Valerie Gilbert is a native New Yorker and Harvard graduate. The author of four comedic memoir-ish books on philosophy, mysticism and personal growth, and the narrator of 119 audio books, she has performed and written one woman shows, competed in storytelling events, and done stand up comedy.
How did you get started narrating audiobooks?
I’m a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG/AFTRA) in New York City and they held a seminar about the audiobook industry. I didn’t expect to be riveted, however I was immediately jazzed by the presentation by a producer from Audible, and two star performers. I knew immediately that not only could I do this work, but that I really wanted to. The next trick was to learn how to break in. I was thrilled to learn that all in attendance got an audition at Audible headquarters in Newark, and after my audition that very same producer said, “You’re terrific, why aren’t you doing this already? I’ll definitely use you.” But he never hired me.
The SAG seminar outlined how to set up your own home studio and record yourself, something I did not think I was up to, even though I took studious notes. The process is very technical and involves audio engineering, mastering audio levels, a digital audio workstation, and recording software.
In desperation for some work, and since I had already recorded the first book I wrote, Raving Violet, on my laptop (at the suggestion of my publisher), I kicked out a stream of “devil may care” auditions on my laptop. After many (many) rejections, I booked a job from that very first batch of auditions. I was incredibly excited, and very scared. Now I had to learn how to do the work right!
I figured it out on my own, with help from telephone tech support from the various companies whose products I was using. It was a very steep learning curve, and I was stressed beyond belief, particularly because I continued to book job after job. I quickly became a very popular narrator. That being said, the quality of the work I’m producing now, four and a half years later, is vastly better than what I was capable of when I started. But you have to start somewhere. I went back and re-recorded Raving Violet years later with my new sound system and studio. There was no comparison in quality. It was a great relief to be able to go back and do that.
What is your favorite genre to narrate? Does that match your personal preferences of what you like to read by yourself?
I read exclusively about spirituality, metaphysics and personal growth. It’s also what I write about in my four books, starting with Raving Violet. My books are in short story, memoir-ish format with heavy doses of humor. I haven’t found anything quite like that to audition for, or to read, for that matter. My style of writing is unique.
Many of the books up for audition are romance and thrillers. I don’t like hardcore sex or violence, so the trick is for me to find author’s material, voices and sensibilities that I relate to. I’ve had really good relationships with 95% of my authors. It’s a partnership of sorts, even though the production is all in my hands.
While I don’t read romance, I have enjoyed recording some fluffy ones, since they were so out of the norm for me. I don’t have a favorite genre, but if something is funny, intelligently written, or has a truly engaging story, that’s a huge plus. I enjoy narrating non-fiction, as it is straightforward to narrate. If a book has a million characters and tons of dialogue, it’s a turn-off for me. The books I’m drawn to are based on chemistry between an author’s voice and my own. I can usually feel the simpatico when I audition. Sometimes books offered to me are a surprise in that I had no idea I would relate so well to the material.
I have reviewed the first three books in Hope Callaghan’s Made in Savannah series and feel that you do a lot to bring the books to life. What is the trick to doing so?
These books are a perfect example of chemistry! I loved those books. They were fun, light, easy and breezy. When you’re working on something you enjoy so much, it’s truly no work at all. I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Carlita and Mercedes, mother and daughter in the books. They were good women who love to eat, to be together, and who have a devil-may-care sense of adventure. My mother and I were very close when she was alive, so I lived vicariously through both women. When you like the characters that much, bringing them to life is sheer pleasure.
How do you select what voices to use for any given character?
It’s intuitive. I usually have a “read” on a character right away.
How do you prepare in advance to narrate your audiobooks?
Most of my work is intuitive. So, while I read the book in advance, the magic still comes out in the moment. As an actor, you have to trust your instincts.
You have written four of your own books, which you have also narrated, on topics related to mysticism. What inspired you to write these books?
I have been a mystic my entire life. My parents raised me as a Theosophist. I don’t ascribe to any creed these days, but appreciate the Theosophical perspective. I was taught about reincarnation and karma, and that all of Creation is Conscious, Connected, and Sacred. I firmly believe that, and it is the basis of The Golden Rule. I’ve always been passionate about understanding life, whether it’s psychology, philosophy, or metaphysics. Drama is also a great way to understand the mechanics of the human being.
You do an excellent job with your accents, moving easily between a Queens, NY accent and the Southern accent from Savannah, Georgia. How did you get so adept at handling accents?
You either have an ear for accents and dialects, or you don’t. I’ve had a facility for imitation since youth. Since I excel at character work as an actress, the vocal inflections are an inherent expression of what make someone unique.
Do you think an audiobook narrator needs to enjoy the book she or he is performing? Could you make a book you truly hated seem likeable to an audience?
It’s imperative to like your work, whether it’s a 9-5 or an audio book. If I don’t like the audition material, I don’t audition. It’s really important to follow your intuition in life. This goes for people you don’t like. Trust your feelings. Trust your instincts. When you say yes to things and people you don’t like, you cut yourself off from the opportunity to be with ones that you would have fun with. Whatever you’re willing to put up with in life is exactly what you’ll get. This is the type of topic I write about.
I’ve recorded a handful of books that turned out to be worse than I thought (plodding, boring, silly). I’m amazed that some people still liked those books. You give it your best because you have to. On the other hand, people have not liked books that I adored recording. So, all I can do is select work that makes me happy, since I can’t control people’s reactions to my work, or my choices in life. Right? You have to live for yourself.
What is your favorite part of narrating audiobooks?
I love the autonomy. The fact that I work from home, on my own schedule and get to create unique worlds. I love the fact that I edit, master, direct and produce my own work. These were “boy skills” in my mind (though there are more women now in the industry as editors, producers, etc.) To go from thinking, “no way I can learn that!” to saying “I do it all,” gives me a great feeling of accomplishment. When you’re an actor there is so much that seems out of your grasp (getting good material, getting the job). As an author, I create my own work. As an audio book narrator with her own studio, I also create my own work. It’s gratifying and satisfying.
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