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.

violet (1)
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.

screen shot 2019-01-16 at 3.08.39 pm

*Afterthought #83 – A Virtual Twist

christmas branch at nightOn this last day of December, and of 2018, our Christmas branch still twinkles as I continue to reflect on Christmas 1994 in Stehekin. Here’s a short excerpt from Hiking Naked about that celebration with Jerry’s family.

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We filled the next few days with cross-country skiing, baking, and Hearts, the card game we always played at family gatherings. On Christmas Eve night, we all gathered at our house to read the story of Christ’s birth, share blessings, and sing songs by candlelight. While logs crackled in the woodstove and snow again started to fall, we concluded the evening with another tradition instituted years earlier by Donna and Dale. One by one, each family member dumped little wrapped packages out of hand-made stockings; the rule was every item had to cost less than a dollar and had to fit in the sock. As always, laughter filled the room as everyone discovered miniature bottles of shampoo and French soaps lifted from hotel rooms, pens and note pads from pharmaceutical companies our pediatrician cousin picked up at medical conferences, individually-wrapped fruit leathers and chocolates, and an assortment of kitchen gadgets including a wide variety of closures for snack bags.

 Matt, Rachel, and [cousin] Leslie were well past the age of believing in Santa Claus, but waking to eighteen inches of fresh snow on Christmas morning was just as magical. Its powdery whiteness brightened the pre-sunrise hours as we opened more gifts, sipped lattés and hot chocolate, and ate orange twists and an egg-and-sausage casserole.

christmas breakfast
Yep, that’s beardless Jerry holding scones, and me with orange twists (wearing a pin hand-carved by Matthew)

~   ~   ~   ~   ~

Ah, those orange twists. They appear frequently in my memoir, as they were the pastry I most enjoyed making (and eating) when I worked as a baker at Stehekin Pastry Company. Still think they’re one of the best treats, and it’s been fun to share them at various author events for Hiking Naked.

On Christmas Eve this year, I rose early to make a few batches (including a gluten-free version) to gift the crew of the M.V. Tillikum, the interisland ferry where I serve as Writer-in-Residence.

I knew they’d be working on Christmas Day while I spent time with family, so orange twists seemed fitting to express my appreciation (this is the same Kitchen Aid mixer we barged to Stehekin; it’s a character in the memoir, too).

IMG_2772And yes, I did save a few for our own breakfast the next day.

A couple crewmembers couldn’t wait until Christmas, so I was able to hear their appreciative comments before I returned home. But sorry, the recipe isn’t available for sharing. You’ll just have to try them for yourself at Stehekin Pastry Company—or one of my author events.

Here’s hoping all the twists of 2019 are sweet.




*Afterthoughts are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, previous posts, maybe even bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets.

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.

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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.

Ste tree

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!


Happy 10th!

boxes (1)Rain fell sideways on a November night ten years ago as half a dozen friends formed a chain between a U-Haul and a storage unit. The light from headlamps danced as bodies swung, passing twenty-pound cartons hand-to-hand. Photographer Summer Moon Scriver and I had barely made it onto the last ferry of the night, me behind the wheel of a truck packed with 300 boxes of books. book box (1)

That night was the culmination of four years of collaboration for Summer, book designer Bob Lanphear, and me to produce Hands at Work: Portraits and Profiles of People Who Work With Their Hands.


The project arose from an exhibit of black-and-white photographs of people’s hands by Summer. The images of the hands of a baker, a knitter, a spinner, and a gardener spoke to me of a passion for work that I had once had and lost and that I know is missing for many other people. I wanted to give voice to those stories of satisfaction with work.

In The Reinvention of Work, Matthew Fox writes, “When work moved from farm to city, from land to concrete, from hands to machine—in short, when the industrial revolution redefined the meaning of work for us—much was lost. Perhaps the greatest loss was the sense of cosmic wonder, of interrelationship with the universe, with nature, with the stars and breezes and plants and animals that was integral to workers on the land. No paycheck can make up for that loss.” 45The people featured in Hands at Work have found a way to make up for this loss: they use their hands to shape, slice, birth, repair, heal, communicate, and harvest.

10They talk of living in their hands and needing to get their hands dirty, cold, or wet.

For them, the materials they use are alive and responsive; their hands teach them things they didn’t know and connect them to different times, places, and people. 21

We had no difficulty creating a list of people who rely on their hands for their work in our small, rural community on Lopez Island in northwest Washington, though we did venture beyond our home for a few profiles.   Whenever we made the first call to ask people to participate, most were humble, doubting that their work, their stories, and their hands could be of any interest or importance. We followed up by sending a written description of the process, and when people agreed (and everyone we asked ultimately did), we scheduled an interview and photo session at their places of work.

Summer and I arrived with lights, cameras, black backdrops, notebooks, pens, and the gift of a jar of locally-made, soothing hand salve. As Summer set up equipment, I explained that our goal was to engage in this process of documenting their work like ballroom dancers, leading and following as gracefully as possible. At times, I helped Summer with photographing by moving lights or suggesting shots to illustrate the subjects’ words about their work. Often, Summer added her own questions to the interview as she viewed the work through her camera lens.

Most of the time, it was graceful; every time, it was fun. Like the day we met with Irene Skyriver in her garden.

“What comes to mind with the title?” I asked.

36“I’ve always thought of my hands as rototillers in the dirt,” Irene said, scooping out a shallow hole for the corn seedling she was planting. Summer squatted beside Irene, focusing her camera lens on Irene’s calloused hands. Click. Click.

“How would you describe yourself and the kind of work you do with your hands?” I asked, crouching in the dirt and balancing my notepad on my knee.

Irene stayed focused on the task before her. “I’m not a studied gardener,” she said. “There are so many things I don’t know about gardening. I’ve never read one gardening book – it’s just not my style. Trial and error is.”   My left hand slid across the page, scrawling as many of Irene’s words as possible.

17As we talked with and photographed people at work, their fervor for painting, weaving, fishing, cooking, quilting, sculpting, boat-building, puppeteering, and even car repair was palpable and exhilarating. All expressed gratitude for being watched and listened to as they went about the work that feeds their souls. We recognized how rare it is for any of us to spend that much time talking about our work.

The sessions typically lasted two hours. Then Summer and I each went to our home offices, Summer downloading photographs to her computer for editing, and me transcribing my hand-written notes to my computer. What followed were hours and hours of mostly solitary work shaping pictures into portraits and words into stories. Sometimes one or both of us needed to do some follow-up – more photographs, more questions. Then we repeated the process with the next person on the list.

Four years later, Summer and I saw the results of our work transferred by fork lift from a warehouse into a rental truck. For the next few hours, the rhythm of windshield wipers accompanied our conversation on the drive to the ferry terminal. A few days later, we launched the words and images into the world at a celebration at our local community center.

I’m celebrating again as I think back over the decade since the book’s release. It was a joy to talk with people about their work, and I still feel a thrill when people tell me Hands at Work moves and inspires them. I continue to believe it remains timeless.

So. Here’s a math equation for you to consider:

4 years to write X 10 years since publication = 40% off

That means Hands at Work, originally $34, is available for $20 (tax and shipping included) until December 16 if you order online here. Hands at Work just might be a perfect gift for someone in this holiday season.


*All black-and-white photographs by Summer Moon Scriver©