Voice of the Century

April 09, 2013

By Mary Seymour

When native Pennsylvanian Grover Gardner ’78 attended high school in Belgium, he found nothing on TV to watch—so he turned to books. Great books. Classic books. Books that tickled his imagination and inspired him to read out loud.

Less than a decade later, he turned his bibliophilic Belgian hobby into a full-time profession. And he turned out to be good at it: So good that he’s recorded more than 800 audiobooks and been named one of the “Best Voices of the Century.”

“I studied to be an actor but also worked a fair amount in radio early on,” Grover says. “When I learned that the Library of Congress had a whole program devoted to recording great books, I found a way to audition—and that’s what started it all. Eventually, the acting tapered off and audiobooks took over.”

Grover, a bespectacled litterateur with a passing resemblance to the actor Edward Herrmann, has honed his art over more than three decades. After a prolific freelance career, in 2007 he became studio director for Blackstone Audio, where he produces audiobooks and cherry-picks his own narration projects.

“When I scan the incoming manuscripts, I’ll occasionally hit on one that speaks to me, and those are the ones I do,” Grover says. He’s earned the right to be choosy after 800-plus books, not all of them a joyous reading experience. “Narrating a bad book is torture. Each sentence is an effort because you know it’s your job to make it sound positively wonderful.”

That’s where Grover’s acting skills, sharpened as a theater major at Rollins, have come in handy. In fact, Grover believes stage actors make the best narrators because they have the requisite qualities: literateness, a strong voice, experience playing multiple roles, and an understanding of subtext.

He’s typically wry and understated about his talent. “An actor friend of mine once wondered aloud how anyone who talked through his nose so much could get so much voice-over work,” Grover says. “One audiobook critic called my voice ‘sandpaper and velvet.’ I guess it’s as good a description as any. I think what I bring to the audiobook work is a lot of warmth and personal interest in the material, and that’s what’s reflected in the voice.”

One challenge is not letting his emotions interfere with the recording session. “I love books that make me cry or laugh out loud. The problem is you have to control that in the booth; otherwise you’re ‘commenting’ on the material instead of letting the listeners have their own reactions.”

Asked to name the books he’s most enjoyed narrating, he describes Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb as “probably the best book I’ve ever read about anything.” Other favorites include Rafael Yglesias’ A Happy Marriage and Thomas Trofimuk’s Waiting for Columbus. His all-time favorite: The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. “It’s a brutally dark and grueling journey, and very few people get all the way through it. I loved every minute of it.”

He pauses with an actor’s impeccable timing. “I don’t know what that says about me.”

In his off time, he’s a devoted audiophile and music collector with a penchant for building vacuum tube amplifiers from scratch. He devotes zero time to drinking honey-thickened tea or placing steaming bath towels around his neck. “No, I’m terrible about taking care of my voice. Cigarettes, coffee, martinis. Everything you’re not supposed to do.”

Grover’s wife, Tanya Perez, also works for Blackstone, doing research and audiobook proofing. The two met years ago during a theater production in which Tanya was a technician and Grover an actor. “It was a show we both hated. We were so bored we decided to start going out,” Grover recalls.

“That, and I didn’t want to go home and change into a costume for a Heaven and Hell Halloween party,” Tanya adds. “Grover provided a much more pleasant alternative in going out to drink Scotch.”

The couple lives in Medford, Oregon, with their 9-year-old daughter, and Grover doesn’t foresee much change to the dream he’s already living.

“I still love narrating after all these years, and every book is a fresh challenge,” he says. “It’s a comfortable living at this point, and my daughter thinks it’s cool. What more can you ask?”

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