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Series 5

Episode Five: Narrator Emily Woo Zeller

Emily Woo Zeller is an American voice actress and audiobook narrator whose work has earned heaps of awards, including AudioFile’s prestigious Golden Voice Award. You may have heard her reading fantasy books like R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War series, romance novels like Helen Hoang’s The Bride Test, or perhaps a spy thriller like Chloe Gong’s Foul Lady Fortune. Today she tells us what she appreciates about those books, and a little of what she’s learned about creating a well-balanced life.

Other books mentioned:

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

The Stress Prescription: Seven Days to More Joy and Ease by Elissa Epel

The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer by Elizabeth Blackburn, Elissa Epel 


Emilly Woo Zeller and Gabra Zackman’s short-form romance and erotica:

AudioFile interview:

Episode 5: Narrator Emily Woo Zeller


Emily: Yeah, and it’s in boredom that we find, I think, really our humanity. It’s the opportunity for creativity, that’s where it’s born.

[Music starts]

Jessica: [To listeners] This is the Listening Books podcast. I’m Jessica Stone and you just heard American voice actress and audiobook narrator Emily Woo Zeller, whose work has earned heaps of awards, including AudioFile’s prestigious Golden Voice award. You may have heard her reading fantasy books like R. F. Kuang’s Poppy Wars series, romance novels like Helen Hoang’s The Bride Test or perhaps a spy thriller, like Chloe Gong’s Foul Lady Fortune. Today she tells us what she appreciates about those books and a little of what she’s learned about creating a well-balanced life.

[Music ends]

[To Emily] Emily, thank you so much for making the time to chat with me today. I’m always curious when I talk to narrators about what led them into audiobook narration in the first place because I don’t think I’ve ever yet found someone who started off with that as a career goal. How was it for you?

Emily: Yeah, that’s an interesting point. Well, for those of us who’ve been around for a little while, I don’t know that any of us knew that audiobooks was an option. So I think perhaps now since audiobooks have become so much more mainstream and there are more people doing it and there’s been a lot more information about those of us who have been doing it that one could very consciously step into doing audiobooks as a career goal. I coach several people who are like that, who have that as an explicit goal for their career. For myself, I have always been a performer, a performing arts performer. I started as a dancer and musician, singer, I played some piano and a touch of guitar, and got into theatre from there, and then was doing a lot of, you know, any kind of stage work I could possibly get my hands on. But I think partially because voice and body had always been a huge aspect of my relationship with performance, voiceover was a natural avenue of it that I wanted to pursue, and had the opportunity when I was living in Hong Kong to audition and work for a company that did anime dubbing. Actually, all sorts of other things as well but their primary thing was anime dubbing. I did that for a couple of years before coming back to the States and then was just hungry you know, for any sort of voiceover work I could get. It happened to be that I was told about an audition for BBC Audiobooks America and, you know, put a demo together, which at the time was… That’s another story but I put a demo together, [Jessica laughs] managed to put a demo together, and sent it in and the rest is, kind of, history from there. It was slow build, a very build because it wasn’t my focus, it was just another gig. [Jessica: Hm] But I did love it and took to it immediately, like I had with dubbing, and eventually, once I was living in New York realised this was something that I wanted to pursue full-time. That happened in 2012, so I guess we’re in the fourteenth year now of full-time, but I started doing voiceover in 2006.

Jessica: And did you find that there were distinct differences between doing your voice work for audiobook narration as opposed to the dubbing for anime or other kind of film and television? Are there different things about the experience?

Emily: Absolutely. Yes, there are a lot of differences. In my first couple of books the director, because there were directors at the time, told me to vanilla it down. [Jessica: Oo.] I was being… My characters were too big, [laughs] right?

Jessica: Oh, okay.

Emily: Which is appropriate for anime and animation but he was, like, you know, this is a book that people are listening to, you want to leave space for their imagination. Again, right, that was more than fourteen years ago, that was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years ago. So, like, the style for audiobook narration was very specific at the time. Now I think there are a couple more styles that have opened up, particularly with the popularity of YA, [Jessica: Hmhm.] I think it lends itself well to a bigger, bolder style of narration. But, yeah, at the time it was very old school, which is a beautiful way to narrate but it was very different from animation.

Jessica: I listened to the interview you did with AudioFile, which was so interesting to me, and one of the things that stood out that you said was that you sort of realised that you’re an endurance person rather than a sprinter and that audiobooks really suit you for that reason. I just heard you say now that you coach people as well in this now and I wonder, is that something that you ask them straightaway, to make sure that they really want to do this?

Emily: [Laughs] Yeah, I think it’s part of the… Yeah, absolutely. If you can’t… who was it? I think Sean Pratt actually, I’ll give him credit for this. I think he actually includes it in his information sheet, ‘Before you even contact me, this is information you need to know [Jessica laughs] for yourself’, right? Can you sit in a closet for two hours at a time performing, by yourself, and then get up, get a glass of water and take a break and do it again?’ That is what full-time work is, right? It’s incredibly taxing actually, so finding ways of work-life balance to support that is very, very important.

Jessica: I can imagine, yeah. I understand that you’re a great reader just yourself personally as well and so I was wondering if narrating audiobooks has affected the way that you read when you’re reading for pleasure?

Emily: [Laughs] That’s a great question! Yes. Yes, yes, yes! In some ways it’s ruined me. There are many titles now that if I can even kind of imagine that I might have been given it then it’s hard not to work when I’m reading, right, and that’s not pleasurable for me. So I often gravitate towards books that I would never in a million years be cast for. [Jessica: Hm.] Or I listen to books as well because it’s a nice way to have something to do when I’m, you know, doing repetitive, sort of, cardio movement on a machine or something, right? [Jessica: Hm.] So when I listen I tend to gravitate towards nonfiction, I’ll say that, when I’m listening and I think it's because I do quite a bit of fiction in work and so it helps to balance my brain a little bit, where I don’t have to get… I already carry so many stories inside, right? [Jessica: Hm.] So when I’m listening and for my own… As I mentioned earlier, the work-life balance thing, so for my own mental health and wellbeing I do a lot of research on that sort of thing, you know, personal empowerment and general science things. Science was always the other path in my life and it’s a way for me to keep that alive and curious, to listen to…

Jessica: Yeah!

Emily: …and read titles that I can nerd out on! [Laughter]

Jessica: You’ve mentioned how important that is to keep that work-life balance a couple of times now so I’m wondering if there’s a single thing that you’ve picked up from your reading that has really helped you, kind of, work that out for yourself.

Emily: Yeah, there’s been a lot of information from various sources that have led me to understanding the importance of rest and boredom. [Jessica: Oh.] Yeah, yeah! I think that doesn’t get talked about enough that… I used to be a person who, you know, everything was active, even rest was active, rest was done in the name of productivity. [Jessica: Hm.] Arguably boredom is important for productivity but in terms of being a whole human being and being able to sustain doing anything… Physical health has always been there for me because I was a dancer, right, and I always cared about that aspect of things, yeah, but understanding what is the real physical, mental and emotional capacity of a person in a day and over a week and over months and over years, right, what does it really look like to be able to sustain living and being productive.

Jessica: I love that. I agree with you. We don’t value boredom enough I think and it’s harder and harder to find moments of boredom because it’s just so easy to be on TikTok or Twitter, whatever!

Emily: Absolutely, yeah, yeah, yeah, and it’s in boredom that we find, I think, really our humanity. It’s the opportunity for creativity, that’s where it’s born, right? Where you have to have some balance of structure and restriction but also boredom. [Jessica: Hm.] You need the space to be able to have the interest to generate anything. So to support this creative work of performing we need that space, that quiet, the ability to get bored, the space to get bored.


Jessica: [To listeners] I hope you’re enjoying this conversation with Emily Woo Zeller. Coming up, she’s going to talk about some of the books she’s narrated and some of the books she’s been listening to. But first, let me take a second to tell you about Listening Books gift memberships. You can give the gift of audio this Christmas. Make a loved one’s year by giving them access to over ten thousand audiobooks and seven thousand newspapers and magazines for a whole year for just £20. Terms and conditions do apply. Visit our website for more information. That’s or follow the link directly to the gift membership page in the show notes.


[To Emily] While I have you here, I thought it would be lovely to hear about your experience with some of the books that you’ve voiced that we have in the Listening Books collection. I thought we might start with what might be the most recent and that’s Foul Lady Fortune by Chloe Gong, which sounds like so much fun. It’s got mystery, it’s got adventure, it’s got [Emily chuckles] an assassin who can’t age or die. When did you record that and what was that like?

Emily: Yeah, that is the most recent. Well, there’s a Foul Lady Fortune series actually, and I am in the process, it is in postproduction for the final book of the series, [Jessica gasps], which is Foul Heart Huntsman. Yeah, so that is happening right now!

Jessica: Oh wow!

Emily: [Laughs] In postproduction. I don’t know the official release date but it will be soon. So Foul Lady Fortune was the first that I did. There was one other book in the series that was narrated by another narrator but this particular one, Foul Lady Fortune, was with Rosalind Lang as the protagonist and it’s so fun. It’s set in late 1920s, early 1930s Shanghai with all of the realities that were present at the time, so it was very… They had the international settlement, they had civil war between nationalists and communists and they also had the Japanese coming in and in the beginning of what would eventually become their war against the Japanese. So all of that is in the background and then you have the sci-fi element of, you know, secret sort of formulas and genetics and… So there’s the spy thriller aspect and of course, everybody who’s involved is in their late teens and early twenties, so they’re all very young and they themselves, some of them, were not… They speak Russian, they speak Chinese, they speak English, they speak French, they… You know, and some of them were in boarding school in London and came back to Shanghai. So it’s a very… It feels very true in its international element for Shanghai…

Jessica: Yeah.

Emily: …and it’s also fantastical because of the sci-fi and spy thriller aspect of it. So it’s quite fun, yeah. And then of course romance too, because Chloe… Why not! [Jessica laughs]

Jessica: It sounds like it demands a lot of you as a voice actor as well.

Emily: Yeah, yeah, you kind of… [Laughing] There were some moments when I was like, oh right, oh, okay, now we’re in romance mode, oh, now we’re in comedy mode, no, okay, now we’re in dark-spy-thriller mode, oh okay! So yeah, there was a little bit of mental gymnastics that had to happen but, yeah, fun.

Jessica: It’s fun. It’s just really fun.

Emily: Yeah.

Jessica: Now, you are also known to really enjoy and also do justice to the fantasy and sci-fi genres and as examples we have R. F. Keong’s [Emily: Hm.] award-winning Poppy Wars series, which of course has been tremendously, tremendously popular. On the sci-fi side of things we’ve also got Yoon Ha Lee’s Phoenix Extravagant…

Emily: Yes.

Jessica: …which features, among other things, an automaton dragon! 

Emily: Yes!

Jessica: [Laughing] What stands out to you about these series?

Emily: Well, so going backwards, the Yoon Ha Lee series really was a surprise for me. There’s a lot of sci-fi that I do that’s very space opera, in the same vein as Star Wars or Star Trek, right? [Jessica: Hmhm.] It’s warfare on spaceships. The other details, which are very important, are very different but I’m just talking about in broad scope, sort of, the world that we’re dealing with. In Yoon Ha Lee’s series, you’re very much in another world, like on another planet, [Jessica: Hm] like you’re present in the workings of a stationary world. It’s not all stationary, there are also spaceships, there are also all sorts of battles and things like that, but the way that it was written felt much more of, like, political intrigue than it was, sort of, ships at war fighting with each other.

Jessica: Right.

Emily: You know, there is that element as well but the interpersonal detail and connections and deceit and the things that are at play felt so much more sophisticated than some of the other titles that I’ve read, so I thought it was really beautifully done. And Yoon Ha did a wonderful job of just seamlessly incorporating nonbinary genders in the characters, [Jessica: Hm] as part of the world and it was not a problem to be talked about, it was not, you know, anything…

Jessica: Yeah.

Emily: …that had to be dealt with, it just existed and it was beautiful. [Jessica: Hm.] And a great challenge to me as a performer to try and do that justice because I am not nonbinary, right, I’m cisgendered and I identify she/her and I don’t take lightly that I was given the opportunity to narrate for them, so…

Jessica: Lovely. Yeah. That also sounds amazing. Did you want to say anything about the Poppy War series as well or…?

Emily: Yes! Yes, yes, yes! I don’t mean to leave it out! Yeah, Poppy War, wow, what a saga. There’s so much... I mean, the cover art also kind of covers this or it touches on this but it just feels so firey, there’s so much fire [Jessica: Hm.] in that series! Literally and then also what is driving our main character, Rin, right? [Jessica: Hm.] So there’s a real sense of passion and justice and devastation and I guess that’s what I mean by fire, the sort of things that are driven in that direction have that kind of energy. And yeah, it’s also a three-book, a trilogy, of how many hours? Dozens of hours, right, of listening or pages of reading, so it’s multifaceted, even though I would say the primary colour of the series is fire.

Jessica: That must have been an intense recording experience.

Emily: Yeah, it was really intense. That’s exactly right, it was an intense recording experience. And to know the poppy war is… R. Kuang obviously made an entirely new world and entirely different circumstances for it but the poppy war is loosely based on the opium wars [Jessica: Hmhm.] that happened in China, so it felt really great too, to have this type of saga happen in a fantasy Asia. Yeah, that was nice. I think often… And I have been lucky to narrate many books that are set in an alternate Asia, which is just so beautiful and such a relief to have somewhere other than an alternate British Isles, which…

Jessica: Right.

Emily: …are also beautiful, I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Lord of the Rings as much as everybody else, right? [Jessica laughs] But when all fantasy is historically in an alternate UK isles, it’s like, wait!

Jessica: Yeah,

Emily: There’s more to the world, right? There are other places that exist and other histories and other ways to have fantasy and so it’s been so nice to live in those and experience those through the power of literature. I thought she did a great job of it. That was not, you know, a kung fu drama, that was not wuxia, and again, wuxia’s wonderful in its own right but what stood out about this was that it was not that, that it was something different. So yeah.

Jessica: And moving from, say, fantasy to genres like romance and from, sort of, fantasy Asia to, like, real-life Asian enclaves in the US, I wonder if you’d like to say a bit about The Bride Test?

Emily: Sure! Yeah… Yeah, so romance has, it’s been argued by romance writers, readers and listeners that it is just another type of fantasy, right? Because one of the critiques of romance is that, ‘Oh, there’s nothing that is… It’s so unrealistic’, it sets up unrealistic expectations [Jessica chuckles]. I have to admit, when I was younger I also felt the same way. I hated romance! Because I was, like, nah, this is setting you up for failure! Why would you think…! And I didn’t understand that it was fantasy, right? I thought that people would genuinely expect life to roll out that way and would be so utterly crushed because that’s not the way life is, right? When the whole point is that’s not the way life is [Jessica: Hmm.] and the whole point is to get to experience a fantastical kind of world where… I think now perhaps the genre is expanding, growing and there are more and more elements of real life that are being incorporated into it, which then it, kind of, walks a fuzzy line, right? But that’s just interesting in its own right. So, to that point, The Bride Test felt very real world because of its setting, because of the way that Helen Hoang made a man with autism the lead, right? The romantic lead, which certainly happens in real life but doesn’t get written about very often in romance stories, right, and in Asian Enclave and in this case Vietnamese, in particular, within the US also doesn’t get written about in a lived experience kind of way. This wasn’t like an exposé, this wasn’t any kind of examination of… It was just these are characters who live here and this is what their life is like and this is what exists. So that was really beautiful and that stood out to me quite a bit about the romance, and then you have a beautiful romance on top of that, so…

Jessica: Ah, that’s lovely. Would you do more romance or is that one that only is an occasional thing for you?

Emily: Oh yeah, no, I do romance all the time actually. Yeah, when I started doing romance I actually had a pseudonym. It is a convention…

Jessica: Yeah.

Emily: …that is often used in… But I felt for myself… And we all have different reasons, that we have the pseudonyms and use them. For myself, it felt very important to me to be public about being mixed Asian-American and being sex positive and to me having a pseudonym that was very Anglo-named, as they all are, it felt like hiding on too many levels, so...

Jessica: Yeah.

Emily: For me it just made sense to say, okay, if I’m doing a romance I’m doing it under my name. I do still have the pseudonyms for very, very specific types of titles. [Jessica laughs] But for the most part [laughs] I do use my name because I’m not afraid of talking about sex or narrating it, yeah

Jessica: Yeah.

Emily: I actually even have my own little fledgling production company with Gabra Zackman…

Jessica: Really?

Emily: …and we actually produce short-story romance, yeah. Yeah, it’s called Love Bytes Originals, bytes as in computer bytes, and we’ve now produced three series and they’re each somewhere between five to eight episodes of about, you know, thirty, forty-five minutes each. They’re beautiful, they’ve all been written by Gabra. I enjoy the short format and I wanted to see more romance that featured a big diverse range of people, from racial and cultural diversity to sexual orientation diversity to age diversity and all sorts of things, right. So we said, well why don’t we do it ourselves then? So we did, and, yeah, we’re working on a couple more. So that will slowly build, but it’s something that’s a passion project, it’s not something we do as a full-time gig, so… 

Jessica: Yeah, it sounds amazing though. So where would people go to listen to the series then?

Emily: You can actually find it anywhere. We have them up on Audible, we have… Anywhere you get your audiobooks you can get our stuff, but if you want just sort of general information it’s and we have a little Instagram page, we have a Patreon, if anybody wants to help support! Yeah, so I would look up… Whatever you’re looking up Gabra Zackman is her name, G A B R A, her last name is Z A C K M A N. The first two series that we did were called Nice and Naughty, which there are a hundred Nice and Naughty series but… So Nice and Naughty Gabra Zackman will get you to ours. Then the latest series that we released is called Love at the End of the World, which was written from a woman who is in her forties, single, living in New York City, trying to find love during COVID. So it really followed… She wrote it in tandem with what was going on, you know, it was one of the ways that helped her to deal with, well, everything that was happening. It’s really fun, and it’s hilarious! Yeah, and they’re all multicast, so we’ve got some great voice actors on all of them.  

Jessica: Wow, wonderful! I can’t wait to look those up, that’s amazing!

Emily: Yeah.

Jessica: Now, having talked about all these books, and we do have more that are voiced by you in our collection, I just want to let listeners know, and they are all worth listening to. And I will say, although I try not to fawn over guests, I did notice when I was listening to you read, a reaction that I don’t have to most narrators, and I’ll preface that by saying that that’s because normally I don’t place a very high value on the voice itself. People often will talk to me about how so and so should be a reader because they have a great voice or whatever, and to me that’s the sort of least important thing because there’s so much more to it. There’s all the nuance of the text that you have to understand and convey and there’s the ability to tell a story and the expressiveness and all of that, which all of those you are great at. But also, your voice is really nice to listen to! [Emily laughs] I’m not used to paying that much attention to that aspect of it but I was listening to you thinking, I would listen to her read me anything. So I’m just saying that to listeners! [Emily laughs] You can actually search our collection by searching for Emily Woo Zeller and you can see all the books that she’s narrated that we have in the collection. Any of them, absolutely any of them are worth borrowing. For one thing, you get really good quality books as well to read. Like, at this stage in your career you’re not getting passed the rough stuff, you’re getting passed some really good quality literature as well.

Emily: Absolutely, yeah.

Jessica: Yeah.

Emily: I’m very grateful for that, yeah. But that’s very sweet of you to say, and that’s very astute, it is a thing that the quality of the voice is, in fact, the least important thing in voiceover but [laughs] it’s also nice to have that… Yeah.

Jessica: I think the question that I was leading up to and got completely sidetracked on was, with all of these books under your belt, having read hundreds of them now, are there any authorial habits that make your job harder or conversely easier? Do you know what I mean?

Emily: Yeah, yeah. You mean in the writing of the text itself or in the process of recording the book?

Jessica: Oo, I meant the first one but actually both are really interesting to me, so whichever you have a good answer for!

Emily: Yeah. In the writing of the book itself I would say… So the classic story for a lot of narrators is, we all know somebody who this has happened to, where you didn’t read the entire book beforehand and therefore you didn’t find out until the second-to-last page that so and so had a Scottish brogue [Jessica laughs] and you didn’t give them that for the entire book! Now it is the responsibility of the narrator to know the book before you get started. However…! I think from a reader’s perspective, I want to know, you know, if a character has that particular colour to them, they have a particular dialect or accent; I’d want to know that early on. Why is that being thrown in two pages from the end, you know, or midway through the book?

Jessica: Yeah!

Emily: So that’s something! Really. It’s nice to have those kinds of broad strokes of a character right up front.

Jessica: Yes!

Emily: Yep. Then in terms of process, this is mostly… I haven’t had an issue with this in a while. In fact most of my career has not had to deal with this but I do know people who have where understandably an author is very close to their work, right? They’ve poured hundreds of hours of work into making it happen, it is their baby, I absolutely understand that, and it is hard, it is challenging to allow somebody else to put their interpretation on it. And that is what you are doing when you hire somebody else to do your narration work. A lot of authors also choose to narrate themselves and learn, for better or worse, that performing is an entirely different skill from writing, even if you understand intellectually what is happening with the text, being able to translate that into a performance is an entirely different skill. [Jessica: Hm.] Then also, additionally, to be able to manage all the technical aspects of things.  

Jessica: Yeah.

Emily: But for authors who do choose to have a narrator perform their work, it can be very challenging for them and they try to really control the – micromanage…

Jessica: Right.

Emily: …the performance, and you can’t do that. You have to trust who you’ve hired, trust them to do your work justice. But, again, I recognise how challenging that is and a lot of authors, especially now, are taking more time to do their research and find people who they really think would be a good match. It’s very normal to audition, right? Audition pages, you cannot have more than five minutes of material [Jessica: Hmm.] to have a person audition. To the authors who are listening, [laughs] if you are providing audition material, it’s helpful for us to have context. So the information you can give us about who these characters are, the more we are going to be able to give them life…

Jessica: Yeah.

Emily: …so that we can see them. Because when you read the entire book, of course you get the picture, but when you have five minutes of material you don’t have three hundred pages to support what your idea of what a person is or what a character is so… Yeah.

Jessica: Great points! I think that what I’d love to do is… We’ve talked about several of the books that you have voiced and I hope that’s given some listeners some good recommendations for their next read but you mentioned that you yourself read and listen to a lot of nonfiction, in particular science kind of books. So I wondered if you’d like to close us out by giving us a recommendation in that kind of genre?

Emily: Sure. I am currently in the middle of a book by, I believe it’s Elissa Epel, it’s called The Stress Prescription, that is something that probably everybody could use. It’s very digestible, she’s very approachable. She also wrote a book called The Telomere Effect, which gets more into the science of how… So stress is our primary driver for a lot of the long-term illnesses that we experience as humans, and managing stress helps to alleviate the risk factors [Jessica: Hm.] for those diseases later on. Telomeres are little caps at the end of your chromosomes and you can… The length of them indicates your lifespan. [Jessica: Oo.] So a higher stress life leads to shorter telomeres and a shorter life. So that… Now, I haven’t listened to The Telomere Effect yet, it’s next in my cue after The Stress Prescription.

Jessica: You see, now I’m stressing about how long my telomeres are!

Emily: [Laughs] That’s a whole other thing, right? Yeah, stressing about being stressed! Which, I will say, Elissa Epel addresses in The Stress Prescription right away. It’s like a classic Buddhist thing, it’s called the Second Arrow where you have the event, you have the feeling and then you have the feeling about the event or the feeling about the feeling. [Jessica: Hm.] Yeah, I know, it’s a lot but for everybody’s wellbeing I think it’s worth for us all to be able to breathe better and live with less stress.

Jessica: Yeah, I just took a nice deep breath as you said that, that was nice!

Emily: Yeah, good!

Jessica: Emily, thank you so much for giving your time today. I really enjoyed hearing your thoughts. There were some wonderful, unexpected answers in there, which are always a pleasure to hear.

Emily: Awesome, thank you so much, it was great to talk to you. It was really, really lovely to meet you.

[Music starts]

Jessica: [To listeners] Wasn’t she so lovely? I’ve included the links and book titles in the show notes for your convenience. Thank you so much for listening. This wraps up our autumn series but we’ll be back in your feed before you know it. If you liked the change to our weekly schedule or if you preferred monthly episodes, do let us know. We are @listeningbooks on Instagram and what was formerly known as Twitter. You can also find us on Facebook, where we’re ListeningBooks12.

This podcast is produced by Listening Books, a UK charity that provides an audiobook lending service for over 120,000 members who find that an illness, disability, learning difficulty or mental health condition affects their ability to read the printed word or hold a book. It’s simple to join. For more information head to our website

[Music ends]

[End of Transcript]

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Episode Four: Narrator Stephanie Cannon

Stephanie Cannon is an American voice actor, circus performer, and audiobook narrator living in England. In this conversation with host Jessica Stone, she tells us what that’s like, how walking on stilts complements reading in a box, which kinds of books she loves to narrate, and conversely which ones she'll take a pass on. We also discuss Kate Dylan’s cyberpunk dystopian novel Mindwalker and its sequel Mindbreaker, both narrated by Stephanie. 

Books and other recommendations:

  • The Sharp Edge of Silence by Cameron Kelly Rosenblum, narrated by Stephanie Cannon 
  • Mindwalker by Kate Dylan, narrated by Stephanie Cannon
  • Mindbreaker by Kate Dylan, narrated by Stephanie Cannon
  • Noir by Christopher Moore, narrated by Johnny Heller 
  • Heidi’s Guide to Four Letter Words, by Tara Sivec and Andy Arndt, narrated by Andy Arndt
  • The Space Race, docudrama from B7 Media, narrated by Kate Mulgrew


For more of Stephanie’s work, head to her website

Episode Four: Narrator Stephanie Cannon


Stephanie Cannon is an American voice actor, circus performer, and audiobook narrator living in England. In this conversation with host Jessica Stone, she tells us what that’s like, how walking on stilts complements reading in a box, which kinds of books she loves to narrate, and conversely which ones she'll take a pass on. We also discuss Kate Dylan’s cyberpunk dystopian novel Mindwalker and its sequel Mindbreaker, both narrated by Stephanie. 


Stephanie: But when I get to be in these characters’ skin and following them along a journey, and I get to dictate a lot of how that’s delivered to the audience, you know, I’m largely in control of that, it’s a more demanding voice-acting job than any of my other ones but it’s also more fulfilling.

[Music starts]

Jessica: [To listeners] This is the Listening Books Podcast. I’m Jessica Stone and today’s conversation is with the multi-talented Stephanie Cannon, an American voice actor, circus performer and audiobook narrator living in England. We talk about what that’s like, how walking on stilts complements reading in a box, which kinds of books she loves to narrate and, conversely, which ones she’ll take a pass on. We also discuss Kate Dylan’s cyberpunk dystopian novel Mindwalker and its sequel Mindbreaker, both narrated by Stephanie.

[Music ends]

[To Stephanie] Stephanie, thank you so much for joining me today. I wonder, can you start us off by just telling us how your career in audiobook narration took off?

Stephanie: Well, I was doing various bits of voice acting but really only a few little things and I decided to really go for it and have a bunch of CDs made out for every single genre you can imagine. I was really proud of them and they looked all flashy and I sent them off to everybody in the book of contacts, which is, like, the industry go-to, or was back in the day when everything was more printed, and sent it to every single, you know, radio station and TV production company, all these things. I sent it to all the audiobook production companies as well. I got little jobs along the way but it wasn’t until three years later, after I’d sent one of these CDs to AudioGO, which are no longer in business but they were based out in Bath and they were ones who used to be BBC Audiobooks. So, they… I got an email out of the blue asking me if I was available and if I wanted to do this book with them and I said, well, yes, please, I mean…! [Jessica chuckles] It was many years later though so I use that as a story to tell everybody it’s not an instant, overnight kind of a career but if you persevere and you’ve got some patience not everybody has to wait for three years! But, I mean, it tells you that people do hang onto your demos, so…!

Jessica: Yeah! I mean, I’m. sort of, in my head… What do you imagine happened? That they came across your demo again at just that point?

Stephanie: At just the right time, yeah. I mean, that’s the kind of timing that you just really can’t control, it’s so out of your hands. I think that they were probably just trying to get some new voices. Maybe some people got a bit probably out of their budget and they needed to find…

Jessica: Oh right!

Stephanie: …some new people who were less famous and less, you know… Moving on, some people just move away geographically as well. So yeah, I think they just needed some more people on their books and luckily for me I was still there and looking to do some books with them. And that was a really lucky start for me because my first book with them turned into doing quite a few books a month and I became one of their go-to young American voices. They were really great, a lovely company to work for, and while I was narrating for them I started to talk to more people and they’d say, ‘Oh, have you met Alex at so and so?’ So yeah, they were my beginnings but then I was also narrating at the RNIB and at ID Audio and a bunch of other companies based in and around London.  

Jessica: Yeah.

Stephanie: So yeah.

Jessica: So, you, like me, are American, right? [Stephanie: Hmhm.] I was just wondering, being an American that’s based in England, [Stephanie: Hmhm.] how does that affect the kind of work that you’re able to get?

Stephanie: Well, definitely it’s different from the publishers’ point of view in that obviously they produce a lot more English books with English characters as the protagonists than they do American books. So, when I first start out with an audiobook production company, they don’t necessarily have a lot of titles that are suitable for my casting straightaway. But what does work to my advantage is that when they do have an American book that comes in, that has a female protagonist, they always think of me because there’s a much smaller pool of us Americans here.

Jessica: Right.

Stephanie: And I think when they think of me, they know that I can do a range of accents, so a lot of different American dialects as well as some of the British ones as well. [Jessica: Hm.] So, if they have a book that’s set in a, sort of, sci-fi realm or is set all over the world in lots of different countries, they’ll think of me for the American stuff but they know that I can cover a wide range of accents as well.

Jessica: Yeah. Do you find yourself having to guard your American accent from influence by the accents that you’re surrounded by?

Stephanie: Yes! Yes, sometimes more successfully than others, definitely! [Jessica laughs] I always have to… I’ve lived in England for eighteen years and as you can hear, my accent’s completely changed. I’ve got a transatlantic accent now, which I do use sometimes for sci-fi and for historical fiction, it can be really great for that kind of thing. But most of the time I need to go back to my roots and I need to find either my original accent or a version thereof. So, I’m from Alaska and I spent a lot of time living in California as well, so I’ll go back and, just like with any character, you just practise and you read the words aloud until the voice really sinks into your body and sinks into your mouth and your head and all that. So, it does… I have to, like, smack myself on the wrist if I round my Os too much and if I pronounce my Ts, you know, like, [adopts British RP accent] water!

Jessica: Right!

Stephanie: Because yeah, I definitely… I speak different than I did when I first got here, that’s for sure.

Jessica: I understand you have a varied performance career, not just in audiobooks and not even just in voice acting. In fact, did I read correctly that you’re also a circus performer?

Stephanie: Yeah, that’s right! Yeah, that’s another one of my weird, fun jobs. Yeah, I’ve been doing, kind of, accidentally, I didn’t mean to become a circus performer but, oh, it must have been, I don’t even know, twelve years ago? I auditioned for this all-women’s circus company called Circo Rum Ba Ba and they were hosting these auditions and they wanted to bring new stilt-walker performers onto their roster, into their company. I remember the audition announcement said, ‘We’re looking for people who are talented, versatile actresses who are good with improv, great with accents and you need to have the willing to walk on stilts but you don’t need to have the skill, we’ll teach you.’ And I was, like, hang on a second, there’s an acting job where you don’t need the skill required? [Jessica laughs] That sounds way too good to be true!

So, I went along to this audition and it was a workshop style, it was really playful, we were just, like, these characters, we were bouncing off of each other and running round the room like crazy people. I was a bug one second and a pirate the next. Still to this day it was the most fun audition I’ve ever done, and I’m still working with that company today and, yeah, one week I’m an eighteenth-century lady on stilts and I’m nine feet tall and having all sorts of fun with the audience, and then the next week, yeah, I might be a pirate or an alien or you name it!

Jessica: So, I can hear some of the crossover, like some of the elements that would be similar, the different characters that…

Stephanie: Yeah.

Jessica: …they can be and that performance aspect, but I imagine that it must be really fun to get out of the studio and do something that…

Stephanie: Is completely different.

Jessica: …involves so much more of your body.

Stephanie: Exactly, exactly. There’s a little bit of physical work that goes into voice acting, especially if it’s a video game and you’re up on your feet and you’re doing lots of combat or other things but, yeah, it’s nice to get out of the booth and to be on my feet and doing something that’s really physical. It’s also nice to have the interaction.

Jessica: Yeah.

