Telling His Own Story

Last year, Spotify & OrangeSky Audio secured the rights to produce and publish the audiobook of Muncie-based writer J.R. Jamison’s “Hillbilly Queer.” Jamison entered the studio in December — after going through the audition process — to record. The audiobook became available in February, and now, for Audiobook Appreciation Month, we’ve asked Jamison to tell us all about the experience.

Why did you want to narrate your audiobook? 

Hillbilly Queer is a deeply personal story, and I felt like I could bring the emotion needed for the narration in a way that another performer could not — because I lived it! But it’s not that easy; actually, I had to audition for the part, and there was a six-week lag before I learned I was cast, and that entire time I was convinced I wasn’t chosen because I was going up against voice actors who had narrated multiple books. I mean, self-doubt is real! 

The truth is, I had a ton of experience with narration due to the radio show, and I’m a trained stage actor, so it’s not like I was a complete novice; but doing an entire audiobook would be new territory for me, and I knew because of that there was a big chance I wouldn’t get the opportunity to narrate my own story. Luckily, the casting director and producer saw past any doubt I had, and both felt I was perfect for the part. I will say, though, that I had serious imposter syndrome during the weeks between being cast and actually going into the studio to record.  

Walk us through the process.

The finished product is six hours, but it took about 16 hours to record stretched out over three days. My publisher contracted with Round Table Recording Company in Broad Ripple, and I was in the studio with their audio engineer, Noah Glover, while my director and producer from OrangeSky, Rinn Kraus and Rufina DeAngelis, were in my earpiece via Cleveland telling me what they liked and didn’t like. The character voices were the hardest because I had to portray my dad, Old Lady Baker and a variety of other folks peppered throughout the book, but Noah played back my audio of each character right before I had to perform additional dialogue, and Rinn gave congratulatory shouts when I nailed it and roll-back sighs when I hadn’t quite hit the mark; there could be no variation, the character voices had to be exactly the same each time I delivered them. 

All in all, I had two months to prepare for the recording, and I spent that time re-reading my book and practicing pacing, delivery (like when to be emotional without being too much), and, of course, the aforementioned dialogue. 

Then, forty-eight hours before the first day in the studio, I had to give up coffee and any dairy products, and I couldn’t have them at all during the three days we recorded. If you know me, you know I HAVE to have my coffee; but I survived! The reason is because both constrict vocal cords, and my voice had to be in tip-top condition. Instead, I drank only tea and water, and I used Entertainer’s Secret (shout out to an Indiana-based company) to keep my vocal cords moist. Also, I had to stand the entire time to keep my diaphragm from being compressed, but it was only, on average, about five hours a day. 

It was hard work, but the teams at Round Table and OrangeSky were amazing to work with, and they were very kind to this first-time voice actor/audiobook narrator.      

What did you learn? 

That voice acting—or narrating an entire audiobook — isn’t easy! The audience can’t see you, so all emotion that is usually conveyed through a mix of body language and vocal expression has to be done by voice only. That takes skill, but even as nervous as I was going into the audition and then eventually the studio, I learned that I’m still open to new experiences — even at age forty-four! 

Much like writing a book, one never knows until they try. The trying is what keeps us young and curious, and that makes anything possible. Honestly, if you would have told me ten years ago that I would eventually write a memoir and narrate it, I would’ve thought you were crazy; but here we are! The journey from then to now, and now to the future, has been and will be full of new experiences, and I’ve learned to always take them when they come along. 

Do you think the audiobook format enhances your story? 

I think it adds a different element that complements the writing. As writers, we convey the story through connected scenes, imagery, dialogue (both internal and external), and the overall narrative arc. If done well, it takes readers into a world that may not be like their own, and helps them feel a range of emotions; but hearing the story hits in a different way. 

Listen, I remember pulling off of the side of a highway to ugly cry while listening to Kate Rudd narrate John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. I had read the book, too, and cried then as well, but hearing it took it to a whole other level. So, I actually recommend that readers take in both formats (print and audio) of the books they’ve loved to get the full experience.    

How does the audiobook differ from the printed version? 

It’s mostly the same, but there is a bonus Q&A with me at the end of the audiobook for Hillbilly Queer

What do you hope readers will get from listening to or reading “Hillbilly Queer”?

I wasn’t looking to change the world when I wrote Hillbilly Queer, but I was looking for a connection back to my own dad and finding a way through issues that divide us. It’s a deeply personal story, but it’s also a story that many face with loved ones in their own lives. 

Here in Indiana, we’re literally in the middle of the country and navigate conversations “in the middle” all the time. So, telling a story that bridges ideological differences isn’t particularly mind-blowing; but it’s easy to fall into the us vs. them trap (regardless of geography), and, because of that, telling this story through a father and son who see the world differently, generations apart, on a road trip at the height of the most divided time in our country, felt urgent and necessary—and, honestly, the most radical thing I could have done at that particular moment in time.

Now that Hillbilly Queer has been out for two years in print and four months on audio, I’ve met people from all walks of life, and every single one of them has shared that someone in their family — a brother, a mother, a cousin — is on the opposite side of the aisle, and they’ve cut them off or they’ve been cut off. That’s heartbreaking, but not shocking given the deep divisions in our country. I’m thrilled when folks share that they’ve been inspired to bridge those divides after reading the book. To me, that’s better than any award, review, or cover praise. In the end, no politician or talking head will save us; only we can save ourselves.  


J.R. Jamison is the award-winning and bestselling author of the memoir Hillbilly Queer, and host of the NPR podcast and radio show The Facing Project (recorded and produced at Indiana Public Radio). He is also a founder of the national Facing Project network, a nonprofit in 18 states and over 100 communities that creates a more understanding and empathetic world through stories that inspire action, where he serves as president of the organization. 

J.R. has written for The Huffington Post, Pangyrus, Writer’s Digest, and various other print and web publications. His work has been covered by outlets such as The Guardian, Harlem World Magazine, PBS, Runner’s World, and The Statesider, among others. Currently, he is writing his debut young-adult novel.