Ears on the Odyssey

Interview: Johnny Heller

Johnny Heller has racked up over 35 years in the audiobook industry. In that time, his work has garnered many awards including two Audies, over 30 Earphone Awards, and Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Awards. Heller’s playfulness, charm, and curiosity produce some fantastic listens.

Enjoy Johnny Heller’s insights into the narrator process!

How did you get started in audiobook narration and how does it compare to voice-over or other kinds of acting?
I had been doing stand-up and stage and commercial voice over in Chicago. When I moved to New York, I met Richard Ferrone – a great actor and a swell human bean – and he brought me to Recorded Books to meet the wonderful Claudia Howard. RB needed a hyperactive overly excited adult to read children’s books. Apparently that was/is an apt description of me! So I started doing those kinds of titles. These days, I am more known for noir/thriller audio and I would say only about 25% of my work is for the YA market.

I think all voice over is acting. I think the most organic acting experience an actor can have and share with an audience – outside of a live stage performance – is in the audiobook world.  A commercial is 15, 30, 45 or 60 seconds of character or straight work designed to sell a product and/or alert consumers to a problem that only the product can fix for them. Audiobook narration is a long form acting assignment requiring the actor to share the author’s truth with a listener that informs, entertains and enthralls. It’s really quite exciting.

What do you wish librarians/ reviewers knew about the process of audiobook narration?
Hmm. I think a better question would be what do I think people should know about the process of being a librarian! I believe them to be true heroes and I wish they were all better funded.
But to your question – I wish that librarians/reviewers (especially reviewers) knew more about the actors process and about the casting and production mechanics of audiobooks. I think they need to understand just how much work an actor does in the audiobook narration process. There’s a great deal of prep and character study and long hours in the studio.  Even though many people are quite certain that “anyone could do it” – it’s just not so.

How do you choose which audiobook projects to undertake?
Except for a few books that I have sought out or produced myself, most of my work comes from publishers who reach out to me. By now, most know my sound and style and they cast me in projects they feel I would do well with. Sometimes I audition for a book, sometimes I just get offered a job. In all cases, I get a synopsis of the book so I can make some reasonably intelligent decision to do or not do the job. I tend to like history, humor, bios, politics, military history, Noir, sci-fi and YA, and that’s what comes my way.

Can you describe the process of finding a voice and style for your audiobook narration, especially with titles for young listeners?
Years ago in acting school, we learned about character clues – pure Stanislavski – and I still need to prepare that way. I am not looking for a voice to put on a character, I seek the character and cast him/her from my frame of reference and the voice/mannerisms/peccadilloes all seem to come together if I’ve made the right choice. The difference in YA lit is that, depending on the intended age group and what the author intended, I can go much further in some instances. Some YA books are almost extended cartoons. In any situation, the voice must be the true character voice — not just some accent I do well. There must be a reason to play a character one way vs. another. A clue to style is in the POV of the storyteller and the type of story I am asked to share.

As an audiobook narrator, what is your relationship to the producer?
I have been doing this for a long time, and I’ve recorded some 700 titles or so. I have become quite close with many producers and I count them as my friends. However, we all understand that this is a business and being a friend does not mean I should or do get cast if I am not right for the job. And once that is understood and it’s clear that it is understood, a business relationship can blossom to friendship. In a purely professional sense, I make a promise to deliver audio files to my producer by a specified date, to do any retakes of errors I’ve made and to do the very best I can do. I don’t think producers think of actors as necessary evils…but we are!

Why are you so talented and charming?!!?
Acting talent is the ability to escape your own world and to inhabit another, to wear some other lives and share some other stories. I guess it’s not the ability so much as the necessity – to never give up on the child inside of us and to fully embrace the absolute need to play make believe. Charm is the ability to hide all the psychological mumbo jumbo the above statement suggests, sip a cold martini, smile knowingly and to simply carry on. I hope I do one well and the other better.

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