Day 6·Q&A

Meet Edoardo Ballerini, rock star of the audiobook world

With people seeking digital audiobooks more than ever as a result of pandemic lockdown restrictions, award-winning audiobook narrator Edoardo Ballerini has a kind of fame he never imagined in a career he didn’t set out to have.

Digital audiobooks are experiencing seeing a lockdown-induced spike in popularity

Edoardo Ballerini attends the 2019 Audie Awards on March 4, 2019 in New York City. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for the Audio Publisher Association)
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In 2019, Edoardo Ballerini won the Audie award for Best Male Narrator for his recording of the novel Watchers by Dean Koontz.

An Audie is the equivalent of an Oscar in the world of digital audiobooks — a world that is seeing a huge rise in popularity as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions.

Ballerini has voiced everyone from Leo Tolstoy to Walt Whitman. Recently, he was even the voice of God — when he narrated Robert Alter's new translation of the Hebrew Bible.

He told Day 6 host Brent Bambury that the never imagined himself becoming a full-time audiobook narrator, but he's happy it happened. Here's part of their conversation.

Narrating and recording audiobooks wasn't your first career choice. But was there a specific project that made you think, OK, this is really working, and this is who I am?

A woman I knew who was a voiceover producer wanted to dip her toes in the audiobook waters, and she asked me if I would do a project with her. I said sure, not really knowing what audiobooks were.

It was Machiavelli's The Prince, a classic book — and I kind of got a taste for it. I was like, you get to perform great books ... but I kind of let it go.

And then years went by, and I moved back to New York, and then I got very lucky. I came across a book called Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, and the book and I just meshed perfectly. The book is set in two time periods: 1960s Italy, and modern day Los Angeles — two worlds that I knew well.

That was the moment when things just clicked. And I was like, this is great work and it's really fulfilling as an actor. From there it kind of took off.

You've had time on screen. I know that you were in The Sopranos. But your family background is more literary than stage- or screen-oriented. Your dad was a poet who came to the U.S. from Italy. Do you think that having poetry in your blood made it easier for you to inhabit the prose in a different way?

I think so. My mother is also an academic. She's an art historian with a specialty in photography. There were always a lot of poets and writers and artists around when I was a kid.

In fact, when I told my parents after graduating from college that I wanted to be an actor, I think they were sorely disappointed. They were like: "With all this great academic background, what are you doing?"

But when you were in college, when you were studying English, you loved some writers so much, and the voices that you heard in their work, that you would record them and take them with you and listen to them. Is that correct?

It is. It's a funny thing, even going back to high school when I heard Allen Ginsberg — the famous beat poet — in a recording he did of his reading the poem Howl, [which is] probably is best known work. It's a great recording, absolutely brilliant.

But I was so taken by it that I went to find Ginsberg, who was teaching at Brooklyn College at the time. I just had to meet the man who had not written this poem, but who had read this poem. That's what was important to me.

We are in the shadows, and trying to get a little bit of the light, but without getting in front of it.- Ballerini

Somehow in college the same thing happened. I got really into the works of T.S. Eliot. I went down to the local public library and there was a record of Eliot reading his work. I listened to it and then I put it on a cassette. And I would walk around campus listening to T.S. Eliot read his poems.

Everybody else was listening to, you know, Nirvana and NWA. I had T.S. Eliot in my headphones.

But I do think we're really in kind of a golden age of audiobooks. Not just because of the technology, but really because of the performers.

But is there a point where you have to weigh the danger of performance overshadowing the literary value? Do you worry that it becomes a performative medium, rather than a literary one?

Absolutely. It is my biggest question, always. And it's a very strange line that the audiobook narrator has to toe, because it has to be about the book.

At the same time, you also want somebody to notice that you're giving a good performance of the book, but you don't want to overshadow it. So we are in the shadows, and trying to get a little bit of the light, but without getting in front of it.

So I am doing my best to give the vocal version of what they have written.

Ballerini speaks onstage during 2019 Audie Awards on March 4, 2019 in New York City. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for the Audio Publisher Association)

You know, a screenplay is written with the intention of somebody performing it. A play for stage is written with the intention of somebody performing it. But a novel is not necessarily written with the intention of somebody voicing it.

And as more and more people listen to books, it's incumbent upon us to find that area where we're doing our job and not getting in the way of the book.

Most people have a list of books that they'd like to read at some point in their lives. Are there books that you would like to narrate someday?

I think of books that meant a lot to me in my youth. There's a Jack London book called Martin Eden — which is not one of his more famous ones — but it really affected me when I was about 18 years old.

There's a Tom Wolfe book — the old Tom Wolfe from the 1920s — You Can't Go Home Again. It had a huge impact on me.

There's some Kafka books from when I was a young man that I would love to do. Books that I have a personal connection to.

Edoardo, how old are your kids now?

They are eight and five.

When you read to them at bedtime, do they pay you?

Here's a little story I'm going to tell you: about a year ago, they started reading Harry Potter. Well, my older one.

And my wife said, "I'll read it with you." And I said, "Well, you know, why don't I read it? I'm the I'm the narrator. I'm the award-winning guy here."

They much preferred reading with my wife. So, they keep you humble.


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