The voice behind 400 audiobooks: Julia Whelan talks about her unusual job and her own writing

Julia Whelan is a bestselling author, screenwriter, actress, Grammy-nominated audiobook director, and award-winning audiobook narrator. How does he choose a book to bring to life with his voice?

“Usually it just comes down to planning,” Whelan said. “There are authors I’ve worked with for a decade whose books I prefer, and there are audiobook producers who know my taste so well that if they send me something, I’ll do everything I can to make it happen.

“A lot of it comes down to gut feeling,” she said. “I don’t have time to read the book before making a decision, so I have to base my decision on the synopsis. If my instinctive response is, ‘I’d buy this in a bookstore,’ then I say yes.”

Whelan has curated more than 400 audiobooks in a variety of genres. She has won many awards, including the 2019 Audie Award for Best Storyteller and the 2020 Audiofile Magazine Golden Voice Lifetime Achievement Award. Today, she is considered one of the best storytellers in the industry.

Her own books include My Oxford Year and Thank You for Listening.

Whelan will co-host Adventures by the Book’s “Super Book IV: A San Diego Adventure featuring 22 New York Times bestselling authors” halftime with Allison Winn Scotch on February 16.

Q: How did it feel when you won the 2019 Audie Award for Best Narrator and Autobiography/Memoir for your narrative “Educated: A Memoir” by Tara Westover?

AND: It was obviously an incredible honor. I have to give the most credit to Tara and her amazing book. I never thought I’d win Best Narrator for a memoir because I wasn’t “acting,” per se. I deliberately restrained my performance, not wanting to impose any interpretive choices on Tara’s very real story. There’s probably a lesson to be learned here about not nibbling on the scenery, but I stubbornly refused to learn it. You can take a girl from Hollywood etc.

Q: Do you think artificial intelligence (AI) will replace live narrated books?

AND: I choose to believe that artificial intelligence will not completely replace human narration. It will absolutely change the market – it already has – but we can co-exist. There will be certain books, either because of complexity or emotional content or structure, that cannot be adequate. Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, Stella Maris, which I narrated with Edoardo Ballerini, is a perfect example. Additionally, 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 societal need to dehumanize every interaction and transaction. Really, it’s up to the people in the decision-making chain – authors, editors, audio producers – to decide that we’re worth it.

Q: Can you describe Sarah Westholme and Brock McNight — the characters in your latest book?

AND: They are the fictitious narrators of the audiobooks in “Thank You for Listening,” which are the pseudonyms they use when filming a romance, which they happen to be doing together for the first time, together narrating the latest novel by a famous romance author. Even though they are emailing and texting, recording their sections long distance and not knowing who the other person really is, it just seems like there is a growing connection and connection.

Q: What inspired “Thank You for Listening” and how did the #MeToo movement help shape it?

AND: My love of romance as a genre combined with the hilarious awkwardness of filming with male co-stars seemed like a good premise for a rom-com. At the time, I was also questioning my relationship with acting in front of the camera – which had been my career for 20 long years – and my frustrations with the way Hollywood treated actresses. I didn’t want to write an explicitly #MeToo novel, but I did want to explore the anger and powerlessness I felt when my career was out of my control.

Q: What motivated you to become a tea sommelier?

AND: I have always been a tea lover, and when I lived in England it became my lifestyle. When I came home, I was frustrated that nobody in this country knows how to make real tea. So I thought, well, I guess I could teach them? I took some courses and got certified and did contracts with restaurants and hotels, designed tea menus and trained staff, and then my audiobook career took off.

Q: Do you have time to read for pleasure?

AND: Huh, no. My list is huge and I don’t see myself getting to it until I retire.

Thank you for listening” by Julia Whelan, 2022; Avon, 432 p.

Super Book IV: A San Diego Adventure with New York Times Bestselling Authors

When: 9 am, February 16

Where: Admiral Baker Golf Course Clubhouse, 2400 Admiral Baker Road, #3604, San Diego

Tickets: Prices vary

Phone: (619) 300-2532

On the line:

Davidson is a freelance writer.

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