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Talking with Julia Whelan
In June 2020, Julia was inducted as a Golden Voice, AudioFile's lifetime achievement honor for audiobook narrators.
What helps you achieve an emotional connection to a book and the characters?
This may be an overly simplistic answer, but I think it’s just being an actor. I instinctively approach a book as I would a script. But instead of playing one character, I’m playing all of them. I look for the characters’ wants, their needs, their weaknesses. What’s their goal? What’s their tragic flaw? Most importantly, I’m not here to judge them. I have to find the thing that makes them empathetic. And if I have empathy, then I have an emotional connection.
On a more elemental level, I’m here to serve the story. It’s very easy for me to connect with the book itself because I have empathy for the author. All authors. I get it; writing this thing was incredibly hard, and now I’m the custodian of it. I have an emotional connection to that process. As a result, I genuinely care about every book I record.
What is the most interesting piece of research you’ve done for an audiobook?
I’m a sucker for research rabbit holes. Early on, I did a book called Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks. It’s set in 1950s Montana and captures the tension between postwar “progress” and the indigenous population, but it flashes back to London after The Blitz; the Italian mountains during the war; and prehistoric cave paintings in the Basque country. This book was challenging for many reasons, but I easily spent about twice as much time researching as I did recording. Just fascinating stuff. The author and I are still in touch, and we occasionally send each other articles we happen upon that pertain to the book.
How has your approach to narrating changed over your career?�
I’m very much the same narrator I’ve always been. I over-prepare and have a hard time saying no. But I trust myself more now and, as a result, I think I bring more to the table. In the beginning, I was just trying to get it “right.” Breathing, pacing, characters, accents. Now that the fundamentals are in place, my interpretation of the text has become the primary factor in planning my performance. I like to approach a book as if I were going to teach it. It’s a bit full-circle for me; I was an English major, I seriously considered becoming an academic, and I’ve taught literature and creative writing at various times. I long ago learned how to read a text as a writer, to pull it apart piece by piece to examine how it was built in the first place.
�See also: 5 Questions with Julia Whelan (Interview with by Candace Levy) | September 26, 2018
August 2015--Unlike many children, narrator Julia Whelan got energized during her parents’ bedtime read-alouds. “An hour in, my father would start reading from The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly, so I’d go to sleep,” she says. Her parents read aloud constantly during her growing up in a small, isolated town. “I think they saw that as soon as I could read, I could start expanding.”
And expand she did! At first, she memorized books as if she were reading, and then she started writing so young that she had to dictate her first play to a babysitter. She also showed evidence of her future in narration. “I’d read aloud a passage in an exciting book, and that passage would become a page, and that page would become a chapter, and I’d keep going. Books have always been a part of my life.” As an actor and a writer, books were her first introduction to character development.
Whelan’s love of literature continued during college, where she majored in English and creative writing. But until she began to narrate, she says, “I hadn’t read anything that was written in the last hundred years.” She entered the audio field at a “serendipitous time” when there were a lot of young adult novels being published and not that many voices for these new recordings. So for Whelan, narration became a sort of internship with “stunningly bright authors” who inspired her writing as she viewed how their books came together.
Whelan, who has read audiobooks across all ages and genres, generally performs using “equal parts analysis, instinct, and emotion.” But her first and foremost thought is always to serve the author. “The more input I have, the better.” Her commitment is clear in how she speaks of these experiences. For example, she spoke with author Stacey Jay before recording PRINCESS OF THORNS and learned that Jay is also an actor. “We discussed accents, voices, and giving the book a feel of the British Isles.” She admits to having a girl-crush on Printz Award-winning author Jandy Nelson. “Her books always make me cry, sometimes just because of the beauty of her prose.” Whelan was more affected than she thought she’d be when narrating GIRL AT WAR by deaf author Sarah Novic. “Novic was very excited about the recording, and I found the experience especially poignant and bittersweet because she will never hear it.”
Whelan loves the luxury of audio listening on long drives. Most recently she enjoyed Cassandra Campbell’s recording of Julie Holland’s MOODY BITCHES. But she doesn’t listen as often as she’d like. It’s not just that reading, writing, and performing involve too many narratives. This successful narrator is always in the booth, recording books for others to enjoy.--Susie Wilde
© AudioFile 2015, Portland, Maine
Photo by Kei Moreno
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