Valerie is a native New Yorker raised a Theosophist. Her dramatic flair has encompassed singing, tap dancing, competing in storytelling gigs, and writing and performing her own solo shows. This led to the publication of Raving Violet, the first of her three books, with a fourth, Brilliance Brewing, releasing in 2017. Valerie is an audio book narrator for her own three titles, and for many other authors.
I asked her about it, and this is her story:
“I was invited last minute by a theatre friend to record a song with some Peter guy the following day. I needed to get out of the house, so I said yes. It was only after I rsvp’d that the name started to ring a bell. Peter Yarrow. I looked him up, and holy moly, he’s the Peter, Paul and Mary guy! We recorded at Avatar studios in NYC. It was a large group singing backup to his daughter Bethany (pre-recorded) and a lot of fun. “Lift Us Up” is a peace song, a call to action, and I assumed (given Peter’s peacenik history) it was for my candidate, Green Party nominee, Dr. Jill Stein.
To my great surprise, Yarrow is an HRC fan. To each their own. It was a fun night.”
Interview with Valerie Gilbert
Karen: How did you get into audio book narrating?
Valerie: My union, the Screen Actor’s Guild (now SAG/AFTRA) offers many seminars on how to advance yourself within the industry. I signed up for a talk on audio book narration, though it sounded dull to me. But it was free. I was really dragging my heels, and was even a few minutes late. When I got there, the room was packed, but I got one seat in front of the room, in front of the producer from Audible and two of Audible’s star narrators. I was immediately riveted.
That night they were really encouraging us to set up home studios and record on our own. Scott Brick, the male narrator, discussed equipment, as did the producer. It was very technical and daunting, and I was convinced it was beyond my ken. Audio engineering was “boy terrain” in my mind, all those sound waves and frequencies and decibels and equalizers.
Everyone in the seminar that night was offered an audition at Audible HQ in Newark, NJ. That’s all I needed. My in! After my audition, the producer said, “You’re great! Why aren’t you doing this already? I’m definitely going to use you. I don’t have anything now, but I will.”
I left on cloud 9, convinced I had a job. He even told me the rate I would start at. Well, he never hired me, and I was truly crushed. But I kept getting audition notices from his company, ACX, which is owned by Audible and Amazon, to produce books on my own.
In a fit of unemployed desperation one day, I kicked out 12 crappy auditions on my laptop. No studio. No technical skills. Just the most basic understanding of how to record an audio file.
As I kicked out the auditions, I started picking up speed. I started finding my pace, enjoying myself, and that’s the gold. I played with characters, enjoying the drama. I sent the auditions off, barely edited, and with sub-par sound quality.
The rejections poured in. Understandably. I got email after email, and knew they were yet more rejections. I glanced at another rejection but had to re-read it. It was a job offer! The woman who first hired me adored my passion, enthusiasm and vocal flair. I’m a character actress, and I nailed her characters. Her previous narrator may have had better sound quality, but her performance was flat. This author hired me for five books. That was my start.
The rate was $50 per finished hour, which sounded like a million bucks to me at the time (Now it’s chump change, for it takes many hours to produce one “finished” hour. It’s like saying the movie Gone with the Wind is 3 hours. I’ll give you $150.) The work is incredibly labor intensive and not for the faint of heart. But I’m good at it, I enjoy it, and now I’m a bonafide editor and audio engineer, as well as performer, and all self-taught. It was a steep learning curve, and I sweated every minute, but I persevered.
Interestingly, years ago I worked for HarperCollins publishers, and when I learned they had an in house audio book department, I eagerly offered my services as a performer. I introduced myself to the engineer, and he coldly rebuffed me, saying he had his talent already. I walked by his audio booth frequently, wistful. Years later, here I am.
Karen: What process do you use? Do you read the whole book first?
Valerie: I review the book to get an overview. Even if you read a book word for word, it’s not memorized, so reading it again word for word in performance is still a cold reading. You have to be able to take in word flow and comprehend meaning lightning fast. I have that ability.
Karen: What kinds of characters are the hardest for you to do? The most fun?
Valerie: I’m pretty flexible. I love funny characters, those with flair and flourish, and I’m also good with snark and deep emotion. Not sure there’s a hardest for me. I have a wide vocal range as a singer, great dialects, and a good sense of timing and humor. That all comes into play when bringing a book to life.
Karen: Tell us a bit about your other acting and theater experiences.
Valerie: I’ve been on stage since I was a kid and done plays, musicals, comedies, stand-up comedy and one woman shows (written by me). I really wanted to make it in film. I never expected success in the field of audio books, or as an author. I will be playing assorted character roles in the Gotham Radio Theatre production of Auntie Mame at the Lincoln Center Library in NYC this fall. It’s a stage show in the format of the old time radio shows, and I’ve performed with this group several times before: Blithe Spirt, Fallen Angels, Holiday, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.
Karen: You are a writer, too. What do you write?
Valerie: My writing and performance pieces are all very personal. I’m a mystic, and am passionate about spirituality and personal growth. My stories are funny, poignant and provocative. I’m an essayist, I suppose. My memoirs are not traditional; each chapter has its own flavor, though one story leads to the next, and you certainly get a sense of me and what I’ve been through in life (lots of death and loss, and the resilience to forge a new solo life).
As with audio book narration, which I hadn’t actively sought out, the doors pretty much flew open for me in terms of being published. I wanted to be a star of stage and screen, not an audio book narrator and author, but I’m very proud of my accomplishments. My first book is Raving Violet, the second is Memories, Dreams & Deflections: My Odyssey Through Emotional Indigestion, and Swami Soup. My fourth, Brilliance Brewing: A Meditation On Change, will be out next year. There was a natural progression from writing down true stories I told in my one-woman shows, stand-up comedy, and storytelling events I competed in, to putting them on paper.
For more information about Valerie or to connect with her, check out these sites:
The audio version of Trailer on the Fly is available on Audible.com and Amazon; it should be up on iTunes soon. You can listen to a sample of Valerie's narration at either of the above sites. If you are interested in receiving a gift copy of the whole audio version and posting an honest review, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
And if I ever get to meet Valerie, I think I'll ask her to teach me to tap dance.