Nick Mondelli is an actor and accomplished narrator from Ohio. He has recorded more than 30 audio books across a wide range of genres, including Paula Garner’s Phantom Limbs, which was haled as “a sensitive, expressive performance” by AudioFile Magazine. Nick now lives in Los Angeles, California where he works out of his home studio.
How did you become interested in audiobook narration, and what were your first days like?
Audiobook narration was something I was very lucky to get in to. I was a part of some community theater groups in Northwest Ohio and, because of the wonderful people in those groups and how small they are, things are shared very frequently for everyone to take part in. A notice for a company, Dreamscape Media, went around an email chain saying they were looking for narrators. I printed out a little script they sent me to read for and I went and. . . it just felt right.
The hardest thing for those early days is always endurance. I think I went in thinking, “I’ve acted for almost a decade, I’ve got this,” and then you get into the studio for your first eight-hour session, and you finish and your voice is just on the cusp of raspy, your eyes feel like they’re going to fall out and you’re ready for bed at 4:30 in the afternoon. You get up to leave, and they say, “Well, we’ll see you tomorrow” and you go, “I’m sorry?” I think that was my biggest hump to get over. It took a few books before I felt comfortable, both with my voice and with my routine, to feel completely ready for back-to-back recording like that.
It was a lot of acting, really. My high school had some incredible directors, one of whom also directed me through Speech & Debate Team. You can do anything from performing cut-down versions of your favorite comedic scripts to political debate, and I did three years of Humorous Interpretation (one person performing a 10 minute piece) and Duo Interpretation (two people performing a 10 minute piece). There’s rules and guidelines. It’s not quite like a straight performance, but it helps you figure out a lot of things that translate to stage, and I think voice work is far more like stage work than it is on-camera acting. Enunciation, diction, those things are very important. There has to be an authentic element, a relaxed and entertaining element, but those fundamentals have to be sound for work like this. I think I was really fortunate that I had that background to fall back on when I came into the business.
How do you prepare to record a book?
I’ve got a little routine I do. It’s usually a sleepy-time tea with some honey the night before. Then I’ll make myself a mug of hot tea with more honey in it (maybe a touch more than I need, even) and also have a bottle of water on hand. Back when I first started out, I had a commute that I did every time I went to the studio, so I’d drive, sipping on a mug of hot tea and singing along to Phantom of the Opera to warm up my voice a little. I don’t know if I was all that good, but it definitely got the job done.
You have recorded several children’s books. What unique challenges do children’s books pose?
You know, I love narrating children’s books. For me, I think it’s a lot of remembering how I liked to be told stories. I don’t know if it was ever the voices really, nothing grandiose. It was always the cadence. I think back a lot to when my parents used to read to me – they were hobbyist performers in their own right – and I think that has a lot to do with it. Less about a full-on performance and more about making the story seem inviting and interesting to a kid. Of course, doing fun voices does help and I love that part of it! But I think a good cadence with a touch of intrigue behind your voice is all you need.
You team performed Someone I Used to Know by Patty Blount with Amy Melissa Bentley. How does it work to team record a book?
That’s probably the thing I love about the work the most. That book was done through a wonderful publisher, Tantor Media, and they encouraged Amy and me to communicate on characters and voices and things. It’s all about finding a middle ground with something like that, I think. You’re trying to compliment each other from chapter to chapter, not step on each other. If one person is narrating like a showman and the other is understated, no one will want to listen to that. At the end of the day, it’s about what the listener is enjoying the most, and you want them to feel at home with these characters in every chapter. Finding that middle ground is key.
Someone I Used to Know is a book about rape culture. Was it difficult to put yourself into performing this book?
