ACX Storytellers: Nick Sullivan

With over 225 narration credits on Audible, not to mention his work on Broadway and TV, Nick Sullivan is an accomplished actor. The release of his second novel, Deep Shadow, reveals that Nick is a skilled writer as well. Nick recently sat down with us to share how his history as a performer influenced his work as an author.

Actor/author Nick Sullivan

Q: How did you become an audiobook narrator/producer?

A: Growing up, I was fascinated with “radio books,” and listened to the Radio Reader with Dick Estell on my local NPR station. When I became a professional actor and moved to New York, I came across an ad asking for actors to record for the Jewish Braille Institute. About a week later, I was shooting a short film and the actress playing my wife told me about the now-defunct Talking Book Productions, which recorded books for the Library of Congress. I auditioned and within days I was recording my first book, A Day No Pigs Would Die.

I’ve worked in film and TV, toured with a couple of shows, and have even appeared on Broadway a few times, but I always came back to audiobook work. I got into full-service audiobook production via Audible Studios, and I was involved in the first beta for ACX.

Q: What made you decide to try your hand at writing?

A: I dabbled in screenplay writing early on. Then, as my narration career hit its stride, it occurred to me I might be able to write if I put my mind to it. Then one day a few years ago, inspired by the wacky garden decorations in SkyMall magazine, I bought ZombieBigfoot.com and wrote a screenplay. Before I did anything with it, I booked Newsies on Broadway, then a tour of Kinky Boots. Finally, when I got back, I looked at the screenplay and thought: “I’m a narrator. I’ve been recording various authors across all genres for twenty years. Why don’t I novelize this first?” And I did. Zombie Bigfoot hit #1 in Horror Comedy in 2017. My second novel, Deep Shadow, about a team of scuba divers who get caught up in some dangerous international intrigue, just came out last month, and it’s off to a great start. There’s nary a zombie nor a Sasquatch to be found in its pages.

Q: How did your experience telling stories with your voice influence your writing?

A: I think it’s helped with the dialogue. I already have a “visual style” to my writing, with my structure having a lot in common with movies and episodic television. I married that to my desire to have every line of dialogue sound at home flowing from that character’s mouth. There were many times where I’d stop writing and “narrate” what I’d just written; often this would result in “oh my goodness, no…” and I’d go back and tweak the sentences to flow better. Once in front of the microphone, I made a number of changes during the audiobook recording process: I simplified some of the dialogue when it seemed too wordy or made a change here or there to let a conversation unfold more smoothly. There’s also the overall pacing of a scene that I think narrators are very attuned to. The author might be building to a climax, ratcheting up the action, or simmering in a tense situation—the narrator has to be on the same page with that, adjusting their pace and intensity accordingly. I’m hoping I managed to provide some excellent builds, transitions, and even moments of quiet.

Q: Do you write with the audio performance in mind?

A: Oh yes. For Deep Shadow, I picked voices I knew I was at home with and wove them into the characters from the start. I used accents for some characters that I was quite comfortable with; though I did use Afrikaans in Zombie Bigfoot and I’d never done it, so I forced myself to learn it since it was crucial to the character. But some dialects are my kryptonite. You will never hear a Chicagoan in my books. I sound like that “Da Bears” sketch from Saturday Night Live.

Q: Were there any authors that you tried to emulate or use as specific influences?

A: I think I’ve got a fair amount of Carl Hiaasen in my blood—I recorded one of his books long ago and went out and read-for-pleasure nearly all of his works. I love how he can fold absolutely absurd situations and broad characters into serious, suspenseful situations. Stephen King’s work has also informed my writing. He can go full-horror, but he’s not afraid to go all “funky n’ cool” too, inserting levity into the horror. And King’s book On Writing has some gleaming gems of wisdom about the craft.

Q: You wrote an impressive variety of voices/accents into Deep Shadow. Why did you decide to go that route?

A: It’s tricky, because I didn’t want to go overboard, but honestly, the location and nationalities involved in the story required a lot of accents. In fact, I decided to tone down a couple of the accents because there were so many. One example is with Martin, the elderly cook and father figure to Boone. He’s a native Bonairean, and would speak Papiamentu, a creole dialect on Bonaire. It’s a fascinating mish-mash of languages, but I decided I wanted him to have a clean delivery to match his straightforward wisdom. I knew some Bonaireans and Curacaoans who didn’t have strong accents, so this was something I felt I could do.

My general rule is, if someone is “from” somewhere, they need to speak accordingly. That being said, I didn’t want my main character to have an accent, so even though I wanted Boone to be from my home state of Tennessee, the decision to give him a Dutch father (which is part of his connection to Bonaire) gave me the license to have him speak without a Southern accent. Emily, on the other hand… I’ve noticed that the Caribbean is chock full of divemasters from the UK, Australia, and South Africa, so I wanted her to be a Brit from the beginning.

Nick the actor in the booth

Q: Did you find the experience of narrating your own writing to be easier or harder than narrating someone else’s work?

A: I hope it’s not a cop-out to say “both.” Honestly, the dialogue was a blast, because I knew exactly the intonation and intention I wanted. But, since I wrote the material, I knew in the moment if my vocal choices weren’t accomplishing what I intended, so it took longer than usual to record. I didn’t finalize the text for either book until I recorded it, so I was able to change any sentence that struck me as clunky, and I even reordered a few things. I remember a particular section in Deep Shadow where I had a lot of exposition to get through and finally I just stopped and said “No…if I don’t find a way to begin the dialogue earlier, people will drive off the road listening to this.” I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I found a way to introduce a second character earlier, allowing me to intersperse some dialogue.

Finally, no editor can catch typos like a narrator. For both books I hired a professional editor who caught plenty of them, but I still caught quite a few more when I narrated…and then a couple more when I QC’d and edited the audio.

Q: What’s next for Nick the author? 

A: After Nick the Narrator finishes up a couple of projects, Nick the Author is going on a scuba trip to Saba in June, then he’s off to Bonaire for a writer’s retreat with two other authors. I’m hoping to have a first draft of the sequel to Deep Shadow by late September.

NICK SULLIVAN has narrated audiobooks for over twenty years and has recorded over four hundred titles, receiving numerous AudioFile Earphones and Audie nominations and awards. He has performed on Broadway and appeared in many TV shows and films, such as The Good Wife, The Affair, Divorce, Bull, Madam Secretary, Boardwalk Empire, 30 Rock, Elementary, and all three Law and Order series. Nick is also the author of Deep Shadow and Zombie Bigfoot.

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