Skip to main content


June 26, 2013

Johnny Heller on the Fine Art of Narrating Books

Posted by tom

Johnny Heller has narrated nearly 400 titles for adults, teens and children. A veteran stage, television and commercial actor, Johnny is also a stand-up comic, author and playwright. His narration of A TALE DARK & GRIMM by Adam Gidwitz was a 2012 Audie Award finalist. With characteristic wit and enthusiasm, Johnny shares the audiobooks he's the most proud of, how he prepares for a recording session (don't forget tissues!), and the ways he becomes emotionally connected to his characters. Just don't ask him to tell you in French. 

Question: What do you love about narrating audiobooks?

Johnny Heller: It’s an organic acting experience unlike any other. I’ve the chance to create every character and connect the author’s truth to each individual listener for every moment of the story. It’s a challenge that requires 100% success every time and with every title. Additionally, it allows me to help reluctant readers learn to love the written word. Without question, it is the most honorable lasting testament to art and education and entertainment that I have ever been involved with.

Q: What has narrating audiobooks taught you about yourself?

JH: That my gift for storytelling and sense of timing is being rewarded. That there are things that are unique to me from which I can derive a living. That choices matter. That some risks are worth taking and that sometimes, if you are true to your heart, dreams can come true. It’s also taught me to continue to study the human condition --- to look for reasons and subtext. And to sloooooow down!

Q: How do you prepare for a recording session?

JH: The job requires me to pre-read the text and research any words I am not familiar with. I also make a character list and make some decisions about each character. I want to know the story and be at ease sharing it as though it were my own. I need to be hydrated, rested and alert. I wear shorts and a tee in my studio as it gets hot, and I have water and some tissues with me.

Q: Is it important for you to connect emotionally with the material you are reading? Do you have interaction with the author?

JH: Emotional connection is essential to me and, fortunately, impossible for me to avoid. I do like to “friend” an author or email them before or during the work. Mostly I like to let them know that I am doing the narration and I hope that they will be pleased with what I do. I rarely ask advice, though --- I am afraid that they will give it! I read all of Troy Soos’ Mickey Rawlins baseball mysteries and he and I have corresponded. I read the deeply emotional STUCK IN NEUTRAL by Terry Trueman, and he and I met in NYC and we really hit if off. Got totally smashed as I recall! I’m currently reading EXOTIC MUSIC OF THE BELLY DANCER by Brian Sweany. He’s a friend already. It’s semi-autobiographical in nature and he told me that he wrote it with my voice in mind.

Q: What has been your best/worst experience in the studio?

JH: I’ve never actually had a horrible experience in any studio. My best experiences are at the Recorded Books studios. Fine people, fine set-up, and I feel very much at home there.

Q: Are there particular words that you consistently stumble over?

JH: “Particularly.” “Similarly.” I also discovered that words like “ale, Al, pail, pale, pal...etc.” all seem to sound the same when I say them. French words and phrases (comes up amazingly often) are a problem for me. My French accent is a cross between Pepé Le Pew and Inspector Clouseau.

Q: Do you like to listen back to your own narration?

JH: Nope.

Q: What narrators do you admire?

JH: Barbara Rosenblat, Grover Gardner, Simon Prebble.

Q: Which title of yours are you most proud of and why?

JH: The Nikki Heat series (Castle Books) --- I love film noir stuff and I think I did a good job voicing a series that used characters who everyone knows from TV. THE FAT MAN: A Tale of North Pole Noir --- a wonderful Christmas story that uses noir and allowed me to use voices from every great film I enjoyed from my youth. I hope it becomes a must-listen Christmas event. The Vampire Files series by P. N. Elrod --- a mix of noir and vampire lore. Twelve books with continuing characters --- very challenging and wonderful. A TALE DARK & GRIMM by Adam Gidwitz. A wonderfully dark and sinister and funny retelling of "Hansel and Gretel." And so many more...