The Digital Squeeze

The Digital Squeeze Episode 2: Julia Whelan

Sep 25, 2019

Discover how actress Julia Whelan got into audiobook narration and take a peek behind the curtains of audiobook creation during our interview with Julia at the 2019 American Library Association Annual Conference in Washington DC.

Julie Twomey: Hello. Thank you for listening to the Digital Squeeze podcast. This is Julie Twomey. My colleagues and I recently had the privilege of attending the American library association annual conference in Washington, and we got a chance to sit down with some popular digital content creators and supporters, including actress and award winning audio book narrator, Julia Whelan. This was a real treat for me because I am a big fan of Julia's and her voice continues to be one of my favorite female narration talents, as well as many others.

So you'll discover how she got into audio book narration and you'll also get to take a peek behind the curtains of audio book creation in our recent interview. Stay tuned after the interview section of the podcast to hear a sample clip of Julia's performance of the newly released Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes. Check it out.

Julie Twomey: We're here at ALA with Julia Whelan, popular audio book narrator, thank you for being here.

Julia Whelan: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Julie Twomey: Excellent. And congratulations on recently winning best narrator for autobiography memoir. I think that's great. Congratulations. How did you prepare to represent a woman whose family was kept isolated from mainstream society?

Julia Whelan: You know, one thing that I absolutely loved about this book is that the writing is so amazing that it almost reads as fiction, and there were many times I had to remind myself that this was memoir and that this actually happened, and that obviously makes it feel much more traumatizing somehow. But, for me, I researched a little bit about, we're from the same kind of geographic region, the Pacific Northwest, and I understood the family that she was coming out of. There's definitely a similarity there. I've seen that before in that area and I really understood her journey and her trajectory. For me, that was what stood out to me and in the book is this somehow coming out of that world and becoming who you are and who you were always meant to be in a way, really resonated with me.

Julie Twomey: Yeah, it's a really powerful story and I think it's resonating with a lot of people. So, it's a great project.

Julia Whelan: It's such a singular story for someone, like no one else has that experience.

Julie Twomey: Right.

Julia Whelan: But so many people can understand what it means to come out of a family with gas lighting, what it means to come out of a culture that doesn't respect you for who you are. Yeah. It's sad how much it resonates.

Julie Twomey: No, you're right. It's a really good point, but I think it's good to talk about that stuff and I think people can relate to certain things in it in a different way, which is really great. So, your new audio book, Evvie Drake Starts Over.

Julia Whelan: Evvie.

Julie Twomey: Evvie.

Julia Whelan: Evvie like Chevy as it says in the book.

Julie Twomey: Evvie like Chevy, love it. And so that's why NPR hosts, right? Which is so interesting. Can you give us a little sneak peek of what it's about?

Julia Whelan: I can, I love this book so much. I read a draft of this book about two years ago because Linda and I have been friends for a while and it is about a young widow who, I'm not giving anything away, but was not in a good place with her husband when he died. And so, she's living with the guilt of the fact that she was going to leave him on the day he died and everyone expects a certain type of grief to be coming out of that situation. She just doesn't feel it.

In an effort to kind of start over, a friend recommends that she rent out her back house to an ex baseball player who is going through the yips. He's a pitcher and he just lost his arm. He can't throw anymore. And so he's looking to get away from all of the hateful fans, and he's starting over, she's starting over and it's lovely. It's everything charming and wonderful and wise about Linda in fiction.

Julie Twomey: And when is that coming out?

Julia Whelan: Tuesday.

Julie Twomey: Perfect, so we'll definitely be looking for that. That's great. Can you talk a little bit about your professional background? I know you have some acting experience.

Julia Whelan: Yeah, I was a child actor, mostly in high school. That was when I was kind of at the height of my professional career. I was on a television show called Once and Again, and then when that ended, it happened to be my senior year of high school. And so, I left the business for awhile and went to college and became a creative writing and English major. When I graduated, I fell into this through a very good friend of mine, a college friend, whose mom happens to be an audio book director and producer. She said, you know, with your acting background and your creative writing degree, I think you might be really good at this.

Julie Twomey: Absolutely.

Julia Whelan: I didn't know what it was. I really had no idea. I don't think I'd ever listened to an audio book. I had no idea. She was right in that I took to it. I just love it. I'm a book nerd, that was the whole reason I was an English major and I get to act everyday. It's just perfect.

Julie Twomey: I love it. You've found the perfect thing, that's like the ideal thing in life, right? So, I've heard audio books can take a long time to produce. What's the longest day that you've spent reporting?

Julia Whelan: I don't like to do more than eight hours a day. It's a long time because eight hours in the booth actually recording translates to about, for me, about five hours of actually getting through the book.

Julie Twomey: I see, okay.

Julia Whelan: So, they can be very long days and it's taxing on the voice obviously, and focus, too. I always want to feel that I'm fresh and I'm approaching the text.

Julie Twomey: Give every scene what it deserves. So, you mentioned your voice. Do you do anything to keep it conditioned, to keep it in tip top shape?

Julia Whelan: Hydrate constantly. Obviously things like avoiding smoke, avoiding situations where I'd be yelling. Just general vocal care. But, I have a very extensive vocal theater training. It's not like I'm yelling to the back of the house, I just need to be in my mic. So, it's not usually too strenuous.

Julie Twomey: How many times do you read a book before you narrate it?

Julia Whelan: It depends on the book. I definitely do a very thorough read before I record it, because I'm keeping a list. I'm keeping two lists. One is a word list of words, I don't know how to pronounce. Sometimes that's just author invention. If it's fantasy or something, and it's a character with 14 vowels.

Julie Twomey: It'd be like Star Trek trying to say some of that stuff, right?

Julia Whelan: And then I'm also simultaneously keeping a character list, where I'm writing down biographical details about the character, but also any specific vocal traits that the author gives them at any point in the book. And so, that's a very thorough prep read. And then, depending on if it's structurally tricky or there's certain passages that are experimental or something, I will usually run those a few times before I get into the booth.

Julie Twomey: Do you usually do everything in one take or would you have to do multiple takes?

Julia Whelan: It depends on which publisher. But most often you're recording until you make a mistake.

Julie Twomey: Ah, I've been curious about that.

Julia Whelan: You just stop and you go back to the top of the sentence and start recording again. So, you'll hear a lead in to what you just finished recording and then it'll start recording and you just-

Julie Twomey: That's interesting. I've always been curious about that.

Julia Whelan: Random House is a little different in that it's very enjoyable. They just let it roll.

Julie Twomey: Oh. And then they edit it after, okay.

Julia Whelan: I love recording for them because you can just get a continuity of performance. You're not stopping. If you screw up, it's fine.

Julie Twomey: You just keep going. Do you prefer that?

Julia Whelan: I do. I also feel it's faster. It's definitely not faster for the editor, but it's a faster for me.

Julie Twomey: Keep them busy.

Julia Whelan: Yeah.

Julie Twomey: So, you mentioned different characters. Do you have to use accents a lot and if you do, how do you handle that?

Julia Whelan: Yeah, I think it depends on, the great thing about this job, but also the challenging thing about this job, is that in audio books as an audio book narrator, I'm asked to play characters I would never be asked to play on camera. You know, men for instance.

Julie Twomey: Right.

Julia Whelan: Or different races or different ethnicities and sometimes that gets touchy, obviously, and you want to approach it with a sensitivity. But, if it's on the page and it's written that way and it's important to the story, you also have to honor the author's intention. So, I think that that's one thing, certainly with American accents, just growing up in the industry for so long, that was a skill set that I had, but developing other accents I would've never, been asked to do on camera was definitely a...and every once in a while I'm still surprised something comes up and I'm like, I don't even know what that is. I've never heard of that.

Julie Twomey: Do you like that challenge?

Julia Whelan: Oh, I love it. Yeah. That's what makes it fun.

Julie Twomey: Yeah. I think that would be interesting. Something new keeps it fresh, right? Yeah. So we mentioned how you care for your voice.

Julia Whelan: And whisky I should also say.

Julie Twomey: And whisky, well, obviously don't we all. I'm kidding.

Julia Whelan: I'm not.

Julie Twomey: I love it. What are some of your favorite projects that you've worked at?

Julia Whelan: Oh man. Well Evvie is up there, I have to say, because of loving Linda so much and loving that book, so I'm a genuinely, not just because she's a friend, but just, it's such a great book. Recently, that was a wonderful experience. I've been a part of some larger projects recently. Taylor Jenkins Reid's Daisy Jones and The Six is an amazing audio book, and so, I've very much enjoyed that.

Going back to the beginning of my career, obviously Gone Girl stands out and, and Girl Underwater, interestingly, still stays with me. I wish more people would find that book because it was-

Julie Twomey: Yeah, I had mentioned this, we didn't record, but the second audio book that I've ever listened to was Girl Underwater and it's a really wonderful, powerful story and you did a really good job. What I liked the most about what you did with that is the multiple voices. You did cover a man's voice, but you did it really well. Some narration, it either works or it doesn't, right?

Julia Whelan: Well, and again this is sort of the entire medium is a challenge. I think that it's very hard to find that balance. When I first started, especially with men's voices, I would try to really dig down and it's like, you can't actually hear the difference. I go back and listen to it and would think, I killed myself to get there.

Julie Twomey: You just made a slight change I felt like. Is that what it was like for you?

Julia Whelan: Again, for me, the change that happened is I understood that it's really more about, it's not about voice, it's about the character you are.

Julie Twomey: Agreed.

Julia Whelan: If you are committed to that character and the rhythms that he has or the tone that he has without trying to sound like a man.

Julie Twomey: You know what, I think that's a really good point because the narrators that maybe haven't cared for as much, I think they may have been trying too hard. Like you said, they were dropping their voice too much when they would do a male voice. You know what I mean?

Julia Whelan: You're still going to get, you just can't be everything to everybody.

Julie Twomey: Right? Yeah. You can't please everyone. Some people won't-

Julia Whelan: Sometimes, like I said, the other way to do it is to just not do any characterization, you know? That's another stylistic choice. For some books I do that because I don't want to interfere with the pros. I don't want to interfere with the way I feel the author was meant to tell the story. Especially when it's literary or there's something, I try to pull back a little bit, depending on the category or the genre.

Julie Twomey: Do you collaborate with the author a lot?

Julia Whelan: Yes, sometimes. Usually through the publisher. So, we're coordinating, because if I'm asking about pronunciations or something like that, then the the publisher and producer facilitating. But some people, I mean I've been doing this now a while and I've made friends with the authors that I've narrated with. So, sometimes I just call them and I had to do this with Linda and I was like, explain to me what this sounds like, because she spelled, Evvie makes us sound at a certain point that is spelled on the page, B-u-u-u-u-u-h-h-h-h-h, and I was like Linda-

Julie Twomey: You've got to help me out.

Julia Whelan: And she was like, it's just like a lusty exhale. And I was like, Buuh, I get it.

Julie Twomey: Ah, I love that. So, that must be a challenge if you can't connect with the author and you see something like that, right?

Julia Whelan: Yeah.

Julie Twomey: Interesting. So now I want to talk about the library a little bit. We're here with the librarians.

Julia Whelan: Yes, yes, my favorite.

Julie Twomey: Absolutely. How important was the library to your success as you were growing up?

