Shelf Care Interview: Olivia Matthews and Janina Edwards

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Dreamscape Audio.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Heather Booth talks to author Olivia Matthews and narrator Janina Edwards, the team behind Murder By Page One.

Olivia Matthews is the cozy mystery pseudonym of award-winning author Patricia Sargent. A voracious reader, she’s been inspired by writers such as Walter Mosley, Dick Francis, and Tammy Hogue, who put ordinary characters in extraordinary situations. Raised in New York City, she lives with her husband in Ohio.

Janina Edwards is an Earphone Award winner, a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and recorded her first audiobook in 1987. She excels in portraying authentic characters and voices, including the African diaspora, West Africa, Southern U.S., and West Indies. Two of her titles have been Audie Award finalists. Janina’s voice can be heard in corporate and education recordings and for meditation. Janina is also a yoga teacher, a musician who plays the violin and sings Kirtan wallah, and is owned by two cats.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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HEATHER BOOTH: Ladies, please tell me about Murder By Page One.

OLIVIA MATTHEWS: Well, Murder By Page One is the first book in the Peach Coast Library Mystery series. It features a fish-out-of-water librarian who is a native New Yorker and relocates to the small, fictitious Southern town of Peach Coast, Georgia, for a career advancement. And while she’s there, the first mystery is that one of her new best friends is suspected of murder. So to help clear her friend’s name, she starts an investigation of her own.

We have both the author and the narrator here. Janina, did you meet Olivia before you recorded the book? How did your connection to the book come about?

JANINA EDWARDS: In this particular case, I did not. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, we did an interview together. That was my first time actually meeting her. That is not always the case. It just depends on the book. Sometimes when you’re asked to do a book you’re given the authors. I mean, if it’s through certain platforms, like ACX, you’re often dealing directly with the author. Anyway, in this particular case, I was not. We hadn’t met.

So, in Murder By Page One, the librarian, Marvey, she’s new in town, like you mentioned, Olivia. Peach Coast is such a vibrantly written location. You can really get a feel for this new community that she’s in. Janina, I know you have lived in many parts of the country. I wondered, Olivia, if you have also been the new girl in town, like Marvey, and how each of you thinks experiencing new places informs your ear, either for writing vibrant places or voicing the characters who live in these places.

OLIVIA MATTHEWS: That’s a really great question, Heather. I have been the new person in town, in several different experiences. And just like Marvey, I grew up in New York City, which is a bigger metropolitan area. You have your small communities within that big city, but it’s a bigger metropolitan area. And one of my first relocations was when I moved to where I live now, Columbus, Ohio, to attend Ohio State University. Heavens to Betsy! It was a great cultural shift for me. And I went back to that experience when I started writing Marvey in Peach Coast. It’s like, OK, what are they saying? What are they doing? And everybody seems to know everybody else, and I don’t know anyone.

JANINA EDWARDS: I hadn’t thought about it in those terms until this question was brought up, in preparing for this. And as with many things, my first answer is, oh, that has nothing to do with it! And then I thought about it. Actually, in some ways, I’m from Chicago originally. I went to, as was mentioned, New York University. And I’d certainly been other places before I went to college, but there’s nothing like going out, moving to another place, being on your own for the first time, and just really having to figure things out. But what I loved about New York was meeting all these voices and all the accents and all that. You see people on TV or in movies and it’s like, here’s a Brooklyn accent or whatever. And then you’re there and it’s like, you’re not kidding! This is how you actually talk!

As a Black person, if you know your history in Chicago and some other places, historically Black peopleAfrican-American Black people versus Caribbean or otherswe tend to have a history of family members being in the South because of slavery, et cetera. And then, during one of the different phases of the Great Migration, somebody in the family came north, and they went along the train line. So they went to Harlem or they went to Ohio or they went to Chicago, and that’s the general history of many Black people in America, Black American people. But when I got to New York, I was like, oh, wait, you’re Black, and I’m going to ask you what time it is. And you’re going to come back and speak French to me, or Spanish. Oh wow. It was really eye-opening to realize Black people can be from anywhere also. So my fascination and enjoyment in listening to different voices and different people’s experiences connects to thatnot necessarily how I voice the book, but in terms of my interest and enjoyment of other characters and voices, definitely that plays in.

Oh, that’s so interesting. I can see how the connection to exploring voice and character through voice would relate back there. I wonder if any of the characterizations that you created for the narration were especially fun or maybe a little bit more difficult than others to create. And then Olivia, when you heard the recording, if any of the characterizations, any of the voicings were particularly entertaining to you or were surprising to you in any way.

JANINA EDWARDS: So I think that how people talk is fascinating and I think one of the joys and challenges of audiobooks, at least the traditional format of an audiobook—if there’s a traditional—is one-person narration: you get to be everybody. And that is the fun of it . . . and that’s the challenge of it. So in terms of accents, versus a stage actor or a film actor, I’m not just going to go and perfect one person’s accent or one particular voice, because I’ve got to get everybody at least within a range of plausibility, if not believability. You’ll see about Meryl Streep or somebody who dives in and does a Polish accent or whatever. I need to get a flavor of that, and then keep stepping, because there’s 20 other people and Olivia has given us this rich palette of characters. I’ve got to get all of them to some believable degree.

Accents are also not monolithic. There’s no one Spanish accent. There’s no one Southern accent. And we narrators have their sources for listening to authentic voices, aside from just walking around and listening closely. But, there’s online sources, of course, that we can use. So for me, developing those voices is a combination of a) reading the book, which I always do first. And the author is going to give you a lot of the information about how that person should sound, if there’s accents, the accents’ characteristics, if they have a quiet voice, if they have a loud voice, if they’re stricter, whatever it is, they’re gonna give you that information.

And then also it’s about where that person comes from in the country, and also what they inspire to be, who their parents are, where they are in the generational aspect of their family. So often, not always, but often, somebody who’s your elder—your grandparents, generally—they’re going to have that deeper accent. But someone younger, they’re exposed to other things, they might want to go other places, so they don’t necessarily sound like their grandparents for many different reasons, like their educational, academic ambitions. So all that’s to say that it’s fun. And again, the author is giving me much of what I need to play with that. And for me, it’s a balance of geographic accent and characteristics. And then that character: what are they? And, I should say, actually, you’ll hear actors talk about the intentionality of that character. So even if I don’t do anything with my voice, someone who’s angry is going to sound different from someone who’s sad, or whatever; there’s going to be a difference. So that’s a very long-winded answer to your question.

OLIVIA MATTHEWS: Actually, I thought that answer was so fantastic because it gives me a deeper understanding of how you were able to bring those characters to life. The first time I listened to Murder By Page One, I was on my treadmill, trying not to asphyxiate myself. And listening to Janina read the story, I forgot where I was, despite the fact that I was like seconds away from cardiac arrest. I forgot where I was because her voice carried me away. And having helped to develop those characters, part of me was enjoying the story, but part of me was like, “How did she know to do that with my characters? How was she able to flesh them out so well?” And now I understand everything that went into it. You did such a beautiful job.

JANINA EDWARDS: You told me what to do! That’s because you’re a good writer, so all of that information is in there. And I  think I told you in some other conversation, I am a spreadsheet person; for every book, unless it’s really short and I don’t need to do it, I have a spreadsheet. One page of the spreadsheet is pronunciation questions. You read it first because there’s going to be language I just don’t know how to say or that may be particular to a particular area, and I want to make sure I say it with the tonality of that particular region. And then there’s a character list. And I literally have the name of the character, local qualities that you’ve told me about, as author, that that person has. And then a notes section that tells me where that character lies in terms of the plot or other things that just strike me that I want to know about them. Or again, maybe that they were born poor in Southern whatever, but they want to be president, so they’re not going to have the same speech that their mother would. But you tell me all that. That’s how I know.

It’s so wonderful. You have this great text with these great characters in such a vibrant location, and then to hear it all come together, that just gives it so much more. It all fits so well in this recording. It was such a nice partnership between Olivia’s words and Janina’s narration. I think it was fantastic.

So without getting too controversial, I do have a question about something that mystery genre fiction and audiobooks have in common, which is that often people feel the need to apologize in some way for being a mystery reader or an audiobook reader. As a librarian, sometimes we’ll have to say, “No, no, no, all reading is reading. Don’t apologize for your reading taste.” And I was speaking with somebody the other day who said, “Oh, well, I don’t read, I just read mysteries.” And I said, “Just mysteries. That’s huge! That’s a lot! Tell me your favorite. I’m listening to Murder By Page One. It’s fantastic!” So I wondered if you wanted to speak to your fans, your mystery reader fans, or your audiobook fans, who find themselves defending their type of reading interest.

