Cat, Deputy Editor

Actor, activist and visionary Cicely Tyson’s memoir, Just as I Am, is as graceful as it is funny, as measured as it is charming. The audiobook features a number of treasures, including a foreword read by Viola Davis and an introduction from Tyson herself, but narrator Robin Miles carries the majority of Tyson’s life story, and she does so beautifully. Here Miles discusses the humbling and thrilling process of narrating this remarkable book.

Tell me a bit about transforming Just as I Am into an audiobook. How did you prepare, and what did you most enjoy about the preparation?
I Googled to find every interview [of Tyson] I could, and then watched them repeatedly. Not to copy her voice, but to hear and feel how she communicates, her energy and pace, her intellect and humor. And I wanted to feel her energy as a young actress, then again as a mature actress. I just loved how self-possessed she was in all of them.

Tell us about your personal connection to Tyson prior to narrating the audiobook, and did you work with her at all during the audiobook’s production?
Cicely Tyson was very special to me; she was a big reason why I wanted to be an actor and believed that it was possible for me, the Black girl with the buck teeth. I did get to speak with her during the process, and it was thrilling. Also humbling, because she asked me to take my time more in the reading. (Ironically, I had stepped up my pace, fearing that my original tempo might be too slow. She assured me that my instincts were right, and reminded me to always trust them. Sigh . . .)

Was there anything you felt strongly about getting “right” as you narrated her words?
Absolutely. I wanted the moments when she expressed a strong reaction or deep impression to be organic, natural and true. No pretense, no overplaying.

As you told Tyson’s story, what were you most surprised to learn about her? Was there any section that was particularly challenging to narrate?
I was surprised to learn that she came from the same neighborhoods of NYC that my Caribbean grandparents, aunties and uncles lived in. I keep thinking that one of my great aunts must have known her as a little girl. It was a six-degrees experience knowing that, and that my acting teacher at Yale Drama, Earl Gister, was a close colleague of her teacher, Lloyd Richards.

Do you have a favorite Cicely Tyson performance or memory?
Oh yes . . . Sounder. That film left an indelible impression on me. I think it was the quiet intensity, the way she portrayed perseverance, love and grounding with a soft femininity. It just shattered the stereotyped images of Black women we had been fed in entertainment up to that point.

How does the experience of narrating an audiobook differ from other kinds of performances?
With audiobooks, I conjure and project images in front of me the whole time (the place, the people, etc.), so I am reacting to something outside of myself that I must invest in, but that isn’t tangibly there. With theater, film, TV, there are so many levels of real images to use as a source; you endow them with meaning and let them do their work. The movie of the audiobook narrative happens solely in my head.

“It emotionally hurts to let that pain into my body, but it is necessary to make complex human dynamics recognizable.”

What’s the hardest part of limiting your acting toolbox to just your voice?
Good question. One thing is definitely the urge to move or gesture. I cannot tell you how often I’ve whacked a mic. The other is that you cannot hide; you have to release the thing you’re feeling and pursue the things you want or else you leave your listener squinting (i.e., left in a state of confusion about what’s happening between characters).

What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a narrator?
I would say a deep understanding of language, strong acting chops and a strong ear for music and rhythm, which helps with accents and emphasis. I was blessed to have exceptional speakers modeling the use of language in my family. I had a leg up in understanding complex sentences from my grandfather, who was a Shakespeare and Victorian poetry professor. It’s like the family legacy, so I cannot take credit for it. I also grew up in a neighborhood of immigrants from everywhere, and I absorbed their accents. Then, drama school added solid acting training to my arsenal. It turned out to be a perfect storm for audiobook narration.

What is the most rewarding or coolest thing you get to bring to this experience through your reading?
The most rewarding thing I’d have to say is offering up my emotional intelligence as a community service. When I express what characters feel and want from each other, what is happening beneath the words, I like to think I add to the emotional intelligence of the community. At least, I tell myself that when I freely allow a character’s pain to play through my body and voice. It emotionally hurts to let that pain into my body, but it is necessary to make complex human dynamics recognizable.

What’s one thing people might not expect about your role as narrator?
I think people believe that narrators read super fluidly and make very few mistakes. And that can be true for me with colloquially worded nonfiction books and some very fluidly written fiction. But we narrators misread or stop to redo a line every few sentences, particularly with fiction. Especially in the beginning of the book, before I have absorbed the feel of the author’s style and the individual characters. My students who accompany me to a session are always so surprised.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of the Just as I Am audiobook.

