Jo Anna Perrin is a New York–based actor, photographer, and writer. She has appeared in film, television, and on stage, in New York, Los Angeles, and regionally. Jo Anna has narrated numerous audiobooks for major publishers, small independent presses, and American and foreign university publishers. Her narrations have received critical praise from AudioFile magazine, Booklist, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. Jo Anna’s voice-over experience includes commercial, documentary, and animation work. As a portrait and headshot photographer, her photos have appeared in magazines and newspapers, online, and in print, including in AudioFile magazine, the Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Publishers Weekly says, “Her delivery is always confident and clear. Listeners will never be bored.”
How did you become interested in performing audiobooks, and what were your earliest experiences like?
It was a bit of a circuitous route from point A to point B, with a few slants and turns. I started out in commercial and Film/TV voiceover and some animation voiceover as well. My awareness of audiobooks as a voice art was indirect, as it began with comic books, and my first “audiobook” experience was a cartoon series for kids.
A producer friend with whom I did film looping (ADR voiceover) and animation asked me to volunteer my voice for a children’s charity at a cartoon network event. They were including audio tape recordings of full comic books in gift bags. I voiced Spiderman’s girlfriend, Mary Jane, which led to a chance-meeting with a producer, which led to a stint of creating cartoon scripts and programs for children. We produced some of those cartoon characters into audio DVD’s as mini-books for kids. Before those combined events, I hadn’t thought about audiobooks, nor had any idea there was an audiobook industry, never mind predicting its potential future scope. It all combined to put audiobooks on my radar.
However, my true start in audiobooks was in university and scholastic press about 10 years ago. A narrator friend of mine knew a publisher looking for a female voice for a memoir. He told the publisher about me, and I did a short audition and sent it along. I was very lucky. The producer hired me based on that audition and offered an initial series of books. Since that time, I have been proud to record for many university press sources, including Yale, Harvard, and London University. And those scholastic books led me to major publishers, a true gift. The journey was the result of those slants and turns previously mentioned, and a few good friends and chance encounters along the way.
My earliest technical experiences were more a progression of learning how to deliver on an audiobook. How to stay focused and keep my rhythm. Pacing for one thing is something you learn the more books you do. Listening to my early books still makes me cringe. I’d like to think it is a still evolving process.
Besides performing audiobooks, you have appeared on film, stage, and television. How does audiobook performance compare to these other media?
I guess it could be said that a performance, is a performance, is a performance. Period. And, in that sphere of thought there is truth. In audiobooks, regardless of fiction or non-fiction, there is still the truth of the text, and you still must deliver that truth. And, to that end, as in every stage or film/TV piece, there are characters, beats of action, reactions to those actions, text and subtext.
The difference is that in audiobooks, you are every one of those characters, actions, reactions, etc. It’s incumbent on the narrator to wear all those hats, remain true to the author, and hopefully, entertain and/or educate. It’s just you, with just your voice. There are no subtle physical asides, nor other actors there to catch you if you fall.
Stage, film, and television afford a communal experience, and you get an immediate reaction from a live-audience, but there is none of that in audiobooks. I find audiobooks much more difficult because of the working in a vacuum experience, mostly without a director or another ear. However, when it works, and I mean for the narrator, when you are lost in the book, and having an “aha” moment, there’s the payoff, even in the isolation.
You are also a recognized photographer. What are your favorite types of subjects to photograph?
My most favorite subjects are cityscapes and faces. When they are combined, it’s photo nirvana for me. I love doing outdoor portraits, and part of the joy for me is in finding the perfect corner of the city to take the photo. NYC is my native home, and I love just wandering around and discovering new aspects of the city I might have missed the first several hundred times around!
In the past, I would walk around Manhattan carrying my camera and gear. Fifteen plus pounds of equipment wedged into a camera bag that started to feel like forty pounds in short order. Now, I usually just take my iPhone on my personal excursions. I have a special app that applies manual capabilities with the camera lens and allows the luxury of mirroring my pricey SLR without the weight. Of course, I can’t use that on a professional shoot, but for checking out the city, and finding new facets, it can’t be beat. And, I think that divot in my shoulder is beginning to fill in. 😀
You have recorded a number of self- help style books, such as Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Toxic Parents, and Disarming the Narcissist. What draws you to them or them to you?
When I first started out as a narrator, because of my university audiobook background, those were the books that initially came my way. Now, I get a diverse assortment with a bent on history and biography. I guess I’d have to say that those books found me at the time. But, yes, at one stretch I had so many psychology-themed books completed that I started joking that when someone came for a visit, I didn’t say to have a seat, I’d tell them to lie down.