OLIVIA MATTHEWS: Oh heavens! I’ll try not to get too agitated or stand on a soapbox for too long, but I think people who have these debates are missing the point. To what you said, Heather, people are reading. And I truly believe that books have super powers. They have the ability to build bridges and to break down walls. So the fact that people are reading, whether it’s mystery or romance, comic books or sci-fi, let’s celebrate that people are reading! They’re building connections and starting conversations. And whether it’s print, e-book, or audiobooks, celebrate the reading.

JANINA EDWARDS: Amen. My own response, and we talked about this a little bit, is: it’s the all of the above. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. So, you know, I call them purists. My dad has a wall of books (he’s deceased) that I’m having trouble letting go of because they’re so much a part of him. So trust me, I grew up with a love of books. That’s why I do this, because I still love books, But it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. I can love the printed word for one thing, and I can enjoy the audiobook. If you see a book and it’s a film or on TV, it just means that more people get to experience it.

And yes, I’m sure we’ve all experienced a book becoming a movie or TV show, and thinking “Oh my God, I can’t believe they let go of whatever characters” or combined things, but still, it’s another artistic expression of the piece. We don’t say, well, only one orchestra gets to do Beethoven. No. The piece is written, you have different companies that perform it, and you get something from each one. And you get recordings of it, and those recordings are awesome, too, because it gets to more people that get to enjoy it.

And I’ll say one more thing along those lines, and this is true: my daughter in middle school, they were reading Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, which is a wonderful book, one of my favorite books. And my daughter was reading it—and it’s written in Black dialect; they’re in Florida, and they’re talking, and it’s written that way—and she wasn’t getting it. She was like, “What? I’m not enjoying this. I don’t know what they’re saying.” And this was before I was doing this for a living, I started reading it out loud to her. And she was like, “Oh, this is like Aunt Bert.” And I was like, “Yes!” So not only did she start to understand it, she started to actually connect to it because these are like our family members; we have people who talk like this. We have whole communities who talk like this.

And similarly or in a different way, when The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was all the rage, people recommended it, and I was like, OK, I’ll bite. And I got the book and I started to read it. And I was like, there’s so much—the first 30 pages is exposition. I kept starting and stopping. I couldn’t make it through. And then I picked up the audiobook of Simon Vance doing it. And I believe he’s done all that author’s works. He got me through those first 30 pages. I got hooked. I ran through the whole series because he helped me get through that and get the nuance of those first 30 pages that I just couldn’t do on my own. But then I also have the books so I can read the book. And I love that. I love the physical book when I’m studying something. I love to be able to go back and actually be old school and write notes, but I can also listen to it in my car or while I’m doing whatever. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. There really are no audiobook police.

Yes, absolutely. I love that. More books for more people in more formats sounds like a good way to go. So the main character here is a librarian. As a librarian, I so appreciated that she has to do things like statistics, and things like marketing are actually taken into account in her work life. It’s not all just sitting at the desk and checking out books, which, you know, some people wrongly think that that’s all there is to it. I wondered if either of you have library or librarian stories that you would like to share?

JANINA EDWARDS: Well, I love a good library. First of all, in the work that I do, as I mentioned, there are narrators who claim they don’t read the book first. The ones I admire and that I wish to grow up to be do read the book first, and then they research. And so that can involve, if not the physical library, an online library. So you are making sure you know the language, looking up words that I think I know that I find out I actually don’t know how to say. I mean, you have to balance the amount of research you do, but the library is a rich source for obviously all of that. And then also, just on a personal level, my daughter’s grown—she’s 32 now—but when I was in grad school and other times, the library was the safest. That was our go-to, to not have to spend money and come back wealthy.

So we would go there. I could take her to the children’s area and she’d say, “I want to get this book and this book and this book and this book and this book. Can I do it?” And I’m like, “Yes! You can have all of this because we have a library card.” We would go into the stacks—I went to the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana—and pull out art books and all that. It was just . . . I felt so wealthy. And in fact, though things financially are good for me, if for some reason I feel impoverished emotionally or financially, going to the library and taking out as many books as I like is . . . there’s something about that that just works for me. It’s like, I am wealthy. I have a stack of books, CDs, audiobooks, magazines, and there’s something about that that just always worked for me. So anyway, there you go.

