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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Interview with Narrator Zachary Johnson and Giveaway for Quest of the Dreamwalker

Please help me welcome audiobook narrator Zachary Johnson to Reviews by Martha's Bookshelf.
M: Hello Zachary – Thank you for joining me in the blog world at Reviews by Martha’s Bookshelf and for sharing a bit about your experience as a book narrator.
ZJ: Thank you so much for having me! I'm thrilled to be here!
M: I’m going to jump right in and ask if you would briefly share a little of your background and more particularly, what experience you had with theater, media, announcing etc. that led to you becoming a narrator.
ZJ: Sure thing! In school, I was always the kid teachers would call on to read stuff out loud, so you could argue I got my start very young, but I actually didn't start formal training in acting until I was 21. I studied at a school called Anthony Meindl's Actor Workshop for two years. My dad and I actually took some classes there together. It was one of those “I secretly really want to do this but I'll only do it if you do” things. Probably one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life. I think that was what really made me want to give it a try in some form. The transition from the stage to the booth was somewhat jarring at first, but I'm an introvert, so it works well for me. It's kinda nice to have a little imagination chamber where I can act out the books as I read them and get paid for the privilege!
M: That is very cool to have taken classes with your Dad. As more background, did you always like reading and did you listen to audiobooks before entering the field?
ZJ: I loved reading from a very young age. My dad actually read the first four Harry Potter books to me when I was little. I think my interest really started there. I was just old enough to read books three and four myself, but I always liked it better the way he told it. There was something magical about it being brought to life by a good reader. He always put expression and nuance in the dialogue. It was wonderful. Plus we could geek out about it afterwards. I think, looking back, that's where my interest in the whole craft of reading out loud started, even if I didn't know it at the time. I became a pretty avid reader after that. I was always the kid with a book in high school, and in my adult life I really fell in love with science fiction and fantasy. I started reading Neil Gaiman, James S.A. Corey, whatever I could get my hands on. Still do. I just finished The Fold by Peter Clines, and, as of the time of writing, I'm reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

As for audiobooks, I had listened to a few before I tried my hand at it. Jim Dale's reading of Harry Potter was a big one for me. I absolutely loved his voice. I think that was my first example of an audiobook so perfectly cast you really can't imagine anyone else reading it. My in earnest consumption of audiobooks began shortly after I finished my third project, a book called SIMPOC: Human Remants. Someone who had listened to and enjoyed one of my projects was kind enough to invite me to a group of avid audiobook listeners on Facebook and I mentioned that I wasn't a huge consumer of the medium. A fellow narrator in the group promptly set me straight with the admonition that “listening to audiobooks is a critical part of our jobs.” I can emphatically state that he was right. I started listening to Scott Brick and was immediately hooked. Now I frequently have one playing on my commutes to work or any long drive, really. It's amazing what one can learn from another narrator's style of performance. They might have a speech quirk or an emphasis pattern or a delivery style or character voice that could be just what I need for a future project!
M: I agree that Jim Dale did a fabulous job with the narration of the Harry Potter series. 
How do you prepare for a particular work? Do you read the book or talk to the author beforehand? For example, when I listened to Quest of the Dreamwalker, it seemed like you knew the characters and you knew exactly where the book was going so it seemed that you had read the entire book first.
ZJ: Oh yeah. Both. All the time. Talking to the author and hashing out the voices is absolutely critical, as is reading the book beforehand. I like to go through and highlight the text to help me when I'm narrating. It indicates what lines require emphasis or signify a tonal shift of some kind. Notes in the margins, things like musings on the tone of the piece, or even just one-word reactions are good (frequently my one word reactions are just things like “s***” when something bad happens; seeing it while I'm narrating helps me get in that state of mind and live it with the characters). It also helps to know of any plot twists or major developments in advance of performing the book, as it helps to highlight the foreshadowing during the narration. For Quest of the Dreamwalker, I think I ended up reading it three times before I recorded it. I kept getting sick and couldn't record, so I'd just make more and more notes in the text so that, when I finally could, it would be the best it could be.
M: I was certainly impressed with your narration in Quest of the Dreamwalket which seemed "spot on".
Do you work on developing special voices for each character or do you focus more on the emotional inflection to carry the personality of the character? Does this vary depending on the project?
ZJ: I use accents frequently, though I always check with the author before incorporating those. Some, like Quest of the Dreamwalker, feature sprawling fantasy universes wherein it makes sense for the language to have diverged a bit from culture to culture, so I can vary accents by the region the character hails from, some with a Scottish accent, some with a British one, others borderline Australian, that kinda thing. In terms of doing special voices, I would say I'm definitely more in the “emotional inflection” camp if characters are from the same area and have the same accent. Certainly I can make one voice lower and another more nasal and another a bit more gravelly, but I have to be careful not to stray into caricature territory unless that's what the character calls for. Sometimes ridiculously exaggerated mannerisms work, but in those cases, I've found the author usually has a pretty specific voice in mind.

