Jennifer Jill Araya has been listening to audiobooks since she was a young child, and the fact that she now gets to narrate audiobooks for a living is a dream come true. Jennifer’s training as an opera singer and orchestral cellist lend a musicality and depth of understanding to her narration that help bring her authors’ stories to life. She loves nothing more than giving life and breath to the printed word. When she’s not narrating, Jennifer can be found hiking, biking, running, or generally exploring her home city of Cincinnati with her husband Arturo (aka “Partner in Crime”) and their two children.
How did you become interested in performing audiobooks?
To start with, I have been an avid audiobook listener for as long as I can remember. I was heavily involved with theater and music throughout my childhood, and I often remember wondering how someone would get a job as cool as narrating audiobooks. But I never seemed to be able to figure out a realistic path for getting there, so I pursued voice and cello music performance in college.
In the early 2000s, I worked for a web design company. As part of that job, I recorded over 60 hours of voiceover for their educational material, both for internal employee training and for customer-facing product education and marketing. I LOVED the work and wanted to do more. My childhood dream of doing voiceover/narration seemed to be within reach! I did some research into how to make voiceover a career, primarily using the resources available at the public library. But unfortunately, at that time, ACX [Audiobook Creation Exchange, whixh connects authors with narrators] did not yet exist, and as a college student, I didn’t have the spare income to rent studio space or to purchase equipment for a home studio. I didn’t know anyone in the industry, and despite my internet and library research, I didn’t know how to get started, beyond the e-learning work I was currently doing. I again shelved the idea of becoming an audiobook narrator and pursued other career paths.
Fast forward to January 2018. I now work as a freelance musician and as the cellist with School House Symphony, an educational chamber ensemble that plays over 300 concerts every school year. While searching online for a part-time summer job that would allow me to work from home, I stumbled across ACX. Immediately, my dream of pursuing audiobook narration – nearly three decades old at this point – was reignited. I purchased the studio equipment I did not already have (I had most of the equipment already due to my work as a professional freelance musician; I just needed a voiceover-specific mic), created some samples to post on ACX, and put up additional sound isolation and sound treatment in an existing recording space in my home. And I was off and running! Since starting audiobook narration in January, I’ve completed 11 books and already signed contracts for 7 more to be completed within the next few months. I love working as an audiobook narrator just as much as I always thought I would, and I am so grateful and blessed to finally make my living by bringing authors’ words to life.
What kind of training did you do to prepare yourself to do narration?
My formal training is as a musician, both as a vocalist and as a cellist. The voice studies I completed at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music were very focused on the acting element of being a classical singer, and those acting skills are a huge part of what allows me to narrate successfully. I spent years of my life learning how to communicate effectively and powerfully with my vocal cords. Also, my decades of voice lessons and experience as a professional singer have made me very comfortable using my voice intensively on a daily basis without harming my vocal cords. I know how to breathe properly and how to use my voice for hours on end without wearing out my cords. While my training was specifically for singing and not for speaking, those breathing and endurance skills translate extremely well to spending hours in a booth talking into a microphone.
That said, it’s not a 1:1 transition from opera singer to audiobook narrator, and that’s where audiobook narration coaches come in. I’m currently working with Hillary Huber on fiction narration and with Sean Pratt on nonfiction narration. Both Hillary and Sean are incredible people and incredible artists. They are so very good at what they do! I love every second of working with both of them. They are teaching me so much! I am so much better at what I do thanks to their input and guidance.
You are a professional cellist, opera singer, and music librarian. Does your music background make a difference in your narration?
It absolutely does! Working as a professional musician is all about communication. Sure, I might be communicating without words when I play my cello, but it is absolutely still communication. The idea of phrasing a thought so that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; so that it moves the listener in some way; so that the intent and purpose is clear — all of these concepts are vital to both musicianship and narration. Everything I learned in my training and in my profession as a musician absolutely comes into play when I work to bring an author’s words to life.
My experience as a professional musician also has some more practical skill advantages. As a musician, I am used to auditioning constantly and getting rejections a decent percentage of the time. I am used to spending hours and hours alone in a tiny room working on my art. (That room used to be a practice room, and now it’s my vocal booth.) I am used to working with coaches, listening carefully to their feedback, and allowing that feedback to change how I perform. I know how to read ahead while performing material several inches back on the page. I am comfortable listening critically to my performance and making nit-picky changes until it sounds exactly the way I want it to sound. All of these skills are vital for any professional musician … and are also vital for an audiobook narrator!
