Tell us a little about yourself (Your bio).
P. J. Morgan is a professional audiobook narrator with a long list of stage credits, and a growing list of film titles. She hails from the central coast of California, where she wrangles code by day and narrates between dog barks at night. Her professional VO career only began a few short years ago, but the seed was planted in childhood, when she vowed to team up with her sister the animator to create wacky cartoons. They have yet to make good on this deal, but the night is still young!
How on earth did you get into narrating audiobooks?
I think the idea was born when I started to finally think of acting as a career, and not just a hobby, and I wanted to find ways to make it a lucrative career without having to quit my day job and move to LA or NYC and pitch my lot in with the thousands of other struggling artists. Somehow I came across the idea of doing voice work, which was a sort of coming full circle for me, since I used to work in the speech systems industry, where I spent a lot of time working with professional voice talents to record prompts for our phone systems. So I’d seen what a career in voice over could be like first hand, and even though I didn’t trust my own voice in a commercial setting back then, I knew I had a latent talent. Someone tipped me off on the great community at LibriVox, and I bought my first professional-grade microphone and took off running. I loved it, and soon enough, I decided to try doing it for money. Imagine my surprise when my first audition for an Audible title ended up with a recording contract in my inbox the next day!
What do you do when you are not narrating?
I work in IT during the day, so I’m often listening to audiobooks while I write code, and I also write novels and sometimes just short nonsensical things. I’m blessed with a big menagerie of animals, so I’m often shoveling manure or walking dogs. And when I feel masochistic, I end up in a play or film and somehow shoehorn rehearsals into all of that!
Many audiobook narrators do other voice over work, where else could we hear your work? Do you find there to any big hurdles to jump when going from audiobooks to something else or vise versa?
I’ve done some educational videos for California Community Colleges, and I pick up random Fiverr gigs, so if you call a karate shop somewhere in French-speaking Canada, you may hear my voice! Each gig, whether it’s narration or a voicemail message, is just acting, so I don’t find it very difficult to switch between audiobooks and other work. Each book – and each character in each book – is different, and I prepare (or don’t prepare) for all of it in similar ways.
Do you have the luxury of picking and choosing the projects that you work on or do you take as many as you have time for?
I’m lucky – or is it unlucky? – in that I don’t have representation right now, so every gig I take on is something I’ve hand-picked. I’ve been fortunate enough to cultivate really wonderful relationships with all of my authors and/or publishers, so much so that they have all been repeat customers. Between the lot of them, my publication schedule is pretty solidly booked most of the time!
For those of us that are unfamiliar with your work. How would you describe your narration style and voice? What would the one audiobook you would suggest for people to listen to your best work?
I hear a lot that my voice is very smooth and soothing to listen to. I like to think I’m pretty versatile with my accents and characters voices. But my normal voice is pretty neutral, which makes for good narration. Commercial work is more of a stretch for me, since I don’t think my voice is naturally ‘sexy’ – though I do read a lot of sexy stories!
My best work is a tough call between Deep Down Things by Tamara Linse, and Silver Shackles by Fiona Skye. I really enjoyed reading both of them, and they both include a great deal of diversity in terms of narration-style, as different characters narrate different chapters.
As a narrator, do you get compensated in a set amount or do you also receive royalties from the individual sales? Do you like one more than the other? Has there ever been an per finished hour book that you wish was a royalty deal, what book? Or vise versa?
I’ve only done royalty-share titles thus far, but next year my goal is start booking work with per-finished-hour rates as well as royalty shares. These are some of the most competitive contracts to land, but I’m excited about upping my game!
What do you see as your greatest achievement as an audiobook narrator? What has been your most difficult moment?
I think just believing in myself enough to take the plunge. No one was pushing me or encouraging me to do this. In my past job with the speech systems company, I was told by several people in front of the entire executive staff that I did not have a ‘radio friendly’ voice, which is why, despite my talents, they did not want to use me as one of their in-house voice actors. I faced a lot of discouragement from friends and family when I told them I wanted to pursue acting seriously. It takes courage to put yourself out there, and push yourself outside your comfort zone. I really didn’t believe I was ready to start reading professionally, but I jumped in with both feet and never looked back. It’s a very steep learning curve, but I made it! I think my most difficult moments are when I’m up against a deadline, and I’ve listened to so much audio my ears feel like they’re bleeding, and I just have no idea if what I’m doing is any good anymore. I start to question the entire book I’ve recorded, my whole career, etc. But, like anything, you just keep pushing through, and when you look back, you always tend to astound yourself with how much better it was than you thought. I think, also, that first negative review from a listener is a hard moment to get through. There’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like what you do, and who is vocal about it. Fortunately I don’t get many of those. And when I do, they are always learning experiences. I can only get better from here!
Do you have a list of your own favorite narrators, who inspires you? Do you have a list of favorite audiobook that you have listened to?
Stephen Fry and Jim Dale both have voices I could listen to for hours on end. In general, I find British narrators far easier on the ears. It’s funny, being American myself, but the nasality of many American dialects drives me crazy in a narration setting.
What is your favorite thing to do? Pastime, hobby, obsession, etc.
Oh gosh, I couldn’t pick just one! I suppose, in all its many forms, it’s storytelling. Whether it’s acting a part on stage, in front of a camera or microphone, being a puppeteer, putting my own words to paper, or even just regaling a friend with the highlights (or lowlights, those are often so much more fun) of my day. Storytelling is my life’s blood and words are the currency by which I live. Trite, but true.
Do you ever get specific notes or ideas from the writer about how something should be read? What is a helpful note, and what is, shall we say, less helpful?
All my authors tend to trust me – maybe too much! If I can’t figure out via context how something is meant to be read, I always ask. I tend to keep an open dialogue going the entire time I’m recording the book, just in case I need to pop in for a character’s accent or a made up word’s pronunciation. I have, however, received much less helpful feedback on commercial work! Sometimes notes like, ‘Can you make it sound more professional?’ are a bit too vague. I like it when clients can give more tangible feedback, like, ‘Speed it up through this passage’ or ‘This should sound a bit more enthusiastic.’ You know, something I can sink my teeth (or tongue) into.
Do you have an initial process or routine by which you get to know the book you’re going to be reading? Do you mark them up, for example?
Yes, I come up with a colour key for every character, and I highlight their lines in each chapter before I read it. This way I know exactly who is speaking and who is about to speak at a glance. Any words I’m not immediately sure of the pronunciation on, I add a comment with a note on how it’s properly said in the dialect I’m reading in. I also tend to note any typos or grammatical errors I find, just in case the author wants to go back and make corrections in a later draft. I haven’t decided how annoying I’m being just yet in doing that, but for what it’s worth, I was always one of those obnoxious library patrons who would mark corrections in books before returning them. Maybe I need to look into another side career as an editor!
How do you flesh out how a specific character will sound?
Unless completely obvious, I almost always confirm with the author what dialect of English the character speaks with. Then I look for textual clues throughout the book. Things like physical description, gender, age, height, body type, prominent behavioural traits are all useful in deciding whether the character’s voice is high or low, fast or slow, melodic or monotone, etc. When I’m switching between characters during dialogue, I find it helps me if I have an image in my head of each character that I can visualise when they are speaking.
Is your studio in your home? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this? Do you have something that you would consider unique in your setup? What is it?
Yes, I record almost exclusively at home. It’s lovely being able to pop in and record – or re-record – something whenever I want. My production chain is entirely under my control, and I can keep everything consistent and be totally comfortable. No one is watching my performance, which gives me room to play as much as I want until I get exactly the right take. On the down side, things are not completely noiseproof, and I’m at the whims of traffic and neighbours and my pets. I live right under a flight path, so my golden hours – when everyone else is asleep and the planes finally stop flying for a few hours – are from about midnight to three AM. This isn’t the most conducive schedule with having a day job, of course, so one of my dream upgrades is a far more soundproof environment, like a WhisperRoom.
What is the atmosphere like in your studio when you record. What’s it like, and are things very serious or not very serious?
It’s late (or early, depending on how you look at it), and I’m usually combating heavy fatigue, so it can either be very serious and stressful, or I’m just laughing at myself after every other line. I’ve got some great bloopers….
How long do you record at a time, on average? What is it about a book that will shorten or lengthen this?
I tend to never go more than an hour, or my voice just starts to suffer from fatigue. Or, more likely, I just get tired and start making stupid mistakes. I tend to break things up by chapters, so I’ll record one chapter for twenty to forty minutes, then take a break, then repeat once or twice. If I’m really struggling with a particular scene or character, I will step away from the mic for a bit, or record a different project for a while. I find lots of dialogue can be more draining, and require more repeats of lines. Narrative sequences that really flow are where I gain momentum (and have far less editing to do on the other end).
What is your favorite genre to narrate? Why?
I have a particular soft spot for children’s books, especially vintage ones. They are so wonderfully whimsical and playful, and they inspire me to just let go and have fun with the process. Otherwise, genre matters far less to me than good writing. It’s always easier to narrate something you can really get into as a reader than something that doesn’t flow well.
What has been your favorite character? What character has given you the most grief?
Oh, that’s a tough one. Riley O’Rourke from The Revelations Trilogy by Fiona Skye is so much fun to narrate. She’s snarky, three-dimensional, tough with a vulnerable side, and she gets into so many misadventures. On the flip side, she’s a challenge to narrate because of her wonderfully overdone Boston accent. I think a lot of characters give me grief initially, until I’ve found their voices. But once it’s stuck, it’s like coming home to them each time they speak.
How do you stop yourself from laughing or crying at some of the things authors write?
I don’t, really. If something cracks me up, I just let it out, and cut that section out of my recording later (after listening to it, so I can laugh again). If something really moves me, I let that show in my narration, unless it’s not appropriate to do so. I think listeners as much as readers want an emotional connection with the text, and if you can facilitate that in your reading without getting in the way of the story, that’s a good thing.
I have heard that many in the industry dislike the term narrator. What do you prefer and why?
I like to refer to myself as an audiobook narrator as well as a voice actor, because people don’t necessarily think of one as being the other, and vice versa. If I just say I’m a voice actor, people want to know which cartoons I’ve worked on. If I just say I’m a narrator, people don’t realise I’d like to work on cartoons! So I think it’s still valid to clarify that I do both, even if one is sort of under the umbrella of the other.
How do you view audiobook narration/production: Art or Science?
It’s primarily an art, but the more technically savvy you are, the easier your life is going to be. That said, I have a background in phonetics, and I learned to edit and analyse waveforms in school as part of my degree. It’s immensely helpful in making clean edits (some of them Franken-edits, as I like to call them) in my audio.
Do you have a philosophy of how to create the perfect audiobook experience?
My mantra is always, ‘Don’t distract from the story.’ If your voice, or your characterisation, or your equipment, or your mastering gets in the way of the story you are telling, it’s something you need to tackle. I think the perfect audiobook experience is seamless. There are no overly-short or long pauses to kick you out of the story. There are no exceptionally loud or soft parts. Everything is enunciated well enough that you can understand what is happening. The narrator’s voice does not wear on the ear. And through all of that, there is just the right balance of auditory interest to keep you engaged, without detracting from the tale you’re weaving.
Do you have a preference for reading fiction or nonfiction for pleasure? And is what you read for pleasure what you’d prefer to read for audiobooks?
I read a mixture of both, but fiction for me is true escapism, and what I reach for when I need to relax or disengage from the world for a while. I’ve never narrated a non-fiction book, but I think I would enjoy the challenge of keeping it engaging without having lots of parts to play.
Do you have any advice for other aspiring narrators?
Get your feet wet with LibriVox. It’s such a supportive, low-pressure community. They will teach you how to set up your equipment, how to become efficient at editing, how to master and produce great audio. And you can sign up for as minimal or involved a part as you want. I started off just playing specific characters in dramatic readings. Now I’m working on my first full-length book for them. It’s a great place to learn the ropes without fear of tarnishing your reputation out there in the great big professional world before you are ready.
What has been your favorite project and why?
My favourite project is always the one I’ve just finished!
Do you believe that listening to an audiobook should be considered reading? Why or why not?
Sure. Some people process auditorily better than visually. And vice versa. In whatever form you better digest the text, you are still experiencing it.
Are you working on any special projects?
My current project is a pretty fantastic pirate novel set in early 18th Century Bahamas. It’s been challenging, but I’m really proud of it so far, and I can’t wait to share it with my listeners!
Have you ever gotten a poor review on your narration? What do you do with such reviews?
I’ve had some mystery 1-star reviews, where the listener never left any feedback about what they didn’t like. The only non-glowing written review I’ve ever received was just a stylistic preference. It gave me some things to think about in future narration, but I didn’t take it too personally. I think every review is a learning experience (unless they rate you one star and never tell you why!), and all you can do is glean anything constructive from it and move on.
How do you feel about authors that choose to narrate their own audiobooks? Any advice to them?
As a writer myself, I completely understand. No one is as well connected to the text as you are. No one is going to nail every nuance the same way. But I think the value in letting someone else narrate your book (and I’ve heard this echoed by several of my authors), is that you discover new things in your own writing by seeing how someone else might interpret it. If you do decide to go down the path of recording your own novel, just be sure you’re up to the task of doing it justice. It’s not as simple or easy as plopping down and telling your microphone a story every night. Performance ability, technical skills, infinite patience and dedication are but a few of the requirements that you need a good grasp of to produce quality narration.
This is for the question you wish I would have asked but didn’t.
Oh boy. These questions were so thorough! I guess if there’s a question I would like to answer, even if it hasn’t been asked, it’s… if I could narrate any book out there, what would it be? And the silly thing is, I don’t even have a concrete answer, but I love thinking about it! Some of the potential answers are in the public domain (like P. G. Wodehouse, a few of whose short stories I’ve already tackled). Another possible answer would be the Harry Potter series, because imagine all those fantastic character voices! I also adore Margaret Atwood, and giving voice to one of her books would be a dream come true.a
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