Ears on the Odyssey

Interview: Dion Graham

Dion Graham is an award-winning narrator as well as director and producer of audiobooks, including 2015’s Odyssey winner H.O.R.S.E. and honorees Trombone Shorty; Peace, Locomotion; and We Are the Ship. Dion is an AudioFile Magazine Golden Voice Narrator, and has narrated many Audie and Earphones Award-winning titles. In addition to his career as a beloved narrator, Dion is a stage and screen actor, having appeared in shows such as The Wire, and has lent his voice to several video games. 

Ears on the Odyssey contributor Darla Salva Cruz recently interviewed Dion Graham and learned more about his career and approach to narrating audiobooks, particularly during these tumultuous times. We hope you enjoy this interview and are as excited for his upcoming titles as we are!

DC: How did you get started in audiobook narration and how does it compare to voice-over or other kinds of acting?

DG: Interesting question. I’d had some success in film, theatre, and television and, in fact, was doing a show at the Royal National Theatre in London. I happened to meet a friend of a friend (who later became a friend) who narrated audiobooks in London and in NYC where I live. Sounded like fun. I asked him to make an introduction after I got back to NYC and he did. I had no idea that I would fall in love with narrating audiobooks like I have. Or that listeners would appreciate my work so much.

I approach audiobooks in the same way as I approach the rest of my work in that job one is to ‘bring it to life’, working from my creative impulse in response to the material. The difference here is that I’m the storyteller, inhabiting the story, and playing all the parts in whatever ways the story cries out for. Infinite fun!

DC: What do you wish librarians/ reviewers knew about the process of audiobook narration?

DG: Hmm, another interesting question. Well, I have such great respect for librarians who I know are very astute. I mean, come on, they are immersed in the land of books. I’m not sure I need to tell them anything. They know that universes are contained in books. I think librarians (and other insightful listeners) who are open to the journey are ready to take the ride of a well told yarn, no matter how harrowing or delightful. Who doesn’t want to be moved by the magic of a well conjured story?

DC: How do you choose which audiobook projects to undertake?

DG: I’m fortunate. I get offered a lot of great (and often important) titles. That makes the ‘choosing’ easy. My interests are wide and varied and, like many, I’ve been an avid reader since I was a little kid (the song remains the same for the big kid talking to you now). As long as it’s not harmful or intentionally hurtful I’m pretty open to everything. 

DC: Can you describe the process of finding a voice and style for your audiobook narration, especially with titles for young listeners?

DG: That’s a great question. I try to be sensitive to what I’m hearing, what’s playing out in my own imagination as I’m reading the book. Books are different but if you’re immersed in the story that the author is telling the book will light the way. I always follow that. 

With young listeners, I try not to ‘talk down’ to them. I try to respect the fact that they, too, are a very astute audience. They’re ready to hear the story, to grapple with what’s presented. We were all kids. No need to water the writing down. Rather, I think it’s great to listen for how the tale wants to be told and hold space for young listeners to meet us there. Of course, sometimes it’s just pure unmitigated laughter and joy. Kids (big and small) like that, too.

DC: As an audiobook narrator, what is your relationship to the producer?

DG: The producer is responsible for taking care of all of the elements in getting an audiobook made–including hiring me! They send me the book, arrange the recording  schedule, and share any information that I need to know (for instance, when the recording is due). I have great relationships with my producers, many that I have worked with over and over again.

DC: How has the pandemic affected your work? Has your recording setup or process had to change?

DG: Remarkably, the biggest way the pandemic seems to have affected my work is to have given me more of it. I haven’t been filming or onstage for most of the time that we’ve been in pandemic mode. But this has been one of the busiest times ever in terms of recording. The only difference in recording for me is that I’m recording in a studio very near where I live rather than at various studios around town.I think that already trending upward audiobook sales have only been enhanced by this time. Lucky me and good for listeners.

DC: To many of us and our readers, audiobooks are a comfort during tough times. What have audiobooks meant to you through these difficult months?

DG: For me, I have mostly been making what I hope are great audio experiences for folks to listen to. I haven’t had much time to listen. But I have definitely traveled through telling these stories. From bunnies and humans and all kinds of creatures learning to work together while maybe even learning about the meaning of life to riding with Jesus on the Presidential campaign trail to bring back goodness and kindness (and all kinds of strange and wonderful trips in between), it has been an incredible time to be telling tales. I hope that we’ve soothed a few souls in the telling.

DC: In addition to being a narrator and actor, you also help produce audiobooks. What is that process like? What do you enjoy about production work?

DG: I do produce and direct from time to time. I enjoy it. It’s great to create an environment that supports the narrator in taking risks and being open to discovery. We want to serve the writer, the book, by tuning in to how it moves us. This process is all about supporting the book and collaborating well with the narrator, all in service of bringing the book to life. It’s a treat to bounce back and forth between being both behind the mic and on the other side of the glass, as well.

DC: You are the narrator for Concrete Rose, Angie Thomas’ highly anticipated prequel to The Hate U Give. What was it like getting into Maverick’s voice? What do you find most exciting about the title?

DG: Maverick made himself known to me right away as I was reading CONCRETE ROSE. What could I do but invite him in? He reminded me of so many young men I have known. His heart, his mind, his struggle; the pain and pride of being young Black human him. All of that made it easy to allow his humanity to come forward. In so doing, I think he’s easy to relate to. No one is born fully made. My grandmother used to say ‘Life is a good teacher’ and that is surely true in this book. That Angie decided to write this story of Maverick on the way to becoming Big Mav and let us watch is exciting enough. That she trusted me to bring it to life? Priceless. I’m honored.

DC: In our discussions about these interview questions, you touched on how strongly you feel about some of the young, Black male protagonists you brought to life this year, like Maverick, Quan, and Lymon. What do these characters mean to you, both as a narrator and a reader? Who and what do you wish to see more of in future titles?

DG: Simply put, I love these young men. In all their lovableness and complexity. I understand them. And I see them. I’m honored to tell their stories, to bring them to life. We don’t always see their stories well told or with proper dimension. But Angie and Nic and Lesa have brought these young men forth with stirring compassion and specificity. In these potent times we are challenged to care for them, too. To be willing to walk with them, too. I hope that in hearing their stories (hopefully, well told) listeners will be able to see and hear them, too.

DC: Besides Concrete Rose, what do you have coming out in 2021 that you are most excited about?

DG: There are some great things coming in 2021. Concrete Rose kicks it off followed by Matt de la Peña’s Milo Imagines the World, The Smash Up, We Own This City, Unsung, How Beautiful We Were, some Colum McCann, and a new Dave Eggers novel. Stay tuned, more to come! Thanks so much for having me!

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