Spoken Word

You’ve likely listened to your voice on a recording and thought, “I didn’t know I sound like that!” It’s a bit strange, and unsettling.

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Voice-over actor Violet Phillips

I recently learned that it’s equally strange to hear someone else’s voice reading words I’ve written. Strange in a good way, though, especially when the voice belongs to professional narrator, Violet Phillips.

I first heard Violet’s voice on an audition tape forwarded to me by Homebound Publications. stack of books (1)Violet was one of the four finalists in the press’s search for a narrator for my memoir, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance. My job was to listen to all four tapes and choose the reader I wanted to record the audiobook.

When I learned that Homebound planned to produce an audio version of Hiking Naked, people asked if I’d do the voice myself. While I’ve read short excerpts from the memoir many times at author events, I suspected recording the entire manuscript required skills I don’t have. I’ve also been interviewed for radio programs, and I know for that medium, microphones and soundproof rooms are best. Although I have a home office ideal for writing, it doesn’t include recording equipment, and it’s in no way soundproof.

All the narrator candidates had strong, professional reading voices. With two, I detected slight southern accents. Although I grew up in southern Illinois and Indiana, if I have any accent, it’s a bit of the nasal tone of my birthplace of Chicago; hearing my words with a bit of a drawl didn’t sound right to me.

Ultimately, there was something about Violet’s straightforward, warm voice that resonated for me. And then, there was her first name.

violet crayon

I couldn’t resist hearing “Violet” read “Iris.” I notified publisher Leslie Browning that Violet was my choice.

I was surprised—and delighted—that Violet asked to talk with me before she began recording. Prior to our phone conversation, we each made lists of words and place names that might need pronunciation clarification. After comparing notes, Violet offered her perceptions about some of the characters. She was right on.

Since then, I’ve learned a bit more about why she’s such a skilled narrator. Violet grew up in New Jersey and earned a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She began working as a writer and editor, focusing on health care, and was an editor at Rodale Press. Now, she’s a voice-over actor, a writer, and a creative director. Violet has been doing corporate voice work for the past 10 years, voicing all types of videos, instructional pieces, industrial assignments, and audiobooks (including mine and How to Be a Healthy Vegetarian).

Once the recording was completed, I wanted to know more about this art form. The following interview with Violet takes you behind-the-scenes of an audiobook.

Iris Graville: You told me you’ve been doing “voice work” for some time. I’d like to hear more about what that involves and what drew you to it.

Violet Phillips: Voice work is interesting because either it’s something people come to, say, with being on the radio, or people are told they have a beautiful voice. I was told that by an actor about fifteen years ago, so I just started exploring it, taking classes, and working with a coach. I worked in an advertising agency and did a lot of videos as well as hiring voice talent and auditioning people. I really began to understand how it works from the other side of the glass [of the recording studio].  

 IG: When did you start narrating books?

 VP: This was the first project like this I’ve done. My voice teacher encouraged me to audition. I loved your book so much, and I really wanted to do it. So when the email offer came in from Leslie [Browning, publisher], I was sitting at my desk just beaming.

IG: I did the same when I listened to your audition tape! How do you find out about narration opportunities?

VP: Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACEX) is a clearinghouse for people to have audiobooks produced. It’s also a place where narrators get work–all books are posted there for narrators to search. The staff at ACEX are very helpful about how to make it work. ACEX is owned by Amazon, but now there are also producers of audiobooks who are responsible for the whole production. And some large presses have their own production companies.

 IG: Please describe the process of recording a book.

 VP: A voice actor I know describes it as the “marathon” of voice-over work. There are many components to it. First, there’s prep work with the audiobook—I had to read the book, then I had to work on pronunciation of place names and figure out the characters. The actual recording requires a lot of concentration and time. There’s pacing involved, because your voice gets tired. Your book had a lot of variety for me as a narrator and a wonderful sense of purpose. I worked with an audio engineer, so I went to a studio he works in, and we recorded there.

 IG: What are some of the challenges of recording books?

VP: A lot of things happen when you’re reading. You may have to stop and correct something, take a break. So many cognitive and physical things are going on at the same time.

 IG: And the rewards?

VP: When the book is complete and I’ve worked on all these different aspects, it’s like I’ve been on a big storytelling adventure. To be that voice that’s in the room or the car with someone is very rewarding. And there are long-lasting rewards, too, because people could be listening to this book years from now. It’s very personal, and it’s delightful to be in that close of a position with people listening.

IG: I’m delighted with your voice narrating my memoir, Violet. Thank you for auditioning and then doing the work to record the book.

VP: You’re welcome! It’s a wonderful art form, almost like producing a film or a play. I love the idea the voice is helping to sustain a story. All of my teachers, coaches, and sound engineers talk about how the sound and the voice do something that very few other things can—they create a vibration in someone’s body that can directly influence their feelings. I think sound is fascinating because this is a human being reading to you, and what is lovelier than that? Voice is connecting, is bringing humanity to people.

