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When to Play it Big: Q&A with Audiobook Narrator Robin Miles

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Erin Burba

Staff Writer

When Erin Burba was ten, she was grounded for trying to read while riding her bike. She is a lifelong bibliophile who embarks upon obsessive reading binges on subjects ranging from polygamous cults to Helen Keller. When not working or reading, she can be found hiking, watching Jeopardy!, and searching for the perfect fruit snack. She lives in Denver, CO with her husband and son. Follow her on Twitter @erinkseals.

Erin Burba

Staff Writer

When Erin Burba was ten, she was grounded for trying to read while riding her bike. She is a lifelong bibliophile who embarks upon obsessive reading binges on subjects ranging from polygamous cults to Helen Keller. When not working or reading, she can be found hiking, watching Jeopardy!, and searching for the perfect fruit snack. She lives in Denver, CO with her husband and son. Follow her on Twitter @erinkseals.

I’ve never enjoyed listening to music while I exercise. Rather than feeling distracted or motivated, I become obsessed with the small increments of time a song represents. The song ends, I look down at my phone, and realize it was only 3 ½ minutes. I have to listen to approximately twenty more of these to complete my workout. I inevitably become discouraged. I’ve used my initial burst of energy to jog-dance to “Single Ladies” and now I’m ready to sit on the couch and watch Jeopardy! reruns. Thanks for nothing, Beyonce.

An audiobook, though, is more captivating. The right story can draw you into its world, taking your mind off the clock and compelling you to move forward. Audiobooks are what motivated me to log mile after mile while training for the 2015 Colorado Marathon. And it all started with Robin Miles.  

I was introduced to Robin Miles by way of Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. I was in my first-ever race- a 10K on the campus of Denver’s Regis University. But all I remember is the combination of Gay’s intensely captivating story conveyed by Miles’ warm and powerful voice.  An Untamed State was followed by A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres and then Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Very different books, each masterfully rendered by Miles. Pretty soon, I was looking forward to my long run day and choosing books I would have otherwise overlooked specifically because Robin narrated them.

Miles is as prolific as she is talented: she has narrated over 350 audiobooks in genres ranging from fiction to memoirs to children’s books. Throughout her career, she has won many awards, including:

  • The American Library Association’s Booklist Magazine 2014 Voice of Choice Honoree as the Year’s Top Audiobook Narrator
  • Audiofile Golden Voice Earphones Award
  • Two Ben Franklin Awards
  • Several Audie nominations
  • Audie award for directing Roots
  • Grammy finalist director for The Lincoln-Douglas Debates (BBC Audiobooks).

Audiobook narrator and director Robin Miles

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Robin Miles. Here is an edited version of our conversation:

You got your start recording for America Foundation for the Blind. Can you tell me about that?

In my family, we’ve always had community service. My parents used to do resumes for minority kids who were trying to get jobs. My mom and my dad would write resumes and rearrange resumes. I used to sing with a group in nursing homes.

So I’m in New York, I have no community service and I felt so strange. I thought, what can I do for anybody here? So I approached American Foundation for the Blind. I auditioned and I was promptly rejected [laughs]. I was rejected on the first try.

And did they give you feedback?

Yeah, actually. The folks that ran the studio said, “You know, you really are pretty good at this. But our clients like things a certain way. We’re going to give you some pointers on how to do things and we’re going to change your performance a bit and then we’ll resubmit.” And when we did, it was what they were looking for and I got approved for fiction and then nonfiction. And then, interestingly, poetry.

One of the things that I noticed when I started delving into your narration is that you seem intentional about the work that you choose. Almost all of the book that you’ve narrated are by or about women and many are written by authors of color. Can you talk to me a little bit about your selection process?  

I’m not sure I select them so much as they select me. What usually happens is that people will approach me– a publisher will approach me, or I’ll get to know the individual producers in a studio. I used to be the in-house director at a studio and so I knew the other engineers. And they know that I don’t fit into a conventional box. Thank goodness

Sometimes I’ll say to somebody, “That’s a book I’m interested in.” But for me, it’s more that I jump in with both feet and try not to bring in or reveal too many judgments. Because if you start to judge your characters, you start to play them in a biased way, and it skews the work. And I’ve just been lucky enough to have writers who write things in a truthful and balanced way. And that- I think that works best for me. It’s very, very truthful. It’s very open.

Some of the subjects covered in the books you narrate are pretty difficult. How does the emotional weight of these books affect you while you’re recording them?  

When I’m working on something that has devastating content, I frequently have to stop and take a breath. You have to just release your indignant reaction or your shocked reaction, or your pained, sad reaction, before you can go on because it’s just too much. You don’t want that leaking all over the place. If I’m leaking those feelings all over the place, I absolve my listener from having them.

And I do think that’s part of the point of the book. That when you tell people things, or show people things, you want them to feel indignancy for what’s going on. You can’t be bleeding that all over the place.  It’s like when you see a good play. If the actor overacts, he or she takes away the opportunity for the audience to have that emotional reaction because they’re having it to such an extent there’s no room for anybody else. So, I’m aware of that.

