Friday, 9 August 2013

The Voice Behind an Audiobook: Julianne MacLean interviews Narrator, Jennifer O’Donnell

by Julianne MacLean

Do you ever wonder what goes into the creation of an audiobook, and how a narrator brings the story to life? 

It was all a bit of a mystery to me, until I became involved in the production of my contemporary novel, THE COLOR OF HEAVEN.  Through ACX, an Amazon platform that matches rights holders with narrators and producers, I discovered Brick Shop Audio as soon as the auditions started pouring in.  All my top choices seemed to come from Brick Shop, and as soon as I heard Jennifer O’Donnell begin to read from my book, I knew immediately that she was the one.  Not only did the quality and tones of her voice “fit” the part of my main character, Sophie Duncan, but Jennifer pulled me into the drama instantly, and I found myself riveted with suspense, as if I had never read the book before. And I wrote it!

So here we are at last, with the audiobook completed and available for pre-order at Audible and Itunes.  (It releases on August 19, 2013.)  My fabulous narrator, Jennifer O’Donnell, has graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about her work on the book.

1. Hi Jennifer!  Please tell us, what is your background, and how did this lead you to audiobook narration? 

I trained and worked in the theater as an actor and a director throughout most of my 20s. By the time I hit 30 I was a bit burnt out on theater and decided to get an ESL teaching certificate and spend a few years teaching English and traveling. While I was living in Prague, I randomly befriended two guys who ran a film production company. Their company got hired to produce an adult internet video game and they needed a native English speaker to voice the female part. They asked me. I was hesitant because I had never done any voice over work in my life. Plus, the project was racy and I had a crush on one of the producers and was nervous about moaning and saying the sexy dialogue in front of him. So I turned them down. They held auditions but claimed they couldn't find a better fit. (The pay was low!) After a bit more coercing, I agreed to do it.

It turned out to be a blast. There was something limitless about acting without physical boundaries; just your breath, voice and imagination. And I think I did a pretty good job because the producer I had a crush on asked me out a few days after we finished the project!

When I got back to New York a few years later, I was in The Strand and ran into a friend who I had done summer stock with in the late 90's. He was working as a director for Recorded Books which is one of the original audiobook production studios. He mentioned they were in need of directors. At this point in my life I'd never even heard an audiobook but I had directed several plays and two short films. I went home and spent the weekend downloading and listening to books on Audible. I applied and was hired.

During my years directing at Recorded Books I had the good fortune to listen to and learn from some of the most incredibly talented narrators in the business -Jenny Ikeda, Therese Plummer, Christina Moore, Nicole Poole- to name a few. While working for Recorded Books two seasoned colleagues of mine decided to start their own studio. They were aware of my acting background and asked me to audition as a narrator for them. I started auditioning and booking work as a narrator through Brick Shop Audio Inc.

A little less than a year later I have voiced 13 books. The Color of Heaven makes 14. I work with a coach (an amazing man named Paul Ruben) because I want to keep growing and improving with each project. I've also done a few commercial spots for radio.

2. What do you look for when considering an audition? Are there certain types of stories or characters that attract you, and is that different from what you like to read for pleasure?

I gravitate toward stories that deal with complicated family dynamics, love, loss and hope. I think that is why I enjoyed working on The Color of Heaven so much. It incorporates all of those elements and explores them beautifully.

I also love to read biographies and books on psychology and social science. However, I rarely get hired to narrate those types of books. I guess I don't sound smart enough!

One of the many great things about being a narrator is that you are sometimes forced to explore new genres. I recently narrated the second, third and fourth book of the Molly Fyde science fiction series written by Hugh Howey. I think of myself as someone who doesn't like science fiction but I adored these books. They are full of wonderful characters and incredible story lines.

3.  How much time do you spend reading the book or thinking about the characters before you go into the studio?  Do you rehearse, and if so, what is that process?

I come from a theatre background where you have three weeks to rehearse one part with a director. You have the time to test impulses and ideas and make changes accordingly. With an audiobook you are lucky if you have two weeks before you go into the studio to perform multiple parts of both genders. You are usually dealing with 250 plus pages of material without outside input. I love the rehearsal process so it was an adjustment for me when I started voicing books.

My process varies but generally I read the book once thru and break the text into scenes so I remember the shape and arc of the story. I look to the text for direction and character development. I make notes about character voices and try to model the voice after someone I know or a celebrity. I try to let their essence and cadence influence my imagination resisting the urge to do an impression. I practice bits of dialogue out loud until I feel I have a hold on who they are and what they sound like. I'll look up the pronunciation of words I am unsure of and practice a dialect if there is one. The night before I go into the studio, I reread the section I will be working on the next day so it's fresh in my mind. When I get into the studio my goal is to trust the prep work and just jump into the story.

4. How many pages do you record before taking a break, or having to do a retake?

This one is tricky for me (and my director). I stop a lot! I often want to redo a section or to try a different take. I tend to act on impulse and often need toning down. When I get swept up in a story I have a nasty habit of omitting or changing words which will always result in a retake as it is necessary that audiobooks are word perfect. The upshot is I rarely need or want a break. When I am in the booth I can work for 6 hours at a stretch. I enjoy the flow.

5.  Do you listen to your audiobook narrations after they are finished?

I didn't at first. It is hard for me to listen to myself because I hear all the things I could have done differently or better. However, I do now because it is a good tool to use to improve my work. It is good to know what the final product sounds like for the listener.

Thank you for answering all my questions, Jennifer, and for providing such a moving performance in the narration of my book.

So tell me readers!  Do you enjoy listening to audiobooks?  And if you have any questions, please post them.  I will do my best to answer them.

You can find Julianne online here:


  1. That was fascinating, Julianne and Jennifer! I liked hearing about how you get swept up into the story while recording. Cannot wait to hear how THE COLOR OF HEAVEN sounds with your narration.

  2. I love audiobooks and I think a well narrated book is a gift! Great to hear about it from the reader's pov!

  3. Fascinating interview! I'm just taking auditions for my first audiobook (also through ACX) so your timing is perfect. Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. Hi Rachel - I don't know about you, but I found that I knew in the first 10 seconds if a narrator was "right for the part" or not. That must resemble what it's like for editors who know after the first page if an author's voice is right for them or not. And I will be the first to say that it's subjective. Jennifer, as a narrator, just hit all the right notes as far as I was concerned, and it was an emotional response in the first 10 seconds.

  5. A good audiobook is my second favourite travelling companion, right after my man. I love to drive, and I often drive alone, so I nearly always have one story on the go and another waiting in the wings.

  6. I hear ya, Heidi! The great thing about audiobooks these days is that the technology has come a long way. Not only are they getting less expensive, but the Whispersync feature allows us to switch back and forth between reading an ebook and listening to it. You can switch over from the exact sentence where you left off, then switch back again, so you don't always have to put the book away if you need to go cook supper or drive somewhere. You can keep going with the story, just in a different format. I love this feature!

  7. I remember Julia's workshop in the spring, when she interviewed an actress about the creative process and compared it to her own as a writer. There was some discussion about the opportunity for actors/actresses to do readings for audio books.
    I've cut and pasted your blog for reference. Really interesting process.
    You're always out front and even writing this blog shows us why you've been so successful. You're fearless! You see challenges as opportunities rather than things to be avoided. You set the pace instead of trying to keep up.
    This is a great example.

  8. Fascinating! Thanks for the insider view, Julianne.

  9. it seems like Jennifer is pretty talented.