Audiobook star Julia Whelan says ‘Thank You for Listening’ isn’t about her

Like the protagonist in her new novel “Thank You for Listening,” author Julia Whelan is a star narrator of audiobooks. She’s read hundreds of titles and has won multiple awards for her work. But the confusion between the fictional world she creates as a writer and her real-life work as a narrator is understandable; the same kind of confusion also came up with Whelan’s first novel, “My Oxford Year.”

“Both books have had a component to them that could be seen as biographical – and they weren’t. But they are things and worlds that I know,” says Whelan by phone from the studio at her home in the Coachella Valley, “I’m doing the old adage of writing what you know, but that doesn’t mean that I’m writing me.”

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Having spent years narrating audiobooks has given Whelan loads of insight on a world that many may not recognize, however. “My one concern was that people didn’t know enough about audiobooks to care about the people that make them,” says Whelan, who initially conceived of the plot – a rom-com set against the romance audiobook landscape – roughly a decade ago. “In the last few years, I felt that had changed. I felt that audiobooks had become popular enough that I was, as a narrator, getting the same questions all the time. People were curious about my job and it seemed like an area that could support an entire book.”

As a child, Whelan was an on-screen actor; she had a starring role on the TV series “Once and Again,” the 1999-2002 series that also featured Evan Rachel Wood, Shane West and Sela Ward among the cast. Then, at her college graduation, the mother of one of her friends suggested Whelan give audiobook narration a try. “I knew nothing about audiobooks and I had never listened to one,” Whelan says. “Eventually, after moving back to L.A. and pounding the pavement, auditioning and tutoring to make ends meet, I was like, what is this job and how does it work and what do I need to do?”

It turned out that Whelan, who had studied English and creative writing in school, was a great fit for the medium. It was a way she could merge both her actor side and her “book nerd” side. “This was this perfect marriage of the things that really animate me,” she says.

As Whelan dove deeper into the audiobook world, the story that was unfolding in her head took shape. She says that she was surprised to learn that narrators had their own fans. “Especially in romance, how much people care about narrators was surprising for me and so completely obvious at a certain point,” she says. “If you’re going to listen to these books instead of reading them, you are choosing to have the experience of someone else’s voice and, obviously, you are going to care about that voice.”

It was quite different from the sort of recognition that she attained in her teenage years. “For me, coming from a child actor background, where I never liked being recognized on the street — that was always deeply uncomfortable for me — this was this weird different kind of celebrity where people knew my name, but they didn’t know me,” she explains.

For Whelan, one element in “Thank You For Listening” that does draw from her own life is the relationship between Sewanee and her grandmother as the latter’s memory is fading. Similarly, Whelan had cared for her grandfather who had dementia. “That’s an experience that I definitely wanted to have the space to write about at some point. I thought it would be its own book entirely,” says Whelan. Ultimately, though, she thought this experience tied in well with the themes of this story. “I couldn’t think of a better sad version of the tension between fantasy and reality than someone slowly disconnecting from reality in the form of dementia or Alzheimer’s,” she says.

Plus, Sewanee’s desire to care for her grandmother prompts career choices that move the book’s plot forward. “Money is not a non-issue and we don’t write about it enough,” says Whelan.

That’s something Whelan has experienced as well. “A lot of the reason that I was recording 70 books a year at the time I was caring for my grandfather is that it was allowing me to get on a plane every few weeks to go visit him and make sure that things were okay,” she says. “These were conscious decisions that I was making.”

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As with “My Oxford Year,” Whelan has recorded her own narration for the audiobook of “Thank You For Listening.” Even for a seasoned narrator, reading her own work aloud posed its own set of challenges. “With my first novel, ‘My Oxford Year,’ recording it was actually a pretty brutal experience because I couldn’t turn off my editorial brain,” she says. “It’s only when I was in the booth, actually performing it, that I was realizing how much I wanted to change.”

This time around, Whelan read her drafts as part of the process of editing herself. “I felt much more secure with the book as a whole,” she says.

Still, Whelan notes, “the general problem is absolutely being able to focus on the performance and not the book.” She adds, “I don’t have that problem with other people’s books.”

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