It’s a prevalent part of our culture now, so I think the most difficult part was simply wanting to do it justice. Patty Blount, the author, is an incredible writer and I think that when you encounter authors like that, who is passionate and informed on the topic they’re speaking on, you’re just ready to give them whatever they need. Ultimately, it has to come from somewhere honest because it’s a very honest story, a very honest topic. Preparation for books like that is key for me, especially read-throughs beforehand where I can get a feel for where a character is headed and what lies under their words and their actions. In the end, I always find myself reflecting a lot when I read stories like that. Sometimes that comes out in taking a pause at certain moments and needing a break. At others, like Someone I Used to Know, it came out in taking physical notes while I read through, of things that I felt were important for me to remember and to think about in my own life. That doesn’t happen very often, but it certainly inspires you to give the storytelling what it deserves.
Books like that, in my opinion, are very important to the culture that we live in now, so it was about bringing Patty’s words to life in a way that served them and their purpose. It’s a beautiful, poignant book that I think is very important. If I helped it come alive and I didn’t overshadow that poignancy, then I will have done a good job.
What kinds of questions did you have when you started recording audiobooks, and what answers did you find?
I think my initial question was a sort of, “Whoa, what is this that I’ve found?” Because it’s a very niche industry. I don’t think it’s short of competition by any means, but when people think of voice work they’re always thinking of Mark Hamill or Janet Varney, Masako Nozawa or Tom Kenny. All of these legendary voices in animation and film and always looking in those terms. But narration opened this whole new world for me of a hobby that I enjoyed through an avenue that I just never thought about – I certainly did when I’d listen to the Harry Potter audiobooks or other outstanding narration, but not something I thought I would ever be able to dip my toes in. I’m sure, subconsciously, my next question was along the lines of, “How do I keep this going?!” And I guess we’ll find out!
You were part of a team performing Tomboy: A Graphic Novel. How do you turn a graphic novel into an audiobook?
Incredibly talented engineers and producers. I really think that’s the key. When I first started out, I definitely felt a sort of egotist ideology with performing; “I’m the performer, I need to be great, this is all counting on me to be great,” that sort of thing. I think, especially when you do projects like Tomboy, you realize that you’re a piece of a much larger puzzle. There’s an entire vision for a project like that, with the music, the actors, the editing, the proofing, the mixing, the organization. And of course, it all relies on the power of the words – Liz Prince absolutely knocked it out of the park. You’re just one step in a long line of steps, so you just make sure that you do all you can when it’s your turn. It’s probably the book I most enjoy listening back to because it sounds like a moving, living thing. A lot of credit to the Dreamscape team; they do outstanding work.
Do you think an audiobook narrator needs to enjoy the book she or he is performing? Could you make a book you truly hated seem likeable to an audience?
This is an amazing question, honestly. It’s a part of the job, I think, because we all naturally have different tastes. You’re not going to love every book you read – if you do, I think you’re wildly lucky. I think it’s genuinely about realizing that it’s not always about you. For all of the projects I do, someone wrote the words that I’m reading, and it took a lot for them to put those words down to paper. There’s a story they’re trying to tell and it’s my job to make that as engaging to listen to as possible. More often than not, I’m chosen by a director or the author specifically to narrate that story, so I owe it to them to make it happen. I think that can sound like a blasé answer, but it really isn’t to me. It’s what makes it so rewarding. What are the characters feeling? What’s the narrator feeling? I want to make that book come to life so that when someone listens, it can be their favorite characters speaking to them. That’s always my goal. And when an author comes to me and tells me that they loved what I did, it’s the most rewarding thing in the world.
What narrators do you turn to for your own inspiration?
I think there are always the obvious ones, like Jim Dale, whose character work is truly unmatched. Or actors like Alan Cumming or Jeremy Irons, who have the most incredible natural voices on the planet. I think Neil Gaiman does incredible work. He’s a brilliant author, obviously, but I love his narrations. Wil Wheaton also has a great, natural voice. It’s not grandiose or anything, I think it’s just very authentic. A lot of times, I look at my fellow narrators though – ones with voices similar to mine or that narrate in the same genres. Like most things, I don’t think you can really every research too much. Someone’s always going to be doing something better than you, so I’m always trying to listen for what others are doing better than me.
To learn more about Nick, visit the following websites: