Listening with the Lights On ~ An Audiobook Afternoon

This past weekend I left my sleepy country neighborhood and took a road trip to Charlottesville, VA. It was a beautiful, sunny spring day and I started a new audiobook that immediately sucked me in (You by Catherine Kepnes, narrated by Santino Fontana). I couldn’t have been happier. Even having trouble finding parking didn’t hamper my mood. What’s a little extra driving around when a world of books would soon be at your fingertips?

My first stop was a Crime Wave panel featuring authors Tim Johnston and Mary Kubica. It was a great panel, but I’ll write more about that in another post.  This post is all about those narrators.


Photo courtesy of Andi Arndt

The Audio Publishers Association hosted this event at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Andi Arndt was the moderator of this panel, which featured Karen White, Barbara Rosenblat, Shannon Parks (Marguerite Gavin), and Sean Pratt. Walking into that room felt a little like magic to me. I’ve been lucky enough to meet Karen and Andi previously and was happy to see them again. It was also a pleasure to get a chance to listen to the three other veteran narrators talk about how they make audiobooks seem effortless.

The overall focus of the panel was about the art of narrating Mystery/Thrillers and these narrators each took a few minutes to speak about different aspects of recording the genre before answering questions from the audience.

  • Karen spoke about choosing the proper tone. She has found that capturing the tone correctly is one of the most difficult aspects of narrating an audiobook. She becomes the vessel through which a story is told. For her, choosing just the right tone is about storytelling, the author’s intent, and the overall affect on the audience. In fact, she tries to imagine the response of her listeners as she makes her decisions about tone. It’s easy when she reads to a live crowd. Inside her little recording studio is a much different thing.
  • Barbara talked about preparing for an audiobook. She was so glad to be in a room filled with fellow “word nerds.” We are all people who are careful about what we read, so it is imperative for her as an audiobook narrator to research books that she narrates. She pays careful attention to proper pronunciations, down to first and second references for names of characters and places. If she mispronounces something, the reader is taken out of the story and the narrator becomes “visible” in a way. She wants to disappear into the story for her listeners. That’s how she knows that she’s done her work properly.
  • Shannon explored how to maintain separate characters. While finding the voice of each characters is in and of itself a challenge, keeping them straight during a big action scene is even that much more difficult. To make those action scenes work for the listener, she pays careful attention to where each separate character is during each part of the scene. Then, when the a scene becomes fueled with gas, she can take the listeners with her smoothly. While a listener (such as myself) might think an individual narrator might record different characters separately to keep things straight, Shannon does not. She goes from one character’s voice to the next so she doesn’t lose the pacing and rhythm.
  • Sean talked about pacing and tempo. He began by saying something that makes a lot of sense to me. Fast paced chapters are exhausting. Even in those parts of the story that provide a little downtime, such as a characters’ back story, don’t provide much rest. Narrators have to be able to ride along with the dialog. He used our own day to day storytelling as an example. If you’re excitedly telling a story and you come to a part that leads you a little to the side, you hurry through those “extras” to get back to the meat of what you’re trying to say.

While I enjoyed listening to each of them talk about different aspects of life as an audiobook narrator and answer the questions raised by the audience, it was what came at the end of each narrator’s session that left me in awe. They each read either from some of their recent or favorite works or something fun they found. I was sitting in the front row and I could have almost reached out and touched them as they read. For me as an audiobook geek, this was an absolutely amazing experience. I’ve listened to several of Karen’s audiobooks now and her reading was the most surreal to me. While I’m very familiar with her voice and her work, I’m not used to being able to see her do what she does so well. I loved being able to see the way her whole body gets into the reading, but at the same time I didn’t know what to do with my eyes. I was tempted to just close them and pretend I was in my car, where she usually reads to me. Regardless, she had sold me on The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson.

It wasn’t just Karen’s reading that impressed me and the rest of the audience. Barbara read a piece from the New Yorker entitled “How I Met My Wife.” As the man tells his story he drops the prefixes to his words. She is one dynamic woman and she knew just what to read to us word nerds to make us laugh and hang on her every word and inflection. Shannon read from Ice Shear by M. P. Cooley. Her scene involved a female police officer and a male bad guy. Watching her go from one voice to the next was so impressive. Sean illustrated the pacing needs for back story by reading from a Mickey Spillane novel. I enjoyed how he picked up on humor while you could tell that the story itself was begging to get back to the action.

The session was recorded, so the audience was asked to turn our phones off. I didn’t have enough forethought to take a quick picture of the panel first. I did get a picture of something even more fun – to me, anyway. Recorded Books was there helping to keep the panel running smoothly. They brought photo cards of each of the narrators for the audience to get signed. What more could an audiobook fan ask for (well, other than more audiobooks anyway)? As soon as I got them signed, I took a picture of them to share. The ink wasn’t dry on them before I knew I wanted to collect even more. I loved the idea of narrator trading cards and here are mine!



At the end of the event, I was able to walk along this really nice outdoor mall area with Karen next to the Omni in Charlottesville. It was a beautiful day, a quaint area, and great company. We even ran into Andi and fellow narrator Paul Heitsch at the end. It was a wonderful way to end my afternoon away from home. I may regret not taking more pictures, but I had a wonderful time living in the moment. I wouldn’t change a thing.


  • At 2015.03.27 08:44, Kay said:

    How completely and totally fun! Loved hearing about it. And love how you described not knowing what to do with your eyes when they were reading aloud. I can just imagine. Thanks for sharing this with us! I loved it!

    • At 2015.03.27 09:25, Karen White said:

      You took some great notes, Jennifer! Thanks so much for sharing your experience of our panel. It’s like you completed the circle for me.
      You are the second listener of the weekend who mentioned that they’d assumed that we record each character’s dialogue separately. Although I can see that it would be easier to keep characters differentiated that way, you would totally lose the back and forth action between characters. Narrator Robin Miles once described recording dialogue as like playing tennis, against yourself, and having to run back and forth from one side of the court to another. It is hard, but it’s also the most fun part for me. Though perhaps a bit schizophrenic-making!
      Hope to see you again soon!

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      • At 2015.03.27 09:28, BermudaOnion(Kathy) said:

        What a fun event! I love the narrator trading cards!

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        • At 2015.03.27 11:03, Rachel said:

          What a great event. Thanks for sharing your notes with us!

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          • At 2015.03.27 12:15, Traci said:

            Great piece – sounds like a really wonderful time, though I’ll never understand how the narrators REALLY do it! The trading cards rock. 🙂

            • At 2015.03.27 16:33, Bec said:

              Really interesting piece Jennifer
              You lucky, lucky girl! I would just love to attend something this. Karen is a most impressive narrator isn’t she? I have a little audiobook review blog, and I really appreciate a good narrator, in fact I can get a bit cross when I read an audiobook review which doesn’t even mention the narrator. Yesterday I came across two such reviews.
              I imagine recording each character separately would be an editing nightmare, as, in all truth, I haven’t yet come across a really good dual narration, one always sounds as if they were in the next room.
              Anyhow, rattling on! Early morning here (Tasmania) and time to get out of bed, thank you again for writing this for us

              • […] Literate Housewife recaps her trip to the Virginia Festival of the Book […]

                • At 2015.03.29 16:29, Nise' said:

                  Your in depth notes had me feeling like I was there! Excellent.

                  • At 2015.03.29 21:20, Sheila (Book Journey) said:

                    What an amazing experience! I am thrilled for you!!!!

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                    • At 2015.03.31 10:30, Dee said:

                      I’m so jealous! I wanted to go to this so bad because a ton of authors I enjoy were there – hopefully next year!

                      (Required, will not be published)

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