IG: What’s next for you with voice work?

VP: I’m finishing another audiobook!

I imagine there will be more of those in Violet’s future.

You can decide for yourself if Violet was the right choice for narration of Hiking Naked by adding the audiobook to your favorite device (you can even listen to a sample if you follow the link). I know I couldn’t be happier that she’s the one who spoke my words.

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O Christmas Branch!

Holidays tend to stimulate memories of past years, and mine often turn to the two years we lived in Stehekin, WA. Last December I posted an excerpt from my memoir, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, about our first Stehekin Christmas.

Stehekin, WA 1994; l-r: Rachel, Iris, Jerry, Matthew. Murphy in front.

This year, as I decorated our “Christmas branch,” I thought back to that Stehekin Christmas again and the “adventure” of finding a holiday tree. The following excerpt from Hiking Naked (and some grainy photos from our Stehekin album) tell the tale.

~   ~   ~   ~

The same fluctuating temperatures that had caused the roof-alanche earlier in the month challenged our hunt for a pine to cut for our Christmas tree. I thought

back to years when the kids were little, squeezing between rows of stacked, compressed Douglas firs, blue spruces, and white pines in the lot at Seattle’s “Chubby and Tubby’s” hardware store on four-lane Aurora Avenue. This year, a hike through pristine, unplowed snow in a mountain valley just minutes from our home sounded blissful.

My vision of the tree search derived from watching too many Walt Disney films and episodes of Little House on the Prairie rather than the reality of propelling our knees and thighs through a mile of three-foot snow drifts coated with a layer of ice, the winter air chapping our cheeks. Sweat seeped from under my wool cap as I huffed to the first tree I came to.

“How about this one, guys?”

j m rJerry and the kids trudged yards ahead of me, pausing at a tree, rejecting it, and moving on to another.

“No,” Jerry shouted back over his shoulder, “I see some better ones up ahead.”

“But what’s wrong with this one?” I called out.

“Over here,” Matt said.

Just as I caught up with the three of them, I heard Jerry say, “It’s pretty, but I think it’s too big for the living room. Let’s keep looking.”

“What about the one we just passed?” Rachel asked. “It was nice and round.” Her rosy cheeks were coated with sweat, and every time she took a step I could see the marks of melted snow on her pants.

“Let’s just go a little further,” Jerry said. “I like trees that aren’t so bushy. It looks like there are some good ones not too far ahead.”

“Just remember, once we cut it, we have to haul it out,” I said.

“Dad, I’m getting tired,” Matt said.

“Come on,” Jerry said, “where’s your sense of adventure?”

“Da-a-ad,” the kids said in unison.

“Okay, okay. How about this one?”

“Great!” I shouted.

“Perfect,” said Rachel as Jerry took the first swing with his axe.

SuburbanThe trudge back to the Suburban was slower going than the way in as we jockeyed for handholds on the tree trunk and dragged it over the snow. “I never realized we had such different preferences for Christmas trees,” I said. “This one’s pretty, but I think I would have been just as happy with the one we saw when we first got here.”

“But that wouldn’t have made nearly as good a story, would it?” Jerry said.

Later, revived by warm showers, dry clothes, and mugs of steaming hot chocolate topped with whipped cream, we adorned our fresh tree with the ornaments and a string of lights I’d pulled out of storage. Finally, I was able to take in the splendor of the day and the satisfaction of the hard work we’d shared.

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The next morning, Matt and I woke up before Rachel and Jerry to find another foot of fresh snow. I hadn’t imagined the quiet could become even quieter, but all sounds were muffled as gray clouds continued to dump fresh powder. I lit candles, Matt turned on the Christmas tree lights, and we slid a cd of Christmas music into the boom box. This was exactly what I’d hoped for in this season usually frantic with buying and consuming.

Hiking Naked Final CoverFor the rest of the Stehekin story, you can buy the memoir in paperback (wherever books are sold) or as an e-book or audio.

~   ~   ~   ~

When we moved to Lopez Island after leaving Stehekin twenty-two years ago, we bought a beautiful fir tree from the local Pony Club for our first Christmas here. We continued that tradition for many years until the kids left home. Then, we’d often join them somewhere for the holidays, and it just didn’t make sense to buy a fresh tree, decorate it, go away, and return home to drooping branches and piles of dried needles on the floor.

branch daylight

Now, the Christmas branch, a piece of driftwood scavenged from a Lopez beach, works just fine with its twinkling, white lights and a few favorite ornaments.

And when I yearn for the full effect of hearty firs and cedars lit with bright colors, I make my way to my neighbors’ forest – O Christmas trees!


