In keeping with my audiobooks theme this month, I give you an interview with the narrator of our two newest audiobooks, Douglas Pratt. In January, Pratt voiced Geoff Schumacher’s books Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue about Hughes’s last years in Las Vegas. On the heels of that book he dove into Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas (Revised and Expanded). Both books went live on audible.com, iTunes.com, and Amazon.com in February.
We don’t hear that many non-fiction works in audio, as it seems to me, to be a form that is more suited to narrative fiction. However, Schumacher’s works, while dense in information, are written in a conversational style that lends itself to this format. We (at Stephens Press) knew these books would be near the top of our list to get into audio.
My aims in auditioning talent for these books was to find someone with a pleasant voice, straight-forward style, and an enthusiasm for the material. I think I hit the jackpot with Douglas Pratt.
Sue: Doug, would you share a little bit about yourself?
Doug: Ah, my favorite subject. I’m a sixty year old father of two wonderful kids, and I’ve had more careers than I can remember. I was born in a tiny town near Niagara Falls, in the northwestern area of New York State. My grandfather planted an arboretum with over 400 varieties of trees, a beautiful place that we are now turning into an educational center; you can see pictures at www.robinhillpreserve.com. I have been a printer, a programmer, a computer store owner, a radio announcer, a magazine editor, an author of nine books and countless articles, an NRA Pistol instructor, an association executive, and an IT contractor. I have a passion for the space program and a devotion to the hobby of model rocketry. I currently make rocket and science kits for schools through my company, Pratt Hobbies (www.pratthobbies.com), hoping to inspire another generation with things that go whoosh and zoom.
Sue: Is that what drew you to the Howard Hughes story?
Doug: Howard Hughes was an instant “go!” because of my interest in aerospace history. If there is one thing you can count on aerospace people for, it’s great stories. Get them started, and they’ll go on for hours, waving their arms through their loops and turns. My uncle Stan Smith, who was the lead engineer on the Bell X-1, used to say that the quickest way to kill a pilot was to put him at a bar with other pilots and tie his hands behind his back. I try for that sort of thing when I narrate a book like this. (Sue: Doug’s enthusiasm for Hughes’s story was evident and that’s what won him this gig.)
Sue: With your varied background, what got you into doing narration work?
Doug: People are always asking me to read to them, so I decided to try doing it professionally. I’ve always loved listening to audio books. Audio books, like radio, don’t demand your total attention; I can work in my shop or putter around the house and still get a good book in. So I spent a year getting professional voice coaching and learning the business.
Sue: How long have you been doing narration? How do you like it?
Doug: When Audible unveiled their ACX (Audible Creators Exchange) service that allows voice artists to connect with publishers who are in the market, I jumped right in. It took a while, but I was starting to get some notice when Stephens Press gave me the opportunity to do Geoff Schumacher’s outstanding Howard Hughes biography. I think that is going to be my breakthrough project.
I don’t have a very versatile voice with a lot of characters, since I don’t have a theatre background. I have to look for projects that are right for me, and that means books I can get excited about. I love narrating books. I’ve always loved books, coming from a literary family. I’ve written nine books of my own, it is enormously hard work writing a book. Don’t get me wrong, narration is work, especially if you care about doing justice to a book…and I never narrate a book I don’t care about. It just isn’t the same massive effort it takes to write the darn thing.
Sue: Was there anything in the Hughes book that surprised you or that you never knew about the man?
Doug: I thought I knew Howard Hughes pretty well, having researched him a bit at the time I built and flew a radio controlled model of the H-1 Racer. I knew he was an interesting character. I knew Howard Hughes primarily from the aviation standpoint, so it was very interesting learning about his movie work. But the most striking thing about the story to me was his descent into paranoia, his gradual surrender to his germ phobia and hermit lifestyle. It’s not so much a human tragedy, as Hughes really wasn’t a very sympathetic character … it’s hard to feel sorry for him. It’s primarily a tragedy because of the wasted potential.
Sue: You dove into Sun, Sin, and Suburbia right after finishing Hughes.
Doug: Yes! The two books really complemented each other. At the end of Hughes we learn that after Hughes’ death his cousin Will Lummis assumed control of the estate. Lummis is the real hero of the story. He could have sold off the pieces at a loss and wrapped it all up. Instead he ran it as a business, managed the divisions until they were worth something and then sold them, and developed the Las Vegas land Hughes owned into the planned community of Summerlin. It’s a fascinating end to a long and interesting story.
Sue: As a sometime visitor to Las Vegas can you describe your experience with Sun, Sin & Suburbia? Schumacher really got into the nitty-gritty of the city’s evolution in more recent history. This isn’t a subject area that tourists get to know. Will it change your view next time you visit?
Doug: Absolutely. My family and I spent two weeks in Las Vegas when my daughter Valerie competed in the NFL National Championships … that’s National Forensics League, not football. She was a champion debater in high school, and because I was working in my own business I could travel with her team. I wouldn’t trade those four years; hanging around with high school debaters will restore your faith in the future. So when she got a Nationals qualifier and we heard it was in Las Vegas, we planned a family vacation. Everyone had a blast, but my personal favorite was the Valley of Fire State Park … it felt like we were driving around Mars. I knew it was impossible to take in all Vegas had to offer in two weeks, but now that I’ve read Schumacher’s book I am itching to go back. I understand so much more about the place now, and that deepens the pleasure of visiting. I like to think it makes us more than just average tourists, that we can get more out of it by understanding just why Las Vegas is a unique thing. And there is so much more I want to see … the Symphony, the parks in Summerlin, even the Zappos headquarters in the old City Hall.
Sue: I noticed that your voice really changes when you are reading something that strikes you funny. There were some places in both books where I imagined you turning off the mic and cracking up. True?
Doug: True indeed. As I said, I don’t do character voices, so my enthusiasm for the book is what I can bring to the table. When I was working with voice coaches, we spent a lot of time deciding how much is too much…it can get over the top quickly. But I am genuinely excited by the books I narrate. It’s like being at a party or a dinner, and having a story that you’re just dying to tell … that’s what I try for.
A funny soundbite from Howard Hughes.
Sue: Thanks so much Doug for talking with us! Working with you has been a real pleasure. For those fascinated (as I am) with the technical side of the craft, I am going to run a follow up with Doug on the recording process! Stay tuned.
Check out Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue and Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas. Both are available on Audible, iTunes, and Amazon. You don’t have to be a member of Audible to buy books there. (Though I highly recommend becoming a member if you like audiobooks, it is the cheapest and easiest way to get lots of listening pleasure.) The process of getting a book into your: computer, iPod, smartphone (any brand that plays music), Kindle, iPad, or other brand of tablet, or any brand mp3 player, is painless and automatic. If you haven’t tried audiobooks I urge you to sample these two. If you have a smartphone there is an Audible app for managing and playing your audiobooks (I recommend this) or you can play through iTunes or other music program. Incidentally, Amazon also offers syncing the audiobook with the Kindle ebook version, so you can start reading at the same place where you stopped listening!