How a Great Audiobook Narrator Finds Her Voices

Several years ago, the writer N. K. Jemisin got an e-mail from the voice actor Robin Miles. Miles had just been hired to narrate the audiobook of Jemisin’s new novel, “The Fifth Season,” about the inhabitants of a continent called the Stillness, and she had some questions. How do Sanzeds, midlatters, and Eastern Coasters usually speak? How do you pronounce Essun, Damaya, and Tonkee? “She wanted to know exactly what kind of accents to use at certain places, and where characters were from within their countries,” Jemisin told me recently. There were words in the book, Jemisin admitted, that she had never even said aloud. She usually struggles to read her work after it’s been published; she tends to think about what could have been better. “I kept just saying, ‘It’s a fantasy novel! It doesn’t matter how they’re pronounced. They’re not real!’ ”

But, later, after listening to the finished audiobook, Jemisin recognized that the soundscape was an important part of the world she was building. While working on the sequel, she often reminded herself, “I need to think about what this character sounds like.” After Miles narrated “The Fifth Season” and its sequels, Jemisin asked her publisher to hire Miles for her subsequent books. “She’s as serious about her art as I am about mine,” Jemisin said.

Jemisin’s tenth novel, “The City We Became,” is set not in a fantastical land but in New York City. Each of the five boroughs is embodied by a character; so are other cities, including London, Hong Kong, and São Paulo. Jemisin hired half a dozen sensitivity readers—including one from Brazil, one from Sri Lanka, and another from India—to insure that all her depictions were accurate. Miles, for her part, traversed New York by subway and ferry, listening to strangers. She typed up a dramatis personae to remind her how each character should sound. Her notes for the character Bronca read simply “South Bronx.” For Manny, who represents Manhattan, she wrote, “POC. Trust fund baby of possible criminal family; dresses preppy . . . Knows how to be diplomatic, deferential.” The audiobook won two industry awards, known as Audies, for best fantasy audiobook and best female narrator.

On a rainy Monday in August, Miles arrived at a recording studio in the midtown Manhattan offices of Hachette Book Group to narrate the book’s sequel, “The World We Make.” Miles has sharp cheekbones and the posture of a ballet instructor. She greeted the director, Elece Green, and a sound engineer, Michelle Figueroa, in the control room, then took off her plaid rain boots and walked barefoot into a soundproof booth, where she began warming up. She made motorboat sounds; she bent her voice up an octave and back down again. She imitated Prue and Paul from “The Great British Bake Off,” to remind herself of the difference between a posh British accent and one native to northern England. Miles was born on the Jersey Shore. “I keep wondering where I might sound like New Jersey,” she said into the microphone. “I’m horrified to know the truth.”

Miles is a specialist in accents. She has been the voice of the Antiguan American novelist Jamaica Kincaid, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Russian journalist Yelena Khanga, and the Californian Vice-President Kamala Harris. On this day, she voiced both sides of a conversation between New York and London. On a printed script, Green had marked where sound effects would be added later. “We need tentacle squish sounds here,” she told me, pointing at one spot. When the book said that someone laughed, Miles offered the engineer a giggle, a chortle, and a cackle; when a character steepled their fingers, Miles did, too. “She sounds like Ursula,” Green said, when Miles voiced the novel’s villain. “I love her,” Figueroa replied. “So slimy.”

“It’s a bit like having sex with yourself,” Miles joked a few hours later, during her lunch break. “If you don’t have fun, it’s your own damn fault.” To narrate, Miles said, is to live the dream of Nick Bottom, the amateur actor in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Bottom is cast as Pyramus, “a most lovely gentleman-like man,” but he also wants to play Pyramus’ lover, Thisbe, and a roaring lion to boot. “Transforming myself into those things, and trying to find a truthful way to do that—there’s nothing else like it,” she said.

At the turn of the millennium, audiobooks were closer to a cottage industry than a mass medium. Books on tape were bulky and expensive; as I recall, when my father played them in the car, he had to flip them every half hour, trying not to swerve out of his lane in the process. The book on tape that I remember best, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” narrated by Jim Dale, cost forty-five dollars and came in a brick-sized box; books on CD were only slightly smaller, and just as expensive. At the time, only a few thousand audiobooks came out each year, and many were abridged. When Random House bought Books on Tape, then a leading independent audiobook producer, for a reported twenty million dollars, in 2001, Publishers Weekly called the deal a “niche acquisition.” Just seven years later, Amazon paid about three hundred million dollars to purchase Audible.