Stephanie: That’s, like, the really big difference is having people that you’re bouncing off of straightaway, you’re getting laughs, you know…

Jessica: Yeah.

Stephanie: …you’re getting a lot of interaction and improvising.

Jessica: Yeah.

Stephanie: So, it’s nice to do something that’s not script based.

Jessica: Yes, and to let somebody else’s performance influence your own performance.

Stephanie: Exactly.

Jessica: Yeah, I can see that being really fulfilling.  

Stephanie: Yeah, and having all of those different jobs together, so the audiobooks and then videogame and animation acting is quite different from long-form narration and then the stilt-walking is even more different. So having those… I think of those as three different types of jobs, it makes me feel way more well-rounded.

Jessica: Yeah.

Stephanie: You know, I wouldn’t want to just be stuck in the booth doing corporate narration or whatever.

Jessica: Yeah. What do you think audiobooks require of you that maybe other kinds of voice acting don’t?

Stephanie: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, audiobooks, a lot of people will say is like the marathon of the voice-acting world or the narrating world, because, you know, it can be a long slog definitely. You’ve got a couple of days of prep to put into a book and then a couple of days of recording, depending on how long the book is, so, you know, it’s a big time commitment and you’re definitely spending a lot of time in a dark box that doesn’t have very much air in it! [Jessica chuckles] So there’s that kind of endurance side of it. But I took to it really quickly and I just… There’s something about being able to be swept away to another world for that length of time that I feel is really special as well. [Jessica: Hm] You know, sometimes if you do a commercial and it’s just three sentences, boom, you know, you’re in, you’re out. It’s a very different kind of feeling.

But when I get to be in these characters’ skin and following them along a journey, and I get to dictate a lot of how that’s delivered to the audience, you know, I’m largely in control of that, it’s a more demanding voice-acting job than any of my other ones but it’s also more fulfilling, I think. [Jessica: Hm] There’s a lot more work that goes into it. You know, you’ve got to find pronunciation for things and often you’ve got to dive into accents that maybe are new to you or maybe you’re not super, super comfortable with, so you just… Or you need a refresh, maybe the last time you did that accent was three years ago. So yeah, there’s definitely a lot more that goes into it but I feel really great by the end of it; you’ve produced this big thing, you know?

Jessica: Yeah, that’s a lovely way of talking about it. Since you mentioned some of the work that goes into it, I wonder if you might want to tell us a little bit more about what that process looks like for you once you’ve been cast for an audiobook.

Stephanie: Yeah, well once I’ve been chosen then I have to be very organised about how I plot everything in my calendar. I’ve got lots of different colour codings to make sure that I don’t pack too much in and to make sure that I haven’t overlapped schedules too much. I like to have a little bit of time in between books for vocal rest and to get my head out of that world and to be able to prepare to go into a new world. So yeah, just making sure everything’s really tidy in my calendars, that I don’t go crazy and so that don’t double-book myself [chuckling] and then end up having to record two audiobooks in one week! Then in terms of prepping the book itself, I love using iAnnotate on my iPad. I just have an iPad Mini, which means that I can take it in my handbag, I can take it anywhere with me. So, the nice thing about prepping is, if the weather’s nice enough I’ll go outside somewhere, find a nice bench or somewhere in the Downs near me, and I can do my prepping on the go in a nice, lovely nature spot. Then, yeah, with iAnnotate it’s really great. I can mark my characters as I go along. I just make little bookmarks for each new character that arrives on the scene.

Jessica: That’s smart.

Stephanie: Yeah, and it’s handy because I do need to go back to it for referencing quite often, either later on in the book… So, let’s say a character’s introduced in Chapter One but then it’s not until Chapter Four that they’re described as having a husky voice with a Russian accent. [Jessica: Hmhm.] So you go, oh, okay, that’s definitely worth noting, so then I go back to my bookmark and I put in those notes. Then it might happen that I go back to that bookmark, you know, three or four times as you learn a little bit more about that character. So, I either make notes about the vocal qualities, the accent. Maybe you get a hint about where they’re from or an extra little detail - they’re from this place but they’ve got an American dad and an English mum, so that might affect how their voice is. What kind of school they went to. All these things that give you hints.

Sometimes the author isn’t really direct about how they sound but you get social clues and you go, okay, they went to a posh boarding school so they’re definitely going to be quite articulate and confident in their speech. Then if I’m doing a series or if I’m doing a dual, book with another narrator, then it’s really helpful to make recordings, so little sound clips, and I just do those embedded directly into my PDF and make little clips for how that character sounds. Then I can use that for my own reference and I can also send it on to the other narrator so that they’ve got an idea of, oh, okay, this is how she’s making her character Robin sound, or whatever. Yeah, and then that’s really helpful for me because I often do books that are part of a trilogy or series and then I’ll open up the previous PDF from book one when I’m doing book two and I can listen back to those clips and see how I describe that character. So, it’s probably not going to be fresh in my memory anymore, a year later, but I’ve got those notes to look back on. 

Jessica: That sounds so organized and just so smart, the way that you approach it.

Stephanie: It’s come from many, many years of sometimes doing it the wrong way and then kicking myself in the butt, like, oh God, [Jessica laughs] I have no idea what she sounded like! Why didn’t I make a sound clip! But most of the time the production companies, if you haven’t saved it yourself, they’ll happily send you clips or they’ll send you the entire audio!

Jessica: Yeah!

Stephanie: Which is a lot to go through though if you don’t know exactly where that character first speaks!

Jessica: Yes, absolutely. That made me think about how much work goes in before you start recording and how the compensation model for audiobooks is, generally speaking, that you’re paid per finished hour. [Stephanie: Mhm.] Not per production hour, so not per hour that you spend working on the material but per finished hour. So, if it’s a twelve-hour audiobook then your rate is times twelve.

Stephanie: Yeah.

Jessica: So, the question is really is there anything about that model or about the industry as it stands that you would like to see changed?

Stephanie: Yeah, I mean it’s a tricky one because, I mean, the UK publishing industry it’s not, like, rolling in cash but I definitely… I mean, who wouldn’t want to be paid more, right? I think that most audiobook narrators and editors and engineers and all of that, yeah, they’re all deserving of a pay increase. The finished hour rate, it’s the way everybody does it and I suppose I can’t see it diverting from any other method because if they did it differently then basically if you were actually being paid for your time then people who are making more mistakes and haven’t prepared well enough [Jessica: Hm.]  are essentially going to get paid more…

Jessica: Right.

Stephanie: …just because they’re taking longer. So, I get the sense behind why they do it that way. It encourages people to come into the booth prepared and to try to make everyone’s jobs a little bit easier by being as focused and on it as you can. Everybody makes mistakes but I think that, you know, there’s got to be a bit more flexibility and allowance for books that are just more complicated, and I think in the US they’re a bit better than the UK market for paying people for books that just are going to entail a lot of research. So, if you have to look up a hundred-plus words of pronunciation, sometimes they’ll help you and they’ll give you a guide but not always. So that’s extra time that goes into your prep [Jessica: Hmhm.] that could be several days of going on YouGlish or Forvo or any of those sites to make sure, or even contacting some friends and you’re like, oh, there’s a load of Danish in this book so I need some extra help.

So, it’s not just the time that it takes to listen to the pronunciations but to source them and then to practise them, to go over them quite a few times so that it’s not just a correct pronunciation but it actually sounds effortless [Jessica: Hmhm.] and it sounds like that’s your native language, is how it needs to sound most of the time in books. So, I do think that there should be compensation for when there’s going to be a lot of extra prep for a book, for sure. Some companies try to do that but not all are able because it’s just not the practice and they haven’t budgeted for it. So, yeah, that’s a change that I’d definitely like to see and for the extra effort of when you’re doing multi- and dual narration; there’s extra emailing and collaboration and admin that has to go on behind the scenes before you even start recording.

So actually when I’m doing - so the book that I’m going to start recording this week, I’ve got another male narrator who’s doing the main love interest [Jessica: Hmhm.] and you have to read the whole book, you have to know what’s going on and know what’s going on with the characters but I’m only going to get paid for the time that I record, which is less than half of the book’s total length. So, there’s a little bit of injustice there because a lot more prep has gone into what I’m going to get paid for really.

Jessica: Yeah.

Stephanie: So yeah, there’s some ways in which it could be improved and… Because, I mean, think of all the jobs that are out there and if people got paid for the product rather than the time that they put into the product! [Jessica: Hm.] It’s a little bit… I think it does need some re-evaluating.

Jessica: Yeah, it just is on my mind I suppose because of the actors… The Hollywood strikes just brought to mind questions about what’s fair and what’s compensation. Anyway, I hadn’t planned on asking you any of that but just as you were talking about it, I thought, hmm, I wonder!

Stephanie: Yeah, it’s definitely on topic and it’s narrators but I feel like the narrators are the only ones put into the spotlight of, like, we’re underpaid, we’re doing a lot of work [Jessica: Hm.] but, I mean, all of the editors and proofers and people that I know, it’s just like everybody [Jessica: Hmhm.] could use a little bit of an extra bonus for [Jessica laughs] for the hard work and the time that they’re putting into it, you know.

Jessica: Yeah.

Stephanie: Yeah, so, yeah…

Jessica: Especially considering that all the reports are how booming the audiobook industry is.

Stephanie: Yeah, exactly, it’s a really important conversation for anybody involved in the arts because it’s this historical thing that for some reason it has been completely accepted that artists just are okay with working for free or working for less. [Jessica: Hm.] So, if you’ve got a project and they’re looking to cut the budget in any place, everybody always goes straight to the artist whether it’s, you know, fine arts or it’s the TV performer or whatever. They always think, well, you know, if we can cut a little bit they’ll work for free, they’re used to being an actor, they were a waiter before so they’re grateful for the work, right? [Jessica laughs] It’s this attitude that’s, yeah, it’s just existed for such a long time and you think, well, are you working at a discount rate on this project? [Jessica: Hm.] I didn’t think so! So, yeah, it’s a really good conversation to be having all over the world, not just in Hollywood.


Jessica: I hope you’re enjoying this conversation with Stephanie Cannon. There’s more to come but first let me remind you that voting for this year’s Members Choice Award is now open. Listening Books members have until 30 November to cast your vote for the best audiobook of 2023. Visit the Extra section of our website, that’s or use the direct link in the show notes. Stephen Fry will announce the winner in January.


[To Stephanie] I just wondered, when it comes to choosing books that you would like to narrate, what makes you go, ‘Yeah, that book is for me, I’d like doing that book and I’d be able to do it justice’?

Stephanie: Well, obvious answer is just anything with good writing! [Jessica: Hm.] As soon as you read the first couple of pages and you’re like, oh, man, I’m there, I’m hooked, this has a lot of heart, it’s obviously going on a really interesting journey. I mean, my favourite books to narrate are ones that have a strong female protagonist, which is becoming way more popular these days so I’ve got a lot of great books that come my way where you’re just like, all right, she’s a bit kick-ass, she’s sassy and she’s like… You know, strong female characters that aren’t just involved in a romance. Yeah, there are some books that I’ve done recently that have a strong LGBTQ story behind them as well.

So, I’m really interested in books that have a little bit of that to say, that are just, kind of, giving a minority voice a pulpit for a change. A book that I narrated recently called The Sharp Edge of Silence by Cameron Kelly Rosenblum. It’s from the point of view of three different high school kids that are all at a private boarding school and the whole premise of the book is touching on misogynistic culture and that sort of thing that happens in boarding schools. So there is some triggering rape that’s happened to one of the characters but the way that it’s handled with the writing is really delicate, it feels very real but because it’s told from the point of view of three different characters you get a lot of different perspectives that even though the subject matter is heavy it feels like you’re there in a real, everyday kind of way.

I love doing books like that, where, you know, ten years ago, that kind of YA wouldn’t have existed. I definitely wasn’t able to read books like that when I was fifteen, sixteen, so I just love the fact that these are out there now and I couldn’t read them when I was younger but now, I’m able to bring them out to, you know, young people.   

Jessica: Yeah, I mean conversely, is there anything that might make a book off-putting?

Stephanie: Yeah! That’s a really good question. So, I’m trying to think honestly what was the first thing that came to mind when you asked that because there’s a couple of different things. I suppose if it looks like it’s got a lot of a different language that I’m not familiar with and I know that I’m going to have to look up and ask around and perhaps go on social media and find somebody who is fluent in German or whatever, whatever the accent is. If I haven’t got a lot of time in my schedule, a lot of extra time for doing that kind of research and extra prep then I might go, oh my God, this is not the week for me! Put that book onto somebody who speaks German fluently! [Jessica laughs] But it just depends. Sometimes I’m up for the challenge if I’ve got the time and if the writing is really good and you just can’t say no. Then, you know, you’ll take it on just because it’s really worth it.

So maybe, yeah, foreign languages that I know I’m not competent with at all I might veer away from them, or, I mean, just anything that looks like it might be putting women in a negative light [Jessica: Hmhm.] or just doing some stereotypical thing that I think, nah, we’re better than that. I want someone who is telling a really good tale and is going to serve as, I don’t want to say role model but, you know, something that I’m going to feel proud of at the end of it, because there is a lot of crap out there as well! And, you know, if I’m going to invest my time and my name is going to be behind this thing I want it to be something that I can say that it’s something my nieces should listen to or that my family or my peers and just say, ‘Oh, you’re going to love this, this is really great, got a good message,’ or whatever. [Jessica: Hm.] Yeah, so if I can be proud of it regardless of what genre it is then that’s the stuff I’m going to say yes to.

Jessica: I love that answer. Maybe now is a good time to talk about one of the books you’ve narrated that we have in the Listening Books collection.

Stephanie: Ah, yeah.

Jessica: That’s Mindwalker by Kate Dylan, [Stephanie: Hmhm.] which is dystopian sci-fi cyberpunk…

Stephanie: Yeah!

Jessica: …action-packed. All the things…

Stephanie: All the best combinations.

Jessica: I understand you’ve just recorded the second book in the series, Mindbreaker. Can you say a little about that experience?

Stephanie: Yeah, so I loved recording Mindwalker; I think that was last year. Because of all the things I said about having a strong female character, Sil, in the last book, she was just, like, brilliantly snarky, she’s got that edge to her that’s really relatable. You know, she’s interesting enough that it always remains accessible, I hope, but she’s tough, you know, she’s also really intelligent and she’s got an interesting journey that she goes on throughout the book. It’s just a really fun combo. I love sci-fi but it’s got a lot of action to it as well. I think that’s a really good skill for a writer, to be able to pack in as much action as like a Marvel film would have without losing any of the heart. Because there’s quite a lot of emotion that happens to do with her past and the characters that she encounters along the way. So, you know, there’s a really good, rare combination of things in that book.

Then just two weeks ago I recorded the sequel, which is Mindbreaker and… Yeah, different lead character but, like, a real similar world. So, you’ve got that - still the first fun, action-packed sci-fi element but, like I said, a lot of heart still. She’s not as snarky as Sil was, she’s got a little bit more reserve, she’s really smart, but, again, she goes on this journey that’s… You’re just with her, every step of the way. It’s really interesting and quite tough at some moments because it deals with separation from family and a lot of really difficult life decisions, on the brink of death and having the whole weight of the world on your shoulders. Yeah, I recommend it. Listen to both of them; they’re really great. And Kate Dylan was really accessible as an author, to talk with in my process.

Because with fantasy and sci-fi books you often have a lot of made-up names that don’t really exist in the real world, so I can’t just look them up and find out what the correct pronunciation is. Most of the time an author is really flexible, but you know that if they’re writing it they’ve got something in their head where they think that, well, even though I made it up, this is how it’s pronounced, you know? So, with Kate, she sent me a lovely pronunciation guide, so a list of names of different made-up countries and planets and corporations and, you know, the names of the characters and then with an audio clip of them with her saying how they’re each pronounced. So that’s really helpful and really nice when you’ve got an author that’s passionate about what they’re doing and is really easy to collaborate with.

Jessica: Yeah. What was the casting like for that? Did they come to you? Did you see it and audition for it? 

Stephanie: I would have been put forward through my agent, Spoken4, and, yeah, she loved my reading and it was just one of those instant ones where it really clicks. And I felt like it clicked when I was doing the audition, and you just go, ah, I can breathe this character, I can really feel, like, what she’s going through. I find those characters really fun to voice, where they’ve got an edge but inside there’s a lot of softness as well. [Jessica: Mm.] Yeah, so I just thought she was fun. When you get an audition like that and you’re, like, yes, I love her! then it’s always obviously really nice to hear that you’ve been chosen. But yeah, it really clicked with that one and she wasn’t sure whether she was going to use a different voice for the next book because it’s a different character. But we get on so well and she had me be put forward for that one just to see how it sounded and it tested well and, you know, a slightly different voice from the last one and definitely a different character. So yeah, so I’m really happy that I got to do both.

