My first thought upon meeting the narrator of my last four books was her novel-worthy name! Aimee Lilly sounds like a heroine, contemporary or historical, take your pick. And after bringing A Moonbow Night, The Lacemaker, A Bound Heart, and An Uncommon Woman to life via her lovely narration, I’ve found she’s every bit as lovely as her name! And she graciously consented to answer a few questions about her process…
1. How long have you been doing voice work and what got you started?
It’s a fun story, with some convoluted twists and turns—but all so clearly in the providence of God! 😊
I actually started my voice career in December 1989, my sophomore year of college, just after my 19th birthday. I attended Moody Bible Institute, which has its own radio station and network, and majored in broadcasting. That December I was the narrator for our big Christmas pageant, which was also played on the radio. One of the radio guys heard my narration and called me to ask if I’d like to record a couple of commercials. My response was an enthusiastic yes.
Another of the radio guys heard the spots and called to ask if I’d like to audition for some new two-minute radio dramas they were producing. And of course, my response was another enthusiastic yes.
Circa 1993, I was working at the radio station full-time and continuing to record spots and radio dramas, and I got a call from the studio head at Domain Communications (now Oasis Audio), saying that they wanted to enter into the “new” field of audiobooks. They were putting together a package to present to publishers, with a stable of six voices (three men, three women) and set prices based on how many CASSETTES (that sounds so funny now) the title would need. Would I be interested in being one of the three female voices? You can guess by now what my response was. 😊
From there the Lord has brought me some amazing opportunities. I’ve narrated well over 200 audiobooks, been part of some major radio dramas, voiced spots and commercials and liners and video tracks, recorded whole voicemail automation systems, and even done a few lines in video games. I’ve learned accents and new voices, played amazing drama characters (including playing a ten-year-old boy lizard for 13 years!), and discovered whole new worlds and cultures through the audiobooks I’ve narrated. It’s been an amazing 30-year journey, and I love it!
2. What do you do to prepare for a new project? How do you decide which projects are for you?
I’ll answer your second question first. The Lord has been amazingly gracious over the years in bringing me exactly the titles He wants me to narrate. (As a matter of fact, any time I’ve decided “hey, that looks good, I’ll go after that,” I haven’t gotten the job! He’s made it very clear that everything I do is from His hand and by His good pleasure. It’s kept me very humble and taught me a great deal about trust!) I have been blessed to work with wonderful folks at multiple publishers who know what I can do and trust me, and so when they get something that’s “in my wheelhouse” they’ll pass it along. There have only been a couple of times over the years when I’ve had to decline projects.
In terms of preparation, the process runs something like this. I read through the whole book ahead of time, making notes about clues as to location, accents, ages, etc. (I learned that lesson the hard way – getting several pages into a book and suddenly having a character “outed” as being from the South, or nasal, or having a lisp means having to go back and re-record all their lines!) I also make notes about words that will need pronunciation checks – whether they’re just unfamiliar or from a different language. **One note here: for An Uncommon Woman, I was SO blessed to find the “Lenape Talking Dictionary” online. What an amazing resource, and what a wonderful glimpse into a way of life that is mostly gone today. I was thrilled to listen to the voices of the Lenape speaking their own tongue!**
If the book has accents (like A Bound Heart, which had a huge array: Scottish, English, American Southern, African-American, Jamaican, and Ashanti!), I’ll study their breakdown: how do they pronounce vowels differently than we do? Are their consonants hard or soft? I’ll listen to examples online or in person, and start mimicking what I hear. (For ABH, I was blessed to find an older woman who had emigrated years ago from Scotland and who was willing to sit down with me and just chat. I learned so much!) If there are only a few lines in an accent, I’ll find someone who speaks that language or dialect and record them reading those lines, then my engineer will play back that audio and I’ll just mimic them (it’s a lot faster that way, ha!). We did that with the Jamaican and Ashanti characters in ABH.
On the day of recording, it’s pretty routine. I’ll try to get plenty of sleep, and in the morning I’ll do choral warm-up exercises to get my vocal cords ready for many hours of use. I’ll drink lots of water, plus my go-to soothing drink: Traditional Medicinals Throat Coat tea, with a Ricola cough drop dissolved in it, and adding honey and whipping cream. It keeps my throat and vocal cords lubricated.
3. How long does it take you to narrate a book? Are you in an actual studio?
Again, I’ll answer the second question first. Yes, I am in an actual studio. Many audiobook narrators have home studios and do their own engineering, but I work best in a studio environment. I have an amazing engineer / producer that I work with on nearly all my books; Adam keeps me on track, catches my mistakes, and checks pronunciation / plays back sample audio for me. He even gets me more tea when I’m dry!
In terms of length, the recording time is approximately 1.25 to 1.5 times the final length, called “finished hour.” So if the book ends up at 10 hours, it’ll take me 12 to 15 to record it (not counting bathroom breaks, grabbing coffee, lunch, etc.). I generally record 5-6 hours in a day; my record is 12 hours (in a deadline situation), but it’s hard to go more than 8 because of sheer exhaustion. I average 9,000–10,000 words per hour, so we can “guesstimate” that a 90,000-word manuscript would be about 10 finished hours, and plan for 15 in the studio. (An Uncommon Woman was just over 92K, and the final time was 10 hours and 7 minutes.)
4. Any unique challenges while narrating An Uncommon Woman?
Definitely the Lenape, both the words and the speakers! I always want to be respectful; it’s important that I don’t make any character or accent sound like a cartoon or a stereotype. I had to determine how best to respectfully speak words in a completely unfamiliar and very localized language, speaking them confidently and accurately and without awkward pauses, all while maintaining the characterizations and the forward momentum of the plot. Quite a puzzle! But again, I was so grateful for the Lenape Talking Dictionary. I was able to look up almost all the words, listen to them pronounced by native speakers, write down the pronunciation, and practice them.
Another challenge was the songs! Let me tell you The Tale of The Lutheran Hymn. 😊 The old Lutheran hymn sung at the end of Chapter 6, “Alone, yet not alone, am I,” wasn’t associated with any tune. I couldn’t find it anywhere! There was a modern “rewrite” of the hymn sung by Joni Tada, but the lyrics were different, and the tune would not work. After Googling unsuccessfully for days, I sent out an urgent call for help on Facebook. A friend who happens to have a PhD in composition finally found a notation saying that the original German lyrics (“Allein und Doch Nicht Ganz Allein”) were usually sung to the melody “Wer nur den lieben Gott laast walten,” a 1641 hymn by Georg Neumark. Back to Google we went! Searching for the melody gave me a LOVELY recording of “Wer nur den lieben” by a Dresden choir, and I rejoiced to discover that YES, the melody fit the lyrics! I memorized the English, adjusted for the different number of syllables in the German, prayed hard, and recorded it. I think it turned out to be a lovely, haunting moment, absolutely preserving the poignant emotion in the passage.
5. Any specific blessings while narrating An Uncommon Woman?
I would say the primary blessing, as with each of your books I’ve recorded, is seeing true faith “lived out” in the characters. Your characters are real people—they aren’t two-dimensional cutouts, or cartoons, or stereotypes. They’re real, with genuine emotions and struggles, faith and doubt, and I can often see myself in their responses and reactions. To see them deliberately choosing to trust God in the dark times, to give their tearing grief or fear or anguish to the Lord and trust that He will somehow bring good in its wake, is a real help to me when dealing with my own traumas and struggles. When I act out what is on the page, especially every character, I have to internalize and then reproduce the emotions being displayed. (You can ask Adam – every book has some point where we have to stop so I can blow my nose because I’ve been crying my way through a scene.) That can be very difficult, as in scenes of terror or loss – but it can also be refreshing. To internalize and reproduce the choice to trust, to hold fast, to believe despite what our eyes can see … it helps to refresh and reinforce my own faith. Tessa may not be “real,” but the God she trusts IS. The faith she holds to IS. And in speaking her words of faith, her expressions of trust, my own faith is strengthened.
What’s the best thing about being an audiobook narrator?
That’s a loaded question, with so many answers. The top thing, of course, is simply that someone is paying me to talk. How awesome is that? I’m getting paid to talk and to do lots of fun voices. If I could find someone to pay me for eating and sleeping too, that would basically cover my whole life! 😊
Another thing is abstract but really important to me, and that’s the fact that audiobooks help spark the use of our imagination. In this culture of video games and cable and tablets and smartphones, we’re losing our ability to imagine. We’re dumbing down the world so that it’s reduced to sound bites and streaming, and we’re at risk of losing a chunk of our humanity in the process. We don’t read, we don’t imagine, we just pull out our phones and play Candy Crush. (And I’m not talking about one particular generation—it’s everyone!) But as we listen to audiobooks, we create a movie in our minds, imagining what’s happening in the story. Without even realizing it we create visual images for the characters, places, and events, seeing them played out as we hear the story. To be part of that, to help us rediscover the power of creativity and imagination, is an honor and a blessing.
Finally, I’m a voracious reader, and have been since I was a child – but many children aren’t encouraged to read, or try to read but get discouraged. That can then continue into adulthood. One of the blessings I’m seeing as I do children’s books is that kids are reading along as they listen, learning how to pronounce the words they don’t know, getting excited about being able to read. Many adults are also rediscovering the joy of reading by listening, which can then prompt them to pick up the book itself and either read along or just read it. My hope is that I’m playing just a little part in getting them as thrilled about books and reading as I am!
Thank you, Aimee, & I hope we have many books made into audio together in future!