Narrator Robin Miles discusses the humbling and thrilling process of narrating Cicely Tyson's remarkable memoir, Just as I Am.

With these novels on the horizon, it’s easy to feel excited about what’s to come in 2021. From all-time favorites like Kazuo Ishiguro to buzzy up-and-comers like Zakiya Dalila Harris, we can’t wait to check out these fiction releases.


The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
St. Martin’s | February 2

After the runaway success of The Nightingale and The Great Alone, we have high expectations for any historical fiction from Hannah. We know we can trust her to serve fine drama, easy-reading prose and a vivid historical milieu, and we also expect her to make us cry over one or multiple characters. This time she’s taking us to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and we’ll follow a family of women as they find a home among workers’ rights activists.


Milk Fed book coverMilk Fed by Melissa Broder
Scribner | February 2

In her 2018 debut novel, The Pisces, Broder brought us intimate moments with a merman; now she’s back with a Sapphic Jewish love story about all different appetites, especially for food and sex. In Broder’s hands, the strange can be supremely sexy and the obsessive can be deeply comforting, so we’re especially excited about her second novel, which is about a woman named Rachel who lives a restricted life due to a dysfunctional relationship with her mom. But after a beautiful, fat yogurt shop employee begins sharing some over-the-top sundaes with her, Rachel quickly finds that her desire has been there all along.


My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee
Riverhead | February 2

A new book from award-winning author and Pulitzer Prize finalist Lee is always cause for celebration, not least because each of his books is so different from the last, and it’s a thrill to see where he’s headed next. This one has a classic premise: A young man is swept up by a charming businessman and comes of age during their globetrotting travels, but what happens on those travels is wilder than anything you’ve read before.


The Removed book coverThe Removed by Brandon Hobson
Ecco | February 2

Hobson’s 2018 novel, Where the Dead Sit Talking, was a National Book Award finalist, and from the sound of this follow-up, it’s clear he’s only getting started. Drawing on real historical figures and Cherokee folklore, the novel explores grief and trauma within a family mourning the loss of their son. Hobson is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation Tribe of Oklahoma, and his perspective on the nature of home for Native Americans is essential reading this winter.


No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Riverhead | February 16

From the author of the singularly hilarious memoir Priestdaddy comes a social media novel unlike anything you’ve ever read before. If you live for the fragmented comedy afforded to a writer by Twitter, then this is the next step up.


The Kitchen Front book coverThe Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan
Ballantine | February 23

This is the third novel from the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, and it’s hitting all the right notes: World War II and a BBC cooking show. Considering how much “Great British Bake Off” we’ve watched in the last year, this is high on our list of cozy, comforting reads for 2021.


The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Grove | March 2

Vietnam-born author Nguyen’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel, The Sympathizer, was an instant classic, starring an unnamed double agent whose ability to hold starkly opposing worldviews causes a division of self. This year Nguyen returns with the long-awaited sequel, promising philosophical deep dives and a unique look at Vietnamese refugee life in 1980s Paris.


Klara and the Sun book coverKlara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Knopf | March 2

This is Ishiguro’s eighth novel and his first since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. (He was also knighted in 2019!) A return to the first-person narrative style for which we adore him, this novel has a narrator we can’t wait to meet, like something out of a slightly creepy fairy tale: an “Artificial Friend” who observes humans from her place in a department store, where she hopes to be purchased for a child.


Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Grove | March 2

Sweeney’s 2016 debut novel, The Nest, became an instant bestseller, and no wonder—she’s got a clear knack for family drama. She’s back in the landscape of lifelong relationships with her second book, the story of a woman who’s trying to make sense of her husband’s long-ago lie about a lost wedding ring. We can’t wait for these bonds to unfold before us.


What's Mine and Yours book coverWhat’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster
Grand Central | March 2

Afro-Dominican American author Coster’s debut novel, Halsey Street (published by Amazon Publishing’s imprint Little A), was a finalist for the 2018 Kirkus Prize. She was also one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 honorees for 2020, where she was in great company with some of our favorite new authors (C Pam Zhang! Raven Leilani!). Her second novel is an exploration of school integration and family in North Carolina, beginning in the 1990s and spanning 20 years.


