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

Julia Whelan and her book "Thanks for Listening: A Novel."
(Courtesy of Julia Whelan)

Whelan will appear with fellow author Allison Winn Scotch at the “Super Book IV” event in San Diego on Feb. 16


Julia Whelan is a bestselling author, a screenwriter, an actor, a Grammy-nominated audiobook director and an award-winning audiobook narrator. How does she select the book to bring to life through her voice?

“Usually, it just comes down to scheduling,” Whelan said. “There are authors I’ve been working with for a decade whose books I prioritize, and there are audiobook producers who know my tastes so well that if they send something my way, I do everything I can to make it happen.

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

Whelan has narrated more than 400 audiobooks in different genres. She has won many awards, including the Audie Award for Best Female Narrator of 2019 and won Audiofile Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Golden Voice Award in 2020. She’s considered one of the top narrators in the industry today.

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

Whelan will be co-hosting the half-time portion of Adventures by the Book’s “Super Book IV: A San Diego Adventure featuring 22 New York Times best-selling authors” with Allison Winn Scotch, on Feb. 16.

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

A: It was obviously an incredible honor. 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 purposefully 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 chewing the 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 AI won’t replace human narration completely. It’ll absolutely change the market — it already has — but we can coexist. There’ll be certain books, whether because of complexity or emotional content or structure, it can’t adequately do. The latest Cormac McCarthy novel, “Stella Maris,” that I co-narrated with Edoardo Ballerini, is a perfect example. Besides, some listeners will prefer the nuance and surprise that we bring to the narration. Some people still buy handcrafted artisanal products even though mass-produced ones are cheaper. There are people who resist this societal need we seem to have to dehumanize every interaction and transaction. Really, it’s up to the humans in the decision-making chain — authors, editors, audio producers — to decide we’re worth it.

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

A: They are the fictional audiobook narrators in “Thank You for Listening,” and those are the pseudonyms they use when recording romance, which they happen to be doing together for the first time, co-narrating the last novel of a famous romance author. Even though they email and text, they record their sections remotely and don’t know who the other person really is, just that they seem to be having a growing bond and connection.

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

A: My love for romance as a genre combined with the hilarious awkwardness of recording it with my male colleagues seemed a good premise for a rom-com. At the time, I was also reassessing my relationship to on-camera acting — which had been my career for 20 years — and my frustrations with the way Hollywood treated actresses. I didn’t want to write an explicitly #MeToo novel, but I wanted to explore the anger and powerlessness I felt when my career was outside my control.

Q: What motivated you to become a tea sommelier?

A: I’d always been a tea drinker and when I lived in England it became a lifestyle. When I came home, I was frustrated that no one seemed able to make a proper cup of tea in this country. So I thought, well, I guess I could teach them? I took some classes and got my certification and was contracting with restaurants and hotels, designing tea menus and training the staff, and then my audiobook career took off.

Q: Do you have time to read for pleasure?

A: Ha, no. My list is massive and I don’t see getting to it until retirement.

Thank You for Listening” by Julia Whelan, 2022; Avon, 432 pages.

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

When: 9 a.m. Feb. 16

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

Tickets: Prices vary

Phone: (619) 300-2532


Davidson is a freelance writer.