You are married to fellow acclaimed audiobook narrator Johnny Heller. You two jointly performed Alone by Richard Logan and Tere Dupperault Fassbender, as well as Back in the Fight by Joseph Kapacziewski and Charles W. Sasser; Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed by Meghan Daum; You Lost Me There by Roscrans Baldwin; and American Civil Wars by Don H. Doyle. What is it like to record with your husband?
It’s terrific! We get to compare notes and offer direction to each other. As a couple, you develop a sort of shorthand, that can really help creatively.
For You Lost Me There, we had this wild scene where I got to come back as a ghost of the main character’s wife. Truly, you must decide if it’s a ghost or a figment of the character’s imagination. We had one mic, one small booth, one small chair. Well, have you met my husband? The mic fell over, one of us landed on the floor, anything that could go wrong, did. I think for that hour the booth was really haunted. I went over that audio with a fine-toothed comb—I’m pretty sure there were still a few laughs left in there.
You work with your husband to teach seminars on performing audiobooks. How did you get started doing this?
Initially, I think I was more the stage manager and caterer because I prefer staying in the background. But, being more active slowly evolved from some work at SAG-AFTRA events and our yearly New England Narrator Retreat Weekend. Johnny has been teaching seminars in the US and now the UK for quite some time, and he would ask me if I wanted to sit in and give Non-fiction advice/ answer questions, as I do mainly NF recordings. Even though between university and commercial publishers I have a large volume of audiobooks, I felt, well, really, what can I impart to someone else, and is my process translatable? To my surprise, truly, people seemed interested in my perspective, and I received a lot of questions and emails. It gave me the confidence to become more hands on and turned the seminars from terror to enjoyment.
What particular material do you personally cover in these seminars?
Non-fiction is my forte, so that is the focus. However, the same principles that apply to NF also apply to Fiction, and that is what I concentrate on, and try to relate. Regardless of the genre, it is all telling a story. In NF, the narrative itself might be of a real person, as in biography, or it might be a topic that so consumed an author that they chose to dedicate a book to that subject. That author and that topic are the storyline, just as in any fiction story.
What kind of advice do you find most useful for your seminar students?
In terms of NF, I tell students to research whatever they can find regarding the topic or person. Again, just as an actor would do in creating any character, you must use whatever resources are available, especially with NF, and in this case the web is your friend. I tell narrators to read the book, the entire book beforehand. There is an assumption that you can just skate by if it’s not fiction. Even if you are the best cold reader in the world, read the book. Otherwise you will miss nuances, and that will reflect in your narration. Learn good research sites and good research habits. Many publishers no longer provide word lists or maintain research staff on a steady basis. You are on your own, and the more places you can catalogue, such as pronunciations for 2 dead languages, something I recently encountered, the easier your life will be on varied projects.
What characteristics are necessary for a person to have in order to make that person an effective audiobook narrator?
Creativity — Acting training comes to mind at the jump. The best storytellers I have ever met usually have a background in acting. That is not to say that if you don’t, you won’t be a good narrator. There are some stellar narrators out there who came from non-acting backgrounds. However, if you have had any acting training, you have a leg up, as acting is all about telling other people’s stories. I think narration comes more naturally to those folks. And, truthfully, I find that even those who didn’t start out as actors, all have a creative edge in their background. Painters, web designers, graphic artists, all those creative bents meld into telling a story of some kind, and that translates into good storytelling.
Which brings us to classes — Acting classes will give any narrator an edge, as will improv classes, which can hone actions and reactions. There are voice techniques and strengthening exercises that can be learned, and there are classes out there where you can learn those techniques. Always keep learning by studying with those who have narrated successfully before you. Like any other performing art, you never stop your education, and never lose the need to improve.
You also need stamina — This is not just talking into a microphone. It takes endurance to keep your voice in top form, from the first minute you sit in front of the mic, until you wrap the last sentence for the day.
Finally–You need to be good with working alone, for many hours, in your own audio Tardis. When I leave the booth, my dogs frequently greet me like I just stepped in from another world, because, well frequently, I have!
What narrators do you like to listen to for inspiration?
That is a tough question. There are many wonderful narrators out there, and it is difficult to mention one and leave another out.
Having said that, the “off the top of my head list” in no order: I love the natural, intimate style of Cassandra Campbell; the smooth plummy tones of Simon Vance; the intensity of Campbell Scott; the throaty echelons of Imogen Church; the humor and richness of Davina Porter and Simon Prebble; and of course, the quirky and uninhibited style of Johnny Heller. (You know I had to go there 😀)
What are you working on now?
I just finished narrating a wonderful impassioned book by Elizabeth Catte, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, an honest assessment of the people, region, writers and voters of the area; another politically challenging theme on the rise of the white power movement, Bring the War Home by Kathleen Bellew. And presently I am working on Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel by Francine Klagsbrun, an extensive and definitive biography which will be available in late fall.
Learn more about Jo Anne at the following sites: