The Voice Behind 400 Audiobooks: Julia Whelan talks about her unusual work and writing
Julia Whelan is a bestselling author, screenwriter, actress, Grammy-nominated audiobook director, and award-winning audiobook narrator. How do you select the book to bring to life through her voice?
“Usually, it’s just coding,” Whelan said. “There are authors I’ve worked with for a decade and whose books I prioritize, and there are audiobook producers who know my tastes so well that if they send me something, I do whatever I can to make it happen.
“A lot of it comes down to a gut feeling,” she said. “There’s no time to read the book before deciding, so I have to base my decision on the synopsis. If my gut response is, “I’d buy it at the bookstore,” then I say yes.
Whelan has narrated more than 400 audiobooks in several genres. She has won numerous awards, including the Audie Award for Best Female Storyteller of 2019 and won Audiofile Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Golden Voice Award in 2020. She is regarded today as one of the best storytellers in the industry.
His books include ‘My Oxford Year’ and ‘Thank You for Listening’.
Whelan will host the halftime portion of Adventures by the Book “Super Book IV: A San Diego Adventure Featuring 22 New York Times best-selling authors” with Allison Winn Scotch on February 16.
Q: How did you feel when you won the 2019 Audie Award for Best Female Storyteller and Autobiography/Memoir for your narration of Tara Westover’s “Educated: A Memoir”?
A: It was obviously an incredible honour. I have to give most of the credit to Tara and her amazing book. I never thought I’d win Best Female Narrator for a memoir because I wasn’t “acting” per se. I purposely limited my interpretation, not wanting to impose any interpretive choice on the true story of Tara. There’s probably a lesson to be learned here about not chewing on scenery, but I’ve stubbornly refused to learn it. You can take the girl out of Hollywood, etc.
Q: Do you think Artificial Intelligence (AI) will replace live narrated books?
A: I choose to believe that AI will not completely replace human storytelling. It will absolutely change the market – it has already done so – but we can coexist. There will be some books, due to the complexity or content or emotional structure, can’t do it adequately. Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, Stella Maris, which I co-narrated with Edoardo Ballerini, is a perfect example of this. Also, some listeners will prefer the nuance and surprise we bring to the narrative. Some people still buy handmade crafts even though the mass-produced ones are cheaper. There are people who resist this social need that we seem to have to dehumanize every interaction and transaction. Really, it’s up to the humans in the decision chain – authors, publishers, audio producers – to decide that we’re worth it.
Q: Can you describe Sarah Westholme and Brock McNight, the characters in your latest book?
A: They’re the fictional audiobook narrators in “Thanks for Listening,” and those are the pseudonyms they use when recording the romance, which they happen to be doing together for the first time, co-narrating the latest novel by a famous novelist . Even if they send emails and text messages, record their sections remotely and don’t know who the other person really is, they just seem to have a growing bond and connection.
Q: What inspired “Thank You for Listening” and how did the #MeToo movement help shape it?
A: My love of romance as a genre combined with the exhilarating awkwardness of recording it with my male colleagues seemed like a good premise for a rom-com. At the time, I was also reevaluating my relationship with on-camera acting — which had been my career for 20 years — and my frustrations with the way Hollywood treated actresses. I didn’t explicitly want to write a #MeToo novel, but I did want to explore the anger and helplessness I felt when my career was out of my control.
Q: What prompted you to become a tea sommelier?
A: I’ve always been a tea drinker and when I lived in England it became a way of life. When I got home, I was frustrated that nobody seemed able to make a good cup of tea in this country. So I thought, well, I guess I could teach him? I took a few courses and got my certification and I was contracting with restaurants and hotels and designing tea menus and training staff, and then my audiobook career really took off.
Q: Do you have time to read for pleasure?
A: Ah, no. My list is huge and I don’t see myself getting there until I retire.
“Thanks for listening” by Julia Whelan, 2022; Avon, 432 pages.
Super Book IV: A San Diego Adventure with New York Times Bestselling Authors
When: 9am on February 16th
Where is it: Admiral Baker Golf Course Clubhouse, 2400 Admiral Baker Road, #3604, San Diego
Tickets: Prices vary
Telephone: (619) 300-2532
On line: adventuresbythebook.com
Davidson is a freelance writer.