Zibby interviews novelist and award-winning audiobook narrator Julia Whelan about Thank You For Listening, a poignant, charming, and witty rom-com about a former actress turned successful audiobook narrator who, after a tragic accident, is on a journey of self-discovery, love, and acceptance. Julia reveals the parts of the book that are actually autobiographical and shares what it was like to lose her father at a young age. She also talks about friendships, audiobook narrating (how it relates to the novel and her own career), her experiences as a child actor, and the book she is working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Julia. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Thank You for Listening.

Julia Whelan: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I would hold up the book, but it’s next to my bed where I have been reading it as my treat every single night.

Julia: Okay, you’re excused. You’re excused.

Zibby: I should take a picture of it over there. Congratulations. What a fun but heartfelt and entertaining — it has all the good things that a book should have, really, like past traumas and working through things and friendships. It’s the full package. The sense of humor is really my favorite. It has such a wit to it. Tell listeners what Thank You for Listening is about, please.

Julia: Thank You for Listening is about Sewanee Chester, who used to be an on-camera actress, but something happened to her, which we find out later in the book. Something happened to her, and she doesn’t do on-camera anymore. She just does voiceover. Specifically, she narrates audiobooks. She has one rule, which is that at this point in her career, she doesn’t like to record romance anymore because that’s how she started her career. She is so cynical that she just doesn’t buy what romance is selling. She doesn’t want to do it. Eventually, she is given an offer for something she cannot refuse because she’s trying to take care of her ailing grandmother, and this would give her enough money to be able to do that. She finds herself in a romance novel hitting trope after trope after trope. It’s very meta and very self-aware. It’s a book about self-acceptance and how to make peace when our life doesn’t go the way we thought it was going to go.

Zibby: Amazing. That was another piece that really resonated for me. I remember when I would visit my grandmother at her nursing home. There was that wing where you’re like, oh, that’s the next level up. Are we going to get there? Then when you’re touring it, you’re like, no, of course not, but then everyone ages.

Julia: That wouldn’t possibly be for her.

Zibby: That relationship, that was great. The dad who’s not as into it, that was another piece I really liked even though it was sad.

Julia: That’s the most personal piece to me, probably. I’m an audiobook narrator. That’s my day job. I think that people think that’s the autobiographical part, but it’s not. The ailing grandparent is the autobiographical part. That’s where the heart, for me, is in the book.

Zibby: Which grandparent was it of yours?

Julia: My dad’s dad. My father died very suddenly when I was twenty-seven. I sort of inherited my grandfather and my step-grandmother. I was taking care of two eighty-six-year-olds for the last three years of their lives. That’s actually when I was recording a fair bit of romance under an alias to pay for that. I just had that slow deterioration and wanting to do everything you can to protect someone and take care of them. Unlike with kids or something, you never have the sense that it’s going to get better. They’re never going to get better. It’s not going to improve. You just want to make them as comfortable as possible until the end. That was a really formative experience for me.

Zibby: I’m sorry. That is so hard. It’s hard.

Julia: It’s hard, and it’s also beautiful in a way. I know that if my father had been alive, I probably wouldn’t have been as involved as I was. I wouldn’t have had that final connection with my grandfather the way that I was able to. At the end when it’s just us, there’s something beautiful about that too. Being able to be there for someone like that at the end is a privilege in a lot of ways, even though I look back on my late twenties, and I’m like, I didn’t have late twenties. What most people deal with with their parents at fifty or sixty, that’s what I was doing at that time.

Zibby: Do you feel like that whole experience made you treat your own health and your own body and life a little bit differently? Did seeing that this is how — you know what I mean.

Julia: I wish I could say yes. I’m also terrible at prioritizing any kind of self-care. I will say that I think, particularly, my father’s sudden death gave me that message very early on of, life is short. I’ve definitely taken that, for the last ten, twelve years, to heart. I think that’s why I’m a little bit pedal to the metal about things. It’s definitely formative. Definitely.

