Narrator Interview: Karl O’Brian Williams

Karl O’Brian Williams is the narrator of These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card, a transporting debut novel that reveals the ways in which a Jamaican family forms and fractures over generations, in the tradition of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. We spoke about how he became an audiobook narrator, what his process is, and his own audiobook favorites.

Please tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an audiobook narrator.

Like a lot of people, reading just ignites the imagination. So you start to think about how a character looks and sounds, and then the pictures of the world each inhabits just start exploding in your head.

I was always animated when telling stories from a very young age, so it surprised no one when I took a huge interest in theatre: acting first, then I just threw myself into the whole world of theatre. I also trained as a broadcaster, so that helped to fine-tune reading skills like voice & diction. Then went to study acting Shakespeare, and that helped me a whole lot—the vocal training, breathing exercises—everything. It definitely prepared me to take on the world of voice-acting, and all that’s required for narrating audiobooks. There’s always raw talent, but training—if you can access it in anyway do it—because it gives skills no one can take from you that you’ll always have. And then when you get a project like this, you’re like, Wow I can literally use EVERYTHING I’ve learned in every acting and voice class, ever.

What is your process for preparing to narrate an audiobook?

When I read for myself, I am a slow reader. Partly because I have to re-read a lot. I will speed up sometimes and miss lots of information. I also purposely slow down and put down a book or press pause for days ’cause I do not want the story to end. I want to prolong the narrative and take my time to savor the story.

So I think about that a lot—how I read, how other people read and process information, the moments people need for breath and clarity, and above all for the enormity of the imagination to be freed and just live. And then I’m like, How am I now gonna give them an actual experience? There’s a way that I’m helping to shape the journey through my voice by creating and influencing the imagination.

So I do my warm-ups, have my tea, coffee, and lots of water, as well as my papers all laid out in front of me. Honestly, it just takes a great team woking with you, and the whole experience is then made better (big ups to CDM sound studios; my engineer, Cat; my director, Brian; and everyone else at Simon & Schuster for helping to create the entire experience—the vibe and everything that you need to do your job well). It’s never just you. And once you realize that it’s you plus the people in the room, plus the words you were given by the author, plus the audience—once you acknowledge all that—then you realize the weight of the awesomeness that you’ve been tasked to do, and you just have to deliver!

What do you think is the key to your success in narrating audiobooks?

Lot of what I said above—it’s realizing it’s you+, rather than just being about you.

Are you an audiobook listener? If so, what are some of your favorite audiobooks?

I’m just getting into it, and now that I’m practicing shelter-in-place I’m really discovering audiobooks, podcasts, and the whole virtual world of storytelling (and appreciating it!). I have to say, right now I’m enjoying listening to Joe Morton narrate The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, also liked the multiple narrative talent showcased in The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

Just happy to be featured and even more happy for Maisy, that she and These Ghosts Are Family are now part of literary world culture! I celebrate any big up that the place I was born receives! So I feel good.

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