As producer, director, sound engineer, and narrator, Ross Ballard II wears many hats for his small, independent audiobook publishing company, MountainWhispers.com Audiobooks. His most recent production, Screaming with the Cannibals by Lee Maynard, came out this summer, and I had the opportunity to talk with Ballard about the company and his experiences as a small publisher in the booming audiobook industry.
How would you summarize what MountainWhispers.com Audiobooks offers?
We consider ourselves a boutique audiobook studio that can spot the diamonds in the rough, undiscovered books that the large Oprah Book Club type publishers won't touch. We give voice to works that would never see the light of diction if it weren't for us. I'm constantly amazed at how many really good authors with good books are going begging for attention from publishers that don't appear interested in discovering new writers. They seem happy enough to just continually pound their audiences with the same genre and slap a known name on every book their selling...We record a different set of "night fighters" -- authors who toil away at their day jobs then burn the midnight oil creating wonderful characters and storylines. They are not artists starving for their breakfast. They are artists starving for attention. We like to point to these ink slingers and say "Ha! We found them first!" I submit Richard Currey, Dan Dane, and Lee Maynard. We record the as-yet-to-be famous. Call us "Art House" or "Slow Mo's," but we low roast our projects for that sweet tenderness that audiobook listeners love. It takes us a bit longer from purchasing the rights to a good book till we're waving at the UPS delivery truck with dozens of boxes of finished audiobooks. I've worked in studios where it felt more like a pressure cooker. Record a novel in one or two days? That doesn't happen here. At Mountain Whispers if we're not feelin' it on any given day we close shop and hit the river to bass fish. It's one of the perks to building a new studio so close to a beautiful spring fed stream. And let's be serious, don't hurry; with this smooth southern voice why should Jeff Foxworthy make all the money? It takes patience.
How did Screaming With the Cannibals come about? Can you take us through from start to finish as it is for an independent audiobook publisher?
Cannibals was a fun book to record mainly because it's a sequel to another successful story by Lee Maynard called Crum - The Novel. When Crum came out in 1988, it was actually banned in the state of West Virginia book and gift shops because it was considered too sexually graphic and stereotypically rude! Hogwash... Maynard and I are both from West Virginia. We both grew up in the hollars (not hollows) and back waters of coal country and there's not a misrepresentation in any of it. Is it full of lies? Well, yeah. It's a book of fiction! However, it does come so close to the truth that it made several West Virginia politicians uncomfortable enough to stop the sales...for a while. Once the story got out about the ban, Maynard's book and our audiobook version saw sales skyrocket. We released our Crum audio four years ago and still have listeners email, write (some folks actually still do that), or call me to plead, "Please record Screaming with the Cannibals." Well, only 1460 days later, Ta Da! It's here. We like to say that as wild a criminal and cerebral ride as Cannibals is it hasn't just been produced, it's been "Treated and Released" into the general population. Lord, help us all. If listeners think the Crum characters are as bizarre as they are loveable, we suggest you strap yourself in for the cast of Cannibals...Prepare yourselves. Maynard has done something few other writers can do. He has written a sequel to a popular book that is even better than the original. The cast of misfits just seem to keep getting better with each work.
As for sales it's been a real slog through all the social media, Amazon, eBay, and basically selling them at fairs and festivals. When you have to go the independent route, you must get creative. I've hawked more books from behind a card table than I want to admit. The ace up my sleeve is that for every new fan we make, they tell two more of their friends and we sell more audiobooks. Our loyal listener army is growing. Since we typically are performing for an audience of one, we believe that we're building our fan base one at a time and that's okay. Sales are growing as more people find us hidden away in the dark hallway of publishing. So far, in that last 12 months, I've only gone to one event to carnival bark our audio books...You have to be thick skinned in this business. The folks you have to convince aren't just audiobook buyers. There is a built in firewall to main stream distribution in audiobook publishing. Nearly all large distributors want you to have at least 10 books in your catalog before they will talk to you. Conservatively, it cost us around $10,000 dollars per book start to finish. Let's do a little Sesame Street math here and say that anyone who is going to start a new production studio intending to sell their work to a larger national market via the traditional route had better be well greased with money to be allowed to sit at the grownups table. With Cannibals we just elbowed in for our place. Thank Goodness downloading is getting more popular, so we don't have to publish so many CDs. Services like Audible.com are driving the costs down, so the price of admission is more attainable.
What did you enjoy about returning to the character (Jessie) in the series?
