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From Acting to Writing and Narration: A Multifaceted Career.
We're thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Julia Whelan, one of the top audiobook narrators in the industry today. With over 500 audiobooks to her name, Julia has been recognized with numerous awards, including Audible's Narrator of the Year, the Audie for Best Female Narrator, and Audiofile Magazine's Lifetime Achievement Golden Voice Award.
What motivated you to start writing and how do you come up with ideas for your stories?
I’ve always been a writer. For me, acting and writing always went hand-in-hand. As a child, I would write stories to act out. I would create entire narrative arcs for each person when my friends and I would play “house.” So that story impulse is fairly ingrained. I became an actor first, though, and during my formative years I was mostly reading screenplays, and as a result I think I bring a filmic sensibility to my prose writing. When I left Hollywood for college, I got an English and Creative Writing degree and that was where I learned to study novels the way I used to study screenplays.
As to where I come up with my ideas? Who knows. Sometimes a character appears first, sometimes a premise, sometimes an essential conflict. But I don’t feel like I ever have a proper story until I’ve got all three.
Can you share your experience narrating your own audiobook and how it differs from other narration projects?
The experience of recording my first book, My Oxford Year, was just… it was so painful. I was having serious imposter syndrome as a writer and I could not stop editing in my head while I was performing (ugh, why did I write that dialogue? Does this scene even make sense?? I should have done a line break there!). It was also, objectively, a difficult book to perform and would have been even if someone else had written it. There is one American character amidst about twelve British ones and the narrative voice is first-person present tense, so all the emotions of the book are right on the surface, happening at the precise moment the main character is experiencing them. But with my second book, Thank You For Listening, I made sure I’d edited it as thoroughly as I possibly could in preparation for the recording process. And then I just let myself enjoy the performance. And I did enjoy it. It’s such a fun book.
As a seasoned writer and narrator, what advice would you give to aspiring writers and narrators in the industry?
I’m not a prescriptive writer, in that I never preach hard and fast rules to other writers. I think everyone has to work out their process for themselves. But I will say that I think reading widely helps. Many writers only read books from the same category they want to write in, and while that’s of course helpful from the perspective of knowing what’s being published in the market, I find that when it comes to the actual work, the craft of writing, knowing how other writers in other genres fix problems has always been helpful to me. That’s what my audiobook narration career gave me: a random sample of books I was made to read from every category.
For aspiring narrators… I think we’re heading for a shaky period as an industry. After years of a looming threat, we are now finally starting to see the use of synthetic voice and we don’t know how viable or widespread it’s going to become. But I believe that good storytellers will always be needed. Right now, there seems to be this misunderstanding that what we do is only about having a good voice that people don’t mind listening to. That was never the job and that’s not what made listeners die-hard audiobook fans in the first place. My optimistic view is that text-to-speech programs will only serve to highlight the value of real human narrators. People with brains, who interpret a book, who make choices, and bring emotional intelligence and integrity to the performance. Who actually perform. So, it’s probably going to be a harder industry to break into, and standards and norms will be changing, but I feel like there could be a real storytelling renaissance that comes out of it.
PHOTO BY KEI MORENO
I think I have an ear for dialogue. An important thing as a writer and as a narrator. I think I know how to see how each character fits into the overall story. The child actor part of it is just instinct at this point. Then I meld that instinct with the analytical skills I’ve learned over the years and that’s where the performance comes from.
How was the transition from acting to writing/narration and what challenges did you face along the way?
I’ve been acting, professionally, since I was nine years old. And while I still love the craft, I never liked the business. I was a teenage girl working in Hollywood during the toxicity of the early aughts, a time we’re just starting to realize was mind-bogglingly cruel to women, culturally. I also always had an issue with the lack of control over my own opportunities and career trajectory. So when narration came along and I realized I could still act, but I could do it on my terms, and no one would be constantly judging my appearance or sending me 14-page auditions at 8 PM for a ten o’clock appointment the next morning (and then making me wait for two hours in a casting office while my parking meter expired only to end up doing one 3-page scene instead of all of them because of “time”)… I embraced the lifestyle change. Same goes for writing. Both of those careers are more compatible with the life I actually want to live. A life of my own making.
Can you offer any advice or tips to young actors just starting in the industry?
God, no. I have no idea what the industry is like now. Are they still making people have followers on social media? Actually, you know what? Here’s what I can tell them: Keep your eyes open to other parts of the industry. We tell people to be singularly focused on their “dream” but that leaves no room for gathering more information. Everyone wants to be an actor when they’re sitting in their room watching movies on their parents’ old TV. But when you actually know what the business is like, when you see what the work actually is? I think it’s irresponsible to tell people to hold onto their dreams. Look around. See if there are other things that you find interesting. Maybe the desire you had to be an actor is actually a storytelling desire at large and you’d be better suited to directing. Or producing. Or writing. Or or or.
Are you considering a return to acting in the future or focusing solely on writing and narration?
I’ll always entertain an offer. I do miss acting with other people. The energy of a set. But I have no interest in organizing my life around the occasional opportunity to sing for my supper. Why would I? I have all the creative control I could want right now.
How do you think the growth of audiobooks has impacted the publishing industry and the way people consume and enjoy stories?
I don’t want to be hyperbolic about the impact audiobooks have had on publishing, but I do think it’s fair to say it’s been massive. It is the only part of publishing that is reliably in the black. It’s so difficult to get consumers to pay attention to all
the books that are published, but audiobooks provide an author with the chance to get their book in front of the fans of their narrator. They can borrow the narrator’s audience. That point of discoverability is huge and isn’t available anywhere else in publishing. My frustration with publishing is that it isn’t willing to acknowledge how big that value is. Look, there’s a lot that needs to be fixed in publishing, but one thing to consider is that people choose audio content. Over and over again. What kind of stories can be told in that space? How can we tell them? How can we give people access to them? What if we looked at what we know already works and extrapolate from there? Human voices telling human stories to human listeners. A tale as old as time.
Lastly, what message do you hope your readers and listeners will take away from your work, and what impact do you aim to have on the industry and audience?
If I had to go back and look at all the professional threads of my life and try to pull together some cohesive thesis, the animating principle, the thing that drives me to create, it think it would be this: empathy. As an actor, you have to have empathy for characters to play them. As a writer, you want the reader to have empathy for characters who may be unlike them in every conceivable way. And I think the larger fight I feel conscripted into every single day as a human in this world is also empathy. We are losing connection to other people at a time when we’re more “connected” than we’ve historically ever been. We “know” more about what’s going on in the world than ever, but it’s too overwhelming. We’re desensitizing. If we disagree with people, we categorized them as Other and write them off Not Our Problem because none of us need more to worry about in this life. But I do worry. I worry we’re becoming alien to each other. I worry an essential humanness is being lost. And that’s when truly bad things can happen, when we stop seeing each other as human. So that’s what stories are for. And I’ve found that people are more receptive to ideas of empathy when those stories are couched in Fiction. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. Our job, as storytellers, is to hold up a glass. And sometimes that glass is a mirror and sometimes it’s a window, but it should always be about connection.