Audiobooks from the Inside


I’m sitting in for Misty today (thanks, M!) since I missed my Friday post.

As some of you may know, all five of my novels to date come out as audiobooks today from Audible, including the two fantasy adventures Act of Will and Will Power. One of the many oddities of this sudden audio onslaught is that the actor who was chosen to read the Will books, Jonathan Davis, is an old friend of mine. We met in the mid nineties, while I was working as a dramaturg for Georgia Shakespeare in Atlanta, where he had been working for many summers. We hit it off right away, and not only because he is a remarkably gifted and inventive actor (still the best Bottom I’ve ever seen! [er… note the capital B and think A Midsummer Night’s Dream]). He was also a fantasy fan, and we had many a long post-show night playing RPGs: especially fun with a group of talented actors. Jonathan has subsequently made a career for himself as a performer of audio books and I was delighted to learn that he would be narrating Will Hawthorne’s adventures. It seemed a perfect opportunity to give the Magical Words readers a peep behind the audiobook curtain…
So without further ado, let me introduce today’s special guest, Jonathan Davis!

AJH: How did you get into doing audiobooks?

JD: I had been involved in voiceover for about a decade when my agent submitted me for my first audiobook, a John Grisham novel. I quickly caught the bug. I just loved the medium. After narrating the great Neal Stephenson sci-fi classic Snow Crash, I was fortunate to be cast as the narrator for Attack of The Clones and The Revenge Of The Sith, and continued recording over 30 titles for the Star Wars series. Since then I’ve been fortunate to branch out with a variety of genres, from literary fiction to historys/biographies to thrillers.

AJH: Impressive. What challenges do audiobooks pose which are different from doing theatre or TV?

JD: They take tremendous vocal stamina. I usually work seven hours straight on a book over a period of three to seven days, depending on the project. I approach the text just like any actor works on a script, observing objective and rhythm, pace and emotion. I somewhat score the text like music to discover the flow of each paragraph, each sentence.

AJH: What, in your opinion, makes some books more suited to audio than others?

JD: I believe first-person narrative works best. It’s much more intimate and you can really delve into character. The Will Hawthorne books work wonderfully for audio because of this and their rich characters. Also your use of language is truly marvelous; it’s intelligent, animated and fun, just like your protagonist.

AJH: Thanks: Your check is in the mail 😛  Talk about your approach to building character voices. How do you go about determining how people should sound?

JD: It’s all rather filmic for me. I tend to cast them in my head, but then I try not to think too much about it after that. I try my best to veer toward a subtler interpretation, particularly in dialogue. I just envision the action and take it from there.

AJH: Do you think of yourself as a reader, a narrator or a performer when you work on audio books and what–if any–difference does that make?

JD: I think of myself foremost as a storyteller. Everybody is a bit different. Some folk are readers, some performers, most are somewhere in between. Narration incorporates a sense of literary theatre. However, all narrators would agree on what is most important , simply telling the story.

AJHL What are you favorite kinds of boks to work on and why?

JD: Any book written by Dr. Hartley!! Any book where the language is strong and descriptive, and the story is complex and active. Authors such as Neal Stephenson, Paolo Bacigalupi, Jack Weatherford, Brett Easton Ellis, George Alec Effinger, Sena Jeter Naslund, Colum McCann, Paul Bowles– are examples of writers whose prose is extremely vivid, rich and playful. They make great audio, and are a joy for us to work on.

AJH: Do you think of yourself as a medium or an interpreter: by which I mean do you try to keep yourself, your tastes, your interests out of the performance, or do you deliberately inflect the story in the ways that seem, right to you? (And no, that’s not supposed to be a loaded question!)

JD: That is a bit of a loaded question! It depends upon the story, and if my particular skills apply. For instance, I am bi-lingual in Spanish, so if a character from Spain appears, I can portray him/her with my personal inflections. However, if a character with a thick Philly accent appeared, I’m not sure I would attempt it. As an actor, I believe one should begin with what one knows (your self) to really find a personal connection with the story. Then again, in audio, many listeners prefer the narrator to be as neutral as possible. In general, the entire production team discusses the direction in which the audiobook will proceed. This kind of brings us back to the question of what differentiates a narrator from a reader or a performer. We don’t have much “rehearsal time” so the choices we make must be pretty immediate, and appropriate in converting the written word to audio.

AJH: Lastly, what advice would you give to people trying to break into the audio book world, particularly in terms of the skills they need?

JD: Know thyself, listen, learn and persevere.

AJH: Words to live by. Thanks, Jono! I hope you’ll have chance to stop by and respond to comments in the course of the day. All the best and thanks for lending your talents to Will (samples of which you can access below).



12 comments to Audiobooks from the Inside

  • Lance Barron

    AJ, thanks for this post. I enjoy audio books on my commute to and from work. For me, it is particularly important in a series for the same actor to tell the story. So I’m glad that you’ve got the same one for yours. I’m off to buy audio Will Power. I appreciate this insight back stage. Jonathan’s performances at Georgia Shakes, especially his “Bottom,” were very fine. He was approachable and eager to talk to the audience.

  • Lance,
    I had no idea you’d seen Jono’s work! That’s great. I was particularly fond of that DREAM. There was lots of great, creative stuff in it (I’m sure I’m subconsciously pilfering from it for my own production right now!). I hope you enjoy the audiobooks as much.

  • Cool. Always thought of getting into voice work, be it reading for audiobooks or voices for TV. I’ve always had a good range and ability to pull off a lot of different voices. It’s awesome to see the names of people still in the business from when I was watching cartoons as a kid, like Frank Welker. Wanted to get the equipment to work up a demo some day, but the writing doesn’t like to take a back seat. 😉

  • The ease with which to read a story is a sure sign of a good story, in my opinion. That is one thing that makes the Will Hawthorne books so good. They are great storytelling, which translates into readability. Terry Pratchett books are like that too. Scott Lynch is near impossible to read aloud for very long. The sentence structure and word choice look good on paper but are filled with verbal stumbling stones.

    If Lance is listening: Do you have a Voice Agent? How do they differ from Literary Agents?

  • Erg! Lance = Jonathan.


  • First off, congratulations to both of you, A.J. and Jonathan, on the releases. Very exciting. The only book I’ve had come out in audio format is my novelization of ROBIN HOOD, and to be honest, I’ve been afraid to listen to it. To wit, my first question: A.J., what is it like listening to your own work read aloud? Is it at all like hearing your own voice on a recording, in that it makes you self-conscious of your own writing tics and foibles? And Jonathan, how much time do you usually have for prep work on a book before recording? How quick are the turnarounds between getting the book and stepping into the studio?

  • Daniel,
    I must say that I fancied myself as a reader of audiobooks too, and even considered doing the Will books myself. In the end I deferred to Audible who clearly wanted a pro, but I did record the “translator’s prefatory notes” for both books; my time in the studio made me realize how hard voice work is and convinced me that I had done the right thing in letting a real actor handle it. The logistics of sitting very still and not making any mistakes were enough of a challenge for me without considering the basics of acting: operatives, choices, objectives, strategies etc. All completely beyond me. I think some people think that this kind of work is acting-lite: it’s not. The voice has to do everything and it requires so much more than just the instrument alone. You need a full actor’s tool kit for this stuff. I consider myself suitably humbled by my own faltering attempt!

    any time someone refers to one of my books in the same breath as the gloriously gifted Terry Pratchett I go into the literary equivalent of a sugar high 🙂 Thanks. And I think you touch on something useful for all writers: at some point in your process, read your stuff aloud, if only to yourself. Hearing your words gives you a real insight into what works, what’s too convoluted etc.

    thanks. It is quite odd hearing my own work read aloud. Until yesterday, the only audio version of my stuff I had access to was in Danish! Listening to these English versions makes me doubly aware of Jono’s point about the difference between simply reading and interpreting, “performing” rather than simply narrating. He brings a sense of character to Will which is quite different from the one that emerges when I read my stuff aloud at signings etc., but that’s partly because he has so much more nuance and range than I do (back to that actorly tool kit I mentioned above). It’s cool because it makes the story new to me, as a play becomes new (no matter how well you know it) when it’s performed by competent actors: you hear all kinds of notes and flourishes you didn’t know were there, and these go beyond aesthetics to build a sense of character and story. It’s a different genre, and I imagine the feeling is a little like watching a movie for which you did the screenplay: a curiously defamiliarizing series of (hopefully) pleasant surprises! I’ve never reread my own novels after publication, but I plan to listen to the audio versions because the experience is so different.

  • jonnodavis

    Hi everyone. It was a great pleasure to narrate Andrew’s novels! Bravo!

    Lance: Thank you for the kudos. I am also quite fond of that production of Dream, it was a joy to work on, and Bottom has been one of my favorite roles over the years.

    Mark: I do have a voice-over agent, who thankfully introduced to the medium of narration, particularly the audiobook world. I wish I could answer your question. I have been involved in the voice-over market for over a decade, however, I have very limited knowledge regarding literary agents.

    David: The turnaround is very swift. It is rare to receive a script more than a week in advance,but my prep work is intensive. Some narrators are rather off-the-cuff and prefer a cold read. Since a book is so complex, I believe it is very important to familiarize oneself with the material before the recording session.

    While reading the Will Hawthorne stories, I could hear Andrew’s voice! In the beginning, I even dabbled with attempting to narrate as Andrew may have :), but I realized I wouldn’t do the story justice by trying to mimic A.J., so we decided to characterize Will closer to my own vocal timbre and personality and save “character work” for the supporting personae.

    Most narrators choose to portray the main character in their own voice. I learned the hard way. One of my first experiences in audio, I chose to portray the protagonist as a hard-boiled character with a raspy gutteral voice, which may have been entertaining and even appropriate but I could not sustain it for a 20 hour audiobook. So we try to keep the main protagonist in our own register or at least with a vocal choice in which we are completely comfortable.

  • Now I’m really looking forward to hearing the Will books! Thanks, Jonathan and AJ, for an fascinating look into a world I was aware of but blissfully ignorant of.

  • How fun! I’m really into audiobooks, and have done some voicework for various podiobooks and literary podcasts, so this was a really fascinating interview to read. I should like to see Johnathan Davis’s Bottom.


  • Thanks Ed! I’d list all the stuff of which I am blissfully ignorant, but I am blissfully ignorant of just how much I am blissfully ignorant. I think.

    I won’t speak for Jonathan’s willingness to show you his Bottom but I’m sure he’s glad of your interest.

  • I *do* apologise for the *very* late arrival. I’ve been in the bottom of a gorge all day. As opposed to to Jono’s bottom. Hmmm.

    AJ, Jono, I recently got a copy of my own first novel released as audio, and it was very strange to listen to. Expecially when the *voice* (which was lovely and perfect, BTW) caught a typo and read it as written. *cringe….* But great fun. Thank you for insiders’ peek! At the audio world. Not bottoms.