Jessica: That’s great. Let’s move on to your personal reading. Do you like to read outside of your professional work?

Stephanie: [Chuckles] That’s a very good question. I mean, before I started narrating audiobooks full-time I was an avid reader! But now, because I spend so much time sight reading and just, you know, my eyes and my brain do get quite tired so the last thing I want to do at the end of the day is pick up a book!  

Jessica: Yeah.

Stephanie: Because I’ve got book after book going. So, it’s a little bit sad in that I don’t… Occasionally I’ve got a paperback with me on holiday and that’s joyous and I get to open it up and read the old-fashioned way. But because my brain is so used to annotating, it’s really hard to shut that off. So, I’ll open a book and I’ll start to, you know, put little notes in the margins! I say, Steph, you can just read this book, you don’t have to write down which character is speaking and what their accent is, just, you know, clock off! But it is quite hard to do that. So, because I have headphones on for a lot of the day as well, sometimes I just like to do something that’s completely different from audio and from literature in my free time. But when I’ve had enough of a break from that and my eyes and my ears and all that are all rested then I do love to listen to audiobooks and audio dramas, like podcasts; generally something really different from what I would record [Jessica: Mhm] just to be in a totally different world. Or listening to a multi-cast with lots of different voices…

Jessica: Yeah.

Stephanie: …just so it’s very different from what I’ve been narrating that week.

Jessica: That makes sense to me, that you would want to give your attention to something that you’re not already tired of or tired by! That makes a lot of sense to me. I wonder, from what you’ve been listening to or from what you’ve been reading, either professionally or personally, do you have any recommendations for listeners?

Stephanie: Yeah, so I recently went to APAC in New York, which is - oh no, I’m going to get it wrong - is it the Audio Producers Alliance, something like that. So, it’s like this huge company that’s all things audiobook; it has lots of audiobook narrators and publishers and producers and all of that involved, and they do a lot of really great webinars and events and things. Anyway, so I went to this big conference that they have and met a lot of these amazing narrators who are also really big coaches and now I’m obsessed with some of the books that they recommended and that I’ve been listening to. So, Johnny Heller is a really great American narrator and, I mean, I think you can’t go wrong with anything that he narrates! He’s got a really great, super-characterful voice and he's a brilliant actor and the one I’m listening to at the moment is called Noir. [Jessica: Hm.] Yeah, it’s fantastic.

Then another fun one that I’ve been listening to, which is really different from anything that I’ve listened to before; I didn’t realise books could be like this. It’s called Heidi’s Guide to Four Letter Words and it’s narrated by Andi Aundt and she also cowrote it. It's just really tongue in cheek. It’s kind of a romcom with a bit of, what do they call it, white lace. You know, a little bit of sexy scenes in there but it’s done in a really mock, very, like, aware-of-the-industry kind of way. [Jessica: Mhm.] So, it has to do with her being involved in… She’s sort of a prudish character in the beginning but she accidentally gets involved with working for a porn company [Jessica laughs] and so she’s editing and having to record these really raunchy things that are just, you know, too X-rated for her virgin ears kind of thing and it’s just... [Jessica laughs]

It’s hilarious because it has to do with audio production and it has to do with people producing audio porn, pornography and stuff like that, erotica, and… Yeah, because she really knows the industry and she’s got all these brilliant characters throughout it’s a really fun ride. So, I usually associate romcoms with being a bit sappy [Jessica: Hmhm] but this has a perfect level of humour in it and I really love it, and she’s a brilliant narrator.

Jessica: What was the name of it again?

Stephanie: It’s called Heidi’s Guide to Four-Letter Words…

Jessica: I love that.

Stephanie: …and it’s narrated by Andi Arndt. Then, for something really different, I really like to listen to docudrama-style things, whether it’s an audiobook or a podcast. So, The Space Race by B7 Media, it’s all to do with, yes, all things space basically from back in the Buzz Aldrin days to more modern, like, Tim Peak stuff. It’s a mix of actual interviews that they have with various people involved with NASA and whatnot and then some of it is taken from transcripts and then re-enacted and done in a kind of audio-drama style way. So, it’s nicely mixed and it’s very interesting and it’s really well produced as well, like the sound and the acting and everything is great.

Jessica: Those are wonderful recommendations, thank you. One last question and that is just if listeners want to find more of your work, find out more about you, where should they go?

Stephanie: Yeah, my website is, that’s S P A R K T H E C A N N O and, yeah, they can listen to… I’ve got all kinds of clips on there and it can refer you to other work that I do as well, besides audiobooks and… Yeah, that’s it, that’s me, Sparkthecannon.

Jessica: Stephanie, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you so much for your time and your thoughtfulness.

Stephanie: Thanks very much for having me on, it’s been a pleasure, really nice to meet you. 

[Music starts]

Jessica: [To listeners] Thanks so much for listening. I’ll put a link to Stephanie’s website in the show notes and you can find her on social media as well with the handle sparkthecannon. If you enjoyed this conversation, I’m sure she’d love to hear from you, and so would we. Find @listeningbooks in the usual places. We also always appreciate a written review on your favourite podcast player. I’ll be back next week to wrap up the series with narrator Emily Woo Zeller, whose voice you may have heard reading bestselling books like R. F. Kuang’s Poppy War series or Helen Hoang’s The Bride Test. Don’t miss it, it’s a great conversation.

This podcast is produced by Listening Books, a UK charity that provides an audiobook lending service for over 120,000 members who find that an illness, disability, learning difficulty or mental health condition affects their ability to read the printed word or hold a book. It’s simple to join. For more information head to our website

[Music ends]

[End of Transcript]

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Episode Three: Narrator Jane McDowell

Jane McDowell is a talented actress and narrator with many credits to her name, including the Dr Ruth Galloway mystery series by Elly Griffiths. In this conversation with host Jessica Stone, Jane tells us what it was like to record the last book of the series The Locked Room during a Covid lockdown, how animals help her create character voices, and what book was so moving that she wrote the author to thank her. 

Books mentioned, all narrated by Jane:
The Locked Room by Elly Griffiths
Delicious by Nicki Pellegrino
Snow Widows by Katherine MacInnes
Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell
The Hidden World of the Fox by Adele Brand
The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn
A Killer's Confession by Karen Edwards

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Episode Three: Narrator Jane McDowell


Jane McDowell is a talented actress and narrator with many credits to her name, including the Dr Ruth Galloway mystery series by Elly Griffiths. In this conversation with host Jessica Stone, Jane tells us what it was like to record the last book of the series The Locked Room during a Covid lockdown, how animals help her create character voices, and what book was so moving that she wrote the author to thank her. 

Books mentioned, all narrated by Jane:
The Locked Room by Elly Griffiths
Delicious by Nicki Pellegrino
Snow Widows by Katherine MacInnes
Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell
The Hidden World of the Fox by Adele Brand
The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn
A Killer's Confession by Karen Edwards


Jane: Talking to a film casting director once and she said to me, ‘As soon as I saw your showreel I knew you were a dancer from the way that you move,’ and I think when I’m recording the different characters I am quite physical in the studio, because physicality helps with the character, even though I’m sitting down or sometimes standing up in front of the microphone.

[Music starts]

Jessica: [To listeners] This is the Listening Books podcast. I’m Jessica Stone and today’s conversation is with Jane McDowell, a talented actress and narrator with many credits to her name, including the Dr Ruth Galloway mystery series by Elly Griffiths. In this conversation Jane tell us what it was like to record the last book of the series, The Locked Room, during a lockdown.

[Music ends]

[To Jane] So Jane, thank you so much for making the time to talk with me today. How did you find your way into audiobook narration?

Jane: When I was seventeen, I had a friend who worked in the audio-visual business and he asked my mum if I could do a voiceover, and I’d never heard of this phrase ‘voiceover’. It was for a Dutch company and I recorded it at an arts centre called South Hill Park and I remember I was paid £80 for about two hours work, which was a lot of money when I was seventeen. I absolutely loved it and I had a brilliant time. What I remember about it is that I made a mistake, I talked about… There was a line, ‘Put the cases in the boot,’ and I said, ‘Put the cash in the boot,’ [Jessica chuckles] and I was so embarrassed that I’d got it wrong! And they just laughed, they were lovely! [Jessica: Ah!] But that was the first time I’d ever done a voiceover and I thought, well, I really love this. Then a few years later, when I was married and living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I got into doing audiobooks for a company called Soundings. I was useful because I had an RP voice up in Geordie land…

Jessica: Yeah!

Jane: …and they loved my work, so I got into doing it that way. Then I think at some point I approached the BBC, BBC Audiobooks as was, who became AudioGO and unfortunately don’t exist any longer. To be honest, there are lots of people endeavouring to get into this business, so I didn’t think, even though I was very experienced… Well, I think what helped me was that I speak fluent Italian [Jessica: Ahh.] and that was my, sort of, USP if you like. They were recording a series of books, I remember the first one I ever recorded for BBC was Delicious by Nicky Pellegrino and they needed someone who could do the pronunciations, was familiar with the culture.

Funnily enough, I rerecorded it recently for RNIB, the Royal National Institute for the Blind. Actors and friends have always said - I remember someone saying to me when I was really young, ‘Your great strength is your voice, you should, you know, look into that,’ so… And it’s fun, I just like sitting in a studio and I read books I probably wouldn’t otherwise read. [Jessica: Hmm.] I’ve read some absolutely cracking, such interesting books that I probably wouldn’t, you know, pick up in a library, and learned so much about so many diverse and interesting subjects.

Jessica: Had you listened to audiobooks before you sought out doing them?

Jane: Not really but I’ve always loved the radio and the plays on the radio. I listen to Radio 4 and I like The Archers! And I like all the comedy programmes and the short stories and the series and everything. In many ways I prefer the radio to television because [Jessica: Hm.] your imagination creates the pictures, so I listen to that but now I do listen to audiobooks in the car.

Jessica: You do?

Jane: Luckily I’ve got a CD played in my car, which is probably quite unusual. On a long journey they’re fantastic. So I listen to Antonia’s, that’s my daughter…

Jessica: Yes.

Jane: …and, yeah, other books that I fancy.

Jessica: You were saying that reading or narrating audiobooks has led you to read books that you would never have picked up on your own. What sort of books are you likely to pick up on your own as a reader and has that changed?

Jane: Yes, I mean I still like to read proper books so I still go to the library and I get… I like an actual, physical book because for this part of my work I read off a screen. That’s fine because it’s practically much easier. In the old days you’d have to very quietly turn pages or they’d edit it out.

Jessica: Yes!

Jane: But now I read off my iPad. But when I’m reading for pleasure I’ll read proper books. So I would have definitely picked up the nature books, Curlew Moon, about the curlews, and The Hidden World of the Fox, about the lives of foxes. [Jessica: Hmm.] I probably wouldn’t have picked up Snow Widows that I was asked to read, about the second ill-fated Antarctic expedition by Captain Scott on the Terra Nova. It’s called Snow Widows because it’s told from the perspective of the five women who were left behind, the wives and girlfriends and mother, of one of them, so… And it was a fascinating book, I loved it. I didn’t like the way they treated animals, horses and dogs, but that’s what happened then, but it was such in an insight into a forgotten age, into Edwardian England and they lived, they became real people and not just, you know, caricatures of people at the turn of the twentieth century. So I probably wouldn’t have read that. I love psychological thrillers. I’m an absolute… I love to watch them on television, I love the Scandi noir: I watch The Killing, The Bridge…

Jessica: Oh yeah!

Jane: But I like twisty thrillers and I like biographies and autobiographies, so people that I’m interested in. I recorded the biography of Rudolph Nureyev and Vaslav Nijinsky, and I was a ballet dancer so to me that was absolutely fascinating. [Jessica: Hm.] I did once - I didn’t meet Nureyev but he walked past me when I was doing a class, I was a little girl, and I was completely starstruck.

Jessica: [Gasps] I was just thinking there, like, you’re not the first narrator that I’ve talked to who has a background in dancing. 

Jane: Oh, interesting.

Jessica: What I find interesting about it is, I guess, that embodiment that [Jane: Hmm.] adds to vocal performance.

Jane: Yeah, that’s so interesting you say that, yeah.

Jessica: Yeah! Say more, say more about that.

Jane: So when you read an unabridged audiobook, obviously you do all of the characters and… That’s such an interesting thing that you say Jessica, I’ve never actually thought of that but I remember talking to a film casting director once and she said to me, ‘As soon as I saw your showreel I knew you were a dancer from the way that you move.’ [Jessica: Ah.] I think when I’m, you know, recording the different characters, I am quite physical in the studio because physicality helps with the character, even though I’m sitting down or sometimes standing up in front of microphone. How you stand and how you breathe and how you… You know, different characters have different tempos, if you like, [Jessica: Hm.] some people are very fast and very quick and some have a more measured, slow way of communicating.

Often as an actor… I’ve done a lot of method training, I’ve done a lot of different trainings, but one of the things you do is animal work. [Jessica: Hm.] So you find an animal that works with a character, it might be a cat or it might be a meercat or it might be a spider. So at some level that comes into it as well to create a character because obviously you’ve only got the voice and often there’s an accent as well. So I’ve had to learn… I’m pretty good at accents because I’m musical, I can sing and I play the piano, but often I’ve had to learn new accents, like I had to learn a Korean accent for a book. Norfolk for the Elly Griffiths, Ruth Galloway series…

Jessica: That’s right.

Jane: …is a really difficult accent, so I was… I’ve got a friend from Norfolk, so she coached me, and it’s a very specific accent. I hope I got it right!

Jessica: Is it second nature to you now after doing now, what, ten of those books?

Jane: Yes, I can do it. I would still… I think that the series has finished now. [Jessica: Hm.] I won’t say what happens…

Jessica: Okay.

Jane: …because I don’t want to spoil it for your listeners [Jessica laughs]. But the story of Ruth and Nelson is the thing that runs all the way through it. [Jessica: Hm.] She’s the forensic archaeologist who’s the main character and the other main character is Detective Inspector Harry Nelson who appears to be a rather gruff, unreconstructed policeman from Blackpool [Jessica: Hmhm.] but actually he’s a deeply sensitive and loving man and they get into a relationship and this runs through all of the books and they have a child together. He’s married, she’s not, so I won’t say the outcome because it might, as I say, spoil it for people.


Jessica: [To listeners] I hope you’re enjoying this conversation with Jane McDowell. It’s that time of year again when you might appreciate knowing that you can give the gift of audio this Christmas. Make a loved one’s year by giving them access to over ten thousand audiobooks and seven thousand newspapers and magazines for a whole year, for just £20. Terms and conditions do apply. Visit our website for more information. That’s or follow the link directly to the Gift Membership page in the show notes.


[To Jane] If we… Just talk briefly about The Locked Room again, without any spoilers, but... This is the latest and, we think, last of the Dr Ruth Galloway series [Jane: Mhm.] and it’s set in a cottage in Norfolk during a COVID lockdown.

Jane: Yes.

Jessica: I was just, sort of, wondering what recording that was like and whether… I mean, was there a lockdown going on when you were recording or was that all behind us?

Jane: There was. No, it was going on. Through the two or three years of the pandemic I was very fortunate because I’ve got my own setup so I was able to record a lot at home. However, the books now… I started off recording those for BBC Audiobooks but now, I think the publisher changed, I think it’s Quercus now and I now record them at a lovely studio in Soho called Heavy Entertainment and I went to the studio. It was just me and I think one of them, because I recorded The Locked Room and then there was the one before that, but I think on one occasion it was down the line so the producer wasn’t even there, it was literally just me. 

Jessica: Oh wow.

Jane: But I think on the other occasion, yeah, the producer was there, which is always nicer, to have them physically there. But I did go to the studio to record those.

Jessica: Yeah, I mean, did that feel… Did it add more of a sinister layer to your experience of the COVID lockdown?

Jane: Yeah, it did because, you know, it was a frightening time, none of us knew what was happening, it was this new thing that was out there and we only had, you know, what the media were telling us and just felt like quite a frightening and unstable time. So to be on your own in a studio and to be in a city I love, London, which was, you know, practically deserted, it felt very dystopian and odd. [Jessica: Hm.] So yes, it did add to it. I love the book, I loved all of them but in this one I think it’s where Ruth finds a picture… She lives in one of three remote cottages on the edges of the marshland in Norfolk and she loves the wildness and the remoteness of it.

Harry Nelson can’t understand it, he thinks she should move to the city and he can’t understand why Ruth loves to be so isolated, and she has her daughter by now, Kate, Katie as he always calls her, which annoys Ruth. [Jessica chuckles] Her mother has died and she finds a photograph of the house, her pink cottage, long before she moved there and this runs alongside the… There’s a killing and a body is discovered, bones, and Ruth, because she is an archaeologist is always called in because she’s the bones expert. But alongside this story is her own journey of self-discovery and her roots and she finds out why her mother has a photograph of her cottage long before she ever moved there, so… [Jessica: Hm.] And interestingly with Elly Griffiths, who I actually met because… I don’t know if you know but her real name is Domenica de Rosa, she’s Italian…

Jessica: Oh wow!

Jane: …and I also recorded some of her books set in Italy, which I loved. But we met in Brighton and she was just lovely and she said, ‘You are Ruth, to me, you are Ruth Galloway,’ which was just lovely, she was a lovely lady.

Jessica: Yeah, no better compliment really.

Jane: No, true.

Jessica: You know how you were saying that in some of your training you used animals to get into character?

Jane: Yeah.

Jessica: Was there an animal that you associated with Ruth to get her, sort of, character?

Jane: Yes, I think Ruth is nothing like me physically, I’m small and slim and quite quick. In the story, Nelson’s wife, who is called Michelle, is probably more like me physically, she’s small and slim. Ruth is... It’s very interesting how Elly describes her because it’s an ongoing thing throughout the whole books that Ruth battles with her weight. She loves food and she’s a little bit overweight but Nelson loves her body and her curves. But she’s definitely taller and a bigger girl than I am, so she was just more of a solid, sort of animal, nothing unkind…

Jessica: Right.

Jane: I mean, not like an elephant or anything like that but she… I can’t remember what animal I had for her. I think it was more in the posture, that she’s an academic, she’s super intelligent. She’s very measured. She’s a true feminist, she takes on, you know, the annoying men in her department and she’s just very grounded. So I think it was more about being, sort of, slower and more sort of… Her centre of gravity is, kind of, here and she’s just a very calm person, she doesn’t fly off the handle but she deals very effectively, so... She was just that little bit slower than I am naturally in real life but a commanding presence. [Jessica: Mhm.] And I imagine her as very beautiful, very statuesque, quite tall and just quite magnificent physically. I see her as someone dark as well. I think she’s dark. I don’t know if Elly tells us that but, to me, she has dark hair.

Also she’s a true academic in that she’s quite untidy, which I am as well, which drives my daughter mad, [Jessica chuckles] and a little bit haphazard. So there are lovely descriptions about when she first invites Nelson for dinner and she cooks, I forget what she cooks but she cooks for him and in the book he describes it that it’s all rather chaotic but it’s surprisingly good. So she, kind of, throws stuff together and she likes Radio 4, like I do [Jessica laughs] and she likes books and she likes animals and she has… She loves her cats and loves one quite early on in one of the books, but she loves Norfolk and she loves the wildness of it [Jessica: Hm.] so I relate to that.  

Jessica: It sounds like the two of you would be good friends were she a real person.

Jane: I think we’d be very good friends, yeah, I’d love to meet her! And Nelson, Nelson was more like a black panther. He loves to be fast, he loves driving too fast. He likes challenging his superiors, he’s quite… He likes doing stuff on his own, he’s quite insular in many ways. He doesn’t like his boss Jo because she does yoga and she likes to send him on, in his view, useless courses about communication [Jessica chuckles] and, you know, how to communicate with women and sexism and stuff like that. He is quite sexist as well [Jessica: Hm.] in some ways but he has deep respect and love for Ruth and I love their story.

Jessica: Do you ever find it quite lonely to narrate audiobooks?

Jane: It can be. I mean, in a way I like it because I can work from home, which is obviously convenient. The challenges are that although I’ve got a state-of-the-art studio, this… This, I’m happy to say is recycled ocean plastic, which makes me very happy. It’s like the old egg foam insulation so it’s very, very good. It still doesn’t completely eliminate all noise [Jessica: Hm.] so if there’s a plane, and we are near Heathrow airport, or if our dogs bark I have to stop. But to be honest, even when I record at Heavy Entertainment, which is in Soho, which is a wonderful studio and it’s a room within a room, so it’s a vacuum, [Jessica: Hm.] you can still hear and feel the underground trains. [Jessica: Hm.]

So even then we sometimes have to stop because the microphones are so sensitive that they will pick up especially low noise like that. But I love going to the studio as well because it’s fun to travel and to go into London. I record also in Oxford. I record for a company called Isis Audiobooks. I’ve been doing that for many years and I love going to Oxford. I record at a studio in Chiswick. I record at the RNIB who are based in Camden, and Camden’s always a cool place to, you know, wander around when you’re finished!

Jessica: Yes!

Jane: It’s, kind of, more of an event to travel to a studio and see producers and actor friends. Although, I have to say, since lockdown a lot of recording is down the line. [Jessica: Hm.] So I recorded a series of the Italian books actually at the RNIB a few months ago and it was just me and I was talking to the producer down the line. [Jessica: Hm.] So it was a bit lonely.

Jessica: Yeah! Now, we’ve talked about some of the crime fiction that you’ve done, the thrillers, [Jane: Hm.] which you’ve obviously done quite a bit of but I think you’ve done quite a number of other genres as well. I wonder if you could tell me a little about some of your favourite genres to work in and if there’s a genre that you’d like to do that you haven’t done yet?

Jane: I love the psychological thrillers, I’ve don’t a lot of those. I love biographies and autobiographies. So I did the Nureyev and the Nijinsky as I mentioned. For many years I recorded the BBC audio guide to the Proms and I love music and I love the Proms, so… That was challenging because it’s a global music event and there were so many pronunciations, [Jessica: Hm.] names and music, so I had to have a lot of help with that to get those right. I’m passionate about animals and animal rights so I love nature books. The two that come to mind are a beautiful book called Curlew Moon, which is about the curlew, which was profoundly moving because I think in the last twenty years the Eurasian curlew’s numbers have halved because of habitat loss. [Jessica: Hm.] If we’re not careful it’s going to be the next great auk and they’re going to disappear.

But it was just the most wonderful book. The writer takes us from the west coast of Ireland, which is their breeding ground, to Wales where they nest. Then they hatch in England and then the east coast of England, Lincolnshire, where they fledge and… I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a curlew but their cries are so haunting and they just embody wild places [Jessica: Hm.] and we’re losing those wild places. So I just found it emotional to read it because I love nature and I love… I’m always rescuing animals and birds and… We need to look after them. Then the other book I loved was The Hidden World of the Fox, which is by a fantastic writer called Adele Brand, and it’s about one of our most beautiful and enigmatic species; a fascinating story about how they can survive. They live very successfully in inner cities, they also live in forests, they live in deserts. They live all over the world and they can survive, it’s quite incredible.

Again, I found it very moving and I get very cross when people talk about urban foxes and that they’re a nuisance and a pest and I say they’re not, they’re canids, [Jessica: Hm.] they’re dogs, they’re related. If you have dogs and you love your dogs, they’re related to dogs. Actually, London was wild wood at one time and they were there first. [Jessica: Hm.] So they have more right to be there than we do. We are the intruders and we have stolen their habitat. So I love seeing them and I will feed them and I belong to a couple of charities who rescue foxes, the Fox Project and this wonderful mad lady called Kitty Heath who runs Mama Cat Fox Rescue [sic] who treats them for mange, rescues the injured ones, looks after them, releases them if possible. It was just such an interesting book about their society and how they look after each other and how they care for their young and their mating cries, which are astonishing. I don’t know if… You’ve probably heard foxes…

Jessica: Yes!

Jane: It’s quite alarming! But that’s how they communicate with each other.

Jessica: I think that’s one of the theories for the origin of, you know, the Irish folkloric, the banshee. I think the fox mating cry…

Jane: Yes.

Jessica: …is one of the…

Jane: Yes, the cry of the fox. Yes, of course.

Jessica: Yeah.

Jane: Yeah.

Jessica: It’s funny we’re talking about this because this morning I was up much earlier than I normally would be but you know how if you wake up with a sudden adrenalin rush there’s no point going to back to sleep so you just go ahead and get up.

Jane: Exactly!

Jessica: It was a beautiful dawn but when I sat down at the kitchen table to have my coffee I saw movement outside the window and I thought, oh, how did the cat get outside. [Jane: Oh!] But it wasn’t the cat, it was a fox that came right up, like, [Jane gasps] you know, right in full view of the window…

Jane: Oh, my God!

Jessica: …and I stayed perfectly still because I didn’t want to scare it off. Unfortunately my phone was across the room so I couldn’t take a picture without actually scaring it away so I just sat there, kind of, breathless…

Jane: Yeah!

Jessica: …watching it and then something spooked it eventually and it ran away but…

Jane: Yeah.

Jessica: …it was magical just to watch it creep up so close.

Jane: It is, yeah. I’d really… This book was lovely, it’s a love letter to the fox really [Jessica: Ah.] and it’s also about we have to find a way to peacefully coexist with them [Jessica: Hm.] because they have as much right to live and, you know, thrive as we do. So yes, I love those. What else? I love the historical books. I read a cracking book The Tudors, which just is about one of the most powerful families in English history and what was so interesting about it was that in some ways it was quite random how it came about. It was because, I think it was Catherine De Valois fancied a Welsh… I think he was nobleman but he was called Owen Tudor, and got together with him and that is how the Tudor dynasty started.

It changed the course of English history, as we know, [Jessica: Hm.] because we were Catholic and after Henry VIII he broke from Rome and all the rest of it and we’ve became Church of England and that was all down to him. And it read [Jessica: Hm.] like a thriller. I mean monstruous character but fascinating. Then of course I also recorded The Confession of Katherine Howard, about his fifth wife. He had tired of number four, which was Anne of Cleves, ‘the Dutch mare’ as he rather cruelly called her, and he married Katherine Howard who was a very immature, flighty young piece and she rather stupidly had an affair with one of the courtiers, Thomas Culpepper, and Henry had her executed for it.

But the story actually runs alongside… It’s Katherine and then her friend Cat, Catherine Tilney, who works in the palace and she knows all of her secrets so, again, it was like a sort of a thriller and, again, it’s an insight into Tudor England. So all sorts of things, like I learned that for contraception they used lemon halves.

Jessica: What!

Jane: Who knew? [Laughter]

Jessica: Oh my!

Jane: Oh my, yeah! That’s just one of the things I remember!

Jessica: Goodness! The things you learn!

Jane: The things you learn, indeed! [Laughter] I was only going to say that another book that I read, that I found profoundly moving, a true story, it’s called A Killer’s Confession and it’s about a mother’s fight for justice. It’s the murder of two women, Becky Godden-Edwards and Sian O’Callaghan, and because of what was viewed as a mistake by a policeman, who was actually brilliant and found Becky’s killer and Sian’s killer, it was a taxi driver called Christopher Halliwell, he was punished and the killer got away. The mother, Karen… The girl Becky was missing for eight years, which was obviously agonising, but then the story, A Killer’s Confession, is about her fight for justice and she gets a petition together and she takes it all the way to the Home Office and eventually she does get justice with the help of this wonderful policeman Stephen Fulcher.

But because he… If I remember rightly, what happens is he arrests Christopher Halliwell but because he doesn’t offer him a solicitor he’s broken the police protocol and because of that he gets away the first time. But she keeps fighting and eventually she gets justice for her daughter, and I just found it so moving and so emotional [Jessica: Hm.] to record that book knowing also true. I wrote to her afterwards just to say thank you for writing this book, I found it quite hard to read in parts it’s, you know, such an incredible and moving story.

Jessica: Wow, yes, I mean to be moved to the point that you would actually write her to tell her, it really must have been quite the experience. Thank you for that recommendation actually. You’ve given lots of wonderful recommendations.

Jane: Good!

Jessica: You know what, I’ll close us out with just something a little light-hearted maybe…

Jane: Okay.

Jessica: …because we have talked about a few heavy things.

Jane: Yeah!

Jessica: I’m always curious to know what your favourite warm-up is before you begin recording.

Jane: Humming, singing. If I’m walking the dogs I hum all the way round the field and through the woods. I do some scales on the piano, drink lots of water. Obviously no chocolate or anything like that, that’s really bad for the voice, [Jessica: Ah.] even tea and coffee, so just drink loads of water and… Yeah, I’d say humming and singing.

Jessica: Thank you so much Jane, and thank you for [music starts] not only all the recommendations but your thoughtful answers and the time you’ve given this morning. Really appreciate that.

Jane: It’s my pleasure.

Jessica: [To listeners] And thank you, as always, for listening. You can find the Dr Ruth Galloway series and The Confession of Katherine Howard and indeed more of Jane’s work in our collection at Listening Books or wherever you listen to audiobooks. Next week I am bringing you a conversation with the lovely Stephanie Cannon, narrator of Kate Dylan’s Mindwalker series and I’d love for you to join us. Make sure you’re following the podcast on your favourite podcast player; I just don’t want you to miss it.

This podcast is produced by Listening Books, a UK charity that provides an audiobook lending service for over 120,000 members who find that an illness, disability, learning difficulty or mental health condition affects their ability to read the printed word or hold a book. It’s simple to join. For more information head to our website

[Music ends]

End of Transcript



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Episode Two: Narrator Polly Lee

Polly Lee is an award winning actress and narrator of over 200 fiction and non-fiction books. She has also narrated over 200 romance novels under the name Ashford McNab/MacNab. Raised in the UK, she has lived in the US now for 25 years working equally in both her British and American dialects. Today she tells us about some of the books that have stayed with her, including Soman Chainani’s School for Good and Evil series, and the voices she would have done differently if she’d known how the series would play out. 

Other books mentioned: 

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus
Better Late than Never: Understand, survive and thrive a midlife diagnosis of ADHD by Emma Mahony and Sari Solden

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Episode Two: Narrator Polly Lee


Polly Lee is an award winning actress and narrator of over 200 fiction and non-fiction books. She has also narrated over 200 romance novels under the name Ashford McNab/MacNab. Raised in the UK, she has lived in the US now for 25 years working equally in both her British and American dialects. Today she tells us about some of the books that have stayed with her, including Soman Chainani’s School for Good and Evil series, and the voices she would have done differently if she’d known how the series would play out.


Polly: What is a person’s fundamental self and what choices are we making about what we’re told about ourselves that take us closer to that or further away from that, I think is one of many, many fascinating questions that are raised by these books.

[Music starts]

Jessica: [To listeners] This is the Listening Books podcast. I’m Jessica Stone and today’s guest is Polly Lee, an award-winning actress and narrator of over two hundred fiction and nonfiction books. She’s also narrated over two hundred romance novels under the name Ashford McNab. Raised in the UK, she’s lived in the US now for twenty-five years, working equally in both her British and American dialects. Today she tells us about some of the books that have stuck with her, including Soman Chainani’s School for Good and Evil series, and the voices she would have done differently if she’d known how the series would play out.

[Music ends]

[To Polly] Polly, thank you so much for joining me. Let’s start with your origin story. Not your origin story as a villain [Polly chuckles] but your origin story as an audiobook narrator and how you came to this. 

Polly: Of course. I, kind of, fell into it, if you can fall very slowly, [chuckles] it’s a long game, in that I was just finishing at drama school here in New York City. I did my first ever professional job and at the very end of the job I fell off the stage and broke my foot [Jessica gasps] and therefore was not able to go back to my waitressing job that I’d had all the way through drama school and so, kind of, reached out to all of my friends, asking if they knew of anything that I could do that was sedentary. I needed to do it because the workers’ comp package was not phenomenal. I had a friend that directed and engineered audiobooks for a company here in New York and he said, ‘If you want, I could get you a proofreading job’, which at the time consisted of him bringing stacks of cassette tapes to my house and I would listen to them on my Walkman and read along with the copy. I just had to make sure that everything that was in the manuscript had made it to the tape and that there were no extraneous noises or editorial issues. Then I gave the stack of tapes back with paper on which was handwritten my edits and my notes and my QC they call it, quality control notes.

