Thursday, July 8, 2010

Audiobook Thursday: J.J. Myers

Today I am extremely honored to be chatting with another wonderful audiobook narrator, J.J. Myers. If you are familiar with Chris Grabenstein's Zack and Judy middle grades mystery series on audiobook, you know her voice well. She narrated both THE CROSSROADS and THE HANGING HILL. As we'll talk about in her interview, J.J. not only narrates Chris's books, she's married to him as well. J.J. has done voice over work for commercials and promos, in addition to performing live on stage. But, you don't want to hear me read her resume, you want to hear from J.J. herself, so allow me to introduce the wonderfully talented, J.J. Myers:

Tell us a little about J.J. Myers the person. As listeners/readers, we don’t have as much opportunity to get to know narrators as we do book authors. So what could we expect to see on a J.J. Myers bio page?
J.J: I’m originally from Michigan but after I graduated from Northwestern University (where I studied singing and acting) I moved to New York to pursue musical theater. I’ve kept New York as my home base but I’ve also worked all over the country and, for some reason, many of the shows I’ve been cast in have religious themes. I’ve appeared in NUNSENSE, JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, GODSPELL, DO BLACK PATENT LEATHER SHOES REALLY REFLECT UP?, and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, to name a few. Now that I’m married to the world’s best author (Chris Grabenstein), I enjoy working in voice overs because I don’t have to do eight shows a week or go on the road -- but I’m still acting. When I’m not working I volunteer with animal rescue. Chris and I share our home with four wonderful rescued animals (three cats and a dog).
Q. What led you to audiobook narrating?
J.J: I was doing some voice over work for a program that teaches English as a second language. The producer asked me to audition for the audio book of THE ORCHID THIEF (the book the movie ADAPTATION is based on) and I got the job. After that, I received offers for other audio books.
Q. And you have a very unique situation. I spoke recently on the blog about, what I termed, a “perfect triangle” in the audiobook listening experience. That would be the writer creating a great story, the narrator bringing it to life, and the “reader” experiencing it. You live with a writer, a writer for whose stories you narrated. Do you feel that unique situation helped in your narrations of THE CROSSROADS and THE HANGING HILL? Hurt? Didn’t make any difference at all? And why?
J.J: No question that it helped. I am Chris’ first editor so I read the books when he has just finished the first draft and we discuss the characters at length. This can be as long as a year before I record the audio book so I’ve “lived” with these characters and I know them fairly well. We also spent one airplane ride to Los Angeles going over voices for THE CROSSROADS. It was fun for the folks sitting behind us, I’m sure.
Q. You’ve narrated adult fiction, children’s fiction, non-fiction. Do you have a preferred genre or classification that you like to read?
J.J: I love recording Children’s Books. Of course Chris’ YA books are my favorite but I also love recording books for younger kids, like EARL THE SQUIRREL by Don Freeman, which is very cute.

I also like working on books connected to a cause, like Live Strong: Inspirational Stories from Cancer Survivors, which I did for the Lance Armstrong foundation (I’m credited as Jennifer Jay Myers).
Q. Do you find any types of books more challenging than others to narrate?
J.J: Honestly, Chris’ books are the most challenging for me. I remember calling him from the recording session for THE CROSSROADS and complaining that, between live people and ghosts, there were over forty characters and I had my hands full trying to keep them all straight. I said something like, “Please think about this as you are working on the next book in the series.” Chris got off the phone and added a theatrical pyrotechnics expert with an Italian accent to THE HANGING HILL just to challenge me even more! As my friend Jeff Woodman will tell you, accents are not my favorite thing.
Q. How about characters? In fiction, has there been any type of character who’s just given you fits when you try to grasp their persona?
J.J: Coming from an acting background, I can usually get a grasp on a character’s persona, but I had a unique challenge with THE CROSSROADS because the character of Judy is based on me. I had to find a way to give Judy my voice and personality while sounding different from the narrator, who, of course, is also me.
Q. What was the hardest book, to date, that you’ve had to narrate?
J.J: THE HANGING HILL was definitely the hardest book I’ve ever done. In addition to the Italian guy I already mentioned, there are three Tunisians, all men of about the same age, and a host of other characters (both dead and alive). Some characters are heard from at different points in their lives so the challenge is to have them sound like their younger or older selves.

