When you read a printed book, you might imagine the different characters’ motivation, feelings, and emotions. You might even envision funny little mannerisms. But when you listen to an audiobook, good narrators add something else: Their voices.
It ain’t easy. The narrator’s job is to entice you into the story but also to re-create every character in “living” color. And if each one is to exist vividly in the listener’s imagination, he or she must have a separate and clearly identifiable “voice” that fits the author’s original description but offers insight to the listener. So it’s not as easy as simply shouting or whispering a line, or affecting a bad accent.
In the upcoming audiobook of DEAF ROW (2023, Blackstone Audio), the cast of characters includes seven old codgers who dust off some old skills to help solve a decades-old cold-case. It fell to veteran narrator Jim Meskimen to give each a unique voice—in addition to a dozen other speaking parts in the new mystery.
Meskimen is one of the audio publishing industry’s superstars. He’s narrated about 300 audiobooks in all genres, including works by Jim Harrison, Louis L’Amour, Paul Theroux, Harlan Ellison, and Catherine Coulter. But he’s also honed his storytelling craft for more than 30 years on stage, TV, and film, appearing in films such as “Apollo 13,” “Welcome to Chippendales,” “There Will Be Blood,” and TV shows like “Friends,” “Whose Line is it, Anyway?,” “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” and “Rules of Engagement.” Oh, and he also happens to be the son of “Happy Days” actress Marion Ross.
But even more interesting, he’s also an accomplished professional impressionist. Here’s quick visit with some of his characters. (And you’ll love Jim’s collection of “deep fake” impressions. Watch his face closely!) It’s easy to see that he knows how every voice is different—just part of his genius.
“Narrating is a lot of fun, especially when the tale is well-told by a competent author,” Jim told me recently. “I love to perform a variety of characters and do what I can to add life to the recipe begun by the writer. The DEAF ROW gentlemen certainly are different individuals with totally different behaviors and viewpoints.”
Two themes unfold simultaneously in DEAF ROW. One is the investigation into a ghastly, long cold, small-town murder. But the other is a story about men growing old, feeling their best days are in their rearview mirror, and that they are growing not-so-gradually unimportant and invisible to the rest of the world. So Jim wasn’t merely juggling the voices of several different characters—young and old, male and female, earnest and comical, villain and hero—but also that interwoven narrative. Was it hard?
“DEAF ROW is very clear, compelling, and well-written, and the intentions of the characters were nothing I ever had to guess at,” Jim says. “The challenge for me, particularly in a semi-comedic mystery that is also quite serious and even grim at times, is to try and back up the mood the author is going for so that his/her intention comes across without too much of my own.”
Still, Jim’s voice adds something new and special to the DEAF ROW audiobook—and to the old codgers, too.
“I feel my job as a narrator is to expand on the storytelling that was begun by the author using silent words, to bring it a little closer to a living experience,” he says. “The more in tune I am with the author, the more our artistic power works in concert, and the listener has a clearer picture.”
So, after narrating hundreds of books, many of them mysteries, did he figure out whodunnit?
“With a mystery, I actually prefer not to know the ending when I narrate,” Jim says. “It keeps me curious and engaged, like the reader/listener will hopefully be. DEAF ROW kept me in a spirit of inquiry the entire time, and I know listeners will be enthralled.”