Kevin R. Free joined Behind the Mic host Jo Reed for a conversation about his acting career, his impressive audiobook work, and being named a 2023 Golden Voice narrator. Kevin is a multiple Earphones Award winner for a wide range of audiobooks, from children's stories to literary fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and fantastic science fiction. There are few narrators who can match his versatility and perceptive performances across genres, and no one brings more infectious energy and joy to books for young listeners.
Kevin has had an extraordinary career, both in the recording booth and in theater as an actor, a director, a playwright, and an artistic director. He's recorded 450 audiobooks, including Martha Wells's wildly popular Murderbot Diaries series, Brandon Taylor's insightful works, and many memorable children's audiobooks.
Listen in to Kevin and Jo's lively conversation to learn more about how he brings joy into the recording booth, the thought and care he puts into creating voices for every character, and more.
Jo Reed: What is it that you have to bring to narrating children's books that other books might not require?
Kevin R. Free: Well, with everything I do, I try find the joy in what I'm doing, even if it's a very serious book. But with children's books, it's joy, front and center. The thing that I say in general about audiobooks, when people ask me, "What is the most important thing you think about?" And I say, "Well, like Celine Dion, I feel like I have to embody the character of the book as I'm doing it." And I say that because Celine Dion once very famously said that she just sort of embodies the character of a song, and that's how she is able to sing songs, and I thought that that was both brilliant and hilarious. And so now I say, "Like Celine Dion, I like to embody the character of a book." And with children's books, even if they're books that are teaching a lesson about loneliness or grief, there is joy to them. There's such joy in the illustrations. And when the young people are listening to the book, unless they're listening to it in a class, they can't see the illustrations. So, I try to paint a picture with my voice, and use as much joy as possible as I'm doing that.
JR: Well, your range is astounding. There's just no question about that.
KRF: Thank you.
JR: We see it in all your work. How do you think your theater training has helped you with audiobook narration?
KRF: My theater training has been instrumental in my audiobook career. And I will say that it's not just the things that I did in school. It is the experiences I've had with my colleagues: my other directors, other actors, other writers. I performed with a wildly prolific group of artists called the Neo-Futurists, where we were writing and performing and directing all of our own very short plays, and we're all very opinionated people, and we have very strong points of view about the work that we're creating. And so, for me, that theatrical training helped me to first not be precious about the work, as an audiobook narrator, and being really good with directors who are helping me with my interpretation of the books; and also just being able to look at a book, and read the book, and know what the point of view of the book is, and again, embody what the book is about. Because more important to me than the characters is what the narrator's voice in the book is. Are they sardonic? Are they hilarious, or do they think they're hilarious? Are they nerdy? What is the narrator's point of view? That is really important to me when I do an audiobook. And I think theater taught me that.
JR: You've done the Murderbot series, by Martha Wells. You've done all three of Brandon Taylor's books, including the very recent THE LATE AMERICANS. I do want to talk about each of those books in turn, but I wonder, if the author is living, do you try to connect with her or him before you begin to narrate?
KRF: I do. I do. There are a few publishers who require it. Back in the days when I was on Twitter, Martha Wells and I had a really great relationship on Twitter, but we also e-mail each other. When I read a new book, because she's so good with creating names, I e-mail her a list of names, and say, "How do you pronounce these? I think it's this." I remember one of my first questions to Martha Wells was, "What are Murderbot's pronouns?" And Martha Wells wrote back, emphatically, "Its pronoun is 'it,' and it was so emphatic that I thought, "Ah, this is great, that this Murderbot knows itself." And I start from there, with Murderbot. With Brandon Taylor, the brilliant Brandon Taylor, we have had robust, again, Twitter conversations, and most recently on Instagram, when I was asking about some pronunciations there. But I remember, as we were reading REAL LIFE, I didn't have any relationship with Brandon, and as the director, Maureen Monterubio, and I were recording the book, I remember thinking, "I hope he's okay." Because I wasn't sure if the book was autobiographical, but I thought, "Gosh, I hope Brandon Taylor is okay." Just, the books are so moving, and they put you through so many changes.
JR: They certainly do, and I want to talk about his books in a second. I want to go back to Murderbot, because I'm very curious. When you first got the pages for the first Murderbot book, what went through your mind when you realized you were a robot, who was the narrator of this book?
KRF: Well, I knew Murderbot was a robot because, when Recorded Books reached out, a producer there named Andy Paris reached out and said, "Hey, would you like to play a robot?" And I wrote back, "Sure. Send me the text and we'll talk about it." And I started reading it, and I wasn't sure I was reading a robot's words, but I was so taken with the idea that this entity just wanted to be left alone. It's called a Murderbot, and I'm trying not to do spoilers, but watching and reading Murderbot trying to clear its name, and also, at the same time, Murderbot just wanting to be left alone. I was taken with the personality there, and being a part of a story where an entity whose pronoun is "it" becoming more human, or discovering that it has feelings that it doesn't want to have. It was very exciting to me.
KRF: Thank you for saying that. Subtlety has never been my strong suit. So, if you think it's subtle, then I'm going to say, that is what I was trying to do, and I'm glad that it's subtle. When I realized that these Murderbot books are coming-of-age stories for Murderbot, that was when I was able to really clue in to some of that subtlety, some of the places where it becomes more human, and starts to accept its more organic parts of itself. I think that's my best description of the book, and one of the thoughts that I hold in my head, is that Murderbot is coming of age and becoming more itself, in the same way that we all are constantly becoming ourselves. I’m glad that it’s coming through.
JR: Is it a challenge to narrate the action sequences?
KRF: Those are so exciting! Yes, it's always a challenge, but it's so much fun to be able to, again, paint the picture of the fights, and to add my imagination to Martha Wells's imagination about these fights. So, yes, it's a challenge, because sometimes I get a little too loud, and have to go back and redo some of the things, but I love the challenge. It is so exciting to me. I tell you, I'm so busy with audiobooks, and because I have to read a certain amount of plays in my job as an artistic director and theater director, I don't get to read much for pleasure anymore, unless it's recipes, and reading these books has become the most delightful job of my life. So, I get very excited to do all of the books that I record, because I get to read, and I get to add my imagination to what is already on the page. So, yes, the action sequences are challenging, but they're so exciting to do. I feel like I am making a movie with my voice.
Read reviews of Kevin's many audiobooks on his audiography.
Photo of Kevin R. Free by Max Flatow.