my work on their own and creates something new from it, and I can only imagine how odd that must feel for an author. Were you at all nervous about having someone read your books aloud, and did it help that we connected by phone before production?

JB: Yes! It really was difficult for me to imagine my words read by someone else. I think most authors “hear” the characters speaking in their heads, so it’s a little like watching a movie made from a favorite book—sometimes narrators interpret the words differently than the author intended them. But sometimes that’s a good thing—like good actors, I think narrators can find nuances we authors didn’t even intend! Luckily, you really seem to naturally “get” my books, the characters, and the nuances.

JB: How does a person get into the narration business?

XS: First—and I hesitate to put it this way—you have to have some raw talent at storytelling and interpretation to build on. Having a gorgeous voice is fabulous, but more important is how well you can convey an author’s intent. Then you need to hone that raw skill and passion with private coaching or group sessions, and lots of practice. Volunteering with [collection of free audiobooks of public domain titles] or [nonprofit] LearningAlly is an excellent way to practice while doing a good turn for others and getting feedback. If you’re an actor, you’ve got a bit of a leg up in terms of training; however, audiobooks are a different, very intimate medium and need their own subset of skills. The annual Audio Publishers Association Conference (APAC) in New York is an opportunity to meet other narrators, attend training sessions, get a feel for what it will take to do this professionally, and begin to make ­connections.

XS: One of the most fascinating aspects of all your books is your meticulous attention to detail and the amount of research you do for each series. In the case of the “Witchcraft Mystery” series in particular, the sensitivity you show to various religious systems and the fabulous detail provided for the vintage clothing side of things are impressive. Can you give the readers a glimpse into your research process?

JB: First, I’m a compulsive reader. Second, I was trained as an anthropologist and worked as a social worker, and both those professions train a person to be super­observant. Third, I really love my job; I get to travel around the Bay Area, shop at vintage clothing stores, attend coven meetings, take ghost tours, interview homicide detectives and psychics and gypsies…and call it “work.” Finally, thank you for mentioning my treatment of different religious systems. I wanted to write books that include witchcraft and ghosts, and those topics can represent a challenge to many different kinds of faith. But I always try to write about different ways of seeing the world, both for a sense of escape for the reader, as well as to encourage tolerance. It can be tough to accept different points of view, but, to me, it’s a crucial element in us all getting along.