Bringing Books to Life: An Interview with Audiobook Narrator Johnathan McClain

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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!

Blog Tour 1a

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.

BioAmie 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.

Visit the These Broken Stars website for the latest news on the series and follow the authors on Twitter at @AmieKaufman and @MeaganSpooner. You may also sign up for their newsletter as well! These Broken Stars will be available in North America on December 10, 2013.
These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner | Good Books And Good Wine
Tour Schedule:
Monday, 11/11            The Midnight Garden
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    

Monday, 11/18             Cuddlebuggery
Author Interview
Tuesday, 11/19            Books With Bite
Amie & Meg’s Favorite Things
Wednesday, 11/20       Xpresso Reads
Establishing Characters with Role-Playing
Thursday, 11/21           Great Imaginations
Co-Authoring Books

Friday, 11/22                Nawanda Files

Lilac’s Gorgeous Dress: A Look at These Broken Stars’ Cover Art

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April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.
About April (Books&Wine)

April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.


  1. Johnathan does a perfect Tarver! So bored and detached and cynical.

  2. I am extremely picky about audio books (I have like five that I would listen to again) but this one sounds great! It was so interesting to read the behind-the-scenes part, too. I might have to go easier on people who ‘mispronounce’ things in future listenings, :D.

  3. How interesting! I don’t think I’ve ever seen an interview with an audiobook reader before! It’s such an interesting perspective on the book – now I want to get the book on audio!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  4. Great audiobook feature! I love reading interviews with narrators and hearing about the recording process. Now I’m looking forward to checking out the audio of These Broken Stars, though the book cover is so pretty! I really like Johnathan’s voice in the sample, and that’s cool that Cynthia Holloway is a co-narrator- she is awesome.

  5. This is terrible, but I love that Johnathan started crying while he was recording the book! It’s such a great indication of how great this story is, as well as a perfect snapshot of how immersive the experience of recording an audiobook can be. I really enjoyed this interview, as I’ve never thought before about how physically taxing audio performances can be. I won’t be able to forget that the next time I listen to an audiobook for sure.

    Thanks for joining the tour, April!

  6. I imagine narrating an audio book would be a LOT of work. What a wonderful insight to the process. I’ve actually never listened to one! I plan to one of these days. 🙂

  7. Wow! I have been so excited for this book, and now after hearing an audiobook sample, I think I might just have to get the audiobook instead. Love it!

  8. Oh my god I need this audiobook! I haven’t really gotten into audiobooks because I love the feel of a book in my hands and another reason is money! Some audiobooks are just too expensive for me *cries*

  9. I have never listened to an audio book, so I didn’t realize there would be background sounds, just basically someone narrating. I think audio books are great for people who don’t have the time to sit down and read the bok, but for me it wouldn’t be the same without the actually book in my hand.

  10. I think it is so wonderful that even the narrator was moved to tears. I haven’t ever listened to an audiobook because I just take things in better when I’m reading. I actually have trouble understanding when I’m just listening (which is why college lectures were sometimes pretty challenging to get through).

    Great post and interview!

  11. This is a really interesting look at what goes into the voice behind an audiobook, fascinating

  12. I think the audio sample was fine… but I generally prefer to read the book myself. The only audiobook I’ve ever tried was Nightshade by Andrea Cremer, but I didn’t finish it. It was good and the voice was nice to listen to, but it just wasn’t for me.

  13. GREATNESS to the third power! Last book i listed to on audio had to have been Inkheart.

  14. I haven’t had much experience with audio books, but I love that its available for those times like distance driving. I enjoyed learning the behind the scenes to audio book making. Thanks!

  15. I like the opening music. Very pretty.* I have actually never listened to an audiobook before. I don’t know if I would even like it, but this sample was pretty good.

  16. Very interesting to hear about the audio book process. I loved the sample, and now I’m debating getting the audio format. I have a long commute on the subway so I love listening to audiobooks 🙂

  17. I always have to give the people who make the audiobooks props. I can barely read to my students for 30minute period, let alone an entire novel. I know they take breaks and such, but still! It has to be incredibly demanding to take on such a task.

    However, as much as I give them props, I can’t do audiobooks. I’ve listened to four different ones over the course of the last few years and I couldn’t get into the story. Some of the I DNFed, other I listened to all the way through, but didn’t really get into the story. Maybe it’s just me? Maybe I haven’t found the right audio book?

  18. I love listening to audiobooks from time to time. It’s amazing to see the process it takes to make one.

  19. I’m swooning. This is definitely one of those books I’d want on audiobook! I love listening to books on car rides, rather than the radio.

  20. This series looks like it will be amazing!

  21. I enjoyed the audiobook sample. The only audiobook I’ve listened to was Eve by Anna Carey. And I’m glad that I chose that one to be the first audiobook I’ve ever listened to. The series sounds great! I can’t wait for this to be released.

  22. I usually don’t do audiobooks b/c I don’t have the patients haha, but from the sample, it sounds pretty good! Thanks for sharing the clip and the interview!

  23. Morgan Faufaw says

    The only audiobook that I have sampled was Shadows by Jennifer Armentrout but usually I don’t I prefer holding a book and reading! I have been wanting to read this book, it looks truly amazing! It has been on my to read list on Goodreads for awhile. Thank you for the amazing giveaway!!!

  24. I love the audio sample of Jonathan reading Tarver’s parts. I got squeal-y when I listened to it.

    I don’t really listen to audiobooks because I never have time.

  25. Bonnie Hilligoss says

    I listened to a short Stephen King years ago, but I would rather hold a book or kindle. Audiobooks tend to make me drift off and I need to rewind a lot. The sample was good, but I can read faster.

  26. I really enjoyed that sample. I’ve never listened to a book on tape, well, not kid books 🙂 I remember those in elementary school but I’ve never listened to any other audio books. I never thought I would like hearing the story in a voice besides the one in my head but I’ve gotta say that I really enjoyed that. Thanks for opening up my eyes 🙂

  27. You know, I’m not typically a fan of audiobooks, but I really like this sample. Johnathan McClain’s speech feels awesome for that character. The article reads as though there are two narrators for the story, one for the guy and one for the girl. That’s really awesome! Maybe they aren’t as much like listening to classmates read out loud in school as I thought.

  28. Audio books aren’t usually my thing :p I’ve been on a long roadtrip before and my friend hadn’t read Harry Potter before. Clearly this had to be fixed, so we listened to the audiobook and it was quite amazing to hear all of the different voices.

  29. I didn’t consider myself an audiobook person until earlier this year. I have a one-hour drive to work, which makes for a two-hour round trip (or longer, depending on traffic and errands and the like), and I just got tired of listening to the same 20 songs on the radio. Now, I almost always have an audiobook running in the car, but I’ve found that it needs to be a book I’ve already read so that if I need to turn it down or concentrate on the road for a minute instead of the words, I won’t miss new material. Luckily, I just read These Broken Stars so when the audio version arrives at the library, I can just dive in, because that was a great sample. Can’t wait to hear the whole thing!

  30. Narrator’s voice for the audio is spot on, perfect tone for the book.

  31. I know it is about time that I change this but I have yet to listen to an audiobook. For shame, I know. Maybe this would be just the book for my first foray into the audio world!


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