How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue
Random House | March 9

Feeling deja vu? No wonder! Mbue’s second novel was one of our Most Anticipated Books of 2020, but like so many novels that were shifted to later pub dates due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this one got moved—all the way to 2021. But if we’ve learned anything from the grim year that was 2020, it’s that patience is the best thing you can have. We know this novel will be worth the wait.


Eternal book coverEternal by Lisa Scottoline
Putnam | March 23

This is the internationally bestselling author’s first foray into historical fiction, and it’s been a long time coming. She’s been wanting to write about the Italian Holocaust since her college days, when she studied under Philip Roth at the University of Pennsylvania. (He gave her an A!) Now she’s diving into the world of Mussolini and the horrific events that occurred in October 1943 in the Jewish Ghetto of Rome.


Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge
Algonquin | March 30

Greenidge received a coveted Whiting Award for her major debut, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, and now she’s back with her second novel, this one inspired by the life of one of the first Black female doctors in the U.S. It’s about a Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn whose mother, a practicing physician, has a specific vision for her daughter. With themes of generational obligation and colorism, it sounds like a must-read for everyone who adored Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half.


Caul Baby book coverCaul Baby by Morgan Jerkins
Harper | April 6

Jerkins was one of our 16 Women to Watch in 2020, and her essay collection Wandering in Strange Lands was an illuminating exploration of tracing Black heritage. This year she makes her fiction debut with a novel about tradition and inheritance, both familial and regional, that centers on the folk magic of the caul, a membrane that covers the heads of a Harlem-based Black family’s newborn babies.


Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer
MCD | April 6

The Annihilation author spins another yarn of climate disaster with his latest, in which a woman is burdened with a taxidermied hummingbird and salamander, which turn out to both be endangered species, and soon finds herself on the run.


PeacesPeaces by Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead | April 6

British author Oyeyemi’s surreal, imaginative fiction holds a place in our hearts that only she can fill, and her seventh book joins the grand literary tradition of tales set aboard unusual, mysterious trains. It follows a couple, Otto and Xavier, and their pet mongoose after they board the Lucky Day, a bizarre locomotive that meets their every desire.


Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
Knopf | May 4

The author of Seating Arrangements and Astonish Me aims high, swings for the fences—whatever your metaphor may be, she’s going all out—with an epic tale about a female aviator who set her sights on circumnavigating the globe by way of the North and South Poles, unfolding in tandem with the story of a Hollywood actor cast to play her in a film a century later. Watch this one—it could be major.


Second Place book coverSecond Place by Rachel Cusk
FSG | May 4

Literary genius Cusk, memoirist and author of the groundbreaking Outline trilogy, will dive into cerebral questions of privilege, fate, gender and the human spirit through the story of a woman who invites an artist to visit her remote coastal home.


Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
MCD | May 4

Solomon’s been steadily making a name for themselves in the fantasy realm, racking up awards for their debut, An Unkindness of Ghosts, and Lambda Award-winning second novel, The Deep. We’re predicting they’ll reach a whole new batch of readers with this genre-blending latest, a mixture of Gothic and speculative fiction about a woman who’s hiding in the woods from an authoritarian religious community.


Whereabouts book coverWhereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
Knopf | May 8

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lahiri’s fifth work of fiction is her first since 2013’s The Lowland. It’s also the first book she has written in Italian and translated into English. The synopsis seems to defy easy explanation, as the tale follows a woman throughout the mundane and transformative events of a year.


Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Ballantine | June 1

Wonderful news for readers who loved Daisy Jones & The Six! Reid’s latest is set during one late-summer night in 1980s Malibu, where four celebrity siblings, the children of a legendary singer, throw a huge party that ends in flames. Send all the secrets and summer drama this way, please.


The Other Black Girl book coverThe Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Atria | June 1

The seven-figure acquisition deal for former Knopf assistant editor Harris’ debut novel, about a young Black woman employed by a publishing house, was announced amid the American Dirt controversy, which was only the beginning for a year that pushed publishing to reckon with its lack of diversity in a major way. Shining a light on microaggressions and racism in the workplace like Mateo Askaripour’s Black Buck, Harris’ perspective on the publishing industry deserves all our attention.


