June is a great month to be an audiobook fan. As you probably know, this is Audiobook Month, so it’s the perfect time to celebrate and honor AudioFile’s newest class of Golden Voice narrators. This lifetime achievement award is given in recognition of excellence in audiobook performance.
Among this year’s honorees is the versatile Emily Woo Zeller, a narrator known for her careful pacing and thoughtful characterizations. I’m always impressed with her ability to convey different perspectives, attitudes, and state of mind and to subtly tweak those features as the characters in an audiobook undergo change. Emily has skillfully taken us from ancient battlefields (THE MAGNOLIA SWORD) to futuristic America (A BEGINNING AT THE END) and from contemporary fraternities (THE RED WORD) to our own messy closets (THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP), all without missing a beat.
To highlight Emily’s Golden Voice performances, I’ve picked 5 AudioFile Earphones Award–winning audiobooks to suit a variety of listeners. Enjoy!
Helen Hoang’s THE BRIDE TEST pairs an American man on the autism spectrum with an ambitious Vietnamese single mother. Even though Khai is convinced he’s incapable of love, his mother arranges for Esme to spend the summer in California, hoping the two will make a match. Emily’s performance of this multilayered contemporary romance underscores the couple’s transformation from complete strangers who seem to have nothing in common to mutual understanding and then to love. Emily’s sensitive portrayals connect us to Khai’s personal conflicts and to Esme’s struggles to adjust to a new country and new opportunities, making it easy for us to root for a happy ending.
PAPER SON, by S.J. Rozan, features Lydia, a Chinese American PI from Manhattan, and her Kentucky-born partner, Bill. When Lydia’s cousin Jefferson Tam is accused of killing his father, the investigators head for the Mississippi Delta to try to clear his name. This audiobook shines the spotlight on Emily’s ability to switch easily between accents and genders, as the partners investigate Jefferson’s background, interview his relatives, and deal with local law enforcement. Listeners learn about the Chinese American experience in the Deep South while they try to interpret the clues and solve the case alongside Lydia and Bill.
The first two entries in the Poppy War series by R.F. Kuang are THE POPPY WAR and THE DRAGON REPUBLIC, both performed by Emily. These fantasy stories follow Rin as she rises from backwater war orphan to one of the best cadets in the military academy. Emily nails the characters’ personalities but holds close their secrets, betrayals, tested loyalties, and ultimate fates. Her delivery enhances the emotional texture of the series, helping us feel the fear and desperation of battle, the hope of redemption and victory, and the despair of plans gone awry. These action-packed audiobooks find their roots in modern Chinese history.
One of the most recognized photographs from the Vietnam War era is that of young Kim Phuc (known widely as “The Napalm Girl”) running naked and crying down a road while American soldiers look on. Emily’s sensitive performance of this moving memoir, FIRE ROAD, captures the many aspects of Kim Phuc Phan Thi’s emotional, spiritual, and physical journey after the napalm attack that changed her life forever. At the center of the story is Kim Phuc’s conversion from the faith of her childhood to Christianity, with its messages of redemption and forgiveness. Emily helps us empathize both with the young Kim Phuc’s hopelessness and with the peace and joy she found in Jesus’s teachings.
Ellen Lindseth’s A GIRL DIVIDED is a different kind of World War II story. Genie Baker, daughter of a missionary, was raised in China and knows no other home, but when the war threatens her safety, her father arranges for her to be escorted first to India and then to the United States, where he hopes to join her and make a new life. Emily makes the characters in this genre-crossing story come alive; we have our fingers crossed for Genie’s successful escape and sense her growing self-confidence as she overcomes a number of setbacks while she tries to build her new life. This audiobook mixes historical fiction with Christian fiction, as Genie attempts to balance her upbringing with her experiences in the wider world.
Over the years, I’ve listened to many hours of Emily Woo Zeller’s audiobook performances and so welcomed the chance to get to know her better as a person instead of a voice my earbuds. She was gracious enough to answer some questions and to share her thoughts with us. Here’s what Emily had to say.
AudioFile: Tell us something surprising about yourself.
Emily Woo Zeller: I was trained as a dancer before anything else, then as a musician and singer, then as an actor. All the training started in childhood, but dance was first and most prominent. My primary dance training was in Chinese folk dance and competitive ballroom dance before expanding to more conventional forms like jazz, modern, and hip hop. As a kid growing up in LA, I performed with a Chinese folk dance troupe in large theaters and myriad cultural festivals throughout Southern California beginning at age five and, through that, was immersed in the huge amount of diversity in LA both within and outside of the Asian diaspora. I’ll forever have a deep love for dance of all kinds, and I may not compete or perform often anymore, but I particularly love partner dancing as well as world folk dance forms. It’s all about connecting, and telling stories, and that’s the stuff right there.
AF: What are you doing when you’re not working?
EWZ: I love triathlons and getting out into nature. Last year, I did the AIDS/LIFECYCLE ride from San Francisco to LA (545 miles on a bicycle.) Recently, I’ve been into events that raise money and awareness for climate sustainability efforts. The event I was scheduled to participate in this year—a 42-mile trail run—had to be rescheduled, so I’m looking forward to whenever we can pick that up again.
AF: When reading for pleasure, do you find yourself creating voices and thinking about pacing and emphasis?
EWZ: When I prep work that I’ll be narrating, I think about what’s happening in the scene and who the characters are more than pacing or emphasis on any particular words because things like pacing and emphasis come naturally when the focus is on what’s happening in any particular moment and who’s there and why. But that said, it is a bit of a challenge to read for pleasure because I do think about the text with the frame of my body/voice bringing it to life instead of just letting the story be told to me by my reading eyes/ears. Also, my eyes are very tired at the end of the day and I’m often carrying so many different characters, even if subconsciously, that at the end of the day I don’t have the physical capacity to take in more stories, through my eyes or ears. For pleasure, then, I read/listen to nonfiction or fiction where I would likely never be cast as the narrator, and only on days off or during a long run. Although I will say that with listening in particular, as much as I enjoy it, and I do enjoy it, it’s still a little bit of work because I can’t help learning from what another actor/narrator has done with their performance and thinking about how I might incorporate it into my own work or not.
AF: What’s your go-to beverage when recording? How about after recording?
EWZ: Hot water. Hot water. Sparkling water. And wine or tequila or scotch for funsies, once in a while. Did I mention hot water? Yes, that’s right. Plain. I’m Chinese; I was raised that way, and I find hot water so comforting.
AF: What kinds of things do you do to protect your voice in your down time?
EWZ: Everything you’ve ever heard. Sleep enough; eat tons of vegetables and generally whole, varied foods; exercise; and drink plenty of water. Avoid too much alcohol; don’t smoke. The basics, but they’re true blue. I’m trying to get better about taking time to rest—which is different from sleep!—because the body/mind needs more rejuvenation than I ever thought. And even when you do what you love for work, time away from that is important for a full life. Incidentally, that helps your work be better because your brain is operating at its best with rest! Creativity needs a balance of both space and constriction/pressure.
Thank you, Emily, for taking the time to talk with us today. I’m kind of in awe of your long bike rides, wow! I know what you mean about the difference between rest and sleep; I too struggle with incorporating enough rest during the day.
For more audiobooks performed by Golden Voice Emily Woo Zeller, be sure to browse our reviews. You’ll find a wide range of titles geared to readers of all ages.