Out of Twenty: Karen White, Audiobook Narrator, Answers 10 Questions & Going Public in Shorts

Going PublicJune is Audiobook Month and audiobook narrator, Xe Sands has organized an extroardinary gift and project for audiobook listeners with Going Public…in Shorts. Normally Going Public posts an audiobook narration each week from the public domain, but for the entire month of June, there will be a new short story each day featuring a pairing of the talents of a classic author and a narrator, plus bloggers who read and review audiobooks.

Throughout this month, the individual stories as well as the entire collection will  be available for purchase at Downpour. Check out yesterday’s post at PW’s PWxyz blog and the post after this one will be at Reading Winter. Karen and is  featured the Going Public today reading Louisa May Alcott’s Death of a Soldier, which you can listen to here through June 8th.

The Death of a Soldier, by Louisa May Alcott (read by Karen White) by Going Public Project

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing karen_white_headshotvictim  narrator and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Today I am featuring audiobook narrator Karen White. Here is what Karen had to say about reading, narrating, and some of her upcoming projects.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started as narrator, and what kind of books you like to work on?

My background is in acting – mostly on stage – in New York, Boston and Los Angeles.  When I was getting married, a friend suggested that I check out audiobooks (as it doesn’t matter what you look like and who knows what you’ll look like after you have kids, plus I’ve always been an inveterate reader).  I did a bunch of research and then wormed my way into the industry.  I started as an editor, working for a company called Dove Audio that mostly recorded celebrities doing abridged titles.  Then when my boss there, Dan Musselman, was hired by Books-on-Tape to create a Los Angeles studio, he hired me to be his assistant.  At Books-on-Tape I began directing, casting and narrating in addition to editing.  After I had my kids the work slowed for a bit; I did some proofing (listening to the recording while reading the text to check for errors) for a few years which I loved as I was getting paid to listen to audiobooks.  Then when my kids were old enough, I committed to working more full time and built a home studio.  I now record as many books as I possibly can!

I am often struck by the different ways books can be interpreted by who read and how they read it. Can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you get into character, and prepare to read narrate a book?

For me, preparation is the biggest key.  I read the book, highlighting specific character information and words that I don’t know how to say as I go.  Then I create an excel file for the pronunciations and a word doc of all the character descriptions.  Through this process I get a feel for the overall tone of the book and it’s arc as well.  I like to get that all done ahead so that when I am recording I can work from instinct as much as possible.  I do have a tea I am addicted to.  I make a whole carafe of Xiao’s Blend tea (from Peet’s) and I go through 1- 2 of those a day.  I also avoid dairy products during the day when I am working as they tend to clog my sinuses.

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What has been one of your favorite books to work on?  What impact did this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

Soooo many books have affected me deeply.  But one that I worked on this past year has really stuck with me.  Until I Say Goodbye by Susan Spencer-Wendel is a book that I would never have chosen to read because I would have thought, “No- I can’t read that story it’ll be too upsetting!” but thankfully Harper Audio asked me to record it so I had to read it.  Susan was diagnosed with ALS several years ago, and made the choice at that time to live joyfully as much as she possibly could.  This book is a memoir of her experience.  I think of her almost every day, whenever I have one of those choices – as they so often come up – of choosing to see the positive or to simply be present vs. dwelling in self pity or anger.  I was especially honored to have been her «voice» as she can no longer speak clearly due to the progression of her disease.

What are you read ing now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?  Has becoming a narrator changed the way that you read?

This is kind of funny.  I have always heard the words in my head when I read books (I have asked and this is not true for all narrators).  I still do, but now when I am reading for pleasure and I come across a word that I don’t know how to pronounce I have a very strong impulse to look it up.  And when characters are developing, I habitually start making choices about what they might sound like.

Are you able to read when you’re narrating and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?

I am one of those people who HAS to have a book to read (I can’t go to sleep without reading so I actually get very anxious if I don’t have a book).  Early in my career I was very disciplined in that I wouldn’t let myself read fiction for pleasure if I was recording fiction because I didn’t want to confuse the “worlds”.  I wanted my imagination to be able to stay in the world I was interpreting.  But now that I work full-time, I have relaxed that rule.  Otherwise, I’d never get to read for pleasure

What was the most interesting thing that you’ve found out while preparing to read a book that you’re working on?

In Nothing to Envy, by the amazing journalist Barbara Demick, I learned that North Korea viewed from a satellite at night, is completely dark.  Such a sad and potent metaphor for what’s going on in that country.

In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people.  What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?

This past year I’ve had a few experiences which have made me realize that I really need to stop multi-tasking (including narrating the book Make Your Brain Smarter by Sandra Bond Chapman ).  As an alternative, I am working on sequential tasking.  That is, being present in each task and doing only one thing at a time, moving from one thing to the next.  I say this because I typically work from home, and one of the greatest things about that is that I can pick up my kids from school and get errands done during the day when necessary.  But the hard part of that is the discipline of both getting work done and avoiding work taking over your life.  I try to be conscious about both.  I do work pretty well if I take breaks that are active – that is, I ride my bike to the grocery store or walk the dog – and if I make an effort to keep away from social media and email when I’m in the studio.  But I also end up working on weekend a good deal to make deadlines, because some of my weekday time is spent driving kids to practices or cooking dinner from scratch.

What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to work in the publishing industry in this capacity? In any capacity?

I don’t even remember not loving reading.  I do remember the days that the Scholastic Book Orders came home and the day that the books came in as being my happiest.  And escaping into novels definitely got me through some of the «mean girl» times in my adolescence.  I also got involved in theatre pretty early on (junior high) and it was pretty clear to me that I work best both in collaboration and as an interpretive artist.  (I remember a pretty heated debate when I was working at a Shakespeare Festival over whether actors are creative or interpretive artists – I definitely believe we are the latter).  I wish that I had the kind of imagination to write, and maybe someday I’ll find my way there.  Sometimes I wish I’d gone into the publishing field and worked toward being an editor.  But I feel pretty darn lucky to have ended up as a narrator.  I get PAID to READ BOOKS!  How awesome is that!?

How many narration projects do you have going at any one time? How do you balance them if you’ve worked on more than one?

Again with the sequential tasking.  It only works for me to do one at a time.  Though I am often preparing one while recording another.

How’d you start recording audiobooks? Are there any tips you would give to those who want to try their hand at narration?

There’s a guy named Sean Pratt (who has recorded over 900 audiobooks, most under the name Lloyd James.) He teaches audiobook narration, and when people tell him it’s something they want to do, he suggests the following exercise.  Go to the library.  Have someone go to a random shelf and pick a random book for you.  Take it home and read it.  Then, sit in a darkened closet and read this book out loud for five hours a day until you finish it.  If, after this exercise, you still want to narrate audiobooks, then go for it.

What are your guidelines for picking projects to work on? Is there any genre you wouldn’t want to work in?

Honestly, I have only turned down a couple of projects – and that was when I felt I was really miscast (e.g. the entire population of Mars in a fantasy was originally from the UK – get a Brit to record it please!)  I do have a really hard time with graphic violence because they tend to give me nightmares.  Luckily I haven’t done too many of those.

What’s next?

Well, besides the Spoken Freely project – which is an amazing collaboration!  Narrators from all over the country making contributions, hopefully raising lots of dough for Reach out and Read.  I’m so proud of Xe Sands for making it happen.

Ever since I narrated Marmee & Louisa by Eve LaPlante, I’d been curious about Louisa May Alcott’s other writing.  That is, not Little Women and it’s sequels.  The essays she wrote after the Civil War experience that was so life changing (they matured her writing in a big way, but also cost her health) intrigued me.  I loved The Death of a Soldier for it’s specificity and lack of sentimentality.  I hope listeners will love it, too!

And… I have a few interesting books coming out this summer:

Mid June Bootstrapper by Mardi Jo Link will be out from Random House.  It’s a unique «farmoir» about a woman who struggle to keep her farm and family intact post-divorce.  Luckily she is really funny.

The Silent Wife by ASA Harrison from Blackstone Audio is a chilling novel told in alternating points of view (Donald Corren does the man’s chapters) about a woman who murders her husband is coming out at the end of June.

And later in the summer I have Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel from Harper Audio, one of those wrenchingly beautiful novels that address the choices we make and the repercussions that follow.

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Also, Karen interviewed me at her blog, Home Cooked Books. Check it out!


  1. Pingback: Spoken Freely Gives Back for JIAM 2013 | Home Cooked Books

  2. Thank you so much for the Alcott short and a new audiobook to add to my list: Until I Say Goodbye by Susan Spencer-Wendel sounds wonderful. It’s just the message I need right now. Great job and happy JIAM!

  3. Great interview! I had the chance to meet Karen at BEA and it was a pleasure. Hoping to interview her myself this month!!

    PS best captcha ever!

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