Q&A: Sophie Littlefield & Emily Woo Zeller

Sophie Littlefield’s Garden of Stones tells the story of 14-year-old Lucy Takeda and her mother, Miyako, Los Angeles residents who are rounded up after Pearl Harbor and sent to the Manzanar internment camp with thousands of other Americans of Japanese ancestry. “I was traveling in the California desert with a friend when she casually mentioned learning about Manzanar while in grade school in California,” says Littlefield, adding, “I’d never learned about internment and found the subject both fascinating and horrifying—perfect fodder for fiction.” Here, the author (l.) interviews the narrator of Garden of Stones, Emily Woo Zeller.

SL: You’re a dancer in addition to being a voice artist. I always think of dancers as slight and [narrators having] prodigious voices and big solid frames to support outsize lungs. Have you done any voice training?

EWZ: I have done vocal training, both as a singer and as an actor. It helps that I come from a movement background because the instrument is the body and having the practice of cultivating physical awareness helps with the emoting and grounding necessary in voice-over work. I have a medium frame, not sure if that makes much of a difference for me!

You also did the audiobook for Kimi Cunningham Grant’s Silver Like Dust, a nonfiction account of Japanese internment. What was it like to work on two different stories about the same troubling era?

While the subject is certainly troubling, I appreciate that there is literature about Japanese internment (and fiction, no less!), which is hopefully an indication of a general movement beyond awareness and toward processing of the sad state of affairs that was Japanese internment in California during World War II. This was actually the third work of fiction that I’ve narrated on the subject. The second was a young adult novel called Journey Home by Yoshiko Uchida.

What was the greatest challenge in working on Garden of Stones?

The darkness of the subject matter was the greatest challenge, but that’s certainly not a bad thing! It’s like going to watch a great film that might leave you a bit somber because of its rough subject matter but the ride was so good, it was worth it!

I’m amazed at how well you do male voices, especially adolescents, in some of your fiction projects including the voice of Jesse Katonada in Garden of Stones. I would think that would be the biggest challenge for an adult woman. How do you prepare to “be” characters so different from yourself?

Practice. My first recording jobs were dubbing for anime television and film in Hong Kong. There are a lot of teenage characters in anime, and women are almost always asked to voice males under the age of 15.

How has the audiobook boom affected your job? Are there more projects to choose among?

It’s wonderful. Yes, there are more projects available. Narrating is certainly not for everyone, but, boy, do I love it, and I am very happy to keep doing it. There are also more narrators, which means perhaps more competition but certainly more variety in style and possibilities for the industry as a whole.

Your projects range from mystery to a collection of sex diaries to a “field guide to subversive spirits.” Is your own reading taste just as diverse?

Yes. A well-written book is worth the reading, no matter what the genre!

Forgive my fangirl moment, but—Mary Roach’s Gulp! Was working on that a lot of fun?

Oh, my goodness, yes. Her writing is highly digestible, forgive the pun, and accessible. It was incredibly interesting and the is humor right up my alley. Very fun to read!