Thursday, May 5, 2011

Remembering Frank Muller: John’s Inspiration for Narration

 Frank Muller and his daughter, Diana, in studio. Courtesy of

This would have been Frank Muller’s 60th birthday. Muller passed away in 2008. Though he never wrote a book, he was one of my largest inspirations in literature.

Muller was one of the greatest narrators of my lifetime. He was a stage actor who only happened to see a notice for narrators in the lobby one day. He wound up reading hundreds of books for cassette and CD, sadly losing his voice just before the rise of Audible and podcasting. His breathy, almost contemptuous reading of Melville’s Moby Dick was the only way a teenaged John Wiswell got through the entire thing.

A Muller impression is difficult to build. The words roll across the roof of your mouth more than they do your tongue. Wind comes from the top of your throat, rather than the bottom where your lungs and all the active parts rest. Your mouth becomes a nasal passage. Sentences begin strong and end almost in whispers. Every ‘w’ and ‘n’ is a potential place to stretch. When you realized that voice has narrated Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, you reached for your credit card, because holy shit. He read Hannibal Lecter like that?

I don’t hide my fondness for audiobooks. They’re good in the car, while you clean, and sometimes I’m simply in the mood to listen rather than read. At this stage I enjoy picking them up for books I’ve read, so I can hear how other people interpret voice (and often, to argue with their choices). At thirteen, when I was bedridden and often didn’t have the strength to sit up, people like Mr. Muller brought me the world. They read me legal thrillers at noon, Horror stories at dusk, and could you please, I know it’s 1:30 AM, but I can’t sleep and I’d so like to hear the Battle of Helms Deep one more time. Mom scooped them up from the library every week to help bide my time. Even when I got walking again, I’d take his recordings out to listen to time after time.

He built his cred with me by voicing some of the best John Grisham and Stephen King titles. Runaway Jury. Different Seasons. His The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet might be my all-time favorite narration. Though likely good money to Mr. Muller, they were his ‘in’ for me. I enjoyed them so much that if he was reading Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, I’d give that a shot as well. Muller enjoyed bouncing between from classics and contemporary literature, claiming the variety of work recharged his batteries. His was the rare class of professional narrators, like John Glover, whom could convince me to pick up an audiobook through name value, something typically reserved only for authors.

In 2001, Mr. Muller had a motorcycle accident. He was thrown across the highway and landed on his face and chest. The helmet potentially saved his life, but his body was racked and his heart stopped multiple times in the hospital. He was disabled for the rest of his life, and never able to narrate again. Lingering complications followed him to his death.

His was one of the few celebrity deaths that actually shook me. I’d wanted him to read my books. Until college I internalized everything I wrote, seldom reading it out loud, more often imagining his voice in my head. Whenever I got off my ass to finally pen those epics I had hidden in me and made excuses not to write just yet? Well, he was supposed to record those. It was one of those big dreams, third only behind making inexplicable millions of dollars and entertaining other bedridden children with my works.

Now even if I wrote them, even if they were great and successful, his voice wouldn’t be there to bring them to life. It was about then that I began saying everything I composed out loud to test its quality. It’s good exercise for writers, especially developing ones – you catch more qualities of grammar and implication. I kept at it, though, because I was so nervous in front of recorders or audiences. During a class reading, I’d stare at the page for safety. God forbid I missed a word.

It is not exaggeration to say the loss of Mr. Muller’s talent spurred me to embarrass myself. I took storytelling classes. I talked publicly about my sickness, family and mythology. I performed work in front of more groups, including my least favorite audience, children. I took out books I’d never seen before and read them out loud to test how voices arose. It was a crash course to getting over my own awkwardness, stutters and issues. There were hours when the syndrome would fog my brain and leave me unable to complete sentences. At my best, I still tripped. You don’t know how reassuring it was to read Muller telling Ric Johnson, “I find myself making every conceivable mistake at some point or other. That's why take 2 was invented.”

There's been a little success. The Possible Origins narrations are one of the most popular features on this site. Last year I got my first requests to do book recordings.  If I'm so fortunate, maybe one day I'll narrate my own audiobooks, or maybe I'll be the recipient of someone else's talent. But today I won't record anything. Today I've got Muller's Great Expectations, and I'm in the mood to listen.


  1. I believe Stephen King hosted a benefit event for Frank Muller after his accident, citing him as the best voice in the business.

    Audiobooks are terrific in the car, working in the yard, weeding or mulching the gardening, digging a hole - wherever I have to be relatively stationary doing something that doesn't require my full attention. I've read many a classic novel that way.

  2. King did indeed organize the Wavedancer charity event. It was named for Muller's recording studio. Several big writers turned out to support him.

  3. I'm so glad you wrote this post, John. I feel just the same way - about audio reading and Frank Muller in particular. I too had dreamed of having him narrate my books and I still listen to my writing in his voice sometimes. Frank has been an inspiration and a comfort to me during unhealthy times as well. All of what you said about overcoming awkwardness applies to me as well. The best thing I've done for myself was to take classes and decide to pursue narrating. And yes, it makes me a better writer, too. As sad and awful as it is that he's gone, what a legacy he left behind. That we can go back and spend hours with him listening to his wonderful voice, that's really something. Keep up with your narrating, John. You're doing well.

  4. I'm a bit ashamed to admit I've never listened to an audio book. I'm even a bit hesitant to listen to pod casts, because if it's written, I can go through it much faster than listening.

    Though, stories are also meant to be heard. "StoryTELLING" You've made me want to have a listen.

  5. I've never paid much attention to the voices behind the audiobook, now you've made me think I've missed out.

    I've done a few readings myself, and stuttered & stumbled through them. That's what Audacity and/or GarageBand are for, though. Daughter Dearest is voice trained, but she doesn't put any emotion into her reading. It's frustrating — she'd make a great narrator if she'd only feel the story…

  6. Pam, I'm glad to cross someone who also fantasized about being read by Mr. Muller. Nowadays I get compliments on my voice acting and how people wish they had my abilities. It's funny to me, given how awful I once was. I'm no Muller or Glover, but keep working at it.

    TS, the listening and reading experiences are dramatically different. I'm generally a slow reader, taking my time through works I care for. With so much content on the internet I'm becoming a terrible skim-reader. Audiobooks sometimes slow me down to a necessary level.

    FAR, she went through voice training but doesn't put emotion into her work? How does that pan out? So used to it that she doesn't have to try?

  7. Thanks John, I had never really heard of this fellow before. I had no idea he was such an influence on you--I'm looking forward to learning more about him!

    To the internet!

  8. I'm so glad you wrote this. It's hard when someone you admire or who's inspired you passes, even if you never met them, because now you never will. I've felt the same way about my favorite author, Douglas Adams.

    And along with FAR, I've never paid much attention to the voice behind the audiobooks, though I listen to audiobooks, podiobooks, and podcasts all the time. I just hate the thought of spending time doing dishes, driving, or some other mundane task, without making use of it with great literature and information. I didn't know you admired this man, or indeed had ever heard of him, but now that I have I can see why your readings are so incredible. Thank you for sharing this.

  9. Most narrators aren't recognizable by name. Garrison Keillor has a following, but otherwise it has to be a celebrity actor stepping down to read, like Jeremy Irons or Kathy Bates. I don't think there's any shame in not knowing Muller, or at least not recognizing him by a photo or a last name. But I do strongly recommend checking out his work. The first link in the article is to a site with a full list of his recordings. Are there any books there you love? Or feel like you should have under your belt? He probably did them justice.

  10. Yes. Thanks for sharing all of that, John. It tells a little bit about you and it shows the necessity of reading ones own work. I'm terrified of public speaking, but know that on occassion it's a neccesary evil...


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