You grew up listening to audiobooks. What books do you remember especially loving?
For as long as I can remember, “reading” to me meant both listening to an audiobook and reading a print book. The fact that other people make a distinction between the two methods of reading has always somewhat puzzled me; in my mind, they’re the same. I’ve always been a bookworm, and my family did a lot of traveling by car when I was growing up. What is a bookworm’s preferred pastime on a long roadtrip? Why, reading of course! The only problem is that I get horribly carsick when I try to read in the car. And thus enters audiobooks. I think I was around 7 or 8 when my parents first got me a personal cassette tape player so I could listen to audiobooks from the library on our roadtrips. Audiobooks have been a constant companion since then. As a child, I loved that I could listen regardless of where I was. I loved hearing the characters’ voices brought to life in my ears. I loved (and still love) everything about audiobooks!
How do you prepare to record a book?
Before I begin recording a book, I always read it completely through with a notepad in hand. I make detailed notes about each character: how that character is described by the narrator or by other characters, how that character describes themselves, how the character looks physically, etc. I highlight vocal descriptors (she whispered; he shouted; she said angrily; etc.) and make a note of any words that I don’t know or for which I need to look up pronunciation. I also make a list of questions for the author, such as pronunciation questions or characterization questions. I call this my “initial read,” and it is a very in-depth, detailed read of the book. Once I finish that initial read, I send my questions to the author / rights holder / publisher. Depending on their preferences, we sometimes then have a phone discussion about the characters and how they should sound, or we send a series of emails back and forth. Only then do I enter the booth and start recording.
Minds of Men by Kacey Ezell is up for a Dragon Award! What is a Dragon Award, and what is so special about this book?
Thank you for asking about Minds of Men and the Dragon Award! This is such an exciting thing for both me and Kacey, the author. Dragon Awards are sci-fi and fantasy fan awards associated with DragonCon, a sci-fi and fantasy con. DragonCon is the largest science fiction and fantasy convention on the East Coast, with about 100,000 people attending daily, and it is only surpassed in size by San Diego’s ComicCon. The Dragon Awards are given to fan favorites in 15 areas, of which six are literary awards like “Best Science Fiction Novel” and “Best Fantasy Novel.” Chris Kennedy Publishing, the publisher of Minds of Men, had a finalist in five of the literary categories, including Minds of Men in the “Best Alternate History Novel” category. This is a measure of unprecedented success and is a tribute to the awesome talents of the individual authors, but most especially to Kacey Ezell. The awards themselves are completely fan-based awards. Fans were able to sign up for a ballot at the Dragon Awards website (http://application.dragoncon.org/dc_fan_awards_signup.php) and submit their votes. Voting for the finalists began on August 5, 2018 and ended on Saturday, September 1, 2018. The Dragon Awards were presented at a special ceremony on Sunday, September 2, at DragonCon. As fan awards, these awards are a measure of the individual work’s success, which is often seen as the most fair way to choose winners for an award.
As for what makes Minds of Men so special? Everything! Kacey crafted a fabulous storyline with interesting and captivating characters. The premise of the book is that psychics are employed by the US Army Air Corps in their bombing runs over occupied Europe to allow the planes to fly tighter formation and complete their runs more successfully. This on its own would be a great story, but as she often does, Kacey throws us a twist. One of the planes is shot down, and that plane’s psychic, Evelyn, must escape occupied territory while being chased by a German psychic, Lina. About 1/3 of the book is told from Lina’s point of view, so we really understand and almost sympathize with her, even though she’s supposed to be the book’s “villain.” It’s a fast-paced action thriller that has lots of twists and turns but that is also is full of complex people that you want to root for. Minds of Men is one of my favorite books that I’ve narrated, and I am so happy for Kacey that her excellent work was recognized by a nomination for the Dragon Awards.
You’ve started Facebook Friday live events. What do you do in them?