I do not make this up when I tell you that Jessie and I are kindred spirits. I grew up at Low Gap, West Virginia, one county over from the town of Crum in Wayne county where fictional Jessie, and real life Lee Maynard grow up. Jessie gets into so much trouble before finally graduating high school that leaving the state was really his only option. First he goes to Kentucky where he later escapes with this life by running to the segregated deep south. The day after graduation I ran to the segregated deep south only later to escape with my life and end up in Kentucky. Lee Maynard and I both learned our storytelling from the feet of the masters who every Saturday afternoon gathered at the country store or gas station to swap lies. When I was a boy, I sat on many a feed sack, eyes wide open pleading "what happened next?" Maynard's characters in Crum and Cannibals are the same lovable squirrelly friends I knew in Boone County...Some of my best pals were named Frog, Boney, Speedy, Cat Hole, Tiny Mo, Birdman, Shorty, and Sawdust. So, when it came to voicing Lee's adorable miscreants, all I had to do was stay off my meds a few days and Presto! -- these old familiar voices would show up and help me with the project. It was pretty nice of them, if you ask me.
What challenges did you find in narrating and producing a sequel?
One of the biggest challenges for any fictional voice actor is bringing back the voice (and personality) for a character you've previously conjured up weeks or months or even years previous. If the character doesn't sound the same, the audience will notice. It may be a stretch of time for you, but for your newly minted fan it may have only been a few hours. In the listener's mind, you begin to collect demerits for those mistakes. Goof one or two minor characters and, depending on the strength of the story, you may be forgiven. Get it wrong on any one major player and you risk the wrath of a bad review. I will usually mark in the script some passage for each character where, if I need to, I can go back to a previous recording and listen for a minute or two. That gives me a place to stroll down memory lane. It is more than just revoicing. It's reacquiring the character.
Your audio productions often include sound effects. What motivates you to add these?
I'm a child of the last gasp of national radio theater coming to you on that meek tower of power AM frequency that could amazingly rise to 50k watts of pure Starlight entertainment as darkness fell. When the sun went down the juice went up. I could pick up radio stations from hundreds of miles away once they flipped the switch. As a kid, I had a second hand Zenith knob turner and listened to CBS Radio Mystery Theater with E.G. Marshall. I loved the way they used SFx to build the tension and occasionally scare the bejebbers out of me. It would be late at night with the bad guys safely in jail before tuning into WLS Chicago or WOWO Ft. Wayne, Indian, for my night cap of rock 'n' roll. Remember I lived in Hollar USA, West Virginia, so getting a signal from New York or Chicago was like some sort of big magic trick. Good radio theater always had just the right sound effects to carry the story's intensity. If a character said, "Sorry about this Rocky, but here's the way you gave it to my kid brother! (Bang!)", I think the proper use of story identified sounds can ratchet up the vicarious thrills for an audience. Just keep in mind that it's an art form not a template. The SFx has to be the right SFx else it takes on a cartoonish feel. You have to believe the use of sound is justified to carry the scene. It just feels funny listening to my work without a good car chase, or dog barking, or thunderstorm crashing away while I'm bringing life to some character. Can you imagine listening to Shelly's Frankenstein with Victor screaming "It's ALIVE!" without the electrifying sound of lightning in the background? I use SFx to honor those Foley artists who taught me how to enhance a good story.
What are some of the biggest challenges you've had in adding the sound effects to productions?
Over the years I've collected, sampled, and created a pretty good library of SFx, but there is always some sound I don't have and then the chase is on. Sometimes it's as easy as searching the web. Sometimes you just have to get out the frying pan and break a few eggs, literally. When we were recording Dan Dane's epic Conduct to the Prejudice of Good Order, a Vietnam War novel, I ran into the problem of collecting the SFx for 4 different types of helicopters, specific rifles, and a particular kind of jeep. I knew my audience would include 'Nam vets who would know the difference between say a Loach and a Huey or an M1 and an AK47. I didn't want them to lose track of the story just because it bothered them that I had used the wrong chopper in a scene. War machines are like individuals. They make their own kind of noise. I looked high and low for the helicopters and finally found them. The jeep I had to Foley. I found someone who had the jeep I needed, so I recorded that. The challenge was that the fictional jeep was to come up hard to an intersection just before a firefight broke out. I had to have an auditory signal to show the jeep stopped where the dialogue said it did. Problem: the real jeep had good brakes on it, so no squeaking. Solution: my sound engineer had an old golf cart with perfect noisy brakes. I ran along downhill beside him a few dozen times with a DAT portable recorder strapped to my waist pointing a CAD 95 microphone at the wheels grabbing the sound. It was a miracle we didn't pick up my huffing and puffing. The whole scene was out of a Buster Keaton movie, but it worked. We melted the two sounds together, floated a few M1 and M2 rifle sounds in the background, a Huey gunship riding hard into the area, and...the Vietnam War comes back to life.