Julia Whelan: Oh, the library was hugely important for me. We actually had a really great, I'm from Salem, Oregon originally and we had a great local library. It was actually near the fire station where my father worked and so, I was there, it feels like daily, that can't possibly be right. But so many of my memories are tied to that building, to the smell of that building. Growing up as a very creative, always interested in writing, always interested in history, always wanted to act. Being that that person in a town that is small and at that time I isolated from more experience. That was my window. That was my gateway to other experiences and I just had wonderful supportive parents who took me there and let me roam like wild cub through the library.

Julie Twomey: I feel that same way about my library. It's like it was fun. There was something, I don't know.

Julia Whelan: It's safe.

Julie Twomey: Enchanting about it. The buildings are gorgeous. There's the smells. Yeah, I agree. I think that's great. And so, that was your childhood. As far as college, how did you use your library when you were in school?

Julia Whelan: I went to Middlebury College and actually, well two things. So first of all, the library at Middlebury was new the year that I got there and it's spectacular. It's just stunning. I would live there if I could. I was also a tutor at Middlebury and the tutoring center was in the library. I was just reflecting that it's interesting to see all of the digital library services because, I'm now realizing I graduated 11 years ago and it feels like a different lifetime. I'm sure it existed, but it certainly, for me it was still go in full of book off the shelf, you know? I loved my university library and then I also spent a year at Oxford that has, I don't know, over a hundred libraries in that town.

Julie Twomey: That's amazing. I didn't know that.

Julia Whelan: I did not get into all of them, because it's divided by each college has its own library and then each faculty has its own library, so each department. And then, there were also just some general university libraries.

Julie Twomey: Is it still like that now?

Julia Whelan: Yeah.

Julie Twomey: And so, have you seen audio books being used in curriculums at all yet?

Julia Whelan: I believe so. I don't know if any of mine have been. When I think about that, I guess I think about some really stellar YA titles that would be really instructive. Again, having tutored and having dealt with kids with reading comprehension issues or dyslexia or learning disabilities, it's such a value for accessibility that it's one of the major motivators for me doing this job. I just want to be able to get story, literature, language, because I think that ultimately, this is just me as an English major, but I think humans become more empathetic the more they read. If you are blocking people from, if they don't have access to that, if something about them is preventing them from being able to access those stories, then we have to have a better way. We have to figure out how to get around that. I think audio, I love anyone who's listening while they're commuting and doing laundry, that's great. But it's often that's the only opportunity people have to access a story.

Julie Twomey: I think it's wonderful. Audio books present so many opportunities, especially for young folks. Pronunciation, vocabulary, I think they're so important.

Julia Whelan: And we've all had that experience of getting into college and opening your mouth in a class and mispronouncing a word because you've only ever seen it written.

Julie Twomey: Totally.

Julia Whelan: Right?

Julie Twomey: I think that's the beauty of it. I still listen and I'm like, ah, I've been saying that wrong.

Julia Whelan: Tell me about it, as a narrator. Sometimes I get notes back. It's like, formidable, not formidable. And I'm like, Oh really? Oh really?

Julie Twomey: That makes me feel better. No, I think that's great. Can you describe some of the ways that your narration has brought joy to people's lives? Their feedback?

Julia Whelan: My gosh, wow.

Julie Twomey: Is that a big one?

Julia Whelan: Yes, I have wonderful fans. I love when people reach out. I love when they let me know that something moved them. Joy is interesting thing because I think I do so many kind of serious tear jerking books. I think about The Great Alone, for instance, I've had a lot of people talk about that it destroyed them, and I guess that's joy?

Julie Twomey: That's true. I guess that's maybe not the right word, but, impact.

Julia Whelan: Yeah, and I think it's because for people who are devout audio book fans, and once you do, your ear grows accustomed to a narrator and you trust them to take you through the story. It's an honor. It's an honor to be the kind of conduit between the author and listeners.

Julie Twomey: If you would like to hear an excerpt from the book, Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes and narrated by Julia Whelen. Just stay tuned. If your library would like to offer audio books, you can contact an EBSCO representative at ebsco.com. Keep an ear out for our next episode with multi award winner, educator, and author Sharon Draper. Thank you for listening to the Digital Squeeze. Please enjoy this clip from the newly released Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes.