It does impact you, though.

I did a book once- I’ll never forget. It was by a woman whose name is Yelena Khanga. She’s a black woman and a native Russian woman. Her grandparents were both Americans in the twenties. They met at a communist rally. The grandmother was a Polish and Jewish immigrant. The grandfather was a Black American agronomist. They got married and realized they couldn’t raise a biracial child in America- it’s the twenties. So they went to Russia and decided to relinquish their U.S. citizenship and raise their child there.

So, the author talks about how she comes here [to the U.S.] to be a journalist at the Christian Science Monitor. She’s a very visibly black person with a very heavy Russian accent. Here’s this dark-skinned women, walking down the street in Boston, and this older white woman is walking down the street. The author decides to cross the street to ask her the time, because she’s late for her appointment. And as she crosses the street and approaches this white woman, she says, “I saw her freeze in terror.” And she’s describing how this white woman assumed a black person approaching her would cause her some sort of harm or attack her. She said she was so disturbed by that she began to make herself smaller. She hunched her shoulders over, she made her voice go higher: [softly] “Excuse me, um, I’m late for my appointment.” She made herself less threatening in this woman’s eyes because it pained her so much to see this woman in pain.

And I burst into tears, because I realized I had been doing that my entire life. And I had never recognized it before. It was intense.

It sounds like there are times when there are elements of self discovery as you’re going through this process

Yes, absolutely. That was a whopper. I can tell you from doing Roxane [Gay]’s book [An Untamed State]. It was as if, sometimes, I was walking into the ocean and waves were coming at me. The waves were painful emotions. And I had to let the water knock into me, and wash over me, trusting that I would still be able to keep moving forward. And if another one came, I would just have to sort of stand there and take the brunt of it. But it washes over your head and then the weight of it is gone and then you keep going again.

You do a lot of prep before production. Can you tell me about the process that you use when preparing to read a book?

Sure. It’s such an enjoyable process. I try to read the text all the way through, but in large chunks, so that I stay in the world of the story. The most important part is to get through the story, to see the big picture, and then to figure out  what the moments are that create that big picture.

I think, because I’ve been doing it for as long as I have, much of that happens instinctively. The writer puts the signals and the clues on the page. Your instinct- the instinct to recognize a clue and pick it up-  that’s the instinct I need. The instinct to know when to get out of the way and just play it the way the author wrote it- don’t get fancy. [laughs] Don’t think you know more than the writer- having enough humility to get out of the way. I can’t say I had that when I was younger and starting out.

And then on the other end of the spectrum, it’s also having the confidence to say, “this is a big moment. I’m going to play it big. I’m going to let it be big.” The older I get, the more experience I have, the more I realize: the instincts are good. Trust them.

When you know you get it right and it clicks, your breath is effortless. Emotion flows, there are very few mistakes.

You are known for your emotional nuance and ability to connect with the reader through your narration. Can you just tell me more about that?

How do I emotionally connect with them…I will say, a character like from Roxane Gay’s book  was easy because the writing was so ripe with content. And she’s Caribbean, my family’s Jamaican. When we were in Jamaica in the seventies, the kidnapping phenomenon was happening in Jamaica: wealthy family members were being kidnapped for the ransom. So I could easily relate to it.

I’ve been in situations where- I think that maybe this is more to your question: What happens when I get characters where the shoe just doesn’t immediately fit? I’ve had a couple of situations where I’ve had to play abusive, raping slave owners. And how do you get into the head of that? It’s so vile. But at the same time, I have to find a way- a belief system for that person that allows me to play him. It’s because of that system of truths for him. Because it’s so easy to just paint them with a heavy demon’s stroke. But that’s not what makes a book interesting. When things are- literally black and white. It’s the shades of grey that- to me- that make books interesting.

What projects are currently in the works?

There’s so many, what do I start with? One that I’m really excited to start is American Street. It’s a breakout novel by Ibi Zoboi. It will probably be out in January. American Street is a wonderful book and I don’t want to give any spoilers but it’s an immigrant experience and a coming-of-age at the same time.

I’m doing a book called Never Caught. It is the story of George Washington’s female slave Ona. When he’s elected president, he leaves Virginia, he goes to Philadelphia to live. The laws in Philadelphia at the time declared that if you brought a slave to Philadelphia and that slave resided there for one year, they were to be freed.

So what he would do is he would bring the slaves, and a month before the one year, he would bring them back to Virginia. And so she was up here and knew that and escaped. He refused to let this woman go. He kept chasing after her for years- trying to get his “property” back. So it’s an interesting story and it’s not something we would normally associate with George Washington.

EB: That sounds fascinating- I can’t wait to read it. Thank you so much for your time.

RM: Thank you.


Robin Miles: An Introduction

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth by N.K. Jemison

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman (directed by Robin Miles, narrated by Wendy Cavett)