Several of your productions have their own music soundtracks. Can you tell me about that?
I got into using music as scene transitions from working with the SFx. I got comfortable using more than just my voice to tell a good story. My sound guy also recorded musicians, so we had plenty of access to short instrumental pieces called Stingers that are about three to seven seconds long.Then we began working on a Richard Currey novel called Lost Highway about an aging bluegrass banjo player who was retelling the pain and gain of his life story. The book takes place just after WWII in early 1950's Appalachia with the fictional band The Still Creek Boys trying to get their song "Miranda" recorded in Nashville. Just a reminder, this is fiction so there really was no song called "Miranda." I turned to my partner who had a been a member of a nationally successful hair band in the early 1980's and ask him if it were possible to write it. Then I slyly said, "Nah, probably impossible, right?" It took him a couple of weeks, but he wrote a beautiful song of yearning between separated lovers making it perfect for bluegrass. When we were ready to record it, we needed a singer. I found one performing at a bar near Baltimore one evening and thought he'd be great singing "Miranda." I hired him that night, only to have him show up drunk the next day at the studio, you know, the studio that was on the clock that I was paying for. The guy stunk up the place so we unceremoniously showed him the door. My guy turns to me and says, "Okay, you know what we have to do, right? So get in there and make me proud." Having never even karaoked before, I climbed into character and into the booth. We had previously recorded the music so it was up to me to make the song happen. Let me first say that voice over and singing are two very different skill sets. I was petrified. Lucky for me, Donnie walked me through it encouraging me to BE Sapper Reeves, our fictional bluegrass hero in the story. I have to say that while I'm not giving up my VO job, I ain't so bad at country music. It actually made sense that I would sing the number since I was the main character anyway. I had the song pressed as a single and sent it out to promote the book. Bingo! Even seven years later we're still selling Lost Highway at a good clip.
Of your catalog, what was the most challenging audio book to produce?
The most challenging audio book would definitely have to be When Miners March by William C. Blizzard. It relates the struggles of coal miners in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky during the Great Coal Mine Wars of the 1920's. Those industrial battles between large combine money interests and tough as pig iron coal miners have echoes to this day and still reverberate down the hollars of Appalachia and the Midwest coal fields. The big climax to the war was an epic Troy vs. Sparta style battle with me playing the part of Achilles. It lasted for five days until the National Guard arrived. The conflict made the cover of every major newspaper in America and Europe at the time. Yet, sadly, it's a clash of titans that most American's have never heard of -- The Battle of Blair Mountain. The miners had to wear red bandanas around their necks to cut down on friendly fire and use for identification. They were dubbed the great Redneck Army. It's from there the popularity of the word redneck comes. After years of fighting for safer working conditions and a decent wage, the United Mine Workers rallied an army of disgruntled men and women to march on the overcrowded jails and gulags that were no better than concentration camps. These barbed wired holding areas set up by coal companies and local "on the pad" sheriffs were so bad that there were even cases of smallpox and cholera breaking out among the men...Add to the magnitude of the event that my own grandfathers had fought at that battle. I grew up in the shadow of Blair Mountain and had the stories whispered to me as a boy. And just to make things interesting, I was a former coal miner myself and the grandson of union leader Opie C. Bias. Yeah, no pressure there...I had no choice but to get this one right...The audio book is such a success for us that I was invited to retell the story on The History Channel's documentary Hillbilly: The Real Story. Now that sold a ton of books for us.
Most of your productions are one-narrator shows. Have you ever considered adding more narrators into the mix?
Yes. I'm currently looking for a female to voice another undiscovered gem of a book that my wife (my most stern critic) found last year. With her encouragement, I hope to get that one started sometime in late 2014. Set in the early 1800's, the actress will have to go from being a very young bride of a demanding widower/farmer with 5 children and little to eat to an old matriarch grandmother, who, through grit and gravel, created a large thriving plantation without the use of slavery. I've started collecting SFx and music. I'm keeping mum on the title lest someone else finds it. It's a little like finding a sunken treasure ship and not being able to go back for a year or so to recover all that gold. It kind'a makes me a bit jumpy.
Lance Eaton writes for various publications, including his blog, and works as an instructional designer and part time faculty member in the Greater Boston area.