How I approach it is indeed unique to the project I'm working on, but I've found that, by and large, my biggest asset in character voice development is my tendency to read character dialogue out loud to myself anyway when I'm reading, whether for business or for pleasure. Usually, as I get to know a character, their voice will start to take on certain characteristics that come to define them, and, in some cases, it's even helped to write down a list of adjectives to describe the voice as it's forming. I also like to send a sample reel to the author before I begin performing, containing a line from every significant character in the book. That way, the author can direct me as much as possible before I really dive in.
M: I really enjoyed your accents in Quest of the Dreamwalker.
I'm curious, do you work in a studio or at home?
ZJ: At home. I lined my closet with foam mattress toppers to sound treat it and set up a microphone, an audio interface, a chair, and a little desk with a wireless keyboard on it so I can keep my computer outside and my booth free of fan noise. It also doubles as a wardrobe and a triples as a small book repository. It's cozy.
M: That does sound like a cozy spot - if a bit crowed - in a nice way with books especially.
In your opinion, what makes a good narrator? Do you have any advice you would you give to narrator-hopefuls?
ZJ: I would say that a good narrator is someone who is able to feel what the characters are feeling and who can bring that emotion into their read. I love when the narrator seems emotionally invested in what's going on. An audiobook told that way can take on the magical quality of stories told by firelight during childhood. It's amazing.

As for hopefuls, here are a few things I've learned:

  1. If you've not yet tried the craft, but are considering it, test yourself by reading out loud to yourself in a closet for an hour or two a day. Do this every day for two weeks. If you enjoy it, you're probably possessed of the temperament to narrate. So happy reading!
  2. Don't skimp on the equipment. Really do some research and get the tools that will make you sound professional. It'll take some saving up, but it's worth it. If you know a good sound engineer, talk to them. See what you can get that's both capable of producing a quality sound and saving your bank account undue evisceration.
  3. Listen to audiobooks. You never know what you can learn from a fellow performer.
  4. Understand that rejection is almost never personal. That author you've submitted to wants to make the job offer as badly as you want to get it, but it's just the nature of creative work that certain people are better suited for certain jobs. You could be an absolutely sterling example of your narration niche, but it's just that: a niche. No one voice is suited to every single story. Some require a deep, thrumming tone. Some require a gentle, soothing read. And some require you. Find those jobs, and be at your best when they appear. Lincoln said it best: “I will study and prepare myself, and someday, my chance will come.”
M: That sounds like very good advise.
I don't think I really appreciated how much work is involved, in addition to skills, in being a good narrator. The narration in Quest of the Dreamwalker helped me recognize this in you as a new narrator for me. You certainly succeeded as a wonderful storyteller for me. 
Thank you again for stopping by. It was nice chatting with you, Zach! Where can folks go to find out more about you and your work?
ZJ: It has been my pleasure! If you're interested in checking out projects I've narrated, you can follow this link here:

I can also be found on Facebook:
[M comment: Zach has a cute bunny gif if you scroll down his facebook; not to mention a photo with his mouth stuffed with marshmallows for voice effect!]


And, of course, ACX:

And again, thank you! Happy listening, everybody!

[M: Image from ACX]

TWO WINNERS: Audible Credit Code for Quest of the Dreamwalker download. One for US Listener and One for UK listener.
(Codes courtesy of the author and narrator.)


(Don't forget to fill in the form for entry!)
For 3 Extra Bonus entries
(a) comment on the review, OR
(b) Comment on this Narrator Interview.

* This contest is open to US and UK for Audible Code.
* This contest will close 5 PM (Central) July 1, 2017. Winner will be announced in the Sunday Post on July 2, 2017.
Winners are asked to respond on the winners form linked in the announcement or by email


  1. helpful tips to share
    listen in the car

  2. This was an interesting interview. Thanks.

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! It was a pleasure to do!


Your comments are always appreciated!


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