Tag Archives: narrator

June is Audiobook Month: Q&A with Narrator Tavia Gilbert

taviagilbertI met Tavia Gilbert last fall, when I participated in an online panel discussion about audiobook narrators and social media. She is a narrator extraordinaire, with 150+ narrations under her belt, and is a genuinely kind and funny person too. (Read more about Tavia here.)

I was lucky to be seated next to Tavia at the BEA audiobook narrator lunch in New York last month, and she graciously agreed to answer my Q&A about narration in honor of June is Audiobook Month. (This is my third in a series of three interviews with narrators.)

Q. How did you get into audiobook narration?

A: I was a listener before I was a voice actor. And I was an acting student before I was a listener. I had a long drive from Seattle, where I was in college studying theater, to visit my family in Idaho, and I thought, I guess I’ll get a book on tape for the drive. I went to my local library and checked out a novel written by Joanna Trollope, gorgeously narrated by Davina Porter, put the first cassette into the tape player of my Dodge Neon, and set out on I5. Davina was the perfect narrator to introduce me to the art-form of narration. How lucky I was! She is a masterful storyteller — delicate, strong, nuanced, precise, conversational, heart-felt, intelligent, articulate, and well-read (and these qualities show up in one’s voice and performances, absolutely). I admire her greatly. At the time, I thought, “I want to do that! I want to DO that!!” It took another seven years or so, but one acting degree, lots of work on stage and on camera, a tremendous amount of practice, a lot of classes and coaching, and a huge amount of passion and ambition later, I got my first contract. I’ve been working steadily ever since.

Q: How do you prepare for a new narration role? Do you read the whole book through to get a sense of the characters and story?

A: I read the text and get a feel for the tone, pace, rhythm, and feel of the project. I learn about the writer — who they are, what they care about, why they wrote the book. I highlight my scripts (which are all on my iPad — I don’t use paper scripts any longer) with different colors to call my attention later to points that will influence my character choices — blue for specific vocal characterization notes, like dialects or voice qualities (i.e., rough, raspy, squeaky, etc.); orange for character background (like physical description or description of the character’s personality or internal life, etc.). I mark in red every word I need to look up or ask the author to pronounce, so that I am voicing everything correctly. I mark in green every bit of information the author has provided that gives me specific performance direction (i.e., “he whispered,” “she called over her shoulder,” “he slurred, drunkenly,” etc.). Then, after researching all my vocabulary, I’m ready to record.

Q: What is your favorite book that you’ve recorded? Any books on your dream list?

A: I have many, many projects that I’ve absolutely loved recording, from science fiction to memoir to literary fiction to young adult to theology. But my latest favorite book is The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, by Jessica Lawson, for Dreamscape. It’s a young adult novel featuring the character from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. But in The Actual and Truthful Adventures, 11-year-old Becky takes center stage, and she proves herself to be smart, funny, brave, loyal, fierce, sensitive, and absolutely wonderful. If I had a daughter, I think I’d like a girl just like her, so it’s going to be great fun voicing her adventures. My birthday is this month, so perhaps I’ll begin recording her story on the actual day, which would be a very fine birthday present, indeed!

And on my dream list? I’d love to record more in the Linda Barnes Carlotta Carlyle series, because the series is fantastic and I adore Carlotta, and Little Women, the Little House on the Prairie series, and Anne of Green Gables, because they meant so much to me as a child.

Q: Where do you do your recording?

Much of the time I’m working in my studio in my Brooklyn apartment, but occasionally I’ll work in a recording studio in Manhattan, depending on the project. My booth is a double-insulated WhisperRoom in an office on the second floor of a brownstone. It’s awfully hot in the summer, but I’ve heard that one of the biggest contributors to job satisfaction is a short commute. At no more than ten seconds between the living room and my studio, my commute cannot be beat. (It doesn’t leave me a lot of travel time for audiobook listening, however. I have to wait until I do housework or jump on my bike to put in my earbuds.)

Q: What is your favorite genre for narrating?

A: Whatever is beautifully written makes me very, very happy, but if I was forced to choose a favorite, I think a fantastically written mystery can’t be beat. I don’t get enough of it, and I’m always really excited when a great mystery comes my way. I really enjoy tough, wise, female leads and wonderful supporting characters; compelling suspense; and surprising twists and turns. I also really love narrating literary fiction, memoir, and children’s and young adult work. See!? I can’t choose! If the writer is skilled and compassionate and thoughtful, has a clear vision and voice, and tells a great story, how could I ever possibly choose?

Q: How much interaction, if any, do you have with the author while you’re recording?

A: More often than not, I connect with the writer to some degree. With some I may just exchange a quick Facebook message. With some I may have a phone call. With some writers I’ll sit down over lunch and a glass of wine and then we’ll email and call and text and become lifelong friends. It’s been very surprising and very meaningful to have developed a few close friendships with writers whose books I’ve narrated.

Q: What do you like to read in your spare time?

A: Spare time? What spare time? I kid… kind of. I really have so much to read all the time, so many books to prep and record, that it’s very difficult to get in any reading solely for pleasure or personal enrichment. But I can get it in in fits and starts, or by listening to an audiobook during housework or while I’m exercising. Almost everything I read for myself is non-fiction, mostly memoir, though I do sometimes read literary fiction. On audio I listen to whatever my favorite narrators are performing, whether that’s contemporary fiction, a classic, philosophy, or memoir.

Q: Anything else you would like my readers to know about audiobooks?

A: I suppose I’ll take this opportunity to ask that no one ever ask a narrator again, “Do you also act?” Audiobook narrators are acting every time they sit behind the mic. The art-form of narration is specialized acting performance. Just as we would if we were in a play or a film, we’re developing character, playing our objectives, making specific acting choices to bring the text to life. We are voice actors, and if you listen to an audiobook, you’re listening to an actor perform just for you! How awesome is that?

Thank you, Tavia!

Q&A With Audiobook Narrator Anne Flosnik

This has been quite a month for Q&As! Two great author Q&As at Politics & Prose – Curtis Sittenfeld and Lionel Shriver – which I will be posting about here on the blog. And three great audiobook narrator Q&As in honor of June is Audiobook Month! Here is the third one, with narrator Anne Flosnik, whom I met at the BEA audiobook narrator breakfast I attended in May. Anne narrated The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which I enjoyed on audio despite the fact that the discs were skipping. And I have her Little Bee on my to-listen list. Thanks to Anne for taking the time to answer my questions!

Anne Flosnik audiobook narratorQ.  How did you get into audiobook narration?

A. I got into audiobook narration via joining a local women’s networking organization in order to try to make a success of a side business in cosmetic sales. Through it, I met a lady who was a guest on a local TV show, and she invited me to take part on the show. Through being on the show I met other other performers, and heard about the Actor’s Center, an excellent “one stop” resource for actors. I joined, and found a voice teacher through it, and also through its audition hotline I found my Library Of Congress job. I was a Studio Narrator at the Library of Congress from 1996 – 2008, when I left because my commercial audiobook career had taken off with my narration of Little Bee by Chris Cleave, for Tantor Audio.

Q. How do you prepare for a new narration role? Do you read the whole book through to get a sense of the characters and story?

A. I prepare by reading the book from cover to cover, and I make notes concerning the character descriptions, age, personality, accents if any. I also have a page to list any pronunciations I need to look up, and this also helps me to keep pronunciations consistent. I keep all my notes, which are on paper, and in stacks, and they have saved my life on many occasions, especially when doing a series that evolves over time.

Q. What is your favorite book that you’ve recorded? Any books on your dream list?

 A. That’s a tough question. I am keenly aware that each and every book is the author carefully crafted creation, and in a sense their “baby.” It is my responsibility to ensure with every project that I give the highest quality narration I am capable of, and be as true to the author’s intent as possible. Some books have stayed with me however, and each of them has something unforgettable about them, that has remained with me, for different reasons: The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox, Little Bee, and Anna And The King Of Siam.  All were award winners, and all were self directed and researched. Other extra special books include the classics I have narrated such as Pride And Prejudice, Sense And Sensibility and The Turn Of The Screw.  I have a great fondness for Long Lankin, a chilling, multi-point of view YA title, and children’s books such as The Wheel On The School and The Secret Garden. I also loved the intricate Kushiel’s Dart set in an alternate medieval Europe part of the Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey. This was a challenging, and satisfying series. The books I read by Robin Hobb were outstanding, and the many romances it has been my honor to narrate.

