Actor, playwright, voice-over artist, and audiobook narrator Mary Jane Wells admits she’s drawn to a “transformative story.” “I just gravitate toward it, especially if it’s optimistic and healing from something dark.” Wells trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and went on to a successful career in film and television. She credits a friend, Alex Hyde-White of Punch Audio, for fully drawing her into the audiobook world. Wells was pleased to accept the invitation—“Who doesn’t want to read books for a living?”—although she knew what she was getting herself into. “Audiobooks are a ‘baptism of fire’ if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Steeping herself in audiobook narration is both comforting and challenging to Wells. She explains the shift from film acting to narration using a romance metaphor. Audiobooks are “the stable, loving husband as compared to the bad boyfriend that is on-camera acting. On-camera acting calls everybody else, sleeps with everyone else . . . [Narration] is just loyal, lovely, stable, reliable, and economical.” This mutual admiration has earned her acclaim in the audiobook world. In the last three years, Wells has won two Audie Awards and one Audie Finalist nomination in the Romance category for her narrations.
Wells laughs about her early entrance into the world of historical romance audiobooks, recollecting the time she had to Google, “What’s the ton?” When asked about her affinity for historicals, she muses, “In an audiobook you’re allowed to be specific and precise about the details of that world—what the dress feels like, how cold the room is, all these nerdy ‘actingy’ things, you get to steep in them more."
And speaking of going 100%, Wells has recently released an enhanced audiobook to accompany her one-woman show, HEROINE: THE PLAY, which debuted in the U.S. at the Kennedy Center. Wells wrote the play after meeting and speaking with Sergeant Danna Davis, a female soldier in the Army and a victim of military sexual trauma (MST). Working with Davis on such a project was incredibly challenging and meaningful. Their thoughtful work spans a decade. “We had to go at the rate the survivor dictated.” HEROINE received critical acclaim, winning numerous Scottish drama awards, and in the U.S. was recognized by the Obamas and Congresswoman Jackie Speier for its groundbreaking production at the Kennedy Center.
The audiobook of HEROINE is the next step in Wells’s commitment to this project. “The audiobook is in some ways more intense, so, therefore, in some ways it’s potentially more difficult for some survivors. But with an audiobook you CAN turn it off and walk away. An audiobook you have control over, and control over the narrative is a huge part of why HEROINE came into existence.”
HEROINE the audiobook represents a complex collaboration between Wells and her sound designer, Heather Andrews, in consultation with U.S. service members. “It’s not really an audiobook. I mean, it is, but it also isn’t because at one time there are 60 different lines of sound design. The audio sound designer and I have worked for a year to get things as right as we can. When Andrews salutes, she had to wear the right uniform whilst doing so, in order to catch the exact noise it makes. She had to get the right boots so when she was doing the foley (foley is creating sound effects), the tread makes the authentic noise while she runs. She did a bunch of foley and then went back to correct it because the exact location of the mission we depict in Iraq in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom is slightly grittier than we first thought. And we worked with four soldiers this time to make sure the audio version was more accurate than the stage show. The sound designer of this project deserves as many accolades as I have ever got.”
With a project like HEROINE ongoing, Wells is careful to select audiobooks that give her personal balance. “In terms of audiobooks, it’s been historical romances." Wells brings a rollicking sense of humor to her narration. She would love to do a book of all her flubs as a narrator. She blames cabin fever for her hilarity over words gone wrong, like the time she blurted, “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to publish you.” instead of “ . . . punish you.” “I find words in the wrong order quite hysterical. That kind of stuff tickles me. I wonder if it would be a nice blooper reel.” And speaking of blooper reels, Wells may soon have a side business in leaving audiobook voicemails. She admits she leaves “flirty” voicemails using the character voice of Reese Winterborne from the Lisa Kleypas series to amuse a friend who “fancies” that character. It seems obvious she’ll be getting further requests for that sort of thing, given the immense popularity of the audiobooks she narrates for Kleypas, Tessa Dare, and Cathy Maxwell.
And what’s next for Wells? She's enthusiastic about several of her forthcoming audio projects. Listeners can look for her Sherlock and Lucy Mystery series, co-narrated with Simon Prebble, whom she describes as having “great gravitas.” And she’s mid-series through The Roxton Foundation Series, a group of lush, historical titles for author Lucinda Brant, whose writing she describes with great delight as “precise, with an eye for detail.”
In all her diverse work, Wells projects a deep dedication to the intent of the author and the transformative power of story. As a narrator, she believes she has the “privilege of getting to help midwife somebody’s story into the world.”
Photo by Hayley Samartin