This month’s Take 5 spotlight is shining on Julia Whelan, an audiobook narrator extraordinaire. I’ve spent many hours listening to Julia’s voice as she performed a wide variety of fiction, and I trust her to perfectly capture the characters’ personalities and to sweep me up in their emotional journeys. I thank her for many extra-long walks or additional hours working in the garden: Her spot-on pacing and emphasis on the elements that make the plot flow (foreboding, romance, anticipation) make it hard for me to turn off my audiobook.
Julia must be one of the most hardworking narrators in the business. When I was picking examples of her work to feature today, I noticed she performed at least a half dozen audiobooks set for release this month. I immediately added four to my listening wish list, including A HEART IN THE BODY IN THE WORLD which Julia says is “timely and incredible.”
After all the heat of summer, the Alaskan setting of THE GREAT ALONE by Kristin Hannah may be just what you need. This story of survival, family, and PTSD is a recent favorite of mine. Julia masterfully builds the tension as the citizens of a small homesteading community try to balance the beauty and danger of living in the unforgiving northern wilderness.
If you’re not ready to say good-bye to the summer, put Judy Blundell’s THE HIGH SEASON in your audiobook queue. Set on the North Fork of Long Island, this dual coming-of-age story about a mother and daughter mixes contemporary social issues with a touch of domestic drama. Don’t miss Julia’s impressive portrayals of a diverse range of characters, including a social media–savvy young woman, an aloof teenage boy, and a snarky museum director.
Near the top of my own listening list is EDUCATED, Tara Westover’s memoir of how she managed to earn a doctorate in history from Harvard, despite being homeschooled and raised in isolation by Mormon fundamentalists. Julia’s delivery amps up the frightening atmosphere of the author’s family life and helps listeners understand Westover’s complex emotions when she begins college and discovers factual history and varied perspectives.
I find it hard to resist a good fantasy series, especially one that includes themes relating to current times. THE BLACK WITCH by Laurie Forest is the inaugural audiobook in a series about Elloren, a young woman who seems to lack magic, even though her family is famous for their power. Julia creates believable voices for the teenagers and alters her delivery as Elloren learns acceptance of alternate lifestyles and joins a grassroots civil rights movement.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION is a unique story about an unnamed twenty-something protagonist who—with the help of a prescription-friendly doctor, a few friends, and a trust fund—attempts to reset her life by sleeping as much as possible. Julia creates an appropriately somnolent atmosphere for this character-driven novel and punches up the subtle humor with perfect delivery.
Now that you’ve been introduced to some of Julia’s audiobooks, it’s time to meet the Audie Award-nominated voice performer. Many thanks to Julia Whelan for taking time to talk with us.
AudioFile Magazine: What are you doing when you’re not working?
Julia Whelan: I’m writing. Or reading. It’s just begun to occur to me that I need an activity in my life that isn’t about books.
AFM: What are some of the particular challenges of narrating nonfiction?
JW: Well, I draw a line between nonfiction and memoir, and both have their challenges. In the case of memoir, I think one has to be sensitive to the author’s narrative choices. For instance, with EDUCATED, I, as a reader, was angry at what she’d been forced to go through. But Tara had worked through that anger. There was love and forgiveness on the page. My duty is to be faithful to the voice of the author.
In nonfiction, the challenge is mostly institutional. As a female narrator, I don’t get many opportunities to record nonfiction. Whether this has to do with the fact that the majority of nonfiction is written by men (and consumed by men) or whether we, as a culture, have an ingrained bias regarding what an “authoritative” voice sounds like, I don’t know. But I’ve started working for a company called Audm that puts long-form nonfiction journalism on audio (think The New Yorker, Atlantic, Vanity Fair, etc.), and it’s so fulfilling. I spent about a decade tutoring, and I think I love narrating nonfiction because it reminds me so much of teaching.
AFM: When reading for pleasure, do you find yourself creating voices and thinking about pacing and emphasis?
JW: Ugh, yes! It takes about 100 pages of pleasure reading before I’m able to relax. My eyes linger on words I don’t know how to pronounce, I note character accents, and I find myself thinking, “This has a first-person Hispanic male POV, why did they ask me to record it?” Oh, right; they didn’t.
AFM: What’s your go-to beverage when recording? How about after recording?
JW: Tea! I’m a tea sommelier, and I tailor my tea choice to the genre, tone, or voice of the book. After? Usually red wine. Or, depending on the book, an Old-Fashioned. A generous one.
AFM: What kinds of things do you do to protect your voice in your down time?
JW: I hydrate compulsively, and I try not to talk more than I have to. I’m terrible at calling friends and family (I know, Mom, I know). I avoid loud environments where I might have to shout. I try not to fly during cold and flu season. I hate being this precious about it, but my voice is my livelihood. If I don’t protect and maintain it, everything else suffers.
Many thanks, Julia, for agreeing to be in the Take 5 hot seat. I had never really thought about a gender bias when choosing narrators for nonfiction; I’m glad to be more aware of that issue. And tea, wine, or an Old-Fashioned . . . I’d be happy to share any of them with you.