Q.  Where do you do your recording?

A. I record Tantor projects at home. All others I take to a local engineer, and I also travel on occasion, or indeed whenever asked, if I can fit it into my schedule. It’s lovely to get to see old friends and make new ones. This life can be solitary at times. Usually I am directing myself, and do all my own research, which is an integral part of the narration process, and I find deepens my understanding and appreciation of the text.

Q. Do you ever find that your voice changes from session to session? (Sometimes I think I can tell when one session ends and another starts because the narrator’s voice gets lower, for example.)

A. Yes, I do find my voice changes from day to day, and even over the course of a day. For me it has as much to do with the time of day, or when I last ate, as tiredness, or just not feeling well. I think audiobook narration can be somewhat of an “athletic exercise,” in that the fitter I am physically, the better I perform, as my breath control, stamina and endurance are all increased. Being well-rested is an extremely important component of how I sound. I make great efforts however, to keep the sound quality as consistent as possible, and am very aware of it, along with the many other things I am listening for, and course correct to keep things on an even keel.

Q. How much interaction, if any, do you have with the author while you’re recording?

A. Most times I don’t have any interaction with the author. If I do it is usually concerning pronunciation issues. Sometimes, as I have narrated for authors over the course of a series, or even years, we keep in touch, and I am always excited to be narrating their latest work, or even doing several of their  backlist books one after the other. It is a very special bond to get to work this closely with another person’s creations.

Q. What do you like to read in your spare time?

A. I am finding I have less and less time to read for pleasure, but when I do I will often read something that is current. I usually have an audiobook on the go though, and for recommendations I look to AudioFile magazine for inspiration. I love literary fiction and mysteries best, along with some non fiction. I enjoy “how-to” books, and historical fiction and nonfiction are also favorites. 

Thank you to the wonderful narrators who have participated in this Q&A mini-series on EDIWTB: Robert Fass, Karen White, and Anne Flosnik! And hooray for audiobooks, which have changed my life.

Q&A with Audiobook Narrator Karen White

web_karen_5195It’s still June is Audiobook Month (JIAM) here at EDIWTB!

I was lucky to meet three audiobook narrators at BEA last month who were willing to spend the time to answer some of my questions about narration. I posted the first interview, with Robert Fass, last week. Today’s interview is with Karen White. Karen White is a classically trained actress who has been recording audio books since 1999 and has well over 100 books to her credit and is a proud member of SAG-AFTRA.  Honored to be included in Audiofile’s Best Voices 2010 and 2011, she’s also an Audie Finalist and Best Audiobook of the Year winner for 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Q.  How did you get into audiobook narration?

A: Although I am a trained actress, I actually started as an editor in audiobooks.  Back in 1999 here in Los Angeles, most audiobook production involved celebrities and abridged books.  When calling around trying to get narrating work, I was offered a job editing audiobook recording sessions on ProTools (which I quickly taught myself to use).  My supervisor there was hired about six months later to open a Los Angeles recording studio for Books-on-Tape, and he hired me as his assistant.  At that studio I started narrating as well as casting, directing and editing.  It was an amazing immersion in the craft!  When I had my first child, I chose to work less and only as a director and narrator.  (I think mommy-brain and editing-brain could not co-exist in my head.)  About five years ago, I built a home studio and now I work almost full-time for publishers all over the country.

Q. How do you prepare for a new narration role? Do you read the whole book through to get a sense of the characters and story?

Only a couple of times have I been unable (due to last minute scheduling) to read the whole book before beginning recording.  And I really hated it.  No matter the genre, I find that it’s really important to read the whole thing through to “get” the narrative voice: the tone, mood, style, etc.  And inevitably, if you start a fiction title before reading the whole thing, you’ll find out on p. 298 that Uncle George spent time in New Zealand and picked up a bit of an accent.  And it can be a lot of work to replace all of Uncle George’s dialogue with the proper accent!

When I read the book, I am paying attention to the above narrative stylistic elements, and I’m notating all specifics on the characters (if it’s fiction) and any word pronunciations I’m unsure of.  I then organize all this info so I have it at my fingertips when I start recording.  I like to get the right brain work done ahead of time so I can cruise in the left brain and work instinctively as I record.

