Audiobook Q&A: Jo Anna Perrin

Adam Boretz -- August 13th, 2012

Our Audiobook Q&A returns with Jo Anna Perrin — audio narrator, actor, writer, photographer, and co-creator of Abbreviated Audio. We caught up with Jo Anna earlier this summer and chatted about everything from flying under the radar and APAC to #JIAM 2012 and dream projects.

You and Johnny Heller run Abbreviated Audio. Can you tell our readers a little about the site and how it came about?

The idea for a blog had been germinating between us for quite a bit of time. We both write professionally, and the urge for a space that was ours, where we could do just that, write, at our leisure and with complete control over content and time, largely appealed to us. We would have complete autonomy, therefore no deadlines and no one to object to content. Slowly, the idea of a  website that encompassed audiobook-ish information as well, such as reviews, interviews, commentary, and of course, humor, became factored in, and that idea intrigued us. On a cold December day, I opened my email to find a hosting site had made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and voila, for better or worse, Abbreviated Audio was born.

In your June Is Audiobook Month video with Robert Fass, you say that you’re going to expand Abbreviated Audio—can you give us a preview of that expansion?

Our goal, which we hope we can fulfill, is to largely widen the look and purview of the original site. We hope to take it beyond its humble beginnings. To that end, we are in talks with a site designer regarding adding more inter-active media, and bells and whistles, such as classes and podcasts to the site.

We’d like to make Abbreviated Audio more encompassing in terms of the audiobook world and create a location where other narrators and/or reviewers feel comfortable contributing. We already are gifted to have Jennifer Conner of Literate Housewife fame, who occasionally guest contributes on our site, and we’d like to extend the invitation to other narrators, reviewers, and bloggers as well.

Also, and this is certainly riskier on our part, we are hoping to dip our toes into audiobook production…A prospect that both terrifies and excites us!

Speaking of June Is Audiobook Month, how was it for you? What were some of your #JIAM2012 highlights?

I always enjoy Audiobook Month! The first weeks are especially hectic since they include obvious highlights such as APAC and the Audies, BEA and the Bloggers track. It is in effect, a social extravaganza, where I get to visit with many people in the short span of about seven to 10 days, that because of disparate locations, I only see during that time.

Getting to visit and photograph the Listeners Lounge this year was a particular delight, as was checking in with Robert Fass’s daily video journal in honor of the month, not to mention being in one myself.

I was especially pleased to see that this year, more than any other previous one, there was remarkable media coverage of many of the events of Audiobook Month, along with commentary on the art form itself, and public recognition of many amazing narrators. The serious nod to audiobooks in the press has been a long-time coming, but unquestionably better late than never.

How did you get your start in audio narration? And what tips would you offer aspiring narrators?

I had an indirect start in audio narration years ago, when a producer friend with whom I did film looping (film voiceover) asked me to fill-in on a children’s event gift bag for a cartoon network event. They were including audio tape recordings of full comic books, and I played Spider-Man’s girlfriend, Mary Jane. I can’t vouch for it being an auspicious beginning, but until that time, honestly, I had no idea there was an audiobook industry, never mind predicting its potential scope.

However, my real beginning was in university press about five years ago. A male narrator friend of mine was doing a series of Sociology and Art books, and one of the books sent was a memoir written by a woman. He told the publisher he felt that it would be better read by a woman and thoughtfully sent the book to me. I did a short audition and he sent it along. I was very lucky.  The producer hired me based on that audition, and offered an initial series of six books. Since that time, I have been proud to record for many university press sources, including Yale, Harvard, London University, as well as the Chicago Museum of Art.

As for tips, I would tell aspiring narrators to get some kind of vocal training, and to not be afraid to listen to the sound of your own voice. If you have access to an audiobook class in your area, take that class. Listen to as many audiobooks as you can get your ears on to see what appeals to you and why; evaluate what works and what doesn’t, and note that for your own recording. Practice in front of a mic so that it becomes second nature; until it’s no longer a tool in your space, but part of your voice.

I studied theatre and voice in college, and by the time I’d done any substantial audiobook recording, I’d had years of various voice-work under my belt. And, I can tell you that while it has helped, narration is a completely different animal. It isn’t something that everyone can do. You might be able to sell a luxury car on air with your voice, but that won’t necessarily make you a good narrator. Narration is an evolution, a progress; the more you do, the better you can become.

In addition to being a narrator, you’re also a photographer—and photograph many audio narrators. What is your background in photography and how do you balance these two careers?

Photography came to me very early, in the sense that photos were part of my family’s ethos. My dad took pictures of everything, and at all times. I got my first camera when I was about 11. Initially, I learned how to photograph by trial and error, but eventually I took a few classes at our local YMCA. When I was an adult, I enrolled in classes at ICP (International Center of Photography) in New York, and that was a great training ground. In fact, if you live in the New York area, I highly recommend checking them out. I eventually did some freelance work with a fashion photographer, and that lead to stylist work with him, and later with a commercial/advertising filmmaker.

Balance has been pretty easy so far, because I focus on what’s on my plate at the time. I narrate around shooting, and vice versa. Part of that availability is the nature of the beast. I don’t have a private photography studio, so I do outdoor shots. You have to come to me knowing that is the look you want, regardless of whether it is a portrait, or a theatrical headshot. You have to factor in Mother Nature, and rain dates.

Do you prefer solo narration or working with other narrators? What do you see as the challenges of both types of narration?

I can’t say I prefer one style over the other per se. Solo narration is most often what I do. The little work I have done with other narrators, for instance, with Johnny Heller, has been quite enjoyable because we work in the same booth, and it is truly collaborative. And, the whole point of acting is to collaborate with someone!

Other times, you might still narrate solo, and your partner in narration crime, is narrating from their studio in Montana, so that has its own challenges. You have the extra test in trying to match tone and response to someone else, who is out of sight and completely absent from your work area.

Do you have a preferred genre of book to narrate? And do you think narrating different genres requires different skills?

I mostly narrate non-fiction, with lots of self-help and motivational books thrown in, and many times the topics can be quite fascinating. I’ve done some fiction, and have enjoyed it thoroughly, and hope to do more in the future.

Different genres, I believe, most definitely require different skill-sets. For instance with motivational non-fiction, there is often the need to measure your tone to equate to the voice of  wisdom and authority. In my case, what I call the Female Voice of God.

There is very little room for vocal experimentation. You have to deliver the subject regardless of the topic with an evenness, and a crispness that delivers the material, while trying to avoid becoming outright pedantic and boring the listener to tears. Frequently, not an easy feat, and I am humble enough to admit, I don’t hit the ball out of the park every time, but I hope I put the ball in play!

In terms of fiction, obviously there is room to play, and that is wonderful, but you need the ability to create characters and follow through on the vision of the book, without turning it into your own personal narration show. It’s always about the book, or at least it should be. Sometimes it flows, sometimes you shine, and sometimes not, but you have to know when to take the back-seat. And that in itself, especially among actors, is a difficult skill-set to acquire!

Who are some of the narrators that you most admire? Who have helped you in your own career?

Wow. That is a tough question, because the list is fairly long. Let’s see, to mention a handful of my favorites, Simon Prebble, Campbell Scott, Bianca Amato, Tavia Gilbert, Carol Monda, the fabulous Davina Porter. I mean really, there are so many I admire…have you got a couple of hours? I’d be remiss if I did not include, Johnny Heller on two fronts, both for his stellar narration and his support. He has helped me tremendously, and I don’t say this out of nepotism, although I am sure it sounds that way. Nevertheless as a friend and director, he has given me countless time and suggestions, and shown me room for improvement. That means he’s sometimes been blunt, when blunt is necessary! And so many, like the golden-throated Mr. Prebble, have imparted their support and wisdom.

What is your proudest professional achievement to date?

In terms of audiobooks in general, especially in my niche of the non-fiction/university market, I pretty much fly under the radar, so accolades generally arrive in personal notes from the publisher or university, and not in the public forum. So I would have to say, in terms of my proudest audio professional “out there” achievement that would have been my first Book List Highly Recommended Review. I was so stunned when it arrived in my email, that I kept checking to make sure they had the right narrator!

Do you have a dream project? An author whose work you would love to record? A book you would love to narrate?

My dream project is in all sane probability nothing that would ever come to me. I would love to record anything written by the late John Fowles. His use of language is cinematic, and transporting. Considering his characters are predominantly male and British, I’m thinking this possibility will have to wait for my next lifetime. However, if anyone would like to do The French Lieutenant’s Woman redux, or The Magus from a female perspective, I am totally available. I’d also love to record anything by Margaret Atwood or Annie Proulx, up to and including, their favorite recipes.

Before you step into the recording booth, what do you do to prepare? Is your preparation process always the same or does it vary from book to book?

The process for me is basically the same, with some differences based on the genre of the book. I read the book and make a list of all words, locations, or concepts that have to be looked-up or researched. That’s a given. If the book is a memoir or something by a known motivational speaker for instance, I next go to the web and YouTube to find any information or footage I can of that person in action. It gives me a better sense of their narration style and personality.

If it’s fiction, I make a list of characters and fill in a description and background for each based on what information is provided in the book. In terms of what a character sounds like, I generally have an image of a person or a totem, that reminds me of the character. The voice either comes from that, or occasionally is created from the gut, and on the fly.

What are the three biggest challenges of audiobook narration?

Just three? I’m tempted to say, getting the job, doing the job, and waiting for the next one! Seriously though, I think one of the biggest challenges, is performance interpretation. Knowing when to have a heavier narration hand, and just go for it, and when to put your ego in check, and let the words shine on their own, and when the answer is somewhere in-between. Occasionally, you have to take a vocal chance, and perhaps end up with an interpretation that is wrong, or bordering on being over the top, and sometimes that is exactly the right take. Other times, just being a conduit, letting the words speak for themselves is the way to go. Knowing when to make what choice, well, that’s the truly difficult part.

Another challenge is in technique when narrating. Dry mouth or the opposite are your enemies! I keep a chapstick, hot tea, menthol lozenges, and often, slices of apple nearby.

Other challenges are often technical, especially in a home studio, and that is where I do most of my work. I’d prefer to just narrate, and not have to worry about technical issues and dealing with recording software. Being free to just narrate, without having to self-direct and engineer, that is a gift.

Do you ever have any interaction with authors prior to recording audiobooks? Do they ever offer tips? And if so, is this helpful?

I rarely interface with authors unless they have actually asked to speak with me. I have, on occasion, emailed an author to find out some information, such as a pronunciation, if it can’t be traced otherwise. However, I only do this if after trying to find out the information from the publisher, the publisher has gotten permission from the author.

My feeling is that authors are curious about having their work brought to audio, but I don’t necessarily feel they want their privacy interrupted. The few times I have had conversations with an author though, have been quite rewarding.

I’ve never been offered tips, but I do find that most authors do have an intense and abiding interest in the process of the narration itself. They are generally a font of questions regarding the work that goes into producing the book.

What are you working on next?

I recently finished a wonderful photo session with the talented Dion Graham for AudioFile’s Golden Voices, and that was quite a lovely experience. I also just completed the third of four business/educational audiobooks for Audible, including Selling Luxury through Deyan Audio, as well as being in the process of another book, Your Creative Brain, for Audible through Tantor Studios. And, as a tie in to the changes I mentioned earlier for Abbreviated Audio, the planning for the site is on-going, as well as hopefully, finding a narration project to work on for our inaugural production. So if anyone out there has any brilliant recommendations, feel free to pass them along…

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