Of all the surprises that we’ve had at Little Fiction (and there have been many awesome ones), we never once expected that we’d get a call (or DM) from an extremely talented voice-artist asking if she could record one of our stories. And even after that happened, we never expected it would keep happening. We still haven’t stopped smiling. And that’s Xe Sands for you—a voice artist whose heart and passion is as big as her talent. We hope you enjoy getting to know her as much as we did. And if you haven’t yet heard the incredible work she’s done for Little Fiction, you can listen to it all here.

Interview by Troy Palmer.

LF: Let’s start at (or close to) the beginning: How did you get started with voice work and the world of audiobooks?

XE: Well, although many of my colleagues came at audiobooks from an acting background, I became obsessed with narration because of the joy I derived from reading aloud to my daughter over her first 12+ years. I will say that when the idea of becoming a professional narrator first occurred to me, it seemed impossible to actually DO. Initially, I volunteered with Librivox.org, an exceptional organization whose mission is to get as many public domain works as possible into audio format. Then in 2009, serendipity struck and two things happened: I “knew a gal who knew a guy” who hired me to do some voice over work in a video game, and I heard about an audiobook narration workshop run by Pat Fraley in my town (which rarely happens here). The video game gave me my first experiences being directed and working with (gasp!) other people in the room. As for the workshop, I attended on an artistic scholarship from my then employer, met my coach, Carrington MacDuffie, worked my butt off, and eventually attended our industry conference, APAC, where I made some crucial contacts... and came home on FIRE to make this happen. By the summer of 2010, I had set up my home studio, started pounding the pavement for narration work and the rest, as they say, is hi—what am I saying? The REST is a freaking work in progress, is what it is. And frankly, I'm damn lucky.

LF: How do you find the right voice for a piece? Is it something that typically comes to you as you read the story / novel or is it more a process of trial and error?

XE: You know, if I connect with the piece, I always hear the right voice in my head. Always. Now making that actually come out of my vocal cords? Yeah, that gets a bit trickier. And sometimes, the tone reworks itself when it's read aloud. The author has an intent, and they imbue the text with it... and if I'm doing my job correctly, all I'm doing is tapping into that emotional subtext below the surface. So it's there. I just have to open to it... and get out of my own way and allow it to come through. With the Little Fiction pieces I've chosen, the ones I've released have all been pieces that come out naturally, with almost little effort on my part. And yeah, there are quite a few that I tried out and thought, ‘Nope. It's not working. I can't carry this the way it needs to be carried, dammit.’ With  labors of love (like LF), I get to make that choice—to stay or walk away. Not so much with the professional side of things...

LF: What's the most challenging stuff for you to narrate?

XE: Well, there are three types of challenge I generally face: technical, content, and quality.

Technical challenges are things like accents I'm unfamiliar with, or big ol’ words my brain and mouth simply do not want to say. Oh, and tongue twisters, of course. Lovely book I narrated recently actually required me to say, “Sandy’s Seashell Shop” many, many times. Yeahhh...

Content challenges come up when the material crosses a boundary for me. I'll get specific and say that it’s pretty difficult for me to face scenes of sexual exploitation and assault, and try as I might to avoid projects with such content, sometimes it crops up on the fly, after I've accepted the project. I like to joke and say I’m a “method narrator,” by which I mean I live and breathe the story along with the characters. So the abuse they suffer, especially in first person narration, feels pretty personal to me—I have to live it in order to voice it as they experience it. That is deeply unfun.

And on the quality front... hey, not every book is going to feature the most amazing, stellar, perfectly constructed prose. And not every beautifully written book is going to resonate with me personally. So taking less-than exceptional writing or a book I don’t initially connect with and giving it the same energy, the same attention and openness I give to the projects that I adore is challenging. But that's my issue—not the author’s. Piss-poor excuse for a narrator to claim it was the book’s fault that their performance sucked.

LF: You’ve done a fair amount of Little Fiction stories—beginning with, I think, Sarah Flynn’s Little Birds—the list has gone to include Emily Walker’s To Those Who Cut Us Down and our entire 14-story collection of flash fiction (and more). What originally drew (or keeps drawing you) to the stories we publish?

XE: First, let me express again my profound gratitude to you and the Little Fiction authors for allowing me to voice their work. It’s been my absolute pleasure, and the LF pieces I’ve done remain some of my most challenging and personally effecting projects to have worked on.

So what calls to me… I think it's the authenticity of the stories—the rawness… that so many of the stories carry their emotional content right there at the surface. And I’ll be honest and say the dysfunction, the disconcerting nature of many of the stories. Also, Little Fiction stories don't tend to feel “worked over” to me, the way that a novel often does—they have this honesty to them that I think allows them to slip right under your skin before you realize it’s happening. That was even more true of the Little (flash) Fiction collection for me.

LF: All (or most) of the stories you do for us get released under a project you’ve spearheaded called Going Public—can you tell us more about that initiative?

