March 24, 2013

Giving voice to books

Tavia Gilbert has recorded more than 200 audio books, learning along the way that sometimes it gets deeply personal.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

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Tavia Gilbert in the home studio in Portland where she records audio books, most recently “Let Me Stand Alone” by Rachel Corrie.

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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Tavia Gilbert

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But she is not leaving gleefully. Gilbert came to Maine in 2001 to study at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, and quickly fell into rhythm with the city. She was young, just starting out, and coming east for the first time in her life.

It was exciting, and she thrived.

She did a fair amount of work in theater, appearing at Portland Stage and several other companies, and began singing with Renaissance Voices, an a cappella chorus. She put down roots, and harbored no desire to leave.

Gilbert's voice work eventually allowed her to make a living as a full-time actor, something most people in her field in Portland cannot claim. And her timing was impeccable. Audio books have become hugely popular, and Gilbert's talents are in demand.

She loves the intimacy of audio books.

"That mic is like someone's ear," she said, adding that each time she reads she imagines she is reading for a friend seated in a nearby chair.

Gilbert records in a sound booth that she tucked into a corner of a second-story nook in her apartment. The WhisperRoom -- that's the trademarked name -- arrived last year on 17 pallets. It's a state-of-the-art recording studio that looks something like an oversized and overstuffed old-style phone booth.

She spends many hours each day in isolation in the booth, reading from an iPad. It's not easy work, she said, but it's rewarding when you can tackle a project you believe in.

That was certainly the case with Corrie's "Let Me Stand Alone." She feels strongly that Corrie's story has become politicized in the decade since she died, and that her work as a peace activist was overshadowed by controversy surrounding her death.

At age 23, Corrie arrived in Gaza early in 2003 as part of a sister-cities college assignment. She befriended peace activists, and worked to prevent the Israeli army's demolition of Palestinian homes -- work that resulted in her death. Her book collects many of her emails home from Gaza, as well as other writings.

Recording this book, Gilbert said, was difficult. She found herself beset by emotion many times, and had to work to control her tears.

"With other books, I can tell when the emotion is coming up, where the crescendos are," she said "With Rachel's book, it overwhelmed me. The grief comes at any moment without warning."

In some ways, Gilbert felt called to this project. Similarities with the author aside, she believes she was the right person at the right time to tell Corrie's story. She developed a rapport with Corrie's parents, and made a special effort to make sure she was capturing the author's spirit.

"I want every book to be the best it can be. But when I do vampire porn" she said, her voice trailing off to laughter.

"With Rachel, I want people to listen. I want people to give her a chance.

"She's been gone for 10 years. If I can be a small part in keeping her voice alive, it's a small thing and an honor." 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

Twitter: pphbkeyes


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Among the books recorded by Tavia Gilbert is “In the Water They Can’t See You Cry” by Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard.


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