89 Names – Book Review

In my memoir, Hiking Naked , I write about how I turned to theologian Matthew Fox’s writings when I was in turmoil about the work I was meant to do. Fox’s book, The Reinvention of Work, spoke to me during some of my most uncertain times. “Work comes from inside out; work is the expression of our soul, our inner being. It is unique to the individual; it is creative. Work is an expression of the Spirit at work in the world through us.” I still intermittently refer to my worn, annotated copy of his book.

bookNow, I have another of his books, Naming the Unnameable—89 Wonderful and Useful Names for God…Including the Unnameable God. It’s already starting to show some of the telltale signs of a well-loved book.

Just released by Homebound Publications, Fox’s new book is one of the most recent by the independent press’s imprint, Little Bound Books . Fox drew on his expansive knowledge of sacred scriptures, the mystics, and science throughout history and from around the globe (such as Meister Eckhart, Aquinas, Deepak Chopra, the Bible, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Berry, and Hildegard of Bingen to name just a few) to identify “80 Names for God” and “9 Names for the God Without a Name.” At just under 150 pages (excluding the End Notes and Appendix), the 5-by-7 inch soft cover, with just one or two pages to define each name, is the perfect companion during my morning time of silence.

Undoubtedly, there are many readers who, like me, struggle to find the word or words that adequately describe our experiences of God. And I know I’m not alone in believing that the word “God” carries too much baggage­—it’s both too limiting and too varied to speak to everyone. In Fox’s introduction, “God Has a Trillion Faces,” he asks who he, or any of us, are, to choose only 89. “Well, first of all,” he writes, “this book is unfinished.” And that’s why he’s included blank pages at the end of each section so, “you may add our own most wonderful and useful names for God.”

Fox further invites readers to interact with the book with “practices” for each part. For example, for the 80 names described in the first part, he suggests that readers “pick out ten that are most meaningful and useful to you personally at this time in your journey” and then to reflect and journal about them. He also recommends, “pick out ten that you feel are most meaningful and useful to culture at large today” and to consider how culture would change if people were to experience God this way. Deepak Chopra succinctly summarized the book’s value this way: “Matthew Fox elegantly offers a contemplative practice that transforms the names of God to the experience of God.”

As a Quaker, I had no trouble relating to #33 God is Light. Fox claims, “it is one of the most universal names for God,” with references from science, the Bible, mystics, and many religions. Numerous other names were equally familiar to me including: Spirit, Breath, Joy, Wisdom, Beauty, and The Great Mystery. Others, though, open me to new understandings: Greening Power, the Artist of Artists, The Beyond, The Form Without Form, and The Newest and Youngest Thing in the Universe.

Fox_Feature-ImageIn a profile by Theodore Richards in The Wayfarer Magazine , Fox admits Naming the Unnameable, “…may be my most radical book I’ve written.” That’s quite a statement from this author of 35 books. His definitions and practices make the book reader-friendly, but its radicalness shines through. “I’m trying to set off fireworks in people’s minds about how wonderfully alive our language could be for divinity… I’m hoping that this book penetrates and opens up people’s hearts, minds, and consciousness to new meanings, which are based on experiences of the divine, not some kind of frozen dogmas about who God is and isn’t.”

Naming the Unnameable is available online here as well as everywhere books are sold. With those blank pages Fox leaves for us to add our own most wonderful and useful names, perhaps there will be a second volume in the future.

Wildfire Season


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Lopez Island, WA ferry landing, August 2018


Smoke from wildfires throughout the western U.S. and Canada has curtained my community for nearly two weeks. We know what to do with the gray in this marine climate, but air that constantly smells like campfires and vistas engulfed in haze leave us off-kilter. And coughing. Though there’s a visual beauty to the smoke’s effect on the atmosphere, I know from personal experience the terror of wildfires for people working and living in their midst, as well as for those fighting the blazes.

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Stehekin Landing, August 2018



The first summer my family and I spent in Stehekin, WA during our two-year sojourn there, fire surrounded the community. With the exception of a few days, wildfire smoke permeated every pristine inch of the valley nestled in the North Cascades all season. A recent photo from my friend and fellow writer, Ana Maria Spagna, shows a repeat of what we experienced in 1994. Thankfully, fires creating this smoke don’t threaten Stehekin, but they’ve become the summertime norm in recent years.

I learned in Stehekin just how complex fire prevention and management are. And there’s no doubt in my mind that our changing climate further complicates actions to protect homes and businesses, wildlife and people, air quality, and fragile ecosystems.