Another very challenging project I worked on was a college textbook based on the movie THE MATRIX -- The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real (as Jennifer Jay Myers). This was challenging because I wanted to understand what I was saying, so I rented the movie and really studied before the recording.
Q. What kind of book makes you excited to go to work and record it? And why? What’s special or different about that kind of book?
J.J: Again, I have to say the kids books. I’m a big animal nut and kids books tend to have lots of animal characters. I’ve voice everything from a “happy horse” to a “young female worm.” I guess this is special for me because I fell in love with critters at a very young age and I hope these stories will help other kids do the same.
Q. Walk us through what you normally do to prepare to record a book.
J.J: I always read the entire book before I start recording, just in case there is something that happens at the end that should really “color” a character right from the start. I make a character list with a note of the page where they first appear and anything the author has included, such as “gruff voiced man” or “mousy woman” to help me find the voice. I also look up any words I’m not sure how to pronounce.

With a non-fiction book, I check any names of real people who are mentioned and make sure I know how they are pronounced. I was doing a series of business books recently and there were many names of leaders in various fields that were extremely hard to pronounce. In one case, I learned that the man was booked for a lot of speaking engagements so I called his agent and asked how he said his name. In another case, I actually found the guy’s cell number so I called it and heard him say his name on the outgoing message. Thank goodness for the Internet!
Q. Have there been any cases where you didn’t follow that normal process of preparation?
J.J: Sometimes there is an extra step. When Chris is writing, he collects pictures that represent the characters. Looking at these photos helps me find the right voice for the characters.

Also, kids books often have illustrations of the characters in the story, so I use these to help me create a voice that matches. For example, if the hedgehog is wearing glasses, maybe he should sound like he’s very smart or a bit nerdy.
Huh, so in the children's books, there's actually a perfect square, not a perfect triangle. We have the writer, the illustrator, the narrator and the reader.

Q. Then when you go in to record, what’s a typical day like for you recording a book?
J.J: I usually work for six hours with a half hour for lunch when my stomach starts making noises.
Q. If you were given the option to narrate ANY book you wanted, what would be your dream narration?
J.J: Any future kids books by Chris Grabenstein! And any children’s book about rescuing animals. So I hope I get a chance to narrate Chris’ new series for Harper Collins, RILEY MACK AND THE OTHER KNOWN TROUBLEMAKERS, which will come out in winter 2011 because there is a subplot in it about rescuing dogs from a puppy mill (wonder where he got that idea?).
Q. Since a big part of your job is reading, do you do much reading for fun? If so, what do you enjoy to read? What will you pack for the beach this summer?
J.J: This summer I will pack ROLLING THUNDER by Chris Grabenstein, of course! It’s the perfect beach read. It even has its own beaches.

I don’t seem to have much time to read things just for fun anymore, but, when I do, it’s usually a non-fiction book about animals or something by Malcolm Gladwell.
Well, gosh, I happen to think ROLLING THUNDER is a great choice for this summer, too!

Q. How about audiobooks? Do you listen to audiobooks yourself? Any narrators that you especially enjoy?
J.J: I don’t listen to audiobooks regularly, but, if I’m about to record a book in a genre that’s new for me, I’ll listen to some well-reviewed books in that genre before I start. As far as narrators I enjoy, I think what Jim Dale did with his narration of the HARRY POTTER series is truly amazing (and it makes me feel like a wimp for complaining about 40 characters).

But, honestly, my favorite audio book narrator is Jeff Woodman. He inhabits his characters so well that I can really see them. And no matter how extreme the person he’s playing is written, he never lets his characterization get in the way of the story.
Oh gosh, how much I agree with that statement! I can't tell you how thrilled I am for the two of you to be my first two narrator interviews on the blog!

Q. How about hearing your own voice? I’m not anywhere close to a professional, so it may just be my neuroses, but I have a dickens of a time listening to my own voice. Do you find your overly critical of yourself when others are saying it’s good?
J.J: What’s hard for me is listening to the audiobook when my husband, the author, is right next to me! The author is usually not involved with the audiobook recording, so Chris and I are hearing the book together for the first time. Of course I hope I’m happy with it, but my biggest concern is that he likes it. I usually hear a few things I’d like to change, but, so far, Chris has been happy, and that’s what counts!
Q. O.k., so I went a little gung ho on the audiobook questions. But you also do voice over work for commercials and promos, correct? How does that work compare to what you do for a book?
J.J: It takes a lot less time! Commercial or promo recording sessions rarely last more than an hour. And you usually don’t get the script until you are just about to record so there is no prep work.
Also, in an audiobook, you are painting the entire picture with your voice. But with a TV commercial or promo, your voice is heard while a picture is seen so you need to be aware of that and adjust your read so the audio “fits” with the video.
Wow! I never would have thought about that.

