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Reading Aloud: Interview with John Lee, Audiobook Narrator

James Sherman, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
John Lee and the cover of four of the audiobooks he has narrated

John Lee has acted in productions at theatres around the country and is about to embark on the role of Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night for Parson’s Nose Theatre in Pasadena. He has recorded hundreds of audiobooks including the works of Orhan Pamuk, Ken Follett and James Joyce’s Ulysses. His plays have been produced in Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York and he has produced, written and performed in the feature films Breathing Hard and Forfeit.

How did you get started in this business of reading for cash? Did you have a mentor?

I was trying to get TV and movie and commercial work when I was recommended for audition to the man who ran Books On Tape (as it then was called). I got a book from him, and slowly built from there.

How do you begin to prepare for an audiobook reading? Do you ever talk to authors?

Tone is important. I read at first for tone - is it dramatic, is it comic, is it both of those? Tone dictates pace. I need to know if there are specific accents. How old are the characters? Obviously gender matters a lot. I have to make sure I know the pronunciations of odd or foreign words. My communication with authors is usually for Fantasy and Sci-Fi titles where the names of places and people are invented. I need to know how those are pronounced. Sometimes historical books need some elucidation.

Do you work from home, or do you go to a studio?

I have a home studio but some publishers like to have their own engineer and a director.

How many hours a day do you read when you’re on a book?

Five or six hours a day. My voice doesn’t hold up much beyond that.

What are some things you do to protect your voice?

Quit for the day when I feel my voice wearing out. Try not to yell at the kid or the dogs. Keep the growling characters to a minimum.

Understanding that you are an accomplished actor, what is your process for creating the voice for characters? Do you have a cast of characters/voices? How do you match voices to characters? What are some of the favorite characters that you’ve read?

It’s often a case of making sure there is a contrast within a scene. I find some quirk or some pitch for one of the characters in a scene if there isn’t a great deal of age difference or regional accent difference. Often the voice is dictated by the author. A given character’s voice will be described as high or deep or fluting. Sometimes there are historical characters whose voices we know and I have to make at least a nod in the direction of reality. I am fortunate in having a facility for accents so I tend to mix those in when no specific regional voice is dictated by the author. I admit to making my evil characters speak like Basil Rathbone when I can. A director I worked with at the beginning of my career in audiobooks still remembers a Jamaican prostitute in a Napoleonic naval novel whom she felt I captured to a T. There’s a chapter in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red narrated by a dog. I’m very proud of that.

As well you should be—that was a great dog. Even though you do both well: What’s more fun, description or dialog?

Description is easier because there are no voices to remember but a character sometimes inspires a great voice and I just want to do the whole book like that. The great describers of landscape are wonderful to do: Conrad, Hardy.

Do certain books lead you to prepare differently for third-person narration?

There are some books that cannot be prepared for such as Joyce’s Ulysses or Lowry’s Under The Volcano. They simply overwhelm you no matter how much you think you have prepared. Third person narration is easier because I have no fear that I am getting the voice wrong in the way I might for first-person narration.

For your audiobook reading: You read a lot of nonfiction. Which do you enjoy performing more, nonfiction or fiction? Which is more difficult? What are some differences between the two, other than character and voices?

In my so-called real life I read non-fiction mostly so I get my fiction fix in my professional life. I probably like non-fiction more simply because I know I will know more at the end of the book than I did at the beginning. However, there is nothing like a great piece of fiction to satisfy the soul. Fiction is harder because I am trying to be true to the tone and intent of the author. From a narrator’s point of view, non-fiction flows more easily because my brain does not have to switch from character to character or from narration to dialogue. There is often a logic to non-fiction that I have to hold in my head in a way I don’t have to in fiction.

Of fiction, you read the Patrick O’Brian and Dewey Lambdin novels: did you ask to read those? How did you become the siren of nautical fiction? And of Dickens?

Casting is sometimes a matter of gender - for instance, the narration is first person and he is male. Usually an English actor is asked to do a book with majority English voiced characters. I gained a reputation early on for a facility with technical words and Napoleonic sailing novels are filled with nautical terms that are pronounced in the oddest ways. I must have been cast for those by reputation because I did not request them and when the first volume of each went well I was asked to do others. Because Dickens is in the public domain I have a feeling publishers record them because they know they will sell if the narrator is either good or well known (or both). The one exception to the gender rule was a very quirky and lovely novel titled Ruby’s Spoon. It’s set in England’s Black Country (the area around Birmingham where the Industrial Revolution started), famous now mostly for Led Zeppelin and Julie Walters - and James Whale, director of Frankenstein. A producer called me asking if I knew any young women who could do a Black Country accent, which is almost incomprehensible even to people, such as myself, from Birmingham. I told him there are almost no people outside of the Black Country itself who can do the accent, other than me. I ended up narrating it and really enjoyed it.

Do you think being British is an advantage for reading?

It is, though it can be limiting. Obviously a producer is going to hire an American actor for an American book. I have benefited enormously from being Anglo-Irish for the most part.

Do you sing?

Not according to my wife and child.

Accents—you’re an Anglo-Irish Scouse? You have a gift—in Pompeii, you used a range of accents, I think one of the slaves had a Scots accent—what accents are most fun for you?

Anglo Irish Brummie (from Birmingham). I love doing Scottish, I have no idea why. Whenever there are characters whose accent is not stated, I make sure at least one of them has a Birmingham accent. I also love a Geordie (Newcastle) accent. Irish accents come easily and there are usually one or two of those about.

I listen to some books at faster speed than others. How do you decide on pacing? Is there an audiobook standard about how fast to read?

Most directors like a pace slightly slower than my natural speed. This is very hard to maintain but they are right. English people also naturally speak more quickly than Americans. It’s difficult if you started out in theatre where speed is almost always the answer to any problems a play encounters. Talking faster on stage almost always improves things. Not so with audiobooks. Even after all these years pace is still my biggest problem. The lighter the tone of a book the quicker the pace, usually. If a non-fiction book has complex theory or a fiction book has complicated storylines the pace has to be very deliberate. In those books information is everything and the listener has to understand the complexities.

What are some of the enjoyable audiobooks that you have read?

In no way does my answer imply that books I don’t mention are any less worthy of anyone’s time but, obviously, we all have our tastes. I loved Follett’s Pillars Of The Earth. Joyce’s Ulysses. Lowry’s Under The Volcano. Anything by Orhan Pamuk. Anything by Ben Macintyre. The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein.

Are some books easier to read aloud, meaning the language is ... fluid, enjoyable, trips off the tongue? Which authors? And what are some more difficult ones to read?

Oddly, Joyce’s Ulysses is wonderful to read aloud. I’ve never worked harder narrating a book but it was a great experience. Dickens flows but some of his sentences are so long it can be hard to modulate my breathing. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde (nothing to do with that OTHER book) was great fun.

When you read one that was difficult going for any reason, how did you deal with it?

I’ve had a lot of truly awful jobs. Narrating a book I did not care for much is not that bad. It beats the night shift at a razor blade factory (it was Schick razor blades and I was fired). I am always conscious of the fact that a writer has given his or her life to the book I am narrating no matter my opinion of it and each book is as deserving of my best work as any other.

Are there other narrators that you like or model yourself after? Who is your favorite audiobook narrator? I’m listening to your version of My Name is Red, in which one of the characters expresses “What was venerated as style was nothing more than an imperfection or flaw”—What flaws or aspects of style do you appreciate in other readers?

We’re in very tricky territory now. I have to pass on this one in case I offend someone. It’s not who you praise that gets you into trouble, it’s who you don’t. Generally I take what I can from others’ characterizations and voices, I am sometimes envious of their facility moving between characters.

What are your favorite books? Genres?

History, almost any period. I love the little-known corners of history - Ben Macintyre is wonderful at finding the deeply personal in the bigger picture. Tony Judt’s Postwar, Paul Johnson’s Birth Of The Modern. Though I do not have a scientifically inclined brain I like Richard Dawkins and the other popularizers of science. I look for books that combine History and Economics.

Your first favorite book? Did you have a book that you reread in your youth? Do you have some books you’d like to “perform”?

There were series in England written for children by Enid Blyton and W.E. Johns. Johns is politically incorrect but when you’re a kid that means nothing. I read The Lord Of The Rings a couple of times when I was a bit older. I have no idea if it has been done already but I’d love to do Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. James Joyce’s Dubliners.

In the Los Angeles Public Library catalog, there are over 180 listings for you. What were the longest / most difficult? Most difficult to read AND prepare for? My money’s on Ulysses although you won an award (and likely should have been awarded a Purple Heart) for the lengthy The Three Musketeers.

Ulysses was very hard but I loved it. The Dumas books I’ve done have been a delight, they just flow beautifully - thank you whoever did the translations. The Count Of Monte Cristo is the longest I’ve done, I think. I did a few James Clavell books a long time ago and they were very long. Someone decided that Immanuel Kant should be recorded and that nearly killed me though I loved doing Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

You’ve acted in films and on TV, like AEon Flux and Spawn. You’ve written and produced two films: Forfeit and Breathing Hard, you were just in a Moliere play and have never stopped acting. What are your preferred professional activities, and how do they support each other (if they do)?

Every play I do informs my playwriting. Since I am mostly doing classical work of late I feel entirely inadequate. Writing film and TV scripts I have no sense of inferiority to the likes of Moliere but I do stand (sit?) in awe of Vince Gilligan and PT Anderson and Jane Campion. I love being on stage, that combination of fear and control.

What advice would you give to folks just getting started in audiobook narration?

Listen, read. Always be polite to directors and engineers. Thank anyone who works for a publisher and thank your librarians. I once won the Audie for Solo Male Narration and my speech consisted of showing the audience my two library cards - one from my hometown and my Los Angeles Public Library card - and telling everyone to thank their public librarians. Join SAG AFTRA as soon as you can. Avoid joining Actors’ Equity as long as you can. I could carve a better union out of a banana.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

If my voice holds out, sitting in a tiny room talking into a microphone while honing my Emmy, Tony, Grammy and Oscar acceptance speeches.