Animal by Lisa Taddeo
Avid Reader | June 8

Taddeo’s Three Women, a glimpse into the sex lives of three different women, isn’t an easy read, but it certainly was one of the most provocative books we read in 2019, sparking discussion about the way we think and write about women’s sexuality. She moves to fiction in 2021 with that same fearlessness to tell the story of a woman who sheds her victimhood to become a predator.


The Hidden Palace book coverThe Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker
Harper | June 8

There are few novels we’ve more patiently waited for a follow-up to than 2013’s The Golem and the Jinni, and the moment has finally come. Wecker brings her formidable imaginative powers back to the world of Chava the golem and Ahmad the jinni, and this new novel will span the years from the turn of the century to early World War I.


One Two Three by Laurie Frankel
Holt | June 8

Frankel’s novel This Is How It Always Is was one of our favorites of 2017, and it has continued to reach readers as a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick, so we know many of you will join us in squealing for her latest big-hearted family drama. It centers on the Mitchell triplets, sisters who live in a small town that’s been devastated by a chemical plant’s poisoning of their water supply.


The Great Mrs. Elias book coverThe Great Mrs. Elias by Barbara Chase-Riboud
Amistad | June 22

Chase-Riboud is a powerhouse: She’s a celebrated visual artist and sculptor, award-winning poet and the author of seven books, including the important 1979 novel Sally Hemings, which revealed the spirit of the real woman hidden in Thomas Jefferson’s shadow. With her new novel, Chase-Riboud is giving voice to another little-known Black figure: Hannah Elias, an American sex worker who became one of the wealthiest Black women in the world.


Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
FSG | September 7

Rooney knows the way to our hearts with her emotional entanglements that sneak up on you and then completely destroy you, whether in novel form or in limited series adaptation (as with her second novel, Normal People, which you simply must watch on BBC/Hulu, if you haven’t already). Her third novel follows a quartet of young people in Dublin, which means our feelings will be played with at double the intensity.


The Matrix by Lauren Groff
Riverhead | September 7

We’ve waited six years, and Fates and Furies author Groff is finally back with a tantalizing historical fiction release, about a 17-year-old girl who is cast out of her royal court and sent to England to serve as the prioress of an abbey.


Bewilderment by Richard Powers
Norton | Fall 2021

Powers’ jaw-dropping, Pulitzer-winning tree opera, The Overstory, is unsurpassed in environmental fiction—but there’s always room for more. His next novel examines a world “both perilous and imperiled that we are leaving for our children to inhabit” through the story of a father and his son.


Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Doubleday | Fall 2021

The novel we’re most excited to read in 2021 is easily this one from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Whitehead. Coming off the utterly necessary emotional devastation of The Nickel Boys, we’re thrilled to hear his latest is a tale of heists and hijinks in 1960s Harlem.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Discover all of BookPage’s most anticipated books of 2021.

With these novels on the horizon, it’s easy to feel excited about what’s to come in 2021. From all-time favorites like Kazuo Ishiguro to buzzy up-and-comers like Zakiya Dalila Harris, we can’t wait to check out these fiction releases.

Maria Hinojosa’s masterful book on American immigration and her own family story is a must-read in its own right, but the Mexican American author is also the anchor and executive producer of NPR’s program "Latino USA," and she brings that knowledge and experience to her performance of the Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America audiobook. It’s moving, funny, heartbreaking, informative and utterly captivating, making it one of the best audiobooks of the year. Here Hinojosa discusses her role as narrator, which allowed her to fall back in love with her own book.

As you were writing the book, were you imagining the way it would be delivered on audio?
I was absolutely not thinking about the audiobook when I was writing! It would’ve been too hard for me to even begin to think that way. The upside for me, however, is that I am always reading things out loud while I’m writing, because that’s what I do for work. As a radio journalist, at some point, everything I’ve written I have said out loud. If it doesn’t roll off my tongue, that’s when I might change something, especially if it doesn’t sound right. But I never thought about the audiobook when I was writing my book.

“A writer is always so conflicted about their work, so it was liberating to be able to be in this space of my words, without being judgmental or changing anything.”

Was there any question that you would narrate the audiobook? If so, what was that process like?
For me, it was an absolute given to narrate the audiobook, but I have to be honest with you: It was one of the things that I felt the most overwhelmed by! I’ve never had to read something as massive as an entire book, and the thought of doing that was actually quite terrifying and overwhelming.