The 4th Friday of each month, I host a Fb live event on my FB page where I read a 5 min excerpt of one of my books and lead a discussion about that book. The author of the book is always watching and posting in the comments during the event, so s/he is available to answer any author questions viewers might have. They are great fun! A lot of my listeners send me advance questions before each event, and I truly love the books I’m discussing, so there is always a lot to talk about. My next 4th Friday Read is Friday, Sept. 28 at 7:30 pm EST, and I’ll be reading from and discussing Aries’ Red Sky by James Young. This is an incredible space opera that follows the “first encounter” of two very different cultures and the war that results. But even though the overall plot is huge and sweeping, James did a great job crafting individual characters that we follow through the story, making it personal and investing the reader in the outcome. It’s a great book, and I had a wonderful time narrating it. I’m looking forward to discussing it on Sept. 28th!
What kinds of questions did you have when you got started? What answers did you get?
Perhaps the better thing to ask is what questions didn’t I have! 😀 I did some voiceover work when I was in college, as previously discussed, but audiobook narration is so much more complicated (and more fun!) than generic VO work. I had to learn everything, from how to work within ACX to how to prep a book to how to master my files. The Indie ACX Narrator’s FB group was an invaluable resource to get me started. Without the incredible advice and wealth of knowledge from that group, I would have fallen flat on my face. I also started listening to “The Audiobook Speakeasy” podcast by Rich Miller. He interviews someone involved with audiobook narration on each episode, and the industry info his guests relate is so very helpful! Finally, after working as a narrator for a few months, I started private coaching with Hillary Huber and Sean Pratt. They are both amazing coaches! For a new narrator wanting to get started in this business, I can’t recommend coaching highly enough. The choice of coach is very personal, and I actually made my decision to coach with Hillary and Sean after listening to their interviews on “The Audiobook Speakeasy.” But for a new narrator, the biggest thing I can suggest is to find a good coach and focus on improving your skills. I am SUCH a better narrator now than I was 8 months ago, and it is primarily due to the wisdom and guidance of my coaches.
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?
To the first question, my answer is no, but my answer is also no to the second question. I don’t think a narrator needs to enjoy a book to narrate it, but there is a lot of real estate between enjoying a book and hating a book. When I narrated Read ‘Em and Sleep by Nick Mosca, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. The whole point of the book is that listening to it will put an insomniac to sleep, so that book is BO-RING! But being boring is the stated purpose of the book, and I believe in that purpose, so I feel that I narrated it very well. There have been a few books I’ve narrated that haven’t been my idea of “fine literature” or that haven’t been a genre I would choose to read for pleasure, but I know those books have audiences that love them, and I had no problem bringing the characters to life. So no, I don’t think a narrator must enjoy a book to perform it well.
That said, if I truly hated a book, I would not accept it, and I also have particular genres that I am not interested in narrating because they are not in a world view I can support (i.e. books that promote racism, white supremacy, Nazi ideology, etc.). If I truly feel hatred for a book’s contents, there is no way I can tell that story convincingly. My personal dislike of the material will show through, no matter how much I try to stop it. It doesn’t do me or the author any good to have me narrate content I hate. I won’t do it well, and I’ll be miserable the whole time I’m working on it.
What narrators do you listen to for inspiration?
This list is so very long …. 😀 As I already mentioned, I’m an avid audiobook listener, and there are so very many good audiobook narrators out there! But if I had to name just a few, the list would definitely start with Martin Jarvis. Martin Jarvis narrated all of Dick Francis’s books, and Dick Francis is my mom’s favorite author and was my favorite author during my teen years. (I still absolutely adore Dick Francis’s books, although I can no longer say he’s my favorite author.) For me, Dick Francis’s writing and Martin Jarvis’s narration embody what an audiobook should be! I have listened to every single one of those books at least 10 times, and I’ve listened to quite a lot of other books that I wouldn’t normally have considered simply because Martin Jarvis was the narrator. Beyond Martin Jarvis, I love listening to Sean Pratt (he can make even the driest business book sound engaging!), Hillary Huber (her pacing and inflection are what I aspire to achieve someday), Andi Arndt (I love her sense of humor!), Scott Brick (his narration of Moneyball is INCREDIBLE!), and Tavia Gilbert (her character voices are so good). There are lots of other narrators that I enjoy listening to again and again, but these six narrators are the ones that I will listen to anything they voice, regardless of genre, because I love their work that much.
To learn more about Jennifer, visit thr following sites: