Creativity is contagious. It’s one of the best things about the indie creator community—how it empowers artists to try new mediums, following what inspires them. The roles here aren’t restrictive, nobody has to “stay in their lane,” and once you get the storytelling bug, there’s no limit to the ways you can go about telling yours.
Meet Joe Arden—one of the industry’s most prolific narrators of romance & erotica. He’s won every major industry award for his smoky baritone voice and this week, he adds romance writer to his impressive list of achievements with The Chameleon Effect. Arden’s first solo project as an author debuted on Audible September 13th to rave listener reviews, proving that in this industry, there’s no need to limit yourself to one forte. We caught up with Joe just before his big audiobook release to talk inspiration, writing as a narrator, and what it means to write romance from a male perspective.
Appropriately, Joe even offered to narrate his answers for us so you can listen along! Enjoy!
First, can you tell us a little about the book? What’s it about?
The Chameleon Effect is a male-POV rom-com about love, lies and Los Angeles. The story follows a young actor, Will O’Connell, who can’t seem to catch a break in Hollywood. After lamenting that all the “good roles” are going to overseas actors, he decides to pretend he’s one of those impressive foreign talents at his next audition.
Much to his surprise, this scheme takes off, his career along with it! But when he meets Raven Locke, he gets caught in a web of feelings and deceptions that become more than young “Liam” can handle.
Where did the inspiration come from?
If I’m being honest, Will’s transformation into the Irish Liam O’Connell is something I’ve fantasized about during my own trials as an aspiring actor. And the beauty of storytelling is that you can do whatever you’re brave enough to let these characters do! So, what was only wishful thinking in my own life has become very real for this fictional character. And what fun it has been to imagine his whole journey!
What made you decide to try your hand at writing? Did you have a story in mind you wanted to tell?
Having narrated over 500 romance novels in a relatively short period of time, I felt uniquely qualified to put my own spin on the form. I feel like I have a pretty firm understanding of the structure of a romance novel.
I wouldn’t say that I had a story in mind before I started writing, but I did return over and over again to one question that acted as guiding principle for my writing process: “Why am I telling this story?” Basically, tons of wonderful writers are out there telling amazing stories, so if I was going to attempt to infiltrate that space, I knew I had to do it authentically. So, as a man with a secret identity, I found myself telling the story of what happens to someone’s own sense of self when he deliberately dons a mask.
A secret identity romance written, quite suitably, by a man with a secret identity.
This might seem like a rather impertinent question, but how did you know you could do it—write a novel, that is?
I did not know that I could do it. But I knew that it wouldn’t get finished if I didn’t at least get started. Once the first few chapters came, then it was a matter of staying disciplined enough to keep grinding out pages. Eventually, I hired an editor, the wonderful Rebecca Hodgkins, and got on her schedule. Once I had a deadline and I was accountable to another human being, I locked in enough to get it finished.
Did you have a writing practice before starting this book—journaling, letter-writing, etc.?
I co-wrote another rom-com, How To Get Lucky, with New York Times bestselling author Lauren Blakely in early 2021. She was wonderful to work with and taught me a great deal. Lauren impressed upon me the importance of scheduling. She also showed me how I could thoughtfully revise my work to add greater clarity and specificity to scenes.
To your question about my background with writing, well, my mother was a prolific letter writer. She was very big on hand-written thank you notes, so I do probably write more letters than most people. My brother is currently serving overseas and I love to write him letters. There’s something special about receiving a piece of physical mail. It hits different than an email or a social media post, even if the content is identical.
As to what my writing process is…Lock myself in a room and pace around until words end up on a page seems to be the way for me.
How did you get started?
The prologue came to me one night and those first 800 words poured onto the page. Nine months later, I finished my first draft.
This story takes place in Los Angeles, my hometown. Setting this book in the city where I was born and raised was really important to me. That gets back to that idea of telling a story that I, specifically, am qualified to tell. I know LA. I love LA. And that should be very apparent when you read this book. I name drop so many of my favorite spots. My secret hope is that some fans of this story will visit some of the places that Liam and Raven frequent!
How did your work as a narrator, particularly a romance narrator, shape your writing of this book? How did it inform your writing?
One of the epiphanies I had while writing this book is that the romance genre isn’t simply about telling stories with happily ever afters. It’s also about creating compelling, believable worlds that unapologetically make us feel good. So this genre gives me permission not simply to tell a love story, but to create a world full of love.
I wanted Will to live amongst people that love and support him. Folks that are invested in his happiness and care about his success. So he has friends and family in this book that provide that for him. And I gotta say, it felt damn good to write those moments.
Did you write with audio in mind?
Oh, absolutely. This book was written to be read aloud. Simple as that. And to your previous question, my background in narration was instrumental in shaping some of that stylistically. For example, there is not a lot of texting in this book. Why? Because text messages are SO DIFFICULT to narrate. Because it’s not actually the characters speaking to each other. It’s actually one of the characters reading in his/her head the words of the other person. So when you’re narrating that, you want to give a hint of the person’s voice, but you don’t really have permission to fully commit to the emotion behind the words because no one reads a text in their head with the full-out emotional delivery that the sender may have intended. That’s just weird.
So whenever possible I would force characters into space together to actually speak to each other. In one spicy scene, they do use their phones, but they allow technology to create a, let’s say, more intimate space…
Why did you choose to narrate it yourself?
In answering that initial question about why I was writing this story, I knew part of the answer needed to be so that I could TELL the story. To that end, I’ve created a world that allows me to highlight some of the things my fans have celebrated in my work in the past. Namely, this book has lots of fun accents and an adorable young child, all of which I get to voice.
That said, I want to give a huge shout out to Maxine Mitchell who has a cameo appearance in this book. Though I tried to always view this story through William’s lens, I found myself needing to hear from Raven on occasion. So I wrote a series of short interludes from her perspective and I knew it was critical to find a grounded, confident performer to bring her words to life. That’s Maxine. And she nailed it.
What was it like reading your own words for the first time instead of someone else’s?
Joyous. Surprising. Hyper-Critical.
There were moments when I was recording when I felt in total control. I knew this story better than any that I have ever performed before, so my timing, my flow, felt dialed in. But in other ways, interestingly, I found myself having to go back and re-record sections because I would become overly critical of the writing or notice something about my phrasing or word choice that needed authorial attention and so that part of my brain would kick in and take me out of the storytelling mode.
I took a month off after final revisions of the story before I narrated it because I wanted to be able to approach it solely from that narrator/raconteur vantage point, and I think that served the performance really well overall. In addition, it had the added bonus of creating a few moments of surprise for me when I would come across a sentence or phrase or paragraph that I really liked and then I’d think to myself, ‘damn, that’s good. I can’t believe I wrote that.’
I know you have a wide net of author relationships from all the narration work you’ve done—did you consult any authors you’d worked with in the past about writing, editing, or promotion?
I have often said that the audiobook narrator community is the most supportive and inclusive group of artistic professionals I have ever encountered. They are now in stiff competition with Indie Romance authors for that title. I have been simply overwhelmed by the amount of time, energy and resources that some extremely high-profile authors have shared.
I cannot say this enough: I am a man in a space dominated by powerful, dynamic, fearless women, and I am so grateful that they have made space for me. I’m so freakin’ lucky.
I’m also so curious about what it’s like as a male author writing in the romance space—to my knowledge, many, if not most, of the romance writers out there are women, which makes you unique! Were you thinking about that at all as you were writing, and do you think it impacted your process at all? Is there a different/interesting perspective you think that brings to the book?
Well, my previous answer segues quite seamlessly into this question (go us!).
The fact that I am a man writing in a predominantly female arena was definitely on my mind. And frankly, it’s one of the reasons I wrote a male POV book. Because I wanted to start from a place of strength. Write what I know. In addition, I gave myself permission to write my main hero (and the other men in this story) with as much emotional depth as I share with my friends. I think often there is this notion that men are guarded all the time or that they bury their feelings. Or perhaps, that for a man to be sexy, he must be mysterious.
And while I certainly know some men like that, I also know others… very attractive, very powerful men, who navigate life with an emotional vulnerability that I think gets underrepresented in the romance space. I gave my hero permission to feel his feelings. And to be unafraid to express them. And I think that’s sexy.
Is this the first of more books to come from you as an author?
This has been an extremely gratifying (and exhausting) process…
Ask me again in a few months!