We were safe from harm in 1994, and we’re safe now, but my distress about fire devastation remains. My thoughts have returned often to wildfire season in Stehekin, and I’ve included an excerpt from my memoir that describes it.

hn coverExcerpt from  Hiking Naked – A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, Chapter 9, “Wildfire Season”

Wildfire season arrived in the North Cascades after a two-week run of rainless, one-hundred-degree days and lightning strikes in the nearby Okanogan National Forest. The blazes dropped a thick, dingy curtain on the shoreline, but despite the haze and smoldering campfire smell, the Lady of the Lake kept sailing. Her crew brought news that a crack of lightning can change lives—ski slopes in Leavenworth in blazes, and three hundred people evacuated from the town of Chelan.

The thunder and lightning storms of my Midwest upbringing must have immunized me from fear when lightning cracked in ridges above the Stehekin Valley, because I wasn’t aware that we in Stehekin were in danger until a community meeting on July 29.

This was our first meeting with Alan Hoffmeister, one of the many specialists from the National Park Service who would come to Stehekin to try to outmaneuver the fires. Alan looked over the faces in the crowd, his index finger steadily pointing to four darkened areas on a map. “Although the fires are several miles away,” he said, “they’ve already encompassed a thousand acres and are burning erratically.”

He predicted pines and firs, parched from diminished snow melt and eight years of drought, might burst into flame and roll down dehydrated ridges, spreading the firestorm into the Boulder Creek drainage area just a mile northwest of us. “If necessary, fire crews and equipment will be brought to Stehekin by boat or air. We’re doing everything possible to stop the fires.”

Then Alan suggested that, even though evacuation was unlikely, we should begin thinking about it. Nervous laughter floated through the cramped room as he encouraged us each to pack a single bag weighing no more than seventy-five pounds. I searched the faces of the long-time Stehekinites in the crowd, trying to read their expressions. Were they worried? Scared?

“These fires are more fierce than at any time ever in this region,” Alan said. “You might have as little as fifteen minutes to catch a boat to leave. Don’t wait for an evacuation notice to pack.”

That night, images of a cyclone of fire intruded into my sleep. Every sound in the dark mimicked the crackle and hiss that I imagined echoing through the forest. Jerry snored softly beside me, and I could hear the kids rustling in their beds. What a fool I’d been to expose our family to these dangers. During our years of visiting Stehekin, I’d learned that the potential for natural disasters is part of everyday life here. Nearly everyone had stories of floods, fires, avalanches, and backcountry accidents that had destroyed property and claimed friends and family. Firs scorched by lightning marked the cycles of their lives. Now I was experiencing this reality first-hand, faced with a situation I couldn’t control. I tried to loosen my grip with deep breathing and prayers.

Sleep finally came, and a gentle wind during the night sent the smoke another direction. The next day’s clear dawn made it easy to forget the force devouring forests just a few miles away. The respite was brief. Within hours, neon-yellow fliers describing the “Stehekin Evacuation Contingency Plan” blanketed the valley. National Park Service rangers had hand-delivered the bulletins; with no phones, and no television or radio transmission, the pony express-like system was the only way to get the word out.

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Sikorsky Sky Crane in Stehekin, 1994

The next day at work, trying to convince myself that I could handle life in the wilderness, I tried to imitate my bakery co-workers’ casual attitudes. At the end of my shift, I retreated to a public dock to watch a red-and-white Sikorsky Sky Crane, a military-style helicopter, pull water from the lake. A bucket, swinging on a rope from the chopper’s belly, hauled up two thousand gallons of water with each dip. All afternoon it showered me as water slopped on its way to the flames on the peaks above. The rhythmic whirl of rotors was both unsettling and comforting.

The report at that night’s community meeting was as feared; fire had advanced to Boulder Creek, just a couple miles from where we sat on the valley floor. That inferno demanded two helicopters, eight hours a day, to cool it down enough so fire crews could get up there. After a few days of water drops, [the incident commander] told us the fire at Boulder Creek was too widespread and hot for crews to extinguish.

“It won’t go out completely until snow falls,” he said.

Some days over the next few weeks, the smoke cleared to reveal blue skies. Other days, we’d hear the helicopters again, smoke would fill the valley again, and my fear—that this place and way of life would be destroyed—returned.

Rains in late August weakened the fire’s strength. We unpacked our evacuation bags. Another Incident Commander directed mop-up efforts, and local Park Service employees handled flare-ups that waxed and waned all through September. By the first week of October, the fire-fighting teams rolled up the hoses and barged them out, along with their shovels, axes, tents, and trucks. After weeks of being prepared for fire on our doorsteps, these tools of protection disappeared, leaving in their place a deeper understanding: no matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t eliminate all the threats to life any more than Mike Monahan could end the fire at Boulder Creek.

I awakened one morning in mid-October to a white glisten on McGregor Mountain, just visible through the living room window. Fortunately, the season’s first snow had come early; the tension in my neck eased with this proof that the fires were over—at least for this year.

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Smoke-filtered sun at Orcas Island ferry landing August 2018