Talking with Cassandra Campbell
In June 2021, Cassandra Campbell was inducted as a Golden Voice, AudioFile's lifetime achievement honor for audiobook narrators.
How did you get started with narrating?
I was teaching a couple of classes in the theatre department at the L.A. County High School for the Arts when my friend and colleague, Paul Boehmer, asked if I’d be interested in auditioning to narrate audiobooks. I knew only vaguely that audiobooks existed--this was back in 2003, and the industry was much smaller-- but I went to the library and took one out. As soon as I started listening, I was hooked. Here was this medium that combined two of my passions: reading and acting. What could be better? I read from David McCullough’s John Adams biography for my audition, and Dan Musselman hired me soon after to narrate R.L. Stine's THE SITTER. Then I did a book by Adriana Trigiani, then one by Betsy Byers, then Frances Mayes . . . I was immediately at home in the world of storytelling.
What is the most interesting piece of research you’ve done for an audiobook?
Tucker Malarkey’s book, STRONGHOLD, which I’m endlessly recommending, was fascinating to research. I often spend a lot of time online in prepping a book, looking for the visual cues of a particular time or place. With Stronghold this meant moving from the Deschutes River to the far reaches of Kamchatka, Russia, where taiman, an ancient and enormous form of salmonid, live. I spent a lot of time before, during, and long after the recording looking at those places and the fish who swim there.
What has surprised you the most about your work in audiobooks?
One of the most delightful surprises is how thoroughly immersive the form is. I did a book recently called TWO TRUTHS AND A LIE by Ellen McGarren that was so involved and gorgeous that when I got to the end, I didn’t want to leave the booth. I was so wrapped up in the ending, so moved. There are many ways in which this work continues to delight me. The deep connection to characters who stay with you (Audra and Graham from STANDARD DEVIATION, Ruth McCallister in OUR WOMAN IN MOSCOW, and of course Kaya Clark in WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING). Even before the pandemic, I’d joke that I spend more time with imaginary people than real ones. Now, of course, that’s been true for a year. There’s the language aspect, too, the discovery of new words. My current favorite is petrichor, the scent that rises when rain hits baked earth. I suppose the biggest surprises are the endless introductions to new people, places, and events I’d never known existed. The women who cataloged the stars in Dava Sobel’s THE GLASS UNIVERSE; Stephen P. Kiernan’s UNIVERSE OF TWO, which is the story of Charles Fisk, a mathematician who worked on the Manhattan Project. To get to be there in my imagination is such a wonder.
�What makes a good audiobook narrator? According to Cassandra Campbell, “Simplicity, honesty, clarity, and the ability to listen to the book. A good audiobook narrator is somebody who can get out of the way and let the story be the primary thing.” In narrating nonfiction and personal growth titles such as Kelly Traver’s THE PROGRAM and the forthcoming follow-up, THE HEALTHIEST YOU, Campbell uses those skills to deliver serious material while still sounding sound inviting, leading listeners through an informed discussion of the core principles of lasting behavioral change. Her mature-sounding tone and understated authority work well with these cutting-edge guides to developing better health habits. Campbell, who narrates fiction and children’s and young adult titles as well as nonfiction, knows that another key to being a good narrator is versatility. “Every book demands something different from you,” she says. “You just hope that what you do works.” And when you’re very lucky, a book speaks back to you. We awarded Earphones for Campbell’s performance of the 2009 title, HALF THE SKY. “It’s a complex nonfiction book about the treatment of women around the globe and what we can do to be more active, to help to change the face of that. Working on it was a very moving experience.” - 2011 Best Voice in NONFICTION & CULTURE
Cassandra Campbell has always loved reading aloud. When she was in elementary school, she made her brother and sisters listen to her read JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH and Grimm's fairy tales. Even so, she started doing audiobooks "sort of by accident." She was doing commercial voice-overs when a friend recommended her to Books on Tape. "As an avid reader all my life, it was not a huge transition. The process felt really comfortable for me."
Since then, Campbell has narrated more than 100 audiobooks and has directed nearly twice that many. When she first began recording, she says, "Audiobooks were kind of a cottage industry, but now, even with the struggling economy, audiobooks have taken off." What makes a good audiobook narrator? "Simplicity, honesty, clarity, and the ability to listen to the book. A good audiobook narrator is somebody who can get out of the way and let the story be the primary thing." She just worked on DARK PLACES, a novel by Gillian Flynn, which she both directed and, in part, narrated. "That was a big journey for me." As a director, she tries to be a collaborator, to listen and guide the reader. "The best directors I work with don't impose anything or try to be in charge. It's an intimate collaboration."
Campbell's narration of THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS by Erica Bauermeister won her an AudioFile Earphones Award. "What I took away from recording it was that food can be formative and healing, empowering and calming," she says. And how does she feel about receiving an Earphones Award? "To be totally honest, it's a big, huge sigh of relief." She explains, "It's really nice to have that recognition. Every book demands something different from you. You just hope that what you do works. An Earphones Award is an affirmation." With her youthful, energetic voice, Campbell is also a popular choice to narrate YA and children's titles. She won Earphones for LUCKY BREAKS , by Susan Patron, and does a series for Random House called The Beacon Street Girls, by Annie Bryant. "They're five high school girls from Boston, and I've spent more time with those girls in the last year than I've spent with most of my friends."
Campbell has several other audiobook projects in the works, including directing WEAPONS OF MASS SEDUCTION, by Lori Bryant-Woolridge, which is "kind of a sexy little book." And she's particularly excited about an important book she just recorded, HALF THE SKY: TURNING OPPRESSION INTO OPPORTUNITY FOR WOMEN, written by two Pulitzer Prize winners, Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn. "It's a complex nonfiction book about the treatment of women around the globe and what we can do to be more active, to help to change the face of that. Working on it was a very moving experience."--S.J. Henschel
About audiobook narrating, Cassandra Campbell says, "I love the opportunity to tell a story. As an actor, it's really being part of a tradition that goes all the way back to the Homeric epic." For Cassandra, finding the author's voice, cadences, and rhythms are the first challenges she faces when preparing to narrate. She's learned "to listen internally to the book" before speaking it out loud. "And then, after that, it's so much fun." She found recording Earphones winner A YEAR IN THE WORLD by Frances Mayes extremely challenging "because it's loaded with pronunciations from Spain, Portugal, North Africa, Turkey, Greece, and France. One page was a whole list of Portuguese bean soups!" She's also recorded INSIDE THE MIND OF GIDEON RAYBURN by Sarah Miller, HAPPINESS SOLD SEPARATELY by Lolly Winston, and Fannie Flagg's CAN'T WAIT TO GET TO HEAVEN , which she tells us, "was really fun and charming. She's a wonderful writer." Cassandra says, "Audiobooks have become the center of my focus as a performer." She both narrates and directs for Books on Tape and Random House and is currently at work on a sequel to Adriana Trigiani's Stone Gap series, HOME TO BIG STONE GAP .
Charlotte's Web Audie Award 2020 Middle Grade
The Jersey Brothers AudioFile Best of 2017 Biography & History
The Bright Hour AudioFile Best of 2017 Memoir
Small Great Things Audies Award 2017
When Breath Becomes Air AudioFile Best of 2016 Memoir
The Lost Landscape: A Writer's Coming of Age AudioFile Best of 2015 Biography & Memoir
Life Drawing AudioFile Best of 2014 Fiction
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender AudioFile Best of 2014 Young Adult
Vatican Waltz AudioFile Best of 2014 Fiction
Juliet in August AudioFile Best of 2012 Fiction
The Program: The Brain-Smart Approach to the Healthiest You, The Life-Changing 12-Week Method AudioFile Best of 2011 Personal Growth
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Audie Award 2011
Brava, Valentine AudioFile Best of 2010 Fiction
Juliet AudioFile Best of 2010 Fiction
Half Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide AudioFile Best of 2009 Contemporary Culture
The School of Essential Ingredients AudioFile Best of 2009 Fiction
Lucky Breaks AudioFile Best of 2009 Children
Photo by Orit Harpaz
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