Today’s guest narrator is the voice of two of my favorite mystery series, both of which I highlight today. Though Susan Ericksen is a beloved narrator of mystery and suspense, her audiobook repertoire is, in fact, wide ranging and includes romance, history, personal essays, biography, classics, literary fiction, and fantasy.
Along with thousands of other listeners around the world, I’m impressed with Susan’s ability to smoothly transition between fictional plot lines, carrying us, for example, from the steamy bedroom of a couple in love to a gritty crime scene without a hitch. When performing nonfiction audiobooks, Susan delivers that perfect level of expressiveness: one that keeps us engaged but doesn’t distract from the voice of the author, whether we’re listening to memoir, history, or current affairs.
The following audiobooks (and series) exemplify Susan’s array of talents and why we listening fans have stayed true to her through series and across genres.
Did you know American women served in the U.S. Army during World War I? Elizabeth Cobbs’s THE HELLO GIRLS tells the story of more than 200 women who were instrumental in keeping the lines of communication open between battlefront and headquarters during the Great War. Sworn in to the U.S. Signal Corps, these women relocated to France, where they operated military switchboards, learned to live in a war zone, and eventually earned the respect of men throughout the ranks, though they still had to fight for the vote and for veterans’ benefits at war’s end. Susan’s well-paced performance allows us to absorb the facts and gain a feel for the women’s personalities and her native-sounding French pronunciations help immerse us in the place and time.
If you’re looking for a genre-crossing, long-running series to get lost in, then J.D. Robb’s In Death books are for you. GOLDEN IN DEATH is the latest in this series, which stars New York City homicide detective Eve Dallas. In this 50th outing—all performed by Susan—Eve is called on to solve the murder of a seemingly flawless pediatrician. These police procedural murder mysteries include elements of science fiction (they are set in the future) and romance (Eve has a sexy relationship with her husband), and Susan consistently and masterfully underscores the characters’ personalities, accents, talents, and weaknesses. Although you can jump into the series anywhere, you might consider starting with Susan’s Earphones Award-winning performance of book 1: NAKED IN DEATH.
In one of those perfect pairings, Susan was tapped to narrate THE ABUNDANCE, a curated collection of essays by Annie Dillard. The pieces Dillard shares here are a combination of old and new, but all carry her signature ability to see deeper than the surface and to make connections through time and space. Susan’s performance reflects the author’s emotional journey, highlighting Dillard’s sense of wonder, humor, innocence, and spirituality. The essays can be listened to one after another, but I suggest taking a break after each one, giving yourself time to reflect and absorb.
Victoria Johnson’s well-researched biography AMERICAN EDEN introduces modern listeners to David Hosack, a physician/horticulturalist well known to America’s founding generation but who has, until now, been lost to history. This audiobook covers Hosack’s many interests, including his creation of New York City’s first botanical research garden and his studies into medicinal plants. We are also transported to a time when a young doctor could be called on to attend the son of the great Alexander Hamilton and Manhattan was still fairly rural. Susan enlivens this biography, keeping us invested in Hosack’s story and his part in shaping a young nation.
Although Susan hasn’t narrated every audiobook in Sara Paretsky’s series starring Chicago private detective V.I. Warshawski, she has performed most of them, injecting these first-person stories with additional personality and drama. In DEAD LAND, the 20th and most recent entry, detective Vic gets caught up in a past mass shooting, a current missing person, and ongoing shady corporate real estate deals with ties to South America. The series is known for its complex plots with a focus on white-collar crime involving sociopolitical and big-business issues. Susan perfectly portrays Vic in all her guises: from the confident, athletic investigator to her enjoyment of food with gusto, her love of opera, and her refusal to admit weakness. If you want to start at the beginning, queue up INDEMNITY ONLY, also narrated by Susan.
I haven’t added up all the hours I’ve spent listening to Susan Ericksen bring a variety of stories alive for me, but I’ve always been grateful for her company. Though I’d recognize her voice anywhere, I didn’t know much about her as person until she agreed join us here at Take 5 and answer a few questions. Here’s what she had to say.
AudioFile: What genre will you always say yes to and why?
Susan Ericksen: I always relish getting to read a good mystery or a suspense novel. Books in those categories are usually character-driven. I think discovering and revealing the intricacies of a character are what I love most when I read a book and what I’m drawn to when I record one. I’m very curious about what makes a person tick. I think the process that one goes through in prepping a book is very similar to being a detective. You first need to look at all the little clues about a character; what they say about themselves, what others say about them, what they do, how they move, how they respond to different people/things, what’s their background, who/what do they like/dislike—the author has given you a thousand little clues, and so you dig down into all of that and then you get to bring the character to life. It’s such a creative process, and when you get it right, the book just seems to sing. It lifts right off the page into this new version of itself, and despite all the labor, it feels light and easy.
AF: Tell us something surprising about yourself.
SE: I love big creative projects. The more labor intensive, the better! I built a brick patio in my backyard two summers ago, and it was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. I dug out the dirt, hauled it away, lugged bags of paver sand, cut the bricks with a huge saw, laid the bricks, put down the filler, compressed it, and then sealed it. It was soooo hard, and soooo great!!!!! I seriously think I must have been a ditch-digger or a pyramid-builder in a previous life. This summer I’m going to try to make an arbor out of discarded willow branches. I can’t wait!
AF: What’s your most embarrassing moment in the recording booth?
SE: When you assume you know the correct pronunciation of a name or word and—surprise!—You don’t. I sort of pride myself on doing very thorough research for all the books I record, so this really hit me in my secret vanity spot. I said the lead character’s name wrong for the entire book! I could have died. I felt like I was doing penance by having to correct it over and over and over again later on. (In my defense, it was a rather odd pronunciation of the name, but still!) The rule is, if there is any doubt, always, always double-check.
AF: What’s your go-to beverage when recording? How about after recording?
SE: Coffee, coffee, and more coffee. And then in the afternoon, maybe some tea. (I may be a bit dependent on caffeine.) And lots of water along the way. Afterwards? It depends on the season. I love a glass of wine (perhaps sitting on my patio?!!) I usually drink scotch in the winter and gin & tonics in the summer. Variety is the spice of life.
AF: What’s the first task you tackle when given a new audiobook project?
SE: It may sound obvious, but I read the book. I read it as a reader, not a narrator. I am a stand-in for the future audiobook listener, so I believe it’s important to just read the book and let it wash through me the same way I want the listener to experience the book. Yes, I might make a few notes along the way, but overall I’m trying to have an emotional experience with the story rather than an analytical one. If I really listen to the author and immerse myself in the words and the world, much of the foundational work about character voices and tone and pacing gets done in a very organic and appropriate way.
Thanks, Susan, for taking the time to talk with us today. I think I know whom I’m calling the next time I have a yard project. How are you with walkways? I think the time you spend immersing yourself in a book from the reader’s perspective shows in the way you can nail a character’s personality and provide just the right vocal details when transforming the written work into an audiobook.
For more audiobooks performed by Susan Ericksen, be sure to browse AudioFile’s reviews.