Julia Whelan: Evvie lay awake on the floor in the dark. More specifically, on the floor of the empty little apartment that jutted awkwardly from the back of her house into the yard. She was there because upstairs in her own bed she'd had another dream where Tim was still alive. Evvie's Scandinavian grandmother had claimed that young women dream about the husbands they want, old women dream about the husbands they wanted, and only the luckiest women, for a moment in the middle, dream about the husbands they've got.

But even accounting for the narrow ambitions this formulation allowed, Evvie's dreams about Tim were not what her Nana had in mind. He was always angry at her for leaving. Do you see what happened? He would say again and again. He'd felt so close this time that she dreamed his cinnamon gum breath and the little vein on his forehead, and she was afraid if she turned over and went back to sleep, he'd still be there.

So, she'd thrown off the blankets and made her way down to the first floor of the house that had always been too big and was much too big now. Descending the wide curved staircase still felt like transgressing, like sneaking down to the front desk of a hotel late at night to ask for extra towels. She'd stopped in the kitchen to put on a pot of water for tea, come directly into the apartment, and stretched out on her back to wait.

When they'd first bought the house, when he'd first bought the house, they'd planned to rent out the apartment, but they never got around to it. So Evvie had painted it her favorite shade of peacock blue and used it like a tree house. Keep out. It was still her favorite place in the house and would remain so, unless Tim's goes, started haunting it just to say he had noticed a few little bubbles in the paint and it would really look better if she did it over.

"Nice", she'd thought to herself when that thought first intruded, welcome to Maine's most ghoulish comedy club. Here's a little joke about how my husband's ghost is kind of an asshole and about how I, am a monster. It was a little after four in the morning, flat on her back and her tee shirt and boxers, she took rhythmic breaths trying to slow the pounding in her temples and belly and wrists.

The house felt empty of air and was totally silent except for the clock that it ticked out, pick-a, pick-a, for 35 years first in her parents' kitchen, and now in hers. In the dark apartment, she felt so little of anything except the prickle of the carpet on her skin, that it was like not being anywhere at all. It was like lying directly on top of the earth. Evvie thought from time to time about moving in here.

Someone else could have the house, that big kitchen and the bedrooms upstairs, the carved banister and the slick staircase where she'd once slipped and gotten a deep purple bruise on her hip. She could live here, stretched out on her back in the dark thinking all her worst thoughts, eating peanut butter sandwiches, and listening to the radio like the power was out forever.

The kettle whistled from the kitchen, so she stood and when to turn it off. She took down one of the two public radio fundraising mugs from the cabinet leaving behind the one with the thin coat of dust on its upturned bottom. The tag on her chamomile tea bag said, "There is no trouble that a good cup of tea can't solve." It sounded like what a gentleman on Downton Abbey would say right before his wife got an impacted tooth and elegantly perished in bed.

Blowing ripples and her tea, Evvie went into the living room where there was somewhere to sit and curled up on the deep green love seat. There was a sports illustrated addressed to Tim sticking out of the pile of mail on the coffee table and she paged through it by the wedge of light from the kitchen. The winding down of baseball season, the gearing up of football season, an update on a college gymnast who was quitting to be a doctor, and a profile of a Yankee's pitcher who woke up one day and couldn't pitch anymore.

That last one was under a fat all caps headline, "How to become a headcase". "Way ahead of you", she muttered and stuck the magazine at the bottom of the pile. By the clock on the cable box, it was 4:23 AM. She closed her eyes. It had been almost a year since Tim died and she still couldn't do anything at all sometimes, because she was consumed by not missing him. She could fill up whole rooms with how it felt to be the only person who knew that she barely loved him when she'd listened to him snoring lightly on the last night he was alive. Monster, monster, she thought, monster, monster.

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors.