After a few seconds of conversation with actor Dion Graham, it’s clear why he has received so many awards for his audiobook narrations. Graham MGSA’87 has the kind of voice that might be heard on a whaling ship or in a logging camp—rich, deep, full of authority and range. When he slides into, say, a raspy rendition of Miles Davis’s voice, as he did for the narration of Miles: The Autobiography, the performance is as good as anything on film or stage.
Graham, who holds an M.F.A. in acting from Mason Gross School of the Arts, is perhaps best known for his portrayal of state’s attorney Rupert Bond in the HBO series The Wire. He also narrates the long-running A&E crime documentary The First 48. But it is his audio narrations that garner the spotlight; Graham was recently named a 2012 “Golden Voice” by AudioFile magazine and Booklist’s 2012 “Voice of Choice,” the latest in a long line of awards. — Wendy Plump
RUTGERS MAGAZINE: Congratulations on receiving your recent back-to-back narration awards.
DION GRAHAM: It was a particular honor to be named a “Golden Voice,” which recognizes a whole career’s worth of work. I am blessed to have the gift of this instrument, this voice. I just try to make good with it and use it well.
RM: How did you get started narrating books?
DG: A friend of mine asked me one Christmas to narrate James Joyce’s The Dead for him. I just read it into a cassette recording, nothing professional. We listened to it later in a dark room, and it was just a great experience. Since 2000, I’ve done more than 150 audiobooks. I like to do all kinds of stuff. I’m also known for a lot of young adult titles, which I enjoy doing. I narrated a book by the Dalai Lama. I’ve even narrated a Western.
RM: Where do you start the process of doing these narrations?
DG: The first thing I do, of course, is read the book. I love to read, so I’m like Pooh who fell into the honey pot. If there are things I don’t know, I find out about them—words or names or subject matter. And then I like to have a chat with the author. There’s always something I find out that will somehow enhance the performance. We go into a studio and record, which usually takes several days to do, depending on the book.
RM: Are there many mistakes during the average recording?
DG: Of course, I mess up. Or I think, wait a minute: I understand this better now; here’s a better read. Then we just go back. We have the technology to make it sound so seamless when it’s done.
RM: Narrators create different voices and modes of speaking for different characters in a book. Is it a challenge keeping those voices straight?
DG: No, not once I’ve begun. I can always record a character reference, but often they are already in my head. The characters ride with me—or maybe I’m riding with them!
RM: What narrations have impressed you recently?
DG: The novel Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, really knocked me out. There were some very fine performances. I appreciate narration that not only tells the story, but also brings the story to life and channels the author’s intent through the perspective of a special narrative artist. This is the particular demand of the audio medium, and my task is responding to the material.
RM: Do you prefer the variety of your acting jobs as opposed to working in just one medium?
DG: I’m blessed to have an incredibly rich artistic life, so I bounce back and forth. I’m just open to exploring what interests me, and my acting has been a platform for that.
RM: Are readers “cheating” if they listen to an audiobook rather than read the book?
DG: I don’t think so. Great narration provides a completely different, hopefully transcendent, experience. Regarding something I’d narrated, a reviewer once wrote: “It’s like cinema in your head.” That feels right to me. •
Photo credit: Bill Bernstein, photographed at Prime Focus Studio