So that was how I kind of edged into the audio business and I did that for many years as a, kind of, side job to the acting stuff. Then as I went along, more and more of the colleagues that I was working with as an actor were recording the books that I was proofing! So at one point I went in to take in – at this point I think they were CDs or may even have been on an iPod – to take it in, to return it, and was, like, ‘Oh, I notice that this book was narrated by Kate Forbes, I just did a show with her. Is there any way that I could narrate a book?’ The QC guy looked at me and was, like, ‘Of course!’, like why didn’t we think of this years ago!’ [Jessica chuckles], and so they invited me to do a couple of books. I think the first book I narrated was a kid’s book about global warming that I had to narrate in an American accent. And that’s the origin story, from there I, kind of, never looked back. I very quickly got in on the ground floor with Audible, before they were the mega giant that they are now, and that, kind of, birthed my Regency romance career…!

Jessica: Yeah!

Polly: …which has been my bread and butter really ever since. And that is the origin of both Polly Lee, narrator, and Ashford McNab, narrator!

Jessica: So you did literally fall into it?

Polly: Fell into it very slowly!

Jessica: Yes! Yes, that was a long fall actually! [Polly giggles] I mean, I am kind of astonished that it took you so long to think, you know, why would I just, like, proof the audiobooks, why wouldn’t I just do them!

Polly: So bizarre.

Jessica: I mean, how many years was it that you were doing that?

Polly: I mean, I want to say a good maybe ten to fifteen years!

Jessica: No!

Polly: Maybe ten years.

Jessica: Polly!

Polly: Maybe ten years of solid proofing. I know, so bizarre, and it’s bizarre because my mum is an author and so you’d have thought that it would have, you know, come up earlier, but yeah, it just never occurred to me. But we joke, my mum jokes with me that she started it all because when I was in secondary school I rebelled. My only every successful rebellion was to stop reading for pleasure. I told my mum that I wasn’t going to read any books that weren’t academic books and she said, ‘I will pay you to read books’, and she did! And here we are [laughing] being paid to read books! [Jessica laughs] So, she set me up for this job that took me ages to comes to terms with. But I think, honestly, it took a while just because I was very lucky to be a very prolific theatre actor when I first came out of drama school, after the broken foot incident, and so I was travelling a lot. So I wasn’t able to be in town very often and audiobooks, at that time, you had to be present for, you couldn’t, kind of, do it in your closet, like…

Jessica: Right.

Polly: …you can now. That’s a post-lockdown change in the industry that is fantastic because I can take my booth with me now, which is nice, but yeah, at the time you definitely had to be in New York to record an audiobook in New York!

Jessica: When you record on your own, when you record at home, do you self-direct?

Polly: I do, I don’t work with directors here, but for the most part I do the, kind of, Regency romance books, and, I always find it hard to figure out how to say this without belittling the genre, I love the genre, I’m an avid romance reader myself, but it is a trope genre, you know. [Jessica: Hm] It’s very much a goody, a baddy, a heroine, a hero and therefore the, kind of, directorial aspect isn’t as needed…

Jessica: Right.

Polly: …with that genre. Whereas you had mentioned wanting to talk about School for Good and Evil. With a book of that scope and the lag time in between books – you know Soman was writing them as they were coming out, it wasn’t that the whole series was written [chuckles] and they just released them. So it was just a huge scope and for something like that a director is definitely needed and a, kind of, slew of research people who have stayed on top of who the characters are and what has happened to them and… You know, there’s a whole team that goes with that. But for the most part when I record at home I record a lot of these kind of Regency romances and those I do without a director. Then the engineer is remote, so I simply record the raw footage and then send it into the ether and then it comes back to me saying, ‘There was a strange vacuuming sound happening’.

Jessica: Right!

Polly: I’m like, ‘My neighbour!’

Jessica: Yeah! You mentioned your pseudonym. Do you use that for all of the Regency romance novels?

Polly: That was the idea. As mentioned, when I started out I was doing a lot of kids’ novels and then a lot of the Regency romance and somebody at Audible suggested that I use a pseudonym for the Regency romance, just to keep the two genres separate. Over the years it’s somewhat blended, just by, kind of, my not paying attention to it and as I’ve done less of the very young kids’ books it has felt less important to keep them separate. But certainly when I was starting out, I was doing, kind of, books for eight-/nine-year-olds and then some of the romance novels were really quite blue in the beginning…

Jessica: Right.

Polly: …it was more on the erotica side than the romance side and so it felt very important. And actually, the person at Audible, back in the day when they said to me, ‘Oh, this is going to be very graphic, it’s erotica and you can record it under a false name if you’d like’. I said, ‘Oh, I’m not prudy, I’m not worried about it, everybody knows me’, and then I started reading it and I was, like, oh, no, I definitely want a pseudonym! [Jessica laughs] It was very, very graphic. Years later I came to meet my now mother-in-law and she said, ‘Oh, it’s so nice to meet you, I googled you’, [Jessica gasps] and my immediate thought was, thank God I chose a pseudonym for that book! [Laughter] But nowadays I don’t, sadly, [chuckling] do any of the erotica, so the books are much tamer ,so I found it’s gotten a little bit blended, there are some romance novels under Polly Lee. But there aren’t any kids books under Ashford McNabb as far as I’m aware!

Jessica: [Chuckles] I did say to you that I wanted to talk about The School for Good and Evil series, if we could.

Polly: Yeah!

Jessica: This is the series by Soman Chainani, which has since been adapted to a film by Netflix, and with a pretty star-studded cast from the sounds of it.

Polly: Yes, I’m delighted to find out that Cate Blanchett was playing the narrator, which would be my role, and I was like, well, you know, if somebody’s going to steal your part it should be Cate Blanchett!

Jessica: High praise, yeah!

Polly: Yes!

Jessica: Yeah, I just wondered what your experience of narrating that series has been like.

Polly: That series was a gift for me on many, many levels. Just… It was one of the first books I read where I was truly… I got the chance to read a book many times that never ceased to surprise, so I feel like it for me, kind of, raised the bar on what YA literature could be in terms of the thematic content as well as just the, kind of, Soman’s dextrous use of prose. I was just really, kind of, blown away by the high quality, and certainly that first book I felt like should be a must-read for everyone. I felt like it really played with the genre of fairy tale in a fascinating way. Then, you know, the first book is about, kind of, what is good and what is evil and I found it be a very complex conversation that Soman was having in that book and then went on to have around other themes in the later books. But truly gripping and at the time I don’t think he, and certainly not I, knew that it was going to become such a beloved series, but also such a huge series, you know!

Jessica: Yeah!

Polly: That by the end it was epic! So, you know, I made vocal choices for that first book that I perhaps wouldn’t have made [chuckling] if I’d have known that I was going to be still working on it ten years later!

Jessica: Okay, that’s interesting! [Polly chuckles] I’d love for you to say more about that. Which voices?

Polly: Well, there was one of the gnomes that ran the Underground, has a very [adopts growly voice] kind of gravelly, kind of, Yoda wannabe voice and… Unsustainable! [Jessica laughs]. And I feel like… There were many times I was, like, ‘Oh no, it’s the gnome! [Laughing] I don’t know if I’ve got this in me today!’ [Jessica laughs] But…Then it was Soman’s book in cahoots with another romance that I was reading at the time that I decided there was a subsidiary character in Soman’s book, she’s called Kiko, and because she didn’t say much in the first book I gave her a lisp. 

Jessica: Oh no!

Polly: And then in a later book she had a lot to say and I was like, oh God, that was such a bad choice! But, you know, Soman’s fans rightly are ardent and it was discussed with the publisher and with Soman, like, do we just drop the lisp? Do we keep the… Like, how is this going to work? And we all decided that obviously you keep the lisp [Jessica: Oh!], it was integral to her selfhood. And so, you know, we just, kind of, tried to smooth it out a bit and make it less comedic and more realistic that… [Jessica: Mhm] You know, the setup of her character in the first book was such that it was just to give her a different sound than a lot of the people that she was speaking to, so we honoured that thrust! Just like, she’s just going to sound a little different. By the time I got to the last book, Soman had his assistant send me a spreadsheet, which broke down very clearly, like, what book the character had been in before, you know, whether they were a kind of featured part or just a, kind of, side part, you know, the… And I think there were over 160 voices by the end of the series…

Jessica: Wow.

Polly: …and that includes, you know, in a world of no princes book, the fact that women became men and men became women, girls became boys, boys became girls, and then there were some nonbinary folks in there too, that their voices… You know, in audio you only have the vocal change to denote some of those things and in our time how do you do that without implying, well, all men have deep voices and all women have light voices and… From the very beginning I was interested in the fact that Agatha probably had a more grounded voice [Jessica: Mhm.] than the other characters. So it’s a game of, you know, who speaks to who, for how long!

Jessica: Yeah!

Polly: The content of what they’re saying, the quality of their character and then, yeah, what kind of a role they play in terms of plot and story as to whether they speak fast or slow, high pitch or low pitch. You know [Jessica: Hm.] what’s the thrust of what they’re trying to say over the whole book and then obviously with School for Good and Evil, over the whole series… 

Jessica: Yeah.

Polly: …that Agatha and Sophie go through so much together, and so is it interesting or just confusing having them switch voices as they switch parts? We decided confusing, so [Jessica laughs] we need to say that the voice of Agatha says nothing about whether she’s good or evil. The voice of Sophie only says something about her being evil when she’s truly leaning into her evil self! When she becomes the kind of shrewish old lady, you know, what quality does that have and can it still be linked to her original quality? And what is beautiful about seeing the Netflix film is that they too are asking those questions and, kind of, passing that, like, what is a person’s fundamental self and what choices are we making about what we’re told about ourselves that take us closer to that or further away from that, I think is one of many, many fascinating questions that are raised by these books.

Jessica: Mhm. There’s a little song that Agatha’s mother sings about the school for good and evil, like early on in the first book, and as I was listening to you sing it I was thinking did she have to make up the tune or did the author or the director suggest a sort of tune? What happens in that scenario?

Polly: No, I made up that tune! [Jessica laughs] I made up that tune. You have to be very careful with songs and in general in audiobooks the rule is that you don’t sing songs [Jessica: Hm.] because you want to be careful not to inadvertently take somebody else’s IP or consciously use someone else’s IP without paying for it. [Jessica: Hm.] So they were very clear that I could not use any kind of a tune that would, you know, sound like another tune. But Soman was also clear that he needed it sung, it couldn’t just be read, [Jessica: Hm.] which is the usual, kind of, default mode for audiobook songs that are outlined, in my experience.

Jessica: See, that’s something that I think most people wouldn’t think about until they were in the position of suddenly having to [Polly chuckles] deal with this! You know? You just… Well, I know a lot of readers skip over songs anyway but, you know, you’re sort of… [Polly laughs] You’re making up your… Call your own tune!

Polly: That’s not an option! [Laughter] Yeah, well, the beauty of it being recorded of course is that it can be played back to you the next time. That when you’re, like, oh God, I don’t know what I did for this, I just made something up on the spot [Jessica laughs], they’ll be, like, ‘Okay, well, let’s listen to it’!

Jessica: You’d mentioned how challenging the gnome was to voice, particularly when that part was expanded. Were there any characters that were particularly fun to voice?

Polly: I think Tedros was particularly fun because he’s such a trope, right? So it was like, what is just a swashbuckling prince voice and what is the, kind of, most appealing male-sounding sound I can make to make everybody swoon while they’re listening? [Jessica chuckles] Then, you know, as he goes on his journey, finding some gravitas and that and finding some actual… You know, that when he’s introduced he’s such a, kind of, cartoon hero and then to, kind of, as we come to know him and understand what makes him tick, how to add in a layer of believable nuance to his character was super fun to do. But honestly in School for Good and Evil all the voices are so fun because, as I say, I come from an acting background and so just thinking about the kind of psychology that goes into that playing against the trope and that understanding of the fairy-tale identities of everybody [Jessica: Hm], from the actual humans to, you know, Anadil, super fun to do.

Yeah, just all of the characters, even the very subsidiary side characters were super fun to think about because they all had such strong, kind of, back stories. And the teachers, like, I remember being very sure that Dovey should have a kind of Disney fairy-tale godmother feel to her, you know, that she was very gentle and kind. You know, I was thinking about Angel Lansbury and Sleeping Beauty and those kind of inspirations. But I think each character had that same kind of inspirational feel behind it where you’re, like, there is a perfect voice for this person, I just need to figure out what it is [Jessica: Hm] and how to get at it. Then by book two also how to maintain it and how to take them on the journey that they’re going to go on. Because it became apparent that everyone was going to go on an epic journey, not just Agatha and Sophie.

Jessica: Hmm, I imagine your notes are extensive.

Polly: They are extensive. Yes, the notes from the first book were handwritten on a folded piece of A4 paper, [Jessica: Hm.] which I’ve devoutly kept. It’s shredded and smudged and you can barely see anything on it but it is in the folder labelled School for Good and Evil. Then over the years that became, as I say, kind of, Soman’s assistants sending me spreadsheets and marking up, and then HarperCollins the publisher would send me the previous audiobooks so I could go through. So there are lots of notations of what minute and what book and what chapter this voice appears, and so all that is, kind of, annotated on this epic spreadsheet and little clues: ‘Oh, in book one he had a slightly gravelly sound but when he becomes a woman in book two the gravel stays but the pitch rises’, you know, and things like that! that you just think…

Jessica: Oh wow.

Polly: …it’s like, this way madness lies, you know!

Jessica: Yes! [Polly laughs] I mean, it’s hard enough with that many characters to keep the voices straight when their voices stay the same, but when they’re actually changing because of plot lines and whatever, that just adds such complexity, I can’t imagine.

Polly: Yeah, and I will say one more thing about The School for Good and Evil books. It took up, I want to say, kind of, ten years of my life from the first one to the last one that I narrated, and I feel like I learned a lot in that time about personal identity politics [Jessica: Hm] and the world changed as the books came out, it felt like.

Jessica: Oh wow.

Polly: So I feel like a) I got the gift of learning about it and passing it and getting to put some kind of practical things in, but I did change some voices as a result. There was a South Asian character in the first book that I did a South Asian accent that by the third book I was saying to Soman, like, I can’t do this anymore, I’ve learned so much more about the way race plays out in the world. [Jessica: Hm] I think I would either, you know, go back and re-record her lines from the first book or I just need to change the vocal choice I made. And Soman was 100 percent behind that and was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, change the voice’ now that you know what you know. So, you know, I just want to put that out there, that [chuckling] while Kiko’s lisp stayed consistent, there were some vocal choices that I changed as a result of things that I learned…

Jessica: Yeah.

Polly: …as I was doing the series. I think that’s important, that kind of flexibility, and I was really grateful for Harper and Soman to be with me on that journey, to walk that path with me.


Jessica: [To listeners] I hope you’re enjoying this conversation with Polly Lee. Let me just take a minute to tell you that voting is now open for the Listening Books Members Choice Award. Have your say and cast your vote on the best audiobook of 2023. Visit our website before 30th November to vote. You’ll find the Members Choice Award in the Extra section of our website. I’ll leave a direct link in the show notes to make it easy. Stephen Fry will announce the winner in January. You do need to be a member to vote but you’ll be glad to know that joining is easy. You can find more information on our website


Polly: Well, at the moment I’m narrating a book called… I’m not even sure if I’m allowed to say it out loud but it’s called For [bleep] Sake [Jessica gasps] and it’s about swearing! [Jessica laughs] So I’m having a lot of fun here in the booth. There are some very hilarious moments. It’s a very academic philosophy book about why we need swearing as a society but, you know, interpellated with lots of swearing, which… I have a terrible potty mouth so I’m enjoying getting it all out in the book. [Jessica laughs]

Jessica: Really relish every one of them!

Polly: Exactly! Exactly, like, did I lean in a little too hard on that one? [Laughter]

Jessica: Have you done every genre that exists, now?

Polly: I think I have Jessica. I’m very proud of that, that particularly since lockdown… You know, before lockdown I think I did maybe, kind of, three or four books a year and then lockdown happened. I was slated to record the last of The School for Good and Evil books with Harper at a studio in Manhattan and lockdown happened, and Soman called me and said, ‘They’re going to have to recast you for the last book because they need someone that has a home studio’, and I said, ‘I have one’.

Jessica: Oh!

Polly: At the time I did not! [Jessica laughs] I had, oddly, asked for a Christmas present for a microphone and a computer because I could see that that was the way the business was going, but it was sitting in a closet in Brooklyn and we had relocated to the Catskill Mountains for lockdown. I got off that phone call with Soman and said to my partner, ‘You have to drive to Manhattan and get that computer and microphone out of the top of my closet and then figure out how to work it and get back here and set it up and tell me how to work it. ‘[Jessica chuckles] And he, bless him, did all of that! He, kind of, rushed down here, picked up the stuff, got back, set it up for me, was, like, ‘I think this is how it works’, just in time to send them a sample to be, like, look, I have a home studio, I know exactly what I’m doing!

Jessica: Never did a home studio come together so quickly!

Polly: Exactly! And thank goodness I’d asked for the equipment for Christmas, because everybody was rushing to buy studio equipment, not just for audiobooks but for voiceover in general. As soon as theatres and movie and TV shutdown, all actors moved into the voiceover world [Jessica: Hm] and so the stores were empty! [Jessica laughs] So I was very lucky that I had gone in ahead of time and gotten the stuff because otherwise I would have been screwed. All of that is a very long-winded way to say that I have been very lucky. I have narrated, I think, in every genre that exists and every single – I can say hand on my heart I have yet to narrate a book that I’m, like, uh, that was awful, [Jessica laughs] I never, ever want to do that again; that just every book that I’ve had the pleasure of reading has given me great pleasure and taught me something, and I hope has done the same for the people [Jessica: Hm] that get to read/listen.

Jessica: That’s a wonderful thing to be able to say. I sort of suspect that when you have read the volume of audiobooks or narrated the volume of audiobooks that you’ve done, that maybe not all of them stay in the memory as well, particularly maybe in certain genres, that even if we love them, they can, kind of, merge together.

Polly: Definitely!

Jessica: But I wonder if there are any that have had real staying power, that have been unforgettable for you.

Polly: Definitely. Definitely have. I think for me it kind of breaks down into fiction and nonfiction and I think for me a lot of the things that stay with me are nonfiction, for the most part, and fiction tends to blend. But in the fiction department I read, I think probably at the end of last year or maybe at the beginning of this year, I read this fantastic YA book called A Place to Hang the Moon. It’s a beautiful book. It’s about these kids who are displaced during World War II and orphaned ultimately and them, kind of, trying to find love and a family. It’s just really a very moving book and I think it stayed with me because I had just adopted my daughter and so I was thinking about the kind of trauma that adoption involves, even at the infant level, which is what my daughter was, and just how many people are displaced by wars and the Ukraine thing that’s going on, you know, and just the effect on just people living their lives. This book really manages to get at that and what it is to feel displaced and to be looking for love. [Jessica: Mm] It is called A Place to Hang the Moon and it is by Kate Albus, A L B U S. So that’s my fiction stuck with me. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Then nonfiction, I’ve been having this wonderful year of narrating a lot of, kind of, books about how to manage various different aspects of neurodiversity and one in particular was about – it’s a bit of a buzzy topic at the moment but being diagnosed with ADHD in middle age. [Jessica: Hm] Apparently many, many girls do not get diagnosed with ADHD in the same numbers that boys do because the way that neurodiversity presents in classrooms is less disruptive in women than it is in men – boys and girls. So many girls, kind of, struggle through schooling with ADHD and only just now they… For years and years thought it was a childhood disease that you, kind of, grew out of and they’re realising that, no, no, you don’t grow out of it. Most people historically have just learned to handle themselves. So there’s this slew of women in particular that are being diagnosed in middle age with ADHD and an English sufferer, a neurodivergent woman, has written this book and it was just mind-blowing. Just seeing the, kind of, effect of ADHD on a person’s life through her telling of all the various aspects. And then at the end of it, coming to understand how it’s also, kind of, positive for the people that have this particular neurodivergency and if they can learn to live within it, how it really enhances our world. Again, back to diversity, right, makes the world a better place, to have all kinds of people in it, and it’s not necessarily beneficial to try and make the world a monolith!  

Jessica: Right. What was the name of the book again?

Polly: It is called Better Late Than Never: Understand, Survive and Thrive Midlife ADHD Diagnosis and it’s by Emma Mahony, is the ADHD neurodivergent person, and Sari Solden is the medic that she’s written it with. Better Late Than Never, phenomenal read, fascinating.

Jessica: It does sound fascinating, and I’m making a note of it myself to have a read.

Polly: And you will definitely spend the whole book diagnosing your family and friends. That was definitely my experience. I was, like, oh my God, I have to email this person immediately and tell them they probably have ADHD!

Jessica: Yeah, I imagine there might be a bit of self-diagnosis in there as well!

Polly: Definitely, definitely!

Jessica: Polly, thank you so much for making time for this conversation today. I’ve really enjoyed all the insight you’ve given us into your life and craft of audiobook narration, and really appreciate the book recommendations too. 

Polly: Thank you so much. I’ve greatly enjoyed speaking with you.

Jessica: [To listeners] And thank you for listening.

[Music starts]

Do let us know if you’re enjoying this series. You can find us in the usual places on social media, we’re @listeningbooks, and if you have the time to leave a review, whether on Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast player, we’re always grateful. I know it isn’t always straightforward where and how to leave a review so we really do appreciate the effort and it seems to help others find us. Next week I’ll be back with actor and narrator Jane McDowell, who voiced the enormously popular Dr Ruth Galloway series. If you like crime fiction or historical fiction or animals, you won’t want to miss it.

This podcast is produced by Listening Books, a UK charity that provides an audiobook lending service for over 120,000 members who find that an illness, disability, learning difficulty or mental health condition affects their ability to read the printed word or hold a book. It’s simple to join. For more information head to our website

[Music ends]

[End of Transcript]



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Episode One: Author Bonnie Garmus

Bonnie Garmus is the author of Lessons in Chemistry, the bestselling novel about a chemist named Elizabeth Zott who becomes the host of a cooking show in the 1960s. In this conversation with host Jessica Stone, Bonnie tells us about how her career as a copywriter shaped her approach to writing the novel, the one mispronunciation in the audiobook, and why she needed to break some rules to write this story. 

Other books mentioned in this episode: 

Chasing Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof   
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver 

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Episode One: Author Bonnie Garmus


Bonnie Garmus is the author of Lessons in Chemistry, the bestselling novel about a chemist named Elizabeth Zott who becomes the host of a cooking show in the 1960s. In this conversation with host Jessica Stone, Bonnie tells us about how her career as a copywriter shaped her approach to writing the novel, the one mispronunciation in the audiobook, and why she needed to break some rules to write this story.


Bonnie: I wanted to make my own show, from my own imagination, and not be influenced. But also, I just don’t like to cook.

[Music starts]

Jessica: [To listeners] This is the Listening Books podcast. I’m Jessica Stone and today’s guest is Bonnie Garmus, author of Lessons in Chemistry. The bestselling novel has recently been adapted to a television miniseries starring Brie Larson, and it’s about a chemist named Elizabeth Zott, who becomes the host of a cooking show in the 1960s. In this conversation, Bonnie tells us about how her career as a copywriter shaped her approach to writing the novel, the one mispronunciation in the audiobook and why she needed to break some rules to write this story.

[To Bonnie] Bonnie, I want to thank you again for making time for me, for Listening Books. I know you have an incredibly busy schedule, in no small part to the success of Lessons in Chemistry, which has just been such a huge phenomenon. And from what I understand, you actually do have a good origin story for this book!

Bonnie: Yeah, I had a really bad mood, the thing that made me decide to write the book. I had a bad day at work and it was so bad that I ended up not working but writing the first chapter of Lessons in Chemistry after a meeting I’d been in where I’d faced the usual sexism that women still continue to face today. But they took it up a notch that day and so did I! [Laughter]

Jessica: And thus Elizabeth Zott was born! Although I think I read that she started off as a minor character in another novel that you had been writing. Is that right?

Bonnie: Yes, that was a novel I never finished. It was way long ago and she had been in that novel, she was only three sentences long in that novel. I knew that she was a chemist and that she was depressed and that she had a cooking show. I don’t… I managed to cram all of that in three sentences in this other book that never went – you know, I never finished. [Jessica laughs] But that day at work she came zooming back to me, and it had been well over a decade since I’d thought about her. So, it was very strange but I really felt like she just showed up and she had a lot to say.

Jessica: Yeah. Lessons in Chemistry is so popular that most of my friends have read it, so when I said I would get to interview you they were really excited and one of them wanted me to ask if, in your mind, any of your characters were on the autism spectrum?

Bonnie: Oh, I get that question a lot and it’s one of my most favourite questions, so I’m always glad when somebody asks it. Uh, Elizabeth Zott is not on the spectrum in my view. I based her on the tenets of Stoicism as written by Marcus Aurelius and I love the fact that we can see that people on the spectrum are actually Stoics. The definition of a Stoic is somebody who takes responsibility for themselves, speaks with logic, is able to speak up and speak out when they need to and, you know, may not fit into what we think of as polite society, but we need more of them not less of them. So I’m always delighted when people on the spectrum see themselves in this character because, you know, to me she represents the best in people. And I think so many times people on the spectrum are put down or people say, ‘Oh, you know, they’re on the spectrum or they’re…’ Like it’s this problem, when in fact some of the most brilliant people in the world have been on the spectrum. So for me – and I have several friends who are autistic, who are on the spectrum, and I did a Zoom group with an entire group of autistic adults and we had one of the best discussions ever. So I’m really pleased when people on the spectrum see themselves in her.

Jessica: That’s wonderful and an unexpected answer, that’s really interesting. [Bonnie chuckles] Now, a reader favourite tends to be the dog named Six-Thirty. I wonder if you can say a little about what his importance to the story is from a writer’s perspective? What does he do for the story?

Bonnie: Well, I really wanted to include a perspective from a dog, A) because most people like dogs, you know, we’re all familiar with dogs, we’re all familiar with their habits, but what we tend to overlook is that the animal kingdom has a lot – we have a lot of impact on them, on other species and we sometimes forget the impact that they should have on us. Most of them have survived longer than we have on Earth. So it’s really important I think to get that animal perspective on the stupid things we do every day and what they might think about it. And that’s why I wrote Six-Thirty because I had a very smart dog that I had underestimated [Jessica chuckles] and it turned out, I think… You know, she was sort of this mixture between Gandhi and Einstein and she’d come from a shelter, she’d been horribly abused. She wasn’t a purebred, you know, she wasn’t attractive, plus she smelled bad her whole life but she had [Jessica laughs] – I know! She really did smell bad! She had this presence about her and her intellect was really superior; it was really something to see. Her facility with language, she could understand, and her empathy for other animals and for humans was really something that I’ve never forgotten. [Jessica: Hm.] And it occurred to me that we so often judge intelligence by human terms, but that’s only one way to judge intelligence. And our definition of intelligence is so incredibly narrow that it forgets that animals have powers way beyond ours, including sense of smell and touch and taste and all these other things. Especially dogs can hear a lot better than we can. I read that a bloodhound, their sense of smell is three hundred thousand times stronger than ours.

Jessica: Wow.

Bonnie: That is a superpower. And if any of us could do that we would be considered outlandishly talented, but we just take it for granted in dogs. You know, dogs can sniff cancer and things like that. We can’t do that.

Jessica: Yeah, I’m just imagining how unpleasant it would be to be able to smell that well!

Bonnie: My God, that’s a really good point! Yeah, can you imagine! Although there they are, you know, their noses buried in other dogs’ urine and things. I just love it.

Jessica: [Laughs] You were talking about how rational Elizabeth is and I want to pick up on that with this question, which – bear with me because I feel like the lead up to it is a little bit long. But she’s an extraordinary character, literally extraordinary, whose cooking show treats ordinary women and their responsibilities with a great deal of dignity and seriousness. But she herself is written as quite exceptional to the norm. She’s beautiful but she’s unconcerned with beauty, she’s not vain. She’s brilliant, she’s sort of defined by this sort of pure rationalism, which is in stark contrast to, I think, a still very pervasive assumption about women, that they’re more emotional than men. And what I wonder is, were you ever concerned with the balance between rejecting the stereotype but also not falling into the ‘Oh, not like other girls’ trope, which kind of ends up implying that the default for the gender is inferior? [Bonnie: Hm] Is that something you struggled with or…?

Bonnie: I’ve thought about it. I’ve considered it pretty deeply. It was – you know, originally, Elizabeth Zott was not beautiful, she was plain, and as I was writing it I realised how foolish that was because, one, if I made her beautiful, her problems would just escalate; all the men at work would hit on her. As it turns out, there are studies that say that beautiful women are considered less intelligent [Jessica: Hmm.] so she would have to also surmount that. But not only that, the big thing was they would never have put her on television; it would not have been plausible that they would have hired her, with no experience, to be on television unless she looked like the way she did. [Jessica: Hmm.]

Jessica: Yeah, that makes sense. From what I’ve read, you and your agent, Felicity Blunt, did a whole lot of editing and restructuring before it was even sent out to editors. I’m curious, was that just the beginning of the editing process or did you have it in such good shape by that point that there was very little left for them to do?

Bonnie: There was very little left, to be honest, but also I wouldn’t say that we did these major things that you’re talking about with me and Felicity.

Jessica: Oh, okay.

Bonnie: I did do a lot for Felicity; it was not a restructuring at all. Structure is the thing that I worry about the most and so I would not have restructured the book. What she did instead was say, ‘I think we need more of the kid’. A lot of people think editors or agents write all over your manuscript. They do not do that. They don’t get in there and start rewriting. I won’t accept anybody rewriting my own document actually. I’ve been a writer for thirty years; I’m not a beginner. But what I really loved about Felicity is that she could look at it and say, ‘I think we need more of the kid; I think we need this, blah, blah, blah’. It wasn’t – we didn’t agree on everything and that is okay, and the thing that other writers have to know is that you can’t just go, ‘Oh okay, I have to do this because my agent says this or my editor says this’; this is your book, this is your dream, these are your ideas. And combined with my experience, and I’ve written for a lot of people for a very long period of time, and it’s creative writing, I knew what I had to do. So sometimes Felicity and I would lock horns but this is the great thing about her, that is exactly what you want in an agent. So she was torturing me a little bit, ‘Well, I think we should not… This dog, I don’t really like the dog’, and you have to be able to defend what you’re doing and I think I can do that. But I will say, you know, I just love having her opinion on everything because she is someone I can say, ‘What about this?’ and she’ll go, ‘Uhh, I don’t think so’, you know? She doesn’t pull any punches and that’s what I like.

Jessica: Yeah. Were there any rules, like traditional rules that you felt like you were breaking in writing Lessons in Chemistry?

Bonnie: Yeah, most of them. [Jessica chuckles] You know, this is the joy of Felicity Blunt, because I guarantee you that there are very, very few agents who would feel compelled to sign a book that has ten different points of view and one of them is from a dog. Having different points of view, that many, is already breaking every rule in the book but then to combine them within a chapter, within a sentence on the same page is considered a big no-no. And I just don’t care about writing rules. You know I come from a different world where you’re supposed to break the rules, where you’re supposed to be disruptive, where you’re supposed to do new things. So I just ignore anybody who says, ‘You can’t do that’, because I think I can only not do that if I do it badly, and if I do it badly then I deserve to be pummelled a little bit. But we always have to go out on a limb, you know, we always have to explore new things. The character is a subversive character, the writing had to match her character and so you cannot just have Chapter One, linear, linear, linear, one point of view or the standard idea of how you might present a novel. You know, and those other approaches definitely work but they would not have worked for this book. That’s why, I mean… You know, Felicity, she’s like, ‘Yeah, I like that’; I thought very few people would have said that.

Jessica: Hmm, and why was it important to be able to switch points of view even within a chapter or within a sentence? What was that giving to you for the book?

Bonnie: Well, I think what I’m always doing is when I’m writing I always think of one person and that’s the reader. I don’t write for myself. I have been trained to always write for other people and always, always consider what they’re thinking, what kind of day they’ve had and then try to provide something to them that they will find entertaining but also with substance. So when I was changing points of view like that my idea was that all of these points of view were going to be rounding out one woman, Elizabeth Zott. We see her from ten different points of view, that’s why she’s so big. But my other idea, the central idea of the book, is that she is a catalyst, because she’s a chemist, but she is the catalyst of the book. So every single person or dog she comes in contact with she changes. She herself does not really change very much. Everybody else changes when they meet her or when she’s had time to remould them!

Jessica: Is that another rule that’s broken, that she herself doesn’t change much?