XE: Ah, now you're asking me about my heart. So back in 2011, two of my friends collaborated on a recording of The Wreck of the Hesperus as a surprise for another friend, and released it online as a lark. And I watched that unfold—the giving, the receiving, the gratification of those who produced it—and realized what a powerful thing it was to do something just because you wanted to, and then give that thing to the world. So I decided to start producing a weekly project, Going Public, that would allow anyone—professional or not—to share a bit of something in the public domain that really moves them. Initially, I had hoped that people would share various forms of expression—paintings they created or love, poetry, prose, letters—recorded or not. What has emerged is a series of weekly audio recordings of work either in the public domain, shared via Creative Commons licensing, or freely available work under copyright recorded with the author’s permission (such as LF stories). I’ve let the original vision of a more inclusive artistic effort narrow to audio, and hope to broaden that out with some promotional efforts I’ll be doing in September, as Going Public marks it’s two year anniversary.

But at the crux, Going Public is this: people sharing a piece of art (written or otherwise) simply because it calls to them and they want to share it. For me personally, it’s like finally getting to settle down with a glass of wine (if I drank wine) at the end of a very long week… I get to find something I love, that I would likely never be cast to narrate, and record it. It's how I feed my soul these days. Er, plus I have an obsession with D.H. Lawrence, and this allows me to indulge it. Ahem.

LF: Speaking of Going Public, you produced a month-long project in June, in celebration of Audio Book Month, called Going Public… In Shorts. What was the experience of pulling that together and how did it go?

XE: Going Public...in Shorts was an amazing collaborative effort that grew out of my desire to gather together a group of professional narrators to give back to the listening community in celebration of June Is Audiobook month. What began as a relatively simple, off-the-cuff idea grew into an ambitious philanthropic effort and promotion, involving 38 narrators reading 38 pieces, 36 bloggers, a publishing partner (Blackstone), press (Publishers Weekly, Booklist and Salon) and a children’s literacy advocacy organization (Reach Out and Read). To say that it was daunting to step into the role of a producer is, well, an understatement, but I was fortunate to be working with the most supportive and encouraging group of people, without whom the project simply wouldn’t have happened. Although we had some growing pains and mismatches along the way, I believe the project was successful in all it set out to do: reward listeners, support a fabulous organization doing great work, and offer narrators a chance to give back in a way they don't usually get to and also have a great time in the process.

And yes, I’m crazy enough to be considering doing it again in 2014… this time, with a focus on current, independent fiction.

For this year, I’m excited to say that the full compilation is now available as a digital download via Downpour.com (with all proceeds going to Reach Out and Read). For full info on the project, folks can visit the Spoken Freely section of the Going Public website.

LF: What story did you chose for audio book month? And why that story?

XE: So I chose a story that I absolutely love voicing, The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. If I had a choice, I would voice first-person, tormented protagonists 24/7. And it’s rarer than you might think to find a first-person female, non-British POV short story in the public domain. I’ve got a penchant for the tortured, the gothic. The Yellow Wallpaper is a very creepy, compelling tale of a descent into madness. What's not to love?

LF: Who are some of your favorite writers?

XE: Gads, that changes with whatever book I’ve loved last. Let's go with: Neil Gaiman, John Green (holy Hell but The Fault in Our Stars was amazing), Audrey Niffenegger, Stephen R. Donaldson, Marion Zimmer Bradley (Mists of Avalon in particular), Caitlin R. Kiernan (have to gear up though), Juliette Fay, Terry Pratchett (Tiffany Aching novels especially), Valya Dudycz Lupescu, and I am dying to see what Sarah Braunstein comes up with for her second effort.

LF: Who are some of your influences from the performance / voice artistry world?

XE: Oh gracious—I am inspired by and admire so many of my colleagues, but if you’re asking who I’d like to be when I grow up, I’d like to be Barbara Rosenblat and Bianca Amato. And while I am blessed with amazing mentors, I need to make special mention of the incomparable late Robin Sachs. He was a friend, confidante, mentor and, well, he believed in me even when I didn’t. And his voice can reduce me to a puddle of incoherency inside of a sentence. It is impossible that he is gone.

LF: Of the work you’ve done to date, what are some of your favorites?

XE: There is something resonant about just about every project I work on—there’s always a little something in there. But there are those projects that stand out because they truly make my heart sing while I work on them. Those include The Bird Sisters, Silence of Trees, Three Days to Dead, Magnificence, Little (flash) Fiction, Step on a Crack, Is This Tomorrow, To Those Who Cut Us Down, Man Uses Tazer on Himself, and a particularly sad bit from Craigslist that I recorded.

LF: What’s next for Xe Sands?

XE: Oh hell, who knows? Just when I think I've got things a bit figured out, life takes off in a different direction. I'm just the voice along for this crazy thrill ride.

But aside from my pipe dream of narrating the next Margaret Atwood, know what I'd really like to do? Be contracted to record poets Linda Pastan’s and Stephen Dunn’s full body of work. Robin Sachs and I mused about recording a Dunn retrospective together, and I’d love to see that through.

And on the Going Public front, I hope to start up a weekly podcast and broaden the contributor base, starting in September.

Xe Sands, elsewhere:

Soundcloud »

Twitter »

Going Public »

XeSands.com »

xe sands
follow us: