0Paul Woodson has lived in the U.S. and England, received his BFA in acting at Boston University, and has been acting and singing since the age of thirteen. He has recorded about 150 audiobooks in many different genres—including romance, fiction, history, biography, and mystery—and has performed in over 100 stage productions across the USA and Europe. He enjoys backpacking the Appalachian Trail in his spare time. He is a member of SAG-AFTRA.
How did you become interested in narrating audiobooks?
I’ve actually always loved books, and was a heavy reader from the age of about 3 or 4. I used to love reading stories aloud to others, or even to myself. When I was only about 10 or 11, I first heard the audio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was based on the BBC radio show, and I loved it! That may have been my first experience with listening to what was essentially a recorded book. Over the years, I listened to more and more, and this was still ages ago, before they became such a huge industry. But I would often listen to a Stephen King audiobook (on 20 cassettes, back then) from the local library.
So audiobooks were always something that I enjoyed, but even as I entered my career as an actor, I never really knew how one got into that world. And since I never entered the Voiceover industry, which is a whole other animal, I just assumed it was out of reach.
What did you do to realize that goal?
I’d been an actor most of my life —studied it at University in a four year intensive training program, worked out of New York for years, did a lot of stage, and some film & TV. But it was often a struggle, and I was looking for other avenues of employment. I learned about ACX [Audiobook Creation Exchange] from a SAG Foundation video, and began creating demos, auditioning, and figuring out what I needed to get started.
Besides having narrated over 150 books, you have performed in over 100 stage productions. How does one medium help make the other more effective?
Being a stage actor has definitely been a boon to audiobook narration. In theater you are trained to play a much wider variety of roles than you would in film, and as a narrator, you are playing all the characters as well as the narrative voice, so often publishers will gravitate towards stage trained actors because we’ve got that versatility. We’ve also generally had the voice training that enables us to sustain a long performance without blowing out our vocal cords.
You have narrated various genres, including romance, fiction, history, biography, and mystery. Which is your favorite to bring to life, and do your approaches to different ones vary?
I honestly enjoy them all! Part of why I love audiobook narration is that it never gets boring when you get to keep switching up genres, as I do. However, if I had to nail it down to a couple, I do love the mystery, fantasy, and romance, largely because the characters are often more variegated and juicy, and as an actor I get to have more fun stretching my boundaries, especially as in those genres characters are a bit more open to a wider characterization than in, say, literary fiction (although I love the subtler work in that too).
I’d say my approaches to nonfiction and fiction differ the most, as with nonfiction you must do more research and prep on names and places, and also find your narrative “hook” in a way that in fiction often provides more accessibly in the text.
Out of the many books you have performed, which stand out as especially memorable to you?
Probably the classic horror tale anthology, The Horror on the Links, which is a collection of paranormal detective stories from the 1920s, that I just had a blast with. The lead character is a French detective but described as having not much of an accent, yet he often bursts into French when excited, so I chose a distinctive voice for him that was a very well-educated French that had an erudite, almost British quality to it. And the stories are very fun and clever, often breaking ground in dealing with stories about mummies, the undead, and other supernatural elements before they were well-used movie tropes.
You have become Tantor Audio’s go-to man for books related to World War II, including Churchill, Roosevelt, & Company by Lewis E. Lehrman; Ghost Army of World War II by Jack Kneece; In Deadly Combat: A German Soldier’s Memoir of the Eastern Front by Gottlob Herbert Bidermann; Stalingrad by David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House; The Men Who Killed the Luftwaffe by Jay A. Stout; Tigers in the Mud by Otto Carius; andWe Will Not Go to Tuapse by Fernand Kaisergruber. What makes you especially qualified for books on this war? What is something new you have learned about the war from the books you have performed?
Thanks! At this latest APAC (Audio Publishers AssocIation Conference), James Foster and I were just conferring about the fact that we currently seem to be Tantor‘s lords of WWII history. I think because we are both well versed in multiple languages, especially German and French, we get a lot of those works, since so much of the European theater of war focused on Germany, France, and Russia. I’ve always been a history buff too, so WWII is an especially fascinating time to read about. There are so many stories: horror and suffering, to be sure, but also frequent heroism and light amid the darkness. Still, it can take a toll on the soul after so much darkness.
I have learned more about the German army experience, since I’ve read quite a few from their soldiers’ POV, and how truly brutal the Eastern Front was, which in The USA and UK often gets omitted from our history lessons.
How do you prepare to record a book? Do you have any tricks for making the book easier to perform?
Well, reading the book is the key to giving a great read, of course. Though sometimes with a tight deadline, that’s easier said than done. Sometimes, a skim and search will have to suffice. That’s where you search a document for anything referring to a character’s voice, accent, origins, tone, etc. and make note of any unfamiliar proper names.
One trick I use that isn’t particularly novel is that I’ll often picture film actors in certain roles and voice them with that persona in my head, even though I won’t attempt any kind of impersonation. Listeners will never know that’s what I was doing, but it might help me get into the right mindset if I picture, say, one character as Daniel Radcliffe and his best friend as Keanu Reeves, for example.
What advice did you find most helpful when you were starting out that you like to share with new narrators now?
The performance is the key. You should have good equipment, sure, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that a $1500 microphone will fix problems that might be in your reading, or breathing, techniques.
Do you think an audiobook narrator needs to enjoy the book she or he is performing? Could you make a book you truly hated seem likeable to an audience?
Well, some would say I’ve already done it on a couple of books. I try to give my best performance on every narration, regardless of the quality of the material. Obviously great material is easier to give a great read, but it’s possible for a narrator to elevate mediocre material with a fantastic performance. That said, also possible for a narrator to ruin great material. So I don’t necessarily need to enjoy the book for myself, but I do need to find a way to make it compelling for myself, and by extension, that will make it interesting for the listener.
What other narrators have most inspired you in your own performances?
Craig Wasson with his read of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, really sets the bar high. That audiobook is a vital lesson in demonstrating that it’s OK to really act through your performance. Will Patton is an amazing narrator from whom I’ve learned a few things, Tavis Gilbert, Scott Brick, Simon Vance, Julia Whelan are all great.