Audiobooks are now a billion-dollar industry; they are about as popular, in dollar terms, as e-books, and may soon generate more revenue than Broadway. In 2021, nearly seventy-four thousand audiobooks came out, and very few were abridged. Today’s audiobooks take up no physical space at all, and can be found on dozens of Web sites and apps, from Audible and Storytel to SimplyE, a well-stocked app from the New York Public Library. “We’ve had ten years of double-digit sales growth,” Michele Cobb, the executive director of the Audio Publishers Association, a trade group that represents book publishers, Audible, RBmedia, and others, told me.

The industry’s profitability can be attributed to its increasingly vast audience—almost a quarter of U.S. residents listened to an audiobook in the past year, according to one survey—and also to its low production costs. Producers spend far less on audiobooks than they would on a film or a TV show, but retailers can sell them for a similar amount: they’re sometimes twenty or thirty dollars each. (A monthly Audible plan, which includes unlimited access to around eleven thousand titles and is not bundled into Amazon Prime, costs as much as Hulu or Disney+.) An hour of finished audio can earn a narrator hundreds of dollars, but typically requires around two hours in the studio, plus significant preparation time. Narrators often work from home, seldom own their work, and rarely earn royalties. A minority of audiobooks, some of them excellent, are narrated by their authors; some big-budget productions are narrated by celebrities or a full cast of voice actors. “There aren’t really a lot of stars who do this,” Miles told me. “It doesn’t pay enough.”

Even so, the audiobook boom has lifted up the entire profession. Cobb told me that she once knew most of the narrators in the business, but now there are hundreds who are new to her. As publishers adapt more kinds of books into audiobooks, Cobb said, they have more voices to choose from: “There’s a greater focus, with good reason, on making sure the main character’s identity is a closer match with the narrator’s.” Of course, most books have more than one character. In “Tell Me How to Be,” by Neel Patel, the narrator Vikas Adam gives voice to a South Asian man who roughly fits his own identity—but he is also the man’s mother, as well as all the supporting characters. “It’s one of the performances I am most proud of,” he told me.

Narrators can persuasively embody characters who look nothing like them—but it takes a special kind of work. “That’s the challenge and the duty of it,” Adjoa Andoh, a British audiobook narrator who also plays the inimitable Lady Danbury on the TV show “Bridgerton,” told me. Andoh was born to a Ghanaian father and an English mother, and onscreen she has played Black characters. As a narrator, however, she can come from wherever her voice tells us that she’s from—whether Victorian London, in Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series, or a Georgian-era English estate, in “Pride and Prejudice.” Andoh told me that, even after her successes in other performing arts, she would never give up narration, partly because she relishes the challenge of making every character sound authentic. “You are the entire world,” she said.

Miles, who sometimes describes herself as a “vocal chameleon,” has played Southern enslavers, in Lalita Tademy’s novel “Cane River,” and Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis, one of the last enslaved Africans brought to the U.S. and the subject of “Barracoon,” by Zora Neale Hurston. She was one of the voices of “The Mueller Report,” and the voice of a distraught blue crayon, in “Red: A Crayon’s Story.” (She has also narrated stories for this magazine.) When she offered to show me her home studio, I imagined a cozy soundproof room in which we could both sit and chat about her craft. Instead, one afternoon earlier this year, she led me to a small office in her Harlem apartment and opened the closet door. Inside was a chair, a computer monitor, a microphone, and a lot of soundproof foam. “It’s the tiniest space known to man,” Miles told me. Her second husband, Ty, installed it at the start of the pandemic, when the professional studios Miles usually used were closed. She now records almost all of her narration there. I spent the afternoon sitting outside the closet, listening to her read books and shouting the occasional question through the door.

