If you have ever wondered about the people and processes involved in transforming the written word into audiobooks, here is your chance to peek behind the scenes. In the past few months, I have had the pleasure of working with voice actor Yu-Li Alice Shen who created the audio version of Rabbit in the Moon. When I sleuthed her online, I discovered that she is also a writer, professor, stage actor, and musician. The audiobook is out this week, so I took the opportunity to interview Yu-Li so I could introduce her to you. Here she is talking about her creative work and the process of voicing an audiobook.
Me: I know you are a writer and performer as well as a voice actor. I’d love to know more about your creative work.
Yu-Li: Literature, writing, and theatre have been my vocation and avocation for the last eleven years. I earned an MFA in playwriting from Virginia Tech in 2009, and I currently teach college composition at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville. My full-length play, Image May Contain (based on my experience going to Taiwan to perform Buddhist funeral rituals for my late, estranged father), was fully staged by STAGEtwo Productions in 2019, and it won the Association of Theatre in Higher Education’s Judith Royer Excellence in Playwriting Award Runner-Up in 2021. My first full-length play, Entitled, won the Southeastern Theatre Conference’s Charles M. Getchell New Play Award in 2010, and several of my one-act plays have been performed locally and read/workshopped at national conferences.
Evansville boasts a rich and diverse theatre community too, for which I have acted, directed, and stage-managed. Some of my favorite acting roles include Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mash in Aaron Posner’s Stupid F****** Bird, and Hannah Jarvis in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. I lead community playwriting workshops in the summer, I judge high school performance competitions for Indiana Thespians every year, and I also swing dance and play ukulele at local retirement homes.
My academic writing has extended to autoethnographies about my time driving Uber rideshare and the microaggressions that I experienced—broadening out into wider implications of racism, sexism, and classism, within and against BIPOC and AAPI communities.
Me: What made you decide to become a voice actor recording audiobooks?
Yu-Li: In late 2020, a former college voice professor got in contact with some of her alumni to pilot a Zoom class on breaking into the audiobook industry. Some of us were stage/film actors, out of work due to the pandemic, and some of us were theatre and English majors in college who had families and/or “real adult jobs” now. This was a wonderful opportunity to tap back into our undergraduate acting training and perform remotely while also getting paid. I had recently started a podcast as well called Going Terribly (irreverent, immature word nerdery), and I had grown accustomed to listening to my own voice recorded, so reading out loud in a dark closet full of my own clothes to dampen outside noise didn’t seem too far a leap after that!
Me: What steps and considerations are involved in the process of narrating a book?
Yu-Li: Freelance audiobooking requires a lot of self-promotion, discipline, and planning. On the business side, I had to first set my Per Finished Hour rate and curate voice samples on my profile for Findaway (the audiobook production company), which led to me being invited to audition for your book. I recorded and submitted the audition, was chosen (thankfully!), and then I had to consider a realistic timeline for project completion and secure an editor for post-production.
On the artistic side, we discussed your ideas for tone and timbre, disparate character voices, and foreign word pronunciations. I then prepared my own chapter and character breakdown and narration schedule—mostly recording for 3 hours a night in my closet “studio.”
All told, over the course of 3 months, I spent roughly 24 hours recording, 14 hours proofing the text for mistakes, and 30 hours editing out mouth sounds/errant breaths and doing final quality checks. The post-production part of the process usually takes the most time, and I even had help from friend and sound engineer Jeremy Graham who cleaned up and mastered my raw files.
At 7.5 total finished hours, this was my longest book to date, and I had definitely underestimated the timeline, but you were very flexible and supportive!
Me: In your experience, is narrating memoir different from narrating fiction?
Yu-Li: Yes, memoir generally has more narrative prose and fewer character voices. As a professor, I feel that my “neutral” voice is well-suited to the cerebral pathos of memoir; however, honoring silences and beats and finding the rise and fall of a chapter are imperative to captivating a listener without spoken dialogue.
As an actor with a somewhat impish face/voice/vibe, I feel that my quirky vocal characterizations lend themselves well to Young Adult fiction. Switching between several voices is quite challenging though, and I am learning more about breath control/support and timing between spoken dialogue and dialogue tags.
Me: Were there any particular challenges to narrating Rabbit in the Moon?
Yu-Li: Besides the challenge that every narrator faces in wanting to do a book justice and getting the performance right, I would liken Rabbit in the Moon‘s specific challenge to dramaturgical research for a theatrical production. Owing to the historical and cultural content, there are many Cantonese and Mandarin words in the text—regions, phrases, foods, people’s names. Even though I grew up speaking Mandarin, my usage now is rudimentarily conversational, so I had to make sure my pronunciations were correct and consistent. You sent me voice memos of you and Fred pronouncing the words, and I also looked up words on Google and YouTube, but I had to be careful to sift through some videos of Anglicized pronunciations.
Me: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience narrating Rabbit in the Moon?
Yu-Li: Narrating Rabbit in the Moon was such a unique experience for me because I was reading and learning about what is ostensibly “my” culture, but through an outsider’s lens and as an outsider myself. I was born in Taiwan, raised in the US, and have never been to China or Hong Kong, so aspects of your book felt simultaneously familiar yet foreign to me.
I remember wearing permanent jade jewelry, folding paper gold ingots for my deceased relatives, feeling overwhelmed by a re nao family gathering, and being judgmental about the culture clash minutiae of daily life. However, your deeply-felt ruminations on expatriate life, interracial marriage, Teochew customs, Hawaiian culture, and Russian/Jewish influences in Harbin were completely new and edifying for me.
We may have divergent backgrounds, but they are almost parallel in opposite directions. With you and I both being academics, our natural inclination, of course, is to notice and question, and I like to think your text and my voice matched to create a nuanced exploration of self, family, world, and life that answers and resonates.
The audio version of Rabbit in the Moon is available from Authors Direct as well as Apple, Google Play, Kobo, Scribd. More outlets coming.