OLIVIA MATTHEWS: I agree. That’s lovely. You know, Heather, I have—and I’m not exaggerating—a lot of library stories. I want to share a small one that happened to me just this morning, as a matter of fact. Yesterday, we did an online book club chat about Murder By Page One. And someone asked me, “Why did you choose a librarian as an amateur sleuth?” So I explained—it was kind of a lengthy explanation—and I ended it by saying, “Librarians are a wealth of knowledge and they know so much about the community they serve and the services offered in that community.” And as I’m typing it, it occurred to me, you know, it’s true. Librarians know a lot about the services in the community. And I have a question that is not pertaining to the library, but I’m just gonna step out on faith and get on my library’s chat feature and see if someone can help me.

So I logged on and I explained, “This does not have anything to do with the library, but I’d like to ask you this question. My father-in-law just passed, my mother-in-law has dementia, and we’re trying to figure out a strategy to give her care, because my sister-in-law can’t do by herself anymore. Do you know of any community resources? Here are the ones that I’ve already contacted and they couldn’t help me. Do you know of anything?” And they did! They were able to provide me with a phone number and a department to call.

Oh, that’s wonderful. That’s such a rewarding part of the job, and it’s so nice when people recognize that that’s something that libraries can help with. We librarians connect people to books, but also to resources and to other parts of the community. And I’m so glad you had that experience of finding what you needed.

OLIVIA MATTHEWS: It was wonderful. It speaks to what I’m trying to convey in the Peach Coast Library Mystery series: libraries are more than books and CDs and DVDs and magazines and newspapers, magazine. Libraries offer community services. And when you don’t recognize that, libraries aren’t getting the support they need to support the community. We have to recognize that.

JANINA EDWARDS: I read something, and this is a while ago, but they were talking about how, when a disaster has happened —like a tornado or some other thing has occurred—one of the first things and one of the most important things for them to get back up and running immediately is the library. Nowadays, we’ve got computers there and other communication devices people can get. It feeds you in many, many other ways, aside from just the physical book form. But I remember being struck by that.

OLIVIA MATTHEWS: Oh, that’s such an excellent point. I used to work for a university that shall remain nameless. The people I worked with in the marketing department, when we would do interviews to replace a position, for example, one of the questions I would ask is: “Do you have a library card? You’re in communications. Do you have a library card?” And if the person said no, I would not give that person my support in the hiring decision. Because you’re a communicator, how could you not have a library card? And that university, it did not support its university library. And how can you have academic programs? And you want to create new academic programs but you want to cut the library’s budget? That does not make sense.

JANINA EDWARDS: And of course, that is my favorite line from the book. Every time I was like, we’re talking, we’re talking . . . “Do you have a library card?”

So for our podcast listeners, this is a frequent question that the librarian amateur sleuth is asking in the course of her investigation: “Do you have a library card?” Which is just so endearing. Well, this has been such a wonderful conversation. I wondered if either of you have any final thoughts you wanted to add or other recommendations of books that you are reading or listening to that you’d like to share?

OLIVIA MATTHEWS: Janina, if I might jump in, I just want to once again say how very enchanted I was to hear you narrating the story. You did such a beautiful job. And one of the things that I really admire about your body of work is that you don’t just narrate in one genre. You narrate across genres, fiction and nonfiction. That’s just very thrilling to me.

JANINA EDWARDS: I’ve been really blessed with work, and I’m so appreciative of the opportunity to narrate, but also, as you said, the breadth. And I love that about this work and that producers and publishers allow me to do it. Some people get in a niche. And though most of the time the books I do are by Black authors or have a Black subject or are about Black life, within that, they can be about anything and anybody, and that just delights me. Especially in the last year or so, we’ve had so much racial unrest and all the rest of it, so I do all this social commentary, and I need Marvey after that! I’m like, “I need a woman, a few dead bodies, and the library system!”

And I will out myself in that, going back to your conversation about people feeling they gotta apologize, I am an old school romance lover. I’m a big Nora Roberts fan, have been for years. And January LaVoy has voiced a lot of her books, and Julia Whelan. A good Nora Roberts helps me a lot. And I love Molly Harper. She does this whole werewolf romance, that whole genre; Amanda Ronconi does those for her. And they’re just fun. And I mean, because I do this for a living, I love to read, but because I read all the time for this, it generally needs to be lighter for me. And I do love a good Simon Vance.

I do love how much you both talked about the joy and fun that you find when reading. We can learn so much through these characters in these places in these books, but it all comes back to the fact that it’s enjoyable. It’s a fun thing, and how lucky are we that it’s part of our daily lives?

OLIVIA MATTHEWS: Absolutely.

This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Dreamscape Media. One more thank you to author Olivia Matthews and narrator Janina Edwards. Murder By Page One is available now in both print and on audio. Happy reading!

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