Miles began her work that day by recording corrections, or pickups, that would be spliced into one of her upcoming audiobooks. She recorded a newspaper article about the history of queer royal relationships. Then she readied herself to narrate “The Vanderbeekers on the Road,” the sixth book in a series about a multiracial family and their landlord, Mr. Beiderman. (She recorded the first one in 2017.) “I do look forward to seeing Mr. Beiderman again,” she told me, as though he was coming over for dinner. Miles started to perform the part of young Oliver in the high-pitched voice of a nine-year-old, but corrected herself: Oliver was several years older now. “Let me retake that,” she said, and dropped her voice into the timbre of an adolescent. As she read from a well-loved iPad, she talked to herself, often in character. At one point, she swapped headphones and proclaimed, in a Russian accent, “Much better!” In a British accent, she continued, “There we are.”

When Miles works from home, she is effectively her own director; she saves the takes she likes and e-mails the audio files to her producer, who lets her know if anything sounds amiss. She often spends six hours a day in the booth, stopping every hour or two for green tea and snacks. That day, as her neighbors came home from work, she had to pause her recording because their footsteps creaked through the ceiling of her studio. Miles told me that the voice of Mr. Beiderman, a grump who lives above the Vanderbeekers and hates noise, belonged to a German-Jewish clockmaker she knew in New Jersey. If their fictional Harlem brownstone were real, it would be situated only blocks away from where we were sitting.

Miles grew up, in the seventies and eighties, in Matawan, a Jersey suburb about an hour from Manhattan. Her maternal grandparents had been English teachers in Jamaica—when I asked Miles what books were read to her when she was young, she recited two lines of nineteenth-century poetry that she learned from her grandfather—but, in New York, her grandmother became a domestic worker and her grandfather worked manual jobs. Their daughter, Miles’s mother, was a gifted public speaker who worked in health education. “The gift that they passed down—it’s the gift of gab,” Miles told me. She also learned musicality. Her father, a jazz drummer who went on to organize conferences for the Urban League, used to play records in the living room while improvising beats on a brass ashtray.

Miles remembers Matawan as a borough of immigrants. Whenever she visited a neighbor’s house, she heard accents: Cuban, Irish, German. Matawan Regional High School had an exceptional musical-theatre program, and Miles wanted to be a singer-dancer or a linguist. Once, her father took her to see “Sophisticated Ladies,” a Broadway show featuring the music of Duke Ellington, and they went backstage to meet a performer that he knew. “I can’t even describe how glittering it was,” she told me. But, sitting in front of a dressing-room mirror, two of the cast members told her that Black performers had received death threats. “These aren’t isolated incidents,” Miles told me. Her encounters with discrimination would later inform her portrayals of marginalized characters: “My knowledge of that definitely gets into my performance.”

Miles studied theatre at Yale twice, first as an undergraduate and then as a master’s student in the class of 1994. She looked for acting work in New York City, but there were not a lot of roles for Black actors; characters of unspecified backgrounds tended to be cast as white by default. “There was almost nothing for me to go out for,” Miles said. One day, she was leaving her hair salon in Manhattan and walked past a nonprofit that served the visually impaired. Miles called to inquire about volunteer opportunities and was referred to the American Foundation for the Blind, which had created the first audiobooks in the nineteen-thirties. Though the person who answered the phone liked her voice enough to schedule an audition, she blew it, on account of overacting. “They wanted a flat read with exquisite diction,” she recalled, because blind listeners often played recordings at high speed. (Some people with vision loss can process spoken language much faster than sighted listeners.) But the organization invited her to audition again, and, this time, she got the job. Someone called her to tell her how much the work would pay. “I said, ‘It pays?’ ”

A fellow-narrator of books for the blind, who overheard one of Miles’s recording sessions, recommended her to Recorded Books, a leading audiobook producer. She had narrated dozens of books when, in 2003, she got a job as an understudy for “The Violet Hour,” a Broadway play about a publisher who mysteriously gains access to stories from the future. One night, at intermission, the lead actress for her part dropped out for medical reasons. Miles stepped into the role. It was the kind of opportunity that careers are built on, and Miles needed the work: she had recently married and become a mother. Within a month, however, she started struggling with a particular line, and developed a lisp that she could not explain. By April, she could no longer speak clearly and lost the strength in her forearms. “I could hardly even keep my arms up long enough to hold a script,” she told me. She couldn’t read a children’s book to her toddler, Raine, without lisping.

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