Hey there! I’m Joel Leslie 🙂
I’m insanely excited to be asked by Love Bytes to contribute a wee little monthly column. So, being a narrator, I’m gonna obviously try and focus on the audio world. Sometimes I’ll chat with you about the challenges of whatever I’m working on and hopefully I’ll get to talk with a bunch of your favorite authors and we can have some fun adventures. I thought as our innagural journey, I might share a little bit behind the scenes of one of my biggest challenges to date.
So I just had a release of a book I kinda sorta begged to do… I recently recorded the first Harmony Ink audio release and I was sooooo excited for the gig. Harmony is the Y/A branch of DSP. Earlier this year, when I had the chance meet the glorious Elizabeth North, we were chatting and I mentioned how much I would love there to be more LGBT Y/A in audio. I think it’s important to have those stories available for teens and, to be honest, as a reader Y/A is probably my favorite genre! I told her that one of their new Y/A releases was an utter dream project for me and Elizabeth waved her magic wand and I got to do it!
The book is Mad About the Hatter by Dakota Chase (who some you m/m fans also might know as Kiernan Kelly). It also has the greatest cover ever…
Full disclosure…My husband and I just moved to Orlando largely because I’m a huge Disney fan… There were hidden Mickey’s in our cake, our boutonnieres, our flowers. The guests got Disney ornaments as a thank you gift…you get the picture. So you can just imagine THIS book is my like big fat gay Christmas.
I LOVE narrating for Kiernan. She has this totally looney toons imagination (we have done Seti’s Heart and Vyper together… sexy gay pirates and sexy gay mummified Egyptian sex gods) coupled with a wonderful gift for beautifully rendered characters. No matter how crazy her narratives get, the stories work because your emotionally invested. Narrating any of her books is a roller coaster – and the minute I saw the cover of this on her facebook page I was obsessed. So, kids…here is the premise: Alice’s teenage brother Henry adamantly refuses to believe his sister’s ridiculous tales of Wonderland… until he ends up there himself. Not only does Henry fall down the rabbit hole…he also falls for the Mad Hatter. So this book was like Joel crack. Alice in Wonderland? Cute gay characters? Y/A? TAKE MY MONEYYYYYY!!!
I grew up in Britain (although my parents are American and Canadian) and my favorite actors and audiobook narrators are almost all English. Jim Dale, Roy Dotrice, Davina Porter, Stephen Fry – these are my narrating superstars. Brave, bold performers who single-handedly create huge casts of unique voices and characters that bring books utterly to life. It isn’t often in the m/m world that a book with an opportunity for those kind of huge characterizations comes around – this was really a dream come true. I was getting to narrate pretty much all of my passions rolled into one.
Once I dove into the book it was exhilarating and daunting. It really was like falling down a rabbit hole… I kept agonizing over every line and nuance… really wanting to get it just so. Everyone knows these characters and some of the greatest actors in the world have given them voice. I had to find a way to make them come to life in the template of what the listener expected, and yet not seem like I was imitating a previous performance. Dakota was a HUGE help with this. I always send my authors a character dossier, asking them all kinds of different questions. One of the questions I ask is who they would cast in a Hollywood version of their story. For the Tweedles she suggested Benny Hill, who I never would thought about, and it was INSPIRED. For the Red Queen I tried to channel Imelda Staunton (who most Americans know as Dolores Umbridge). The white rabbit ended up being David Tennant after downing about 47 Red Bull.
Dakota really wanted Alice and her brother to sound American – which caused the purist in me to have a little bit of a panic attack, BUT since it was set in modern day, I think it created a lovely contrast between the ‘real world’ characters and those in Wonderland. The biggest challenge was the Hatter. He has to be witty, wacky and yet swoon-worthy. Finally I settled on Ben Whisaw (who I allegedly might have a gigantic crush). And for Alice’s bull-headed brother Henry, Dakota had the perfect suggestion… Chris Pratt.
When the listener is enjoying the audiobook, they would probably never guess my vocal inspiration for any of these roles – but it really helps me keep the characters attitude, cadence and rhythm specific in my imagination. There are some narrators who have incredibly smooth, sexy speaking voices (Derrick McClain, I hate youuuu) but that’s not me. I actually hate my own speaking voice and my goal is to make each character in each book FEEL totally different for me. After 130 audio books I know that’s impossible…but if I can see that character speaking in my mind… imagine their physicality and expression…then I’ll never go on autopilot. I collect voices and character actors that I keep in a kind of rotating “casting pool” in my imagination. The more complete image I have of them and who they are, the better my work will be. If it REALLY clicks it’s almost like a movie in my head… I’m able to just kind of be a conduit for the performances I imagine the characters are giving. The books I’ve struggled with the most are the ones where I just couldn’t conjure an image of the character in my imagination. Somewhere if you could wire up my brain to a TV you would have some pretty fierce perfomances of Meryll Streep acting in “The Necromancer’s Dance”, Daniel Radcliffe in Lord Mouse, Chris Helmsworth wrassling cattle in “Red Dirt Heart” and Cate Blanchett’s unicorn-tastic performance in “The Last Grand Master”. But let’s keep that just between us… they might want royalties!
I sure hope I did justice to Dakota’s beautiful story. If you’re a fan of Y/A and love m/m romance, I can’t think of a more fun, fanastical and fluffy story to cuddle up with on a rainy afternoon. It has ‘awwwww’ written all over it. Lewis Carroll said, “Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality” and nothing would make me happier than for even one single teenager, who doesn’t feel like they fit in, to come across this audiobook and feels a little less ‘mad’.
Thanks for letting me whisper in your ear.
PS… Next month I’m gonna chat with the amaze-balls NR Walker (squeeee) about the 9 (and more to come!) audiobooks we’ve done together! If you have any questions for her, comment below!
If you would like to check out Mad About the Hatter click here!