Tell us about transforming your book into an audiobook. How did you prepare?
I prepared like I was going to run a marathon. Even though I felt very overwhelmed by the number of hours it would take for me to record, I had to convince myself that I was going to make it! The pandemic forced me to transform one of the bedrooms in my home into a studio, but in order to work I have to ask everybody in the entire household to be quiet when we record. There was just no way that I could have asked the entire household to be quiet for five hours at a time, much less make the street noise disappear.

In a sense, recording the audiobook was my first break from this psychological barrier of “working from home,” as it marked my return to the office studio. I prepared myself with a lot of tea and my dog, who sat on my lap for about half of the recordings when he wasn’t noisy.

And then there were other parts, like preparing for the more emotional parts of the book. There’s really no way to prepare for that. In fact, my emotions caught me off guard a few times, I just couldn’t help it.

Did narrating your memoir change your relationship to it in any way?
Yes! I fell in love with my book.

A writer is always so conflicted about their work, so it was liberating to be able to be in this space of my words, without being judgmental or changing anything. I vividly remembered the ideas that I had, where I was when I had them, how I imagined this moment of holding this book, I was emotionally connected to it. I reflected on the story of my arrival, and then my time as a young woman. I cried during the scene of my rape, and I found myself rooting for my character as I read on! I laugh about it now because I am the character, she is me! The process of narrating completely transformed my relationship to the memoir, even after I never imagined that it would.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of the Once I Was You audiobook, plus more great audio recommendations.


Did you picture a specific audience to whom you were performing, and did the relationship to your perceived audience change through this performance?
Imagine this story as if you were telling it to your mother.

I always write with this in mind. Keep in mind this doesn’t necessarily work when writing a memoir, but it helps to focus on telling the story to one person. I didn’t have an image of a reader, per se, but I knew that I had to use my voice to connect to them. When you connect to somebody’s writing, it is powerful because it is such an intimate experience, but imagine an added element—the element of your voice. You can use your own voice to exude sensuality, anger, love, raw emotions. I go into the studio a lot, so doing this wasn’t particularly hard for me. I just close my eyes and go into a space.

We can demand that silenced voices need to be heard, that untold history needs to be brought to light, but to hear your voice narrate Once I Was You drives it home, from the strength you imbue into your mother’s voice to the sly tone with which you skewer hypocrisy and racism. Did you have any goals for your narration?
As you may know, I wanted to be an actor, so I have learned to understand the power of my voice figuratively and literally. I have to be honest and say there were moments when I wanted to just keep reading and get through it. But then there were other moments where I wanted to be a good actor, and it turns out I was actually just being my most authentic self! I really wanted to entertain you and draw you in with my voice, use it in the way that radio journalists know we can and share this feeling with the reader.

Once I Was YouWas there a section of your memoir that proved most difficult to narrate, and how did you get through it?
The hardest part of my narration was when I read about my assault. I cried. It took me a while to get through it, maybe because of the way I wrote it. It was very graphic and one of the parts of the book that I wrote while crying. It felt like the scab was off, and I was diffing deeper into my wounds when I talked about this moment and others.

It was hard, but I also felt like I needed to go through that pain as part of my therapy. I needed it to heal. It was hard to relive the moment of almost being taken from my mom, and writing about my dad (may he rest in peace) while feeling him coming toward me. That was hard.

What do you believe is the most rewarding or coolest thing you get to bring to the reading of your book?
I get to bring my drama! I really wanted to bring my entire personality with the book, let loose and be funny, silly, capturing the laughter or cynicism. When writing, you try to take people into those spaces, but when you get to record your audiobook, it’s all about getting people there faster! I loved it!

Are you a frequent audio listener? What role do audiobooks play in your life?
To tell you the truth, I don’t do audiobooks, and I don’t know why! For me, reading a book is in the pleasure of the reading because it’s like a sixth sense that I’m using. I’ve almost felt like I need somebody to initiate me into audiobooks with the best audiobook there is out there to listen to because I am all about having the book in my hand, like the actual book. Even digital books sometimes don’t do it for me. There’s something that’s a little bit less satisfying about them. But I am prepared to try an audiobook because I’m prepared to give my fans an opportunity to tell me which audiobook is the best I can start with!

 

Author photo by Kevin Abosch

Author Maria Hinojosa’s performance of the Once I Was You audiobook is moving, funny, informative, heartbreaking and utterly captivating. Here she discusses her role as narrator, which allowed her to fall back in love with her own book.

The drama and relationship foibles of trust-fund billionaires make for tremendous fun in Kevin Kwan’s novel Sex and Vanity, which cavorts from an over-the-top wedding in Capri to the streets of New York City. Lydia Look makes it all come alive in the relentlessly entertaining audiobook.

Look, a Los Angeles-based actor, writer and producer who has over a hundred film, TV, theater and voice credits, and who has previously narrated Kwan’s novels China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, brilliantly hops from one character to another, switching accents and attitudes in a dazzling performance. Here she discusses the “infinite magic” of Kwan’s fiction and what it’s like to produce audiobooks during the pandemic.

Tell me a bit about transforming Sex and Vanity into an audiobook. How did you prepare, and what did you most enjoy about the preparation?
It paralleled Lucie’s journey to Capri at the top of the book. Fraught with highs and lows, it was truly memorable. The highs were being asked to do the job and the prepping of the book—that was magical. The lows being that it coincided with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were in complete lockdown and had to revert to recording from home. I spent a great deal of time trying to get supplies to arrive in time in order for my broadcast-quality home studio to be ready for the job, and it was a challenge putting it all together in quarantine lockdown mode, to say the least.

I start by reading the book, then rereading certain passages that strike a chord personally. Then comes the best part—I start getting personal with the characters, in my waking hours and in my dreaming hours. The latter is where all the magic happens, as I live vicariously through them as I sleep.

Prepping the book is no different than filling an empty canvas with color. The more detailed you get, the richer they appear as people. The most enjoyable part was getting up-front and cozy with the wonderful characters in the book and assigning people in my life as them. I have a relationship with every character that I voice, and I love it.

“There is infinite magic to Kevin Kwan’s writing, and he spreads great joy through it.”

The wealthy, globetrotting cast has so many different accents. Tell me about the process of capturing their voices. Was there a character’s voice that proved especially challenging, or perhaps one you enjoyed most?
It was great fun! I’m lucky in life to have grown up and been surrounded with a diverse crowd of people of all colors and creeds that I constantly draw from. They make my imagination rich, and I’m so grateful for it. I cast people in my life as the characters in the book, but they remain anonymous in perpetuity. Casting is top secret! The essence of each character’s unique voice comes from having an intimate relationship with them, and I did with great relish. Each character’s vocal timbre reveals his/her inner truth, and the accompanying accent is a road map of their life experiences in total. Accents betray class and pedigree, and timbre reveals a person’s inner truth.

Like Cecil and George in the book, many of Kevin’s characters are well-heeled travelers that code switch easily between accents depending on the company they’re keeping, and that gave me license to create each character's unique sound in each different setting. That kept me joyfully engaged and on my tippy toes!

I don’t play favorites with the characters I get to breathe life into, but I am very tender toward Rosemary, as I see many shades of my own dynamic, irrepressible and life-loving mother in her. It would be wonderful to get to play her on screen if I could.

Sex and VanityThis is the third of Kevin Kwan’s novels that you’ve narrated. What have you learned in the process, about your work and about Kwan’s?
There is a beautiful shorthand that inherently exists between Kevin and I. It’s blossomed and deepened further over the books, and I really cherish it. I’ve also learned that I can never, ever be as fully prepared as I like and to just show up. In narrating Kevin’s books, you have to be fully present, as his words flow fast and his complex and chameleonic characters appear in a blink of an eye, often unpredictably. There is infinite magic to Kevin Kwan’s writing, and he spreads great joy through it. Be warned, he’s highly addictive!

Sex and Vanity is a reimagining of A Room With a View. Did the film adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel influence your performance in any way?
Oh, very much so! Kevin was majorly influenced by the Merchant Ivory film and requested that I revisit the film prior to recording. I was glad to be able to draw from the film’s witty spirit and astute observations of class and pedigree from a brilliant British cast. Watching it again gave me the permission I needed to have fun with the vocal storytelling. Nothing is too much if it’s grounded in truth, and the film displays that in full finery.

Kwan’s footnotes are especially fun, as they offer commentary from a seemingly omniscient narrator. Who is this voice, to you?
They are my favorite, too! I have had the pleasure of voicing them in three books now and always look forward to them. Those wickedly razor-sharp observations crack me up yet deliver a sobering dose of reality check at the same time. Brilliant, really. I never kiss and tell in casting, but I’ll reveal this one due to it’s obviousness. The spirit and essence of the omniscient narrator is Kevin Kwan, of course! But it’s Kevin’s female doppelgänger, Kevina Kwan (pronounced Keh-vee-nah). It was impossible to imagine anyone else in this part.

Kwan’s novels enjoy poking gentle fun at the incredibly wealthy, without ever being unkind. Similarly, your narration finds humor in the events without ever being mean. How do you balance this?
The more incredibly wealthy they are, the more human their foibles are to me. Their everyday cares and concerns are no different than ours. All they have are incredible means in terms of wealth and power, which they use to fix their everyday problems and that don’t always work. Money can’t buy you everything, not for the things that truly matter in life. So I try to find humor in their pathos and brevity in their farce. Besides, it’s impossible to be mean with Kevin’s writing. He spreads joy. It’s pure love.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of the Sex and Vanity audiobook.


What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a narrator of audiobooks? What is the most rewarding or coolest thing you get to bring to this experience through your reading?
Ignorance. Initially, it was brilliant that I had no hindsight of what was really in store for me, so I had zero fear going in. Also, I have no shame. The microphone gives me permission. I am utterly shameless in front of it. I am blessed with a very good ear and, to quote the Irish nuns that nurtured me in my childhood, “a gift of the gab.” The most rewarding is hearing the character's truth, when it works, as I breathe life into them. It’s a complete high for me! Yes, I can have fun all by myself. Ahem . . .

What’s one thing people might not expect about your role as narrator?
It’s hard work! I have so much respect for the craft. When it works, it’s pure elation. When it doesn’t, it is utter devastation. You’re all alone, with a stone-cold mic and only the sound of silence as your scene partner. Narrators are storytellers. I breathe life into the writer’s words and characters and hope to bring you on a journey with me. One hopefully filled with joy and pathos. I pray for a transformative one for the listener. Also, it takes a village to make an audiobook! Big love to my intrepid director Christina Rooney, who guided me expertly, and the wonderful team at Penguin Random House Audio.

The drama and relationship foibles of trust-fund billionaires make for tremendous fun in Kevin Kwan’s novel Sex and Vanity, which cavorts from an over-the-top wedding in Capri to the streets of New York City. Narrator Lydia Look makes it all come alive in the relentlessly entertaining audiobook.

We may not know what autumn will bring, but we do know it’ll come with some truly stellar audiobooks. Read on for the 11 audiobooks we’re most excited to listen to this fall.


Lying Life of Adults audiobook coverThe Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, narrated by Marisa Tomei
Random House Audio | September 1

The audiobook production for Elena Ferrante’s intimate standalone novel is as exciting a release as the book itself, as Academy Award-winning actor Marisa Tomei steps to the mic for her first solo audio narration.


Eat a Peach audiobook coverEat a Peach by David Chang with Gabe Ulla, narrated by the author
Random House Audio | September 8

The host of Netflix’s “Ugly Delicious” narrates his own audiobook to tell the inspiring story of his journey to becoming a superstar chef.


Conditional Citizens audiobook coverConditional Citizens by Laila Lalami, narrated by the author
Random House Audio | September 22

In her own words, Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami invites listeners to share in her experiences as an immigrant in America.


The Cold Millions audiobook coverThe Cold Millions by Jess Walter, narrated by a full cast
HarperAudio | October 6

The audiobook for Jess Walter’s new Western is one of the most exciting cast productions of the season, with narration by well-loved voices you’ll recognize, including Edoardo Ballerini, Marin Ireland, Cassandra Campbell, Frankie Corzo and more.


The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue audiobook coverThe Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, narrated by Julia Whelan
Macmillan Audio | October 6

Talk about perfect casting: Julia Whelan’s smooth, sweeping voice reading Victoria "V. E." Schwab’s century-spanning tale of immortality, resilience and memory. We couldn’t ask for more.


Keep Moving audiobook coverKeep Moving by Maggie Smith, narrated by the author
Simon & Schuster Audio | October 6

There can be such an impact when a wise and thoughtful person, going through hell, shares their experiences and affirmations online. That's what poet Maggie Smith did while going through a divorce, and her book compiles those accounts along with short essays. It’ll be a special treat to hear her read these words.