Q. And you’ve also performed live on stage! That has to be the bigger adjustment. Performing live as opposed to being in the recording studio. For you, what are the benefits to each? Are you more comfortable with one or the other?
J.J: You are right, that’s a big adjustment. I love both, but, after all my years of making sure my voice was heard in the last row, it took me a while to learn that the microphone is very sensitive. I was told to think of the mike (or mic) as someone’s ear.

Another big difference is that when I’m recording, I don’t have to wear a lot of make-up!
Q. Now I’m assuming (so correct me if I’m wrong) that if you are in the studio recording an audiobook or a voice over for a commercial, that you’re pretty much working on your own. Even if there are others involved, you don’t record at the same time, right? So then how does that change things for you when you’re on stage performing with others at the same time? Or does it?
J.J: Most audio books are narrated by one person, so you are in the studio alone. But I have worked on some other projects where several of us have recorded together. In fact, I met Jeff Woodman because we were cast in the same educational recording project. I prefer working with others, both on stage and in the booth.
Q. Who have been some people you’ve really enjoyed working with on stage?
J.J: I was lucky enough to do a production of SHOWBOAT with Donald O’Connor. A charming performer and a wonderful man.
Q. You’ve had a tremendous number of accomplishments already, but are there any other “must dos” on your bucket list?
J.J: I’d love to voice an animated character, preferably an animal.
Who do we know at Disney that can hook J.J. up on that one?

Q. When I had Jeff Woodman to the blog, he shared with us what he does to make you cringe. Do you have anything in your arsenal to return the favor?
J.J: I honestly did cringe when I read that!! I don’t stoop to his level and do anything to purposely annoy him, but I’m sure he’s cringed when he heard my first attempt at an accent or two.
Q. Is there anything you wish the common person knew about recording audiobooks – or demos or commercials – that we didn’t talk about?
J.J: I’d like people to know how much their feedback means. With stage work, you get feedback (and hopefully applause) from your audience. You can tell if they are with you. But with audiobooks, it’s not as easy to know if your “audience” is pleased. I love hearing from people who have enjoyed listening to the books and was delighted when my CROSSROADS performance won an Earphones Award from AudioFile Magazine.
O.k. all you folks who do the audiobook reviews, too! Take note. Your feedback is greatly appreciated.

Q. Very quickly, before I get to the last question, I have to ask about the fun primates on your website. Is there significance to them? Or are they just fun critters?
J.J: Your question tells me that they are doing what I hoped they would do! I tend to be cast for upbeat, happy kinds of reads so I wanted my website to reflect that. The fact that you asked about the “fun primates” makes me happy. I recently heard from a branding expert who had visited my website. She said, “You can’t go wrong with monkeys!”
Q. I’m sure you already know about the six-word memoir project since Chris participated. Now it’s your turn to be on the hot seat. What would be J.J. Myers six-word memoir?
J.J: Animal rescue nut talks for cash.

Another great one for the scrapbook! We have to wish both Chris and J.J. a belated Happy Anniversary, as they celebrated their anniversary this past weekend. They were married on the 4th of July so they'd always have fireworks! Thank you so very much, J.J., for taking time to chat with me and letting me share that here on the blog. We'll all be on the lookout for your animated character role! In the meantime, we'll hear you on the audio waves!

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le0pard13 July 8, 2010 at 9:53 AM  

Great in-depth interview, Jen. I love these discussions with audiobook narrators. Gives me a peak into their experience and workflow (something I've been highly curious about). Thanks so much.

Beth F July 10, 2010 at 9:01 AM  

Great interview as always. It was fun to meet J.J. I have listened to Chris's adult books but I haven't yet listen to the children's books. I plan to though.

Happy anniversary!

Anonymous July 12, 2010 at 2:09 PM  

What a great interview. I love all the insights and knowing more about what goes into audiobooks.

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