Q. What is your favorite book that you’ve recorded? Any books on your dream list?

A: Asking about my favorite book is like asking me which of my kids is my favorite!  But I have to say that one of my all time favorites was Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees.  (I did the Library version, but not the retail version — not sure why or how that happened).  I’m from North Carolina originally, so I loved being able to work in my home accent.  And I connected personally with the material on so many levels – not so much literally but emotionally.

I think my dream is to record something by Edith Wharton.  I actually lived in her summer home one spring and summer while acting at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA (it is definitely haunted) and I read most of her books then.  I chose a Louisa May Alcott story for our narrator driven fund-raiser Going Public…in Shorts because she was on my mind.  But maybe next year I’ll do a Wharton!

Q.  Where do you do your recording?

I have a “Whisper Room” which is a not-quite-but-pretty-close-soundproof modular booth.  (Meaning if my kids are screaming on the trampoline right outside, I can still hear them.  And I can hear the neighbor’s gardener’s leaf blowers.)  I think I disappoint my booth a bit.  I’m its 3rd owner.  The 1st owner did movie trailers and the 2nd did sports promos. When I bought it, I was told that a million dollars a year of voiceover work had been recorded inside it.  Unfortunately, very few audiobook narrators are making that kind of money!  But I spend a LOT of hours in my little booth and hopefully she’s at least appreciative of the quality of writing I’m working with, if not the quantity of dollars coming in J

Q. Do you ever find that your voice changes from session to session? (Sometimes I think I can tell when one session ends and another starts because the narrator’s voice gets lower, for example.)

A: Because I’ve also worked as a director and I’ve studied to teach vocal production, I am very aware of this possibility, and I try to avoid it.  It’s a good practice to take breaks at the end of a chapter, especially at the end of the day.  It’s also important not to overwork the voice, either by working too long of a day, or by straining or abusing it.  But it can be a challenge to honor an author’s specific descriptions of a gravelly voice or a smoker’s rasp and protect your voice at the same time.

Q. How much interaction, if any, do you have with the author while you’re recording?

That all depends on the author and the publisher. Unless I happen to know an author prior to being cast (this happened when I read a book for pleasure and contacted author Anna Jean Mayhew to tell her how much I loved it, and later she requested me to narrate when the audio rights were sold).  Sometimes authors just don’t have time to interact, but for the most part I’ve found authors to be very helpful in terms of pronunciation help if the information can’t be found easily online. (Author Jilliane Hoffman was very appreciative when I checked in with her on character name pronunciation as she names all her characters after her friends!)  I also tend to promote my books on social media; most authors are appreciative of that.  I had a great time reading with Meg Waite Clayton when she was in town for a bookstore event and I’d love to do more of those.

Q. What do you like to read in your spare time?

Although I always seem to have a half-read parenting book on my bedside table, women’s fiction is definitely my pleasure reading genre of choice.  In fact, I’ve had a little rule since I was in my late twenties that I only purchase books and music written by women, for solidarity.  (If I really want to read a book by a guy, I will get it from the library or borrow it.)  My book club recently read Me Before You by Jo Jo Moyes, which I noticed on your sidebar.  I loved that it made me cry very snottily for the last 20 pages, which would have been tricky if I’d been narrating it.

Q. Anything else you would like you like my readers to know about audiobooks?

I’m just happy people are buying them!  Changes in technology have meant that a much larger percentage of published books are recorded in audio than were even five years ago.  I haven’t seen any numbers which would prove my theory, but I believe that the percentages of female writers having their work published in audio has increased as well.  Selfishly, that’s good because it’s more work for me, but personally, I prefer the woman’s perspective.

Thank you, Karen, for another wonderful audiobook interview! I appreciate your taking the time to answer my questions.

Karen has very generously offered to give away an Audible credit for one of her audiobooks. To win one of the books that she has narrated on audio, leave me a comment here about where you listen to audiobooks. I will select a name at random on Friday, June 28.

Q&A With Audiobook Narrator Robert Fass

I wrote earlier this month about the wonderful breakfast I had at BEA with a group of audiobook narrators. It was a fascinating breakfast, and while I was able to talk to a few of the narrators about their work, I still had a lot of questions when we were done. Thankfully, three narrators – Robert Fass, Karen White, and Anne Flosnik – agreed to do a Q&A here on EDIWTB about being an audiobook narrator. I am very grateful to them for taking the time to answer my questions!

Rrobertfassobert Fass is a tough man to pin down this month; he is currently en route to Kansas City, MO for the Hear Now Festival, a “film festival for contemporary audio story-telling in all its forms”.  He will be among a group of narrators reading Mark Twain stories live over the radio on Friday, as well as appearing with the Golden Voices reading on Saturday.

Here is Robert’s Q&A:

Q:  How did you get into audiobook narration?

A: I’ve been an actor all my life – classically trained, including several years with the legendary acting teacher Uta Hagen in NYC – and a working professional union member for nearly 30 years.

I’ve also been listening to voice recordings since I was a child, haunting my public library’s spoken-word and comedy sections all through my formative years. I had a radio show at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, which was mostly music, but on which I also occasionally would corral friends to read plays with me over the airwaves unrehearsed. In the late 1980s I created and hosted a live improvised radio drama series entitled Radio Free Association, which invited kids to call in answers to questions I would pose, which the players and I then used on the spot as the building blocks of an improvised audio drama with music. So the possibilities of audio have always fascinated me.

I have to credit my parents as well. My mother was a research librarian who turned me on to books from an early age and helped me get my first job at age 15 shelving books in our local public library. My father was a volunteer reader for the blind for over 25 years at Recording for the Blind and  Dyslexic in Washington, DC. When he passed away in 1997, I began volunteering in his honor at the InTouch network in NYC, an amazing organization where I was lucky enough to be one of two regular readers of The New Yorker magazine every week. That gave me solid grounding in narrating well-written essays, fiction, poetry, humor, etc.  Somewhere along the way, a fellow volunteer – an actress named Katherine Puma – offered me her spot at a seminar on audiobook narration given by the Audio Publishers Association (APA). At that time the APA was looking to bring more trained professional actors into the industry and gave the attendees the chance to submit a sample to a producer for feedback. I received enough encouragement that I pressed forward and created a full demo CD which I sent to every publisher and producer in the APA. It caught the ear of a couple of folks who gave me a chance. The reviews were good, and things built – slowly – from there. It took several years before I began to make most of my living at it.

Q: How do you prepare for a new narration role? Do you read the whole book through to get a sense of the characters and story?

A: It’s critical to read the whole book! For fiction it’s especially important because you need to make choices about the various characters’ voices – the author often provides clues somewhere along the way and the narrator community is full of tales of having recorded a whole bunch of pages with a character in one kind of voice only to discover on page 297 that he speaks in a completely different voice – a heavy Welsh accent, for instance, when you’ve done a perfect Surrey gentleman. But regardless of the genre or the complexity of the writing, as a narrator you have to understand the author’s voice, point of view, narrative style, and, most importantly, the dramatic arc of the book. You’ve got to know where you’re going.

Q: What is your favorite book that you’ve recorded? Any books on your dream list?

A: There have been so many favorites, it’s hard to pick just one. I’d have to point to SAY HER NAME by Francisco Goldman as a highlight. It won all kinds of print awards for the author and I’m proud that it was awarded an Earphones award and named one of the 10 Best Audiobooks of 2011 by AudioFile magazine. I loved narrating NO ORDINARY JOES, a deep dive into the story of four submariners captured by the Japanese in WWII and their lives and loves after returning to civilian life. That’s by Larry Colton. And I got to record a beautifully written memoir by Carlos Eire, LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI.

Most recently, I was blown away by the gorgeous writing in THE UNWINDING, George Packer’s real-life account of a disparate group of ordinary Americans struggling to stay afloat amid the dismantling of the social contract in this country over the last 30 years. It’s a brilliant mosaic, a great book that deserves to be widely read – and, of course, listened to!Most of my dream list, unfortunately, has already been recorded. Some of Stanley Elkin’s novels are among my favorite 20th century works of fiction and I feel a great affinity with his protagonists and delight in his loopy, verbal jazz. But the great George Guidall’s recorded them, so how can I regret that?

There is a favorite book of mine which shall remain nameless for the moment, a unique mystery with a cult following that’s never been recorded, a book I’ve long dreamed of narrating. I’m currently in conversation with the author about it and am hopeful of having the joy and privilege of producing and narrating it sometime this year.

Otherwise, I’ve had the great good fortune to narrate works by some of the world’s best authors and my dream list consists of any books that allow me to continue to be a part of bringing great writing to audio.

Q: Where do you do your recording?

A: These days I work mostly in my home studio. I still get out to publishers’ studios now and then, where I get to work with an engineer – sometimes even a director, the best of all possible worlds – and just focus on the read. But the industry has moved decisively in the direction of home studios over the past couple of years, in which the narrator is now also engineering and self-directing; so I made the investment to set up a high-quality booth in a spare bedroom of our apartment and refine my technical skills as well.

Q: Do you ever find that your voice changes from session to session? (Sometimes I think I can tell when one session ends and another starts because the narrator’s voice gets lower, for example.)

A: Not often. That kind of distraction shouldn’t happen if it can be avoided, and typically I (or my engineer) will compare the first few minutes of the day’s recording with that of the day before to ensure that the sound matches – that my voice has the same energy and pitch range, my mic placement hasn’t changed, etc.

This is, I believe, to a large extent a by-product of the move toward home studios. Whereas there used to be three sets of ears on a recording session (narrator/engineer/director), now there tends to be just one: the narrator’s. So more of those kinds of inconsistencies are going to get through. Like a lot of narrators, I do a series of physical and vocal warmups before entering the booth so that my voice is ready to start recording and, hopefully, it will be consistent from session to session within any given project.

Q: How much interaction, if any, do you have with the author while you’re recording?

That varies considerably. Some publishers connect me with the author (or, in some cases, the author’s representative) from the start. Others maintain a strict separation policy between the author and narrator. You may need to tread lightly sometimes, but I find it has always been helpful for me to be able to connect with the author in order to discover as much as I can about the spirit and intention of the work, any specific overarching idea they may have about the narrative, as well as to get pronunciation guidance on names, places, and other terms that may not be findable by conventional means. The authors I’ve dealt with have always been grateful for the amount of care and interest I’ve taken in approaching the narration of their work. I recently produced and narrated PULP AND PAPER, a collection of beautifully written, prize-winning short stories by an author named Josh Rolnick; his input was essential in giving me the understanding I needed to get into the hearts of those characters.  Our job as narrators is to get out of the author’s way, and I think dialogue with them helps a great deal in that regard.

Q: What do you like to read in your spare time?

A: I’m not familiar with this concept, spare time. Please explain.

Q: Anything else you would like my readers to know about audiobooks?

A: That narrating is a craft. The majority of professional narrators, the ones who regard it as a craft and invest their time and talent in order to make a living at it, are members of the performers’ union, SAG-AFTRA.  As the audiobook listening community continues to grow by leaps and bounds, it is helping to drive a number of shifts within the industry itself. One of those shifts is a large influx of new narrators, some of whom may be capable of great things, but some of whom do not have the necessary tools to be able to make a good audiobook (which goes far beyond having a laptop with a microphone, being told you have a nice voice, and having the notion of, “hey, I’d like to narrate audiobooks”). So it’s important that listeners be discerning.

A related shift is that social media has lowered or even eliminated the barriers to communication between audiobook listeners/fans, publishers, authors, narrators, reviewers, and bloggers like yourself. So it’s important to the ongoing health of the industry that discerning listeners let publishers know their preferences for quality narration and quality production: that it matters to have a voice that matches the material; that the book is read well; that there aren’t sirens, helicopters, kids’ footsteps, and other intrusions on the audio; that names and terms aren’t mispronounced; that the listening experience of any book is the best it can be.


Lastly, a big thank you to you and your readers for being audiobook fans and for giving me this opportunity to speak with you. I really appreciate it!

Thank you again to Robert for the thoughtful answers he gave and for taking the time to chat here on EDIWTB. I especially liked what he had to say about listeners letting publishers know what they think of the recordings, so that the emphasis on quality narration is maintained throughout the industry. Hopefully EDIWTB is helping on that front!