Johnny Peppers is a narrator and producer of audiobooks. He has about 40 titles on his resume in multiple genres. When Johnny isn’t prepping, recording, or editing, he teaches Business Statistics and Entrepreneurship at Nashville State Community College and Athens State University. Johnny lives in Franklin, Tennessee with his wife and five recently adopted foster children.
How did you get started narrating audiobooks?
I was performing in a community theater production of It’s a Wonderful Life at my local theater in the fall of 2012 when a fellow actor started talking about ACX, the online audiobook exchange where rights holders of published works connect with would-be narrators and producers of audio versions of the books. I was immediately intrigued. With my past of reading textbooks for students and volunteering for the Reading for the Blind program locally, I immediately began doing research into this new form of performing. I got lucky and received my first contract in January 2013 after only 5 auditions or so.
You have done a lot of work for the Reading for the Blind program. I know from personal experience before Audible existed that this program is amazing! It also is available to people with physical or learning disabilities who have trouble reading for themselves, and these books helped me cope with my non-stop migraine for years, a real gift from God!
I LOVED my work with the library reading for the blind. A few mornings a week I would go into the public library downtown and read the newspaper for a couple hours before work. It was nice to be able to provide that service to those in need of it. I can’t imagine how cut off from the world some blind persons may feel (at least I would feel that way), and my hope was that staying in touch with the goings on in the local community and beyond with hearing the stories in the newspaper would alleviate some of that isolation for them. I would also read magazines on tape for folks to check out from the library when I had extra time to volunteer.
Now that I’m done gushing, tell me how you got started with this program and what it means to you.
I answered an ad in the paper one day from the program coordinator looking for readers in the mornings. I went in, read a few stories for them, and they put me to work the next day reading the paper live over a special radio frequency that specific radios for the blind could pick up.
You are reportedly known for making your readings so interesting that you made even the obituaries exciting. What is the trick to doing that?
It isn’t a trick as much as being interested in the material you are reading. If you are interested, the listener can feel that in your voice. There is nothing harder to listen to that someone reading who is obviously uninterested in the material. I will say it was hard to read obituaries and do it in a way that was respectful for the deceased and their families and stay interesting.
You have narrated just about all the genres out there. What is your favorite to read and how does your approach to each genre differ?
My favorite genre is mysteries. Especially one with an unlikely hero. The pace of those stories change so quickly throughout the text that it makes for very interesting reading. Many genres change pace throughout of course, but usually the pace changes per chapter rather than within chapters. Mysteries change on a dime (the good ones do, anyway), which adds to the suspense of the story.
Each genre is different in my approach. Mysteries require a pace that doesn’t give away the upcoming action, yet keeps the listener ready at any time for new information to appear. Thrillers are fun because the bad guy (or girl) is usually introduced early in the book, but isn’t revealed until the later chapters. When you are reading a book like this, hiding the villain is easier – just don’t use words that give anything away about the demographics of the character. Hiding the villain in plain sight is harder in an audiobook format – you can give away the villain too soon if you aren’t careful, which could ruin the story for the listener. Romance novels are the toughest to narrate in my opinion. The emotions are raw and deep, and conveying those emotions are difficult through voice. Sometimes I have to record dialogue two or three times before I am satisfied with how the characters are portraying their emotions as the book progresses, while maintaining true to the characterizations brought forth in the author’s words.
What do you do to prepare to narrate a book before you start recording?
It depends on the book. Some books I read start to finish prior to recording – charting characters, personalities, emotions, and story arcs. If the author doesn’t want different voices for the characters (a straight read), I read one chapter at a time to get the feel of how the story moves so that I can focus on the pace of the story and convey the emotions of the characters as the stakes rise and fall throughout.
How do you decide on the voices to use in your narration, and how do you keep them straight as you read?
The voices come from people I know who have similar characteristics as the characters in the books. For example, there is one voice that I save for the old gravelly cynical character, and I take that directly from a man I knew growing up that I used to imitate. I keep a separate audio file with dialogue from each character so that I can listen and re-familiarize with the tone, pitch, pacing, and cadence of the voice each time that character is re-introduced to the story.
You have a fascinating life. You were a foster parent to five children and eventually adopted them. Tell us about that.
This is a story with a great ending (that’s really the beginning). In June 2015, my wife and I were approved to be foster parents for 1 or 2 children (it’s based on the size of the home and the number of bedrooms available). In August 2015, we received a call at 8pm asking us to foster 5 children of a sibling group, all of them 5 years old and younger (5, 3, 2, 14 months, 7 weeks). We were told that they had nowhere else to go (meaning they couldn’t find a home that could accommodate all of the children), and it was only for the weekend. The children were living in the Department of Children’s Services offices during the day and taken to an emergency home to sleep. We agreed, despite not being approved for more than 2 children, since it was only from Thursday night to Monday morning (or so we thought). 16 months later, these 5 children were in full custody of the state and available for adoption. We decided to add on to the house and adopt them all. They are now 7, 5, 4, 3 and 2 years old, and doing great. It is, by far, the most rewarding thing I have ever done. There is nothing that pulls at your heart more than seeing a child in distress feel safe again. There are so many children out there who need stability and safety in their lives, and more foster parents are needed desperately. We are now vocal advocates for foster parenting, especially after seeing what a safe and loving environment can do for a child’s health, attitude, and happiness.
Do you think a person needs to love reading in order for him or her to be an effective audiobook narrator?
They need to love storytelling first and foremost. If you love reading to your kids or just telling a story around a group of friends, that is the key. Most everyone can read. Many people love to read aloud. But telling a story in a way that captivates the listener is the art of audiobooks. The pacing, inflection, timbre, and consistency of the voice is what draws the listener in and keeps them listening. The voice doesn’t have to be deep or resonant to be captivating to the listener. It’s how the story is told that makes a good narrator.
What is your favorite part about performing audiobooks?
I would say my favorite part is being able to perform characters that I would not likely get the chance to in another medium. I will never be able to perform as a woman, a child, a psychopath, or a person with an English accent. My body type and physical mannerisms typecast me in plays as Mr. BLANK. I am always the CEO, the father, the businessman, the cab driver. This medium of performance allows me to just use my voice to portray any character the author has devised in their heads. There is nothing more satisfying to me than when an author tells me that my voice portrayal matches exactly the voice they had in their minds when writing the character. That tells me two things: one, that the author has done a great job in setting up the characteristics of the character and two, that I have experienced someone in my life that matches those characteristics and portrayed them well. That doesn’t happen often because we all have different experiences, but when it does, it’s magical.