January LaVoy might love audiobooks more than you.
“If you had told me when I was 10 years old that I was going to get paid to read books out loud,” the classically trained stage actor tells Paste via phone, “I definitely would have thought you were making fun of me. I didn’t know it was a job you could have. And if I had known that as a child, I would have actively pursued it, because [reading] is what I do all day anyway!”
LaVoy, who wrapped up her run in Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta last week, narrates 18 to 25 books a year. But when she was freshly returned to New York after grad school in 2002, audiobooks weren’t a glimmer on any actor’s horizon. All the make-ends-meet money back then was in voice over work for commercials, which LaVoy stumbled into after doing a play with other voice over actors.
After landing several big campaigns (including ones for Dannon, Revlon and Obama For America), LaVoy’s agent brought up the possibility of narrating audiobooks. LaVoy had never listened to an audiobook at that point, but she loved reading and was game to try.
“And, well, I’ll tell you…it was a naughty book,” she says. “It was very lucrative, and it was a series, but I had to do it under a different name. I was working on a soap opera on ABC, which is owned by Disney, and we had to be really careful about crossing the streams, so to speak.”
LaVoy’s work on that series revealed that she not only enjoyed narrating audiobooks, but that she had the talent for it. “You know, it’s really not for everyone. For many, many people, sitting in a soundproof, airless room for eight hours reading a book out loud? It’s absolute torture!”
Listen: LaVoy reads a section of Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Not for LaVoy. While producers have told her that the average rate of finished product to studio hours is 1:2, LaVoy can usually produce 1.5 to 1.75 hours of narration for every 2 hours she is in the studio.
“I’m kind of a robot,” she says. “I didn’t do anything to be that way. I can’t take credit for it; it’s just how I came wired. I’m very lucky.”
“Lucky” is definitely one of LaVoy’s watchwords. She’s “lucky” that she stumbled into voice over work; “lucky” she’s wired to do it efficiently; “lucky” she got into the audiobook game when the annual output was still small enough that every production was in a professional studio.
“I know a lot of incredible narrators who [record in home studios by themselves], but I have the luxury that I am pretty much consistently furnished with a director and an engineer and a studio. That means I don’t have to listen to myself, which makes for a better performance,” she explains. “I do a lot of character-rich stuff, it’s so much better when there’s someone out there going, ‘Okay, that didn’t quite sound like Theta, it sounded a little more like Evie.’”
LaVoy also considers herself extremely lucky to have nabbed Libba Bray’s Diviners series (“I definitely play favorites with that, because it genuinely is a special series”) and a spot on the ongoing Star Wars roster (she’s narrated origin stories for Captain Phasma and Princess Leia, a Jedi prehistory called Into the Void and Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series). She even feels lucky to have “ridden the coattails” of much more commercial authors like James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark and John Grisham.
Listen: LaVoy reads a section of Version Control by Dexter Palmer
As for how she develops each character’s voice, well, her luck in that realm stems from a rich history with interesting acquaintances.
“I often cast a book,” LaVoy says. ”[It’s often] people I know more than famous people. And then they just do their job.” James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series, for example, might feature four female protagonists, “but then in a course of a book there will be another 80 male side characters who are DAs, cops, assistants.”
“So for those I’ll make a note in the margin, this is my Uncle Tim, this is my 4th grade teacher,” she says. “Not to communicate to you as the reader, but so I have a distinction in my own mind. It allows for some specificity, and not just, ‘white male between the ages of 18 and 30.’”
LaVoy also inhabits each character physically. “It’s something you’re creating with your whole body, particularly with your face. So it’s not necessarily remembering how they sounded, but how they stood or if they scowled all the time. You get the person’s posture down, you get their voice.”
And whose voice is LaVoy’s favorite-other than the Alma LaVoy that Libba Bray snuck into Before the Devil Breaks You as an homage?
“Theta!” LaVoy says, naming another Diviners character without hesitation. “She’s my favorite; she’s my girl.”
Listen: LaVoy reads a section of Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray
“You know what’s fascinating about [the Diviners books], and why I look forward to them every year? Libba’s writing about a similar inflection point [to our last couple years] in American history: the 1920s. We had so much economic instability, so much rampant Jim Crowism, Communism, Russia-there are all these very interesting points of contact between what’s happening now and what happened then. How she manages to weave the two together so we can try and accurately reflect on our own history is really thrilling.”
That thrill is what a carefully constructed audio performance can convey to a listener, and it’s one of the reasons LaVoy is passionate about the growing industry.
“It’s an amazing job, and I love doing it,” she explains, “but it’s also really important. [Listening to an audiobook] is reading. We’re all so busy, and some people don’t have the luxury of sitting with a book. Some people don’t have the capacity physically, or the time, [to read print].”
“At a Star Wars celebration a couple years ago, I had a mother with two sons come up to me, weeping, telling me how both her boys were severely dyslexic and feared books—wouldn’t touch them, were repulsed by them—until she started buying them Star Wars audiobooks. And now they both read! They’ve actually been able to overcome some of their difficulties because their attraction to the books [caused] a shift. They didn’t know the extended universes were there for the taking, and the idea was just so thrilling to them. It’s very powerful stuff.”
Listen: LaVoy reads a section of Phasma (Star Wars) by Delilah S. Dawson
I told you: January LaVoy might love audiobooks more than you, but feel free to try to top her. I think she’d be the first to say, she should be so lucky.
January LaVoy can be found at her website, and her audiobook catalogue can be found on Audible and Libro.fm.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibiliophile whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go 10 rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.