Bonnie: Yeah, I think people always say, you know, and then the protagonist has to go through this great change, but Elizabeth Zott started as a chemist, that’s all she wanted to do and she ends as a chemist.

Jessica: Let’s talk for a moment about the audiobook version, which was narrated by Miranda Raison. What was the casting process like from your end and were there qualities you wanted in a reader specific to this book?

Bonnie: Well, they sent me four different demo tapes of various actresses reading and when I heard Miranda’s I knew hers was the right one. To be completely honest I’ve never listened to the audiobook because I can’t even open a book without wanting to change it.

Jessica: Oh!

Bonnie: But I really respected her voice and, you know, she did a pretty good American accent, because she’s British, and the funny thing about the audio is that she mispronounces one name, Jack. She calls him Jack Lalan and he’s Jack LaLanne [La-LAY-ne], and every American knows that and so [Jessica chuckles] it’s without fail, every American will say, ‘I love this American who read the book but she says Jack LaLanne’s name wrong’ and I know, she’s British, [Jessica: Ah!] give her a break! [Jessica laughs] But I thought she did a great job and people just love the audiobook.

Jessica: Yeah, I enjoyed her narration tremendously. Were there any back and forths between you? Any questions or…?

Bonnie: She asked me how to pronounce one name but, you know, I never thought of Jack LaLanne because I grew up with Jack LaLanne on TV. I just thought that everyone knew it was Jack LaLanne. [Jessica chuckles] We never discussed that one. No, she was really hands on, she just got it done and I just thought, wow, she did a really, really good job and I’m really grateful to her. But no, we had no back and forth at all. That’s how good her demo tape was! [Jessica chuckles] That’s what I want to say.

Jessica: That must have been good! Do you ever listen to audiobooks yourself?

Bonnie: I do but rarely, honestly, because I’m the kind of person who needs to sit and I so rarely do things that would allow me to listen to an audiobook. Like, my neighbour in Seattle always listens to – like she listened to my book while she was gardening [Jessica: Hm-hm] but I don’t have a garden in London. So there are very few times where I’m not totally engaged with what I’m doing that I can listen to… I can’t even listen to podcasts half the time! I’m so far behind in the world it’s embarrassing. But I did listen to… I started the audiobook because I wanted to hear Meryl Streep read Tom Lake by Ann Patchett…

Jessica: Yes!

Bonnie: …and I really loved the way she did that.

Jessica: Yeah, I’m looking forward to that one.

Bonnie: Yeah.

Jessica: My mom was listening to that and telling me how good it was.

Bonnie: Yeah, I think it’s really, really well done.

Jessica: So going from audiobook, maybe, to the television series, which Apple TV picked up, and I believe it’s going to be released, I think 13th October is the release date. Have you had much involvement with that adaptation and are there any significant changes that you’re aware of?

Bonnie: Oh yeah, I have not had any involvement really. I did read the scripts but only at the very last… Really, two weeks before filming I got a chance to read the scripts. Our deal was that I could read the scripts and make notes and they had every right in the world to throw every note I wrote out the window, and I think that that’s fair. I think that’s fair because you have to allow creative people their own medium and their own experience. Everybody interprets the book in different ways. So yes, there’s a lot of changes between the book and the series but that’s what an adaptation is. And so I have only seen a rough cut from quite a while ago and I know it went back to editing so honestly I don’t know, I haven’t seen it either.

Jessica: Right!

Bonnie: I saw a very rough cut. So we’ll just wait and see but, yes, people should not expect oh, it’s going to be just like the book, because they just don’t do that and there’s a reason for that. Not only because it’s another medium but because they have to make sure they can get it all in eight episodes. So they had to cut a bunch of stuff, they might add new subplots; they do all sorts of things and you just have to, kind of, leave it up to them. I got great advice when I signed over the rights to Aggregate Films to make it into a TV series, which is that… I did want to work on it, by the way. I did say, ‘Hey, I would like to be one of the writers on this’ and it was hilarious at the time because my book hadn’t come out yet and my agents and editors were saying, ‘You cannot work on this series, you’re going to be really busy’, and I said, ‘Doing what?’ [Jessica laughs] I had no idea how much promotion there would be for Lessons in Chemistry! It’s more than a fulltime job! So that was really dumb of me but it was really – they were very kind and like, yeah, you’re going to be busy. So I didn’t do anything on it. I wasn’t invited to do anything on it anyway but I think… You know, the advice I got from three different writers who have had their work adapted for the screen is that you hand over your manuscript and then you run in the other direction. [Jessica: Hmm!] Because I wouldn’t have the strength to go, ‘Yeah, we don’t need this old scene anymore’. You know, they had to do that and I think that that is their job and it’s also their right.

Jessica: Yeah. That seems like a healthy perspective to have!

Bonnie: Yeah, yeah!

Jessica: Were there any changes that you noticed that actually interested you, like, oh, that’s a good idea?

Bonnie: I’m really fond of Episode 1. They put in this scene that I really liked, that I would have never thought of, where they have a Miss Hastings beauty pageant and they make Elizabeth participate, and I think it’s done super well.

Jessica: Yeah, that does sound great. I’m looking forward to watching it now!


[To listeners] I hope you’re enjoying this conversation with author Bonnie Garmus. We’ve got more to come, right after this message from Listening Books patron Stephen Fry.

[Music begins]

Stephen: Hello, I’m here to tell you about the wonderful audiobook charity Listening Books. If you or someone you know finds that your illness, disability, learning difficulty or mental health condition impacts on your ability to read the written word or to hold a book, then Listening Books could be for you. They have over ten thousand audiobooks in the collection, from fantastic fiction to fascinating nonfiction, compelling autobiographies and bestselling novels. You can find books for children and adults alike, with titles read by the most brilliant narrators, including me, Stephen Fry. A whole year’s access to Listening Books costs just £20, with completely free memberships available if you find this fee a barrier to joining the service. So, go on! Visit their website and join today at

[Music ends]

Bonnie: You know, I don’t watch cooking shows, I don’t even like to cook [Jessica laughs] and so it’s… I know, I mean I am not a chemist, not a scientist, I don’t like to cook. Why am I writing this book? But that’s the beauty of my background at copywriting, we always write what we don’t know. [Jessica: Hmm.] And so I have spent a career learning all new things all the time and I’m really lucky and grateful to have had that career. So when I decided to take on this book and I thought how hard can it be to write about cooking? Not that hard. How hard can it be to write about 1950s chemistry? An absolute nightmare! [Jessica laughs] I had to learn it for myself from a textbook from the 50s, you can’t google old science very well, and so that did turn out to be a lot more work than I thought. But honestly, it’s so funny, people say, you know, ‘What TV shows did you watch in order to get the feel for a cooking show?’ Well, I watched zero. [Jessica chuckles] Because I wanted to make my own show from my own imagination and not be influenced. But also, I just don’t like to cook. [Jessica laughs] I try. You know, BBC Food is coming here tomorrow to tape me making those brownies in the book and it's so funny because… I said, they’re doing this special on me, on my life in five dishes, which is such an honour, I’m really looking forward to this actually but when I said, you know, I don’t really like to cook, they were just astonished. [Jessica laughs] And I think that that is the power of writing. I can convince somebody I know something about cooking; that’s just a miracle.

Jessica: [Laughs] Lessons in Chemistry, it made a big splash even before it was published. There was a fiercely contested sixteen-publisher auction back in, I think it was 2020, which of course Doubleday won. Then the next thing you know, you’ve got Apple TV’s picked it up for a straight-to-series order. You’ve got Brie Larson starring and executive producing. So by the time the book was actually published last year there was already a lot of momentum behind it, which absolutely did not fizzle. All of this to say, was there a single moment during all this when you realised this was going to be huge?

Bonnie: You know, I’ve been in a state of shock, honestly, because, you know, I wrote another book that never went anywhere, I got ninety-eight rejections, and I started this one because I was in a bad mood. What are the odds? [Jessica chuckles] And then I thought, well… I mean even Felicity… This is yet another thing I absolutely love about her. The night before she was going to introduce the book at Frankfurt she called me and she said, ‘Look, you and I like this book but it’s pretty quirky so I don’t want you to get your hopes up because a lot of agents take books to Frankfurt and they don’t get any notice, nothing. You know, we like it but, again, it’s pretty quirky.’ She called me twenty-four hours later and she goes, ‘Cancel everything I just said’. It was the greatest thing, we were both so surprised, you know, and I think that lowering of expectations was really important, really smart on her part. And then we’ve continued to be surprised and what I really love is how many people have come to the book through different channels. You know, I talk a lot with young people who are reading the book, young teenage boys actually are a really big growing audience for me!

Jessica: Oh wow, that’s great to hear.

Bonnie: Yeah, yeah, well, it’s been assigned to a lot of schools, a lot of curricula are now including it and I really appreciate that because as one young man said to me, the dean of his school said, you have to learn about sexism. I mean really, this book is set in the 60s but everything you’re going to read is still true and you have to really think about how you’re treating your female classmates because they’re not different from you, you are not superior to them. That really meant a lot. So I get the best direct messages from these teenage boys reading the book and it’s hilarious. But I also get a lot from young women, especially young women in science who are finding that they’re still facing the same battles that their grandmothers, their mothers faced and I think it’s been this wake-up call for everyone. So in terms of the popularity though, I didn’t say, I didn’t ever see it coming and sometimes, well, for a long time, for a long time, especially when I was going through the auction and through the TV series thing, which just seemed bizarre, you know. When you have Brie Larson call you up on Zoom and it’s just you and her and she says, ‘I want to executive produce your book and I want to be Elizabeth Zott’, you know, you just think, is this really happening? [Jessica chuckles] But one night… I used to do this thing all the time where I would get up in the middle of the night, because I do have a pretty good imagination. I’d get up in the middle of the night and I would just assume I’d imagined the entire thing and I would go check my email to see if I had imagined it. And one night, I just remember this so clearly, my husband grabbed my wrist as I was getting out of bed and he pulled me back down and he said, ‘Let me save you a trip, it’s real’. [Jessica: Hm!] So I guess he was tired of me going back and forth. [Jessica laughs] But yeah, you know, now I’m more accustomed to it but it’s still just a shock to hear from people all over the world, you know, that so many people find themselves in the book.

Jessica: Have there been any drawbacks to the success?

Bonnie: Well, I’m a very private person and so loss of privacy is a big one for me and I like… Hilariously, I thought, well, after I finish this book I will have the freedom to start another book and, wow, I won’t have to work as a copywriter, I can just write. No! No, no, no. [Jessica chuckles] The promo has taken over every inch of my day! I can’t believe I thought I was going to help out on the series. So, I think that’s really the only drawback, is that I didn’t have all the time I thought I was going to have, but, you know what, I’m grateful for every part of this. There is nothing about this process that I would change or try to make better because I’m in a very – I know it’s a hallowed space and I’ll never take it for granted.

Jessica: Hmm. This other book that you’d like to work on if Lessons in Chemistry promo or whatever gave you the time! Are you maybe able to go back to some of the work that you had written before and rework it or…?

Bonnie: Well, I did go back to my first original book and I borrowed two of the themes from that book that I think are really important themes for people, and so those are being included in my new book but otherwise no, I... You know, I realise this about myself, I will outgrow a project [Jessica: Hmm] and then I don’t want to go back because I’ve outgrown it, you know. It’s just like oh, new clothes or whatever, I want something new. So I did include these two themes that are important to me but I’ve reworked them quite a bit and, yeah, I like working on that when I get a chance.

Jessica: You’ve mentioned your career as a copywriter a number of times and I’m just wondering, was there anything about the publishing industry that surprised you, that you were not accustomed to with copywriting?

Bonnie: Oh yeah! Publishing moves slower than an iceberg. I’ve never seen an industry that moved slower in my life. And this isn’t really fair for me to say but I came from industries that are moving at the speed of light. I was mostly working in technology where, you know, every day you’re just moving along, and that’s not true in publishing. It is so slow it’s… I just… When they told me… You know, I finished the book and I met all my deadlines way ahead of time because, you know, let’s go. And then they said, and now it’ll be eighteen more months [Jessica gasps] until it comes it, and I thought, what are you people doing? [Jessica laughs] Of course, what it is is they’re getting it reviewed, they’re getting it sent out to Goodreads and readers and they’re getting all these other things and then you have to give all those people time to read and reflect on it and decide if they like it or not. So there’s a lot of hidden stuff about publishing that I really didn’t realise and I had to come up to speed on. From the outside though it’s so funny because people say, ‘Oh, it must have been in very bad shape if they needed eighteen months’ and I said no, that’s… Every writer goes, yeah, it’s eighteen months. You know, you just want to die! Because you’re done [Jessica chuckles] and you want to move on. But then there’s all this pre-promo that you have to do that takes an incredible amount of time. Incredible amount of time. So it was all a huge surprise to me. I do think there are parts that could be sped up, but I say that without really knowing what would have to change.

Jessica: Let’s end with this. When you get time, which must be scarce these days, when you get time to read purely for pleasure and not just for research for your next book, what do you like to read and do you have anything that you’d like to recommend?

Bonnie: Yeah, you know, my favourite thing is to read literature. So I like literary novels, that’s what I always go for, but I read a ton of nonfiction. I just finished an incredible book that will be out next year, which is not fair right, because all I do is get ARCs these days, Advanced Reader Copies, so I recommend these books that won’t be out because it’s the glacial pace of publishing. But this one I just finished and it’s nonfiction and it’s called Chasing Hope by Nicholas Kristof, he’s a journalist for the New York Times. It was the most inspiring book I’ve read in ten years.

Jessica: Oh wow.

Bonnie: It’s really good. So, you know, I rarely read memoirs but that one, it’s just absolutely incredible what a foreign journalist does and I got to learn about it, you know, through his book and his insights. But there’s so much hope in this book that [Jessica: Hm.] it made it a really worthwhile read. But the last book I absolutely loved, fiction, was Demon Copperhead [Jessica gasps] by Barbara Kingsolver, who I personally think is some sort of literary goddess and I love what she does but that book? That’s right up there with The Poisonwood Bible for me. [Jessica: Hmm.] Both were just incredible.

Jessica: Yeah, I’m glad to hear you say that; I really enjoyed that book as well and…

Bonnie: Yeah.

Jessica: Well, it’s always nice when you hear other people enjoying a book that you’ve always loved, but sometimes I think because she’s got quite a, I guess some might call it  didactic or, you know, I mean… Because she has a strong moral centre to her books in a way that obviously reminds you of Dickens of course, but also I was reminded of, like, Steinbeck with Grapes of Wrath and whatever. Just this sort of singing indignation…

Bonnie: Yeah.

Jessica: …at those responsible for terrible things. [Laughs] And that’s not everybody’s cup of tea I think, you know. 

Bonnie: Yeah. I know exactly what you mean because, you know, one of my struggles is I don’t want to write something that is super depressing for people. I mean, let’s face it, Lessons in Chemistry is just chockful of dark moments [Jessica: Hmm.], I just stuff them in there. But I try to balance them with lightness because I do think every day of the person coming home on the Tube or coming home from work and not wanting more troubles on their plate but wanting to be left at the end of the day with some kind of hope, and hopefully with some laughter. That said though, I love Barbara Kingsolver and I bow down to her!

Jessica: As do we all! Well, I join you in the bow anyway!

Bonnie: [Laughs]

Jessica: Bonnie, thank you so much again for your time, it’s been a delight to get to chat with you, and I can’t wait to share this conversation with all these friends of mine who’ve read the book and laughed at it and resonated with the main character. Thank you so much.

Bonnie: Ah, thank you so much for having me Jessica, I really appreciate it.

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Jessica: [To listeners] And thank you very much for listening. Lessons in Chemistry is available at your favourite bookshops and libraries and, of course, if you’re a Listening Books member you can find the audiobook in our collection as well. You’ll also find Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, which in addition to being a favourite of Bonnie’s, is also one of the nominees for this year’s Members Choice Awards. Voting is now open, so if you’re a Listening Books member and would like to cast your vote for the best audiobook of 2023 visit You have until 30th November to cast your vote. Stephen Fry will announce the winner in January. Meanwhile I’ll be back next week. That’s right, that’s next week, not month, with actor and audiobook narrator Polly Lee, who will talk to us about what it was like to voice the many, many characters of The School for Good and Evil series. This podcast is produced by Listening Books, a UK charity that provides an audiobook lending service for over 115,000 members who find that an illness, disability, learning difficulty or mental health condition affects their ability to read the printed word or hold a book. It’s simple to join. For more information head to our website at

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