Zibby: Can you talk about how your father passed away?

Julia: It was, as far as we can tell, a heart attack. He was a type one diabetic. He also had been a firefighter. There was a lot of mileage on that body. He was really the person who was responsible for my grandparents, and so we just assumed there’d be this line of care. Then when that’s not there — for me to put that into the book, I didn’t want to do a completely point-for-point retelling of my own — I don’t write memoir for a reason. I want to be able to have the flexibility to change what I need to change for the story to work, to make the point that I want to make. I do think that for all intents and purposes, Henry is pretty absent. Her father and Blah’s son is pretty absent. It’s just been the two of them trying to work this out. That was my version of it, my fictional version.

Zibby: Interesting.

Julia: Anyway, it’s a rom-com.

Zibby: Sorry, I know.

Julia: need to make sure that people are clear about that.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I go right to the upsetting — I’m sorry. Yes. I said it was entertaining and funny. It is light too.

Julia: You’re writing about grief. You’ve done that. I guess that’s just me. That’s why I don’t think I can write a frothy — as much as I love to read those books, I don’t think I can because I like my happily ever afters earned. I like a little bitter with my sweet. That’s my sensibility. That’s what I enjoy. I think it just enriches the whole experience in books and life.

Zibby: Of course, you have Sewanee getting up there in this romance panelist role saying, don’t do this because there is no happily ever after. Don’t believe it. The silence afterwards, it’s so funny.

Julia: You don’t want to say that at a romance convention of all places.

Zibby: She’s like, oh, my gosh, what did I just say? Oops. That’s so great. Then you also, of course, have what you talked about a minute ago, these expectations and how as friends, you set off on these goals. We all start out — not all. Many friendships start out from college or school or a place where we’re all — our launching-off points are the same. Then we go in such huge different directions, like Sewanee and — I can never — what’s her name?

Julia: Adaku.

Zibby: Adaku. Sorry. Thank you. Adaku, who’s really made it as a movie star, getting her big thing, first big milestone that they had come up with together. That sense of longing and jealousy but also support, it’s an intricate piece of relationships that I think is really highlighted during that time of life, that age.

Julia: Thank you. Thanks. I think that’s true. I was actually having this conversation in an interview with Emily Henry about Happy Place. Have you read it yet?

Zibby: No, but I have it here. I’ve read the other ones. I have it. I’m getting to it.

Julia: I would suggest, just put that at the front of the list, top of the pile.

Zibby: I know. I know. I know. I’m sorry. I haven’t yet.

Julia: For these themes and this point of — you get to your early thirties, and I think it’s kind of the first time where the paths do start diverging. Either people are married or they’re still on the apps or they’ve got kids or they don’t have kids. Suddenly, it’s fractal, how people’s lives start diverging and changing. You’re like, what do I actually have in common with this person anymore other than just history? Those relationships, that’s why they become very dynamic and fragile. It is definitely an interesting moment in friendships.

Zibby: Of course, you took your audiobook narrator piece of life and put it into the book. There was the funny scene where Sewanee’s at the bar trying to convince the bartender that, yes, she does all the voices in the book. He’s like, no, really? You’re so good at dialogue too.

Julia: I would get that a lot. Early on, it was a question of, how much audiobook is too much audiobook in this novel? How much do people need to know about the industry? I just made a list of things that I get all the time. What are the most common questions? Can I get out in front of it and answer it in some way so that everyone’s on the same page when they start reading? That was one of them. I will get, still to this day, comments of people being like, who else is doing the recording with you? Unless it’s a multicast, unless it’s clearly multiple narrators, I’m doing all of it. I’m doing all of the characters. It’s hard for people to get their head around.

Zibby: What were the other ones that you wanted to make sure people knew?

Julia: The prepping question. What goes into doing an audiobook? There’s a paragraph in there about seeing her prep a book, how that works. The questions of how you record. For the most part, it’