Night of the Assassin is now available as an audio book on Audible.com, and I’m lucky enough to have gotten award-winning narrator, Dick Hill, to narrate the entire Assassin series, starting with Night. Dick has narrated over a thousand books, including for renowned authors like Lee Child, Dave Barry and Terry Brooks. He’s recognized as one of the best, and for good reason.
Dick has kindly agreed to sully his otherwise sterling reputation doing an interview with yours truly. But his bad decision-making is what passes for entertainment on this site. Or at least my latest slacking excuse for a blog post when I’m largely out of ideas and in the middle of writing yet another novel…
RB: How did you get started narrating books?
DH: I was lucky enough to get my start over twenty years ago, when the industry was still young. I was working in regional theatre and a friend and fellow actor, a Brit, was doing some public domain titles for Brilliance Audio. He told me they were looking for someone to do a new war novel, American p.o.v. I got in touch, landed the job, and never looked back. I had discovered my niche.
RB: You’re called the “Golden Voice”, where did you get that title?
DH: That title is awarded by the folks at Audiofile Magazine, the top audiobook publication. To quote them… “AudioFile editors celebrate the Golden Voices of audiobooks. This Hall of Fame showcases top narrators for their exceptional audiobook work. We celebrate these actors for their commitment to the craft of audiobook narration and for their achievements in spoken-word recordings.” I’m honored to share that distinction with folks like Sir Derek Jacoby
RB: Apparently there are many audiobook listeners who look for books read by “Dick Hill” regardless of the book’s author or genre. How do you feel about that?
DH: Well, it’s very gratifying to know that there are people who enjoy my work. I hear from listeners fairly regularly who say that. I’ve probably done 1000 titles more or less, so anyone looking for my titles has plenty to pick from. Out of that thousand, though, it’s inevitable that a few might be….well, of lesser distinction? Aw hell, call a spade a spade, a few of ‘em stink. People still have to use discretion when selecting.
RB: How do you prepare for a new book?
DH: I work with my wife Susie Breck, an award winning narrator and director, who directs and engineers all our projects. Generally, she will prep a book, noting names, places, any vocabulary we need to check. She’ll make notes on characters too, list any indications about voice in the text, villains or heroes etc., and supply me with that. In most cases, I don’t pre-read, but do a cold read. I like the challenge and spontaneity of that, and she’s there to keep me out of trouble.
RB: Some of our readers are interested in what the process is for recording a book. Can you tell us a little about that?
DH: Well, you’ve heard about what leads up to it. In the past I traveled to different locations for different publishers to record. I am very much a homebody, and despite working with some wonderful people who became friends I admire and enjoy, I just didn’t like being on the road, so some years back I built a home studio. Susie, intrepid soul that she is, undertook to learn how to handle the equipment and master the necessary techniques to record our work. She also undertook the more daunting task of directing me. This means the prep work I mentioned, as well as monitoring my reads, and stopping when I make a mistake. It also means advising me when she feels I may have missed an opportunity, or given a read that wasn’t the best choice. Doesn’t happen often, especially given the volume of work we do, but when it does she voices her opinion, makes her suggestion. The final decision is mine, but most of the time she’s nailed it. When I do stumble, or mispronounce, or fart, she’ll stop, roll back to a convenient spot before the glitch, then play back while I listen till we get the spot where she stops playback and hits record, and I jump right in, continuing the read. This is pretty much a seamless procedure. Listeners are never aware of those “punches” as they’re called in the punch and roll technique. We have the luxury of starting at a civilized hour, knocking off whenever we want, so long as we meet our deadlines.
RB: Did you find any special challenges narrating Night of the Assassin?
DH: Every book is a challenge, but that’s the fun of the job. A challenge to make the not so terrifically written works better than they really are, or a challenge with the good ones to make sure you take full advantage of what the author has given you and deliver something as rewarding and exciting in audio as it is in print, simply adding that other dimension of story telling. Thankfully, yours was one of the latter, Russell. (If it weren’t, I wouldn’t be doing this interview. I’d take my check and be done with it. As it is, I’m looking forward to the rest of the ASSASSIN series)
RB: Are there any other ways that you use your voice professionally besides book narration?
DH: Used to act onstage, sometimes musicals. I sang loud and enthusiastically, but not always prettily. Did some voice over work, ads and such, but hated it. Reading ad copy can pay well, but I got no pleasure from it. Not to mention the fact that copy writers and account executives and the like are often real dicks with no idea what they’re talking about.
RB: What are your guidelines for picking projects to work on? Is there any genre you wouldn’t want to work in?
DH: I don’t actually seek out projects, in this business those are offered to you by publishers or rights holders. I won’t do porn. Did a highly popular fantasy series for awhile and had great fun voicing wizards and other characters, but the audience was primarily young people, and the series increasingly delved into sado-masochism, so I bowed out. Most people who approach me are familiar with my work and know what and what not to offer. I’m comfortable working in any number of genres though. Classics, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Twain, Faulkner…..lots of work like yours, Lee Child, Deutermann, Connelly, but also Dave Barry, Thomas Pynchon, the Bible, and plenty of non-fiction. Currently a bio of Tim Conway, followed by THE DEATH OF SANTINI by Pat Conroy. Memoir of him and his dad, who inspired THE GREAT SANTINI, which I had the pleasure of recording some time back. I guess Conroy liked what I did with that. It was well received.
RB: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Has becoming a narrator changed the way that you read?
RH: HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Greatest American novel ever. I’ve recorded it for three publishers. Never told any of them I’d have done it for free. I admire Stephen King’s skills, though generally not the sort of thing he writes. Thought 11/22/63 was masterful, the best exploration ever of time travel. Canadian author Robertson Davies, any of Robert Parker or Dutch Leonard. Funny thing, I’ve always read in my mind as if I were performing for an audience, luxuriating in the rhythms and music of the words. Did this decades before I knew there was such a thing as an audiobook. I continue to read that way.
I have to say that listening to Dick’s interpretation of Night of the Assassin was a pleasant surprise, and it was interesting to hear the nuance and spin he injected into the words I’d written. It’s tough as an author to hear others read your work, because the cadence, the inflection, usually just feels wrong. It’s just not the way you hear it in your head when you wrote it. Dick managed to impress me, and that says a lot. Not just because I’m a dick, which I am, but because he took the work to places I’d never imagined, and I enjoyed it all the more for it. If you haven’t had a chance to hear Dick’s performance, go buy the audiobook. Come on, you can’t take your money with you, and which would you rather do, buy groceries or hear a master at work? Stop being so damned selfish. Think of someone else, for once. Like me.
And while you’re at it, go pick up a copy of BLACK, which is doing well and garnering rave reviews.
So, why would I take one of my bestselling novels, and make it free for a limited time? On a series that’s done well, and continues to grow its audience with each passing month?
Because it’s the first book in the series, and as such, really should be read first.
That seems obvious. But for the last year and a half, I’ve been giving away the prequel to King of Swords, Night of the Assassin, free. And it occurred to me over cocktails that’s not the best way to find new readers, because the prequel is really much more satisfying if read after King.
So what I’ve decided to do is an experiment. See if sales of the rest of the series increases with a different book as the free one. I’m making Night a $2.99 purchase given its length (just under 60K words), and taking King free.
For anyone that hasn’t read the Assassin series, it’s a gritty, unflinching assassination thriller series set against a backdrop of very real cartel violence in modern Mexico. It features several of the most interesting characters I’ve come up with to date: El Rey, the super-assassin known as the King of Swords, because of the tarot card of the same name he leaves at the scene of his executions, and Captain Romero Cruz, of the Federal Police, who is not only the head of the anti-cartel task force, but is also chartered with stopping El Rey before he can do the unthinkable.
The model for all the books was Day of the Jackal, which was the seminal assassination thriller of our time, and really created the genre. It’s since become cliche, as protagonist after protagonist has been written, usually ex-CIA or SAS, and always because this time its personal. I wanted to try a different approach, and create two protags, one really more of a villain, and the other a conflicted good guy slogging through doubts and conflicts that are a necessary outcome of the corruption in the system and the futility of trying to battle an adversary that’s co-opted the government and has more money than God.
For that reason, the Assassin series has found its niche. It’s different. It’s fast moving, surprising, adrenaline-filled, but also grittier than stuff like JET, which is more just unbridled, over-the-top adventure. King is more realistic – some have said too much so, in that it leaves one somewhat disturbed due to the hopelessness of the whole drug war thing. That’s a function of telling the truth, not a deliberate buzz kill. Some don’t like to read anything that conflicts with their anodyne notions of how the world works, and King is probably not the right book for that set. Actually, none of my work is, come to think of it. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.
I was recently asked who I would envision playing El Rey in a film, and after some thought, I’d have to say a younger Johnny Depp or DiCaprio. For Captain Cruz, Benicio Del Toro or a younger Antonio Banderas. So if you’re looking for my take on who I sort of see them as in my head, there’s your model.
So get yer free copy of King of Swords, and if you like it, tell a friend or leave a review, or both. I don’t know how long I’m going to keep it free, so don’t tarry, or it will go back to paid and you’ll despise yourself for your procrastination and wind up sleeping under a freeway overpass before dying cold and alone in a drainage ditch while your enemies chortle with glee and your last moments are the horror of being boogarized by clowns. You don’t want that. Trust me. You don’t even want to joke about it. Don’t let that happen to you or the ones you love. Get the book, you cheap bastard – can’t get much more attractive than free.