Amie and Meg: We’re both huge audiobook fans, so when we found out These Broken Stars was going to be recorded, we were simultaneously ecstatic, and slightly terrified. We were overjoyed at the idea of having our story available to listen to—and of course worried about whether the narrators would do it justice! If only we’d known how amazing it was going to be. When we heard the first recording sample, no joke, we both teared up. The team at Listening Library completely nailed it. When Johnathan McClain (who narrates Tarver) reached out to introduce himself, he basically got tackled to the ground with overenthusiastic hugs. He was probably glad he could hide behind email!
We pinned down Johnathan to ask him a few questions about bringing These Broken Stars to life!
Amie and Meg: Thanks for answering our questions, Johnathan! Tell us: how do you get into character when you’re going to be spending such a long time in one book? How did you work out how you were going to read Tarver?
Johnathan: The way I prepare to narrate a book really depends on the book. In the case of These Broken Stars I was given a gift in the sense that the book is written in first person from the POVs of the two central characters. This means that rather than trying to find the tone of the book through a disembodied third person narrative voice and then also attempting to generate distinct voices for all the various characters in the novel on top of that, I had the luxury of simply finding Tarver’s voice and then telling the story through him – which was further reinforced by the fact that I only narrated Tarver’s chapters and Cynthia Holloway narrated Lilac’s. So the way I specifically prepared to read this book was to read it to myself first and let the whole of the story wash over me, and then pick it back up again and see how it felt coming out of my mouth. I made sure I was satisfied with that before we began recording. I didn’t put a lot of extra thought into “how” Tarver should sound. Which is a credit to the writing. He’s so clearly drawn and so present on the page that I tried to just get out of the way and let him speak through me. I know that can sound very “woo woo,” but I actually just mean that when I have well written material, my job is to get out of my head and let the story flow. It’s a testament to how well constructed this story is that I never once fell into the trap of overthinking things and was able to just let the narration spill out.
Meg and Amie: You absolutely nailed it! Listening Library hired three narrators to work on TBS, and we heard you got to record live in the booth with Sarge Anton, your interrogator! What was that like?
Johnathan: I was told by Janet Stark and Dan Musselman, the great producers at Listening Library, that the specific booth I recorded in had actually been built back in the day for the purpose of having multiple readers reading at once. And then I was told that this was perhaps only the third time that had ever happened. So we tried to give them their money’s worth! I had never met Sarge before the day he walked into the booth to record with me, but the guy was great. Those interrogation scenes really are written like scenes in a movie, or a play (or in this case a radio play) and I’m so glad we did them live. The idea of trying to say my half of the scenes “wild” and have someone else do the same and then piece them together just wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. It felt just like we were two actors playing some scenes together. Because we were. I’ve narrated several audiobooks at this point and the experience of acting with another reader – in real time – playing back and forth, is one of the best times I’ve had narrating. I feel like they really add to the tension of the whole book and add terrific texture. I’m excited for listeners to hear what we came up with.
Amie and Meg: We loved it! And Sarge sounds totally scary. Without spoiling our readers, can you give us a hint about one part you particularly liked reading?
Johnathan: I don’t know how I could possibly talk about what parts I enjoyed especially without giving away important details. I fear I would get too hyped up and spill all the goods. But I can say this: There were moments when I was reading that I became so moved by the story that I actually began weeping. Probably twice that happened. I won’t say where or what caused the waterworks to start flowing, but I really got wrapped up and became emotional. The cool thing is that Kyle, my director in the other booth, didn’t stop me. And I didn’t stop myself. So I just muscled through that raw emotion on the way to continuing ahead with reading. I think that’s pretty cool and I’ll be interested to see if listeners can detect the places where that happened. If a listener can feel what I was feeling … well … that’ll be awesome.
Meg and Amie: That’s incredibly cool. It’s so interesting to hear what’s behind the scenes! What’s something most people don’t know about audiobook narrating? Can you sneak us a trick of the trade?
Johnathan: Audiobook narration is a lot of work in its way, but it’s also an absolute treat. It really is. As an actor whose background and first love is the theatre (as is true of many narrators), narrating an audiobook has that same gratifying feeling of doing a play. In film and TV, you basically run wind sprints. You wait, someone calls action, you run, and then you stop. Doing a play is like running a marathon. You start running and stop when the race is done. Audiobook narration is like running an ultra marathon. You start in Death Valley and finish several days later in like, The Yukon or something. It’s exhausting, but it’s deeply rewarding. Depending on the length of a book you can be in a sound booth recording for days or weeks. It’s also physically taxing because the mics are so sensitive they pick up every little sound, so you have to hold yourself in more or less a locked position for hours on end. Breath control is also crucial (again, where theatre training is likely helpful). Nobody’s ever going to be able to go a whole day without stopping – in fact you usually have hiccups once or twice a page that you have to go back and do over – but sometimes you get into a magical flow where you’re just unconsciously telling the story and it’s moving along unfettered. The better the writing, the easier that becomes of course. The average is probably 4 usable, recorded hours for say a 6 hour session. So if a day in the booth produces 4 hours, you’re recording a book anywhere from 2 to 5 to sometimes 6 or 7 days depending on how long it is.
But that’s all technical stuff. At the end of the day I feel like the true measure of how successful an audiobook recording has gone is if you’d want to listen to it yourself. It’s about the listener. When someone buys a book you’ve narrated they’re basically trusting that you will hold their hand on this journey of 10, 15, 20 hours and guide them through the wilderness. You make that promise to them when you sit behind the mic and say “Chapter One.” Most of the narrators I know take that responsibility seriously. You realize you’re never going to please everyone; sometimes a listener won’t respond to your cadence or tone, or will have a different idea in their head for how something should sound, but if you’re taking the job to heart, you put your ego aside and just try to service the story. At its best, listening to an audiobook should take you back to that sense of wonder you had when you were a kid and you went to story time. And at the least, it should give you something more entertaining to listen to on your cross country trip than radio static (or flipping through roughly 68 thousand satellite radio channels). I’d like to think These Broken Stars offers both…
Amie and Meg: Thank you SO much for sharing all this! We can’t wait for people to hear the amazing job you did.
About Johnathan: Johnathan was born in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He began his professional acting career at the age of 21 when he moved to Chicago where he wrote and began performing his critically acclaimed one-man show, LIKE IT IS. The show subsequently moved to New York where he spent the next several years building an extensive theatre resumé. His television and film credits include appearances on many popular TV series such as 24, MEDIUM, WITHOUT A TRACE, and CSI, as well as being a series regular on several shows – most notably and recently as the lead of TV Land’s second original comedy series, RETIRED AT 35, on which he appeared alongside acting greats George Segal and Jessica Walter, who played his parents. Additionally, Johnathan had a brief stint in radio as a contributor to the Public Radio International series “Fair Game.” He currently divides his time between Los Angeles and New York with his wife, Laura.
Bio: Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner are longtime friends and sometime flatmates who have traveled the world (but not yet the galaxy), covering every continent between them. They are sure outer space is only a matter of time. Meagan, who is also the author of the Skylark trilogy, currently lives in Asheville, NC, while Amie lives in Melbourne, Australia. Although they currently live apart, they are united by their love of space opera, road trips, and second breakfasts.
World-Building for the FutureTuesday, 11/12 Love is Not a Triangle
Author InterviewWednesday, 11/13 The Perpetual Page-Turner
Using Technology to Write with a PartnerThursday, 11/14 Good Books and Good Wine
Audiobook Sample + Narrator Interview
Friday, 11/15 The Starry-Eyed Revue
Character Interview with Tarver
Amie & Meg’s Favorite Things
Establishing Characters with Role-Playing
Friday, 11/22 Nawanda Files