Five Questions with Author and Audiobook Narrator Julia Whelan
We talk "Thank You For Listening" and her next project
Because I’m a nerd, I began my interview with Julia Whelan by saying “I have some questions for you,” a reference to the title of Rebecca Makkai’s new book, which Julia narrated.
Because Julia is lovely, she laughed.
Julia is the author two books, My Oxford Year and Thank You For Listening, the narrator of hundreds more audiobooks, including Gone Girl, Tara Westover’s Educated (which won the Audie Award) and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. She’s also an actress who starred in ABC’s “Once and Again” as a teen.
She was kind enough to speak with me about narrating, writing and her next project.
One of the things I love about Thank You For Listening is the behind-the-scenes look at narration. What can you tell us about preparing to read a book?
I do one prep read to start. While I read, I keep two lists. One is a word list of pronunciations that I need to check — some are real words, but sometimes they’re author inventions — and the second is a character list that includes vocal description an author gives to any speaking character.
From there, I build a constellation around which characters speak the most, who is in conversation with each other. I essentially start casting it in my head.
Then, I take any questions I have — whether pronunciation or character choices — and I send an email typically to the producer, unless I’m close friends with the author. Then it’s a collaborative process.
Once I’ve gotten all the answers I need, I’m ready to get in the booth with a plan of attack.
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You’ve recorded more than 500 audiobooks. Are there any that have really stuck with you?
A lot of them. One of my first books out of the gate was Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere. It clued me in to just how incredible some of the writing that was happening in YA at the time.
Gone Girl was obviously memorable, not just for the phenomenon that it became, but because it’s still probably one of the most fun two days I’ve ever had in the booth. Being in that character’s brain was just a joy. You have to have respect psychopaths. For actors, they’re so much fun to play because there are no rules of basic human engagement. Being able to be in what I consider her incredibly humorous mind — even though it’s dark — was such a fun journey because there’s nothing stopping her from being entirely herself. That’s terrifying but also really freeing.
There are also authors I latched onto early because I thought they weren’t getting the credit they deserved. It seems ridiculous in hindsight, but those were Taylor Jenkins Reid and Emily Henry.
And then, there are always books that mean something to me because they come into my life at the exact moment I needed them, just like a normal reader. The Great Alone and The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue mark turning points in my life, not just professionally but personally.
What was the process of writing Thank You For Listening Like?
I wrote a majority of it between the summer of 2020 and March 2021, which a very intense time to be writing a romcom. It was a moment when nothing was funny or romantic.
I had an outline — the screenwriter part of me always like to have an outline. I actually wrote all of this book’s storyline’s straight through. I wrote her relationship with her best friend Adaku straight through, her relationship with her grandmother straight through, all the epistolary sections, etc. It almost felt like I was writing connected short stories. Then I cut them up and dropped them in and looked at what I had.
It was the only way my brain could focus enough at that period of time, when I was still recording other people’s books and news articles for Audm. With the news stories, there was no unplugging for me. There was no way to avoid what was happening in the world. I had to scrape together every bit of concentration I could to get a draft of the book done.
Tell me about June French, the romance writer character in Thank You For Listening, who gives an interview dissecting criticisms of the genre as silly or frivolous. I adore her.
I love her too. From the beginning, I knew she was an important character but there wasn’t a place for her to exist in the book. Her presence had to be keenly felt without having any screentime.
To me, she was a pastiche of a lot of the romance novelists that I have worked for as a narrator. We have this weird, frankly sexist view of the romance writer in popular culture. There’s the character from “Romancing the Stone” who sits there typing and crying in her feather boa.
To me, it was always exactly the opposite. These women were businesswomen — reliable and smart. They knew what their audience wanted, and they gave it to them. I just had so much respect for them, and they were also aware of those stereotypes and were angry about them. They would say the things we all were thinking but didn’t have the courage to. That’s who I wanted the character to represent.
Is there anything you’re working on now you can preview?
Speaking of June French, I’m working on the June French novel that the two characters in Thank You For Listening recorded, called Casanova LLC. I’m really loving it. I want to get it out as soon as possible because I'm excited about it. I also am very, very excited about what I want to do with the audio version. I’m going to record it myself with a male narrator.
Thanks to Julia for speaking with me. You can follow her on Instagram and buy books she’s written and narrated here.
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I first listened to her in Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur and I was hooked. Julia is amazing. Thank you for the article.
Fantastic interview, Elizabeth! Audiobooks have never been my jam, but you changed my perspective and I may just give them a try. I’ll start with Julia’s book!