Memorial audiobook coverMemorial by Bryan Washington, narrated by the author and Akie Kotabe
Penguin Audio | October 27

Bryan Washington’s first novel, following his extraordinary story collection, Lot, unfolds through the dual perspectives of two young men in a relationship that may be nearing its end. The voices of Washington’s characters are uniquely vibrant, so it’ll be wonderful to hear the author and Akie Kotabe bring them to life.


Short Stories audiobook coverThe Best American Short Stories 2020, edited by Curtis Sittenfeld, narrated by a cast
HMH Audio | November 3

We don’t yet know who will compose the cast of this collection, but we’re excited nonetheless to hear stories from some of our favorite writers, like Emma Cline and Kevin Wilson, and to discover so many new voices.


The Best of Me audiobook coverThe Best of Me by David Sedaris, narrated by the author
Hachette Audio | November 3

In this special collection, David Sedaris has selected what he believes are his funniest and most memorable works from a career that has spanned more than 25 years. Come November, we’ll be begging for his big humor and signature irreverence.


Dolly Parton audiobook coverDolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics by Dolly Parton, narrated by the author
Recorded Books | November 17

Country music legend and one of our all-time favorite humans Dolly Parton takes readers and listeners behind the lyrics of 150 of her songs.


I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are audiobook coverI Want to Be Where the Normal People Are by Rachel Bloom
Hachette Audio | November 17

We cordially invite the very hilarious Rachel Bloom, co-creator and star of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," to speak and sing her essays, poems and any other words directly into our ears, thank you.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Discover more great audiobooks.

We may not know what autumn will bring, but we do know it’ll come with some truly stellar audiobooks. Read on for the 11 audiobooks we’re most excited to listen to this fall.

It’s been 30 years since the publication of The Pillars of the Earth, Welsh author Ken Follett’s enormously beloved novel about the building of a Gothic cathedral, and the publication of its highly anticipated prequel, The Evening and the Morning, is cause for much fanfare. Set at the end of the Dark Ages, the nearly 500 years of incredibly slow progress that came after the fall of the Roman Empire, it follows three figures during this period of immense change. It’s a hefty, expansive epic worthy of deep reading by history fans. To celebrate this momentous release, we reached out to Follett to learn more about his literary life.

Tell us about your favorite library from when you were a child.
I’d say that the first big thrill of my life was joining Canton Library in Cardiff at age 7. Canton Library—found on Library Street—is an absolutely stunning building. The philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated the money for the library, around £5,000 at the time, and it was built on the site of an old market. Carnegie, a Scottish American industrialist, gave away a huge proportion of his fortune, funding more than 650 libraries in the U.K., plus more than 1,500 in America. Undoubtedly, he transformed lives. Canton Library certainly changed mine.

What is on your “bucket list” of bookstores and libraries you’d love to visit but haven’t yet?
The Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. It’s architecturally stunning and contains 40 million items.

While researching your books, has there ever been a surprisingly relevant discovery among the stacks?
When I wrote Eye of the Needle in 1977, I had never been to Scotland, but half the book is set there. However, I could not afford to go on a research trip. The public library in Farnborough, Surrey, had a touring guide to Scotland, which was helpful for a special reason: It was out of date, having been published 30 years earlier—which was perfect for me, because the story is set during the Second World War.

How is your personal library organized?
My own library at home is not big enough for all my books, so the whole house has effectively become a library. I’ve arranged novels alphabetically by author and history books chronologically by subject. This makes everything easy to find. But I periodically run out of space.

What’s the last thing you checked out from your local library or bought at a bookstore?
I haven’t been to a bookstore since March, for obvious reasons, but the last thing I bought was The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English [published in the U.S. under the title The Storied City].

When you enter a bookstore, where do you go first?
The bestsellers table. I want to see who is doing well.

What is your ideal bookstore-­browsing snack?
I’m afraid I think it’s bad manners to eat while browsing. Sorry.

Bookstore cats or dogs?
I’m a dogs man.

 

Author photo © Olivier Favre

It’s been 30 years since the publication of The Pillars of the Earth, Welsh author Ken Follett’s enormously beloved novel about the building of a Gothic cathedral, and the publication of its highly anticipated prequel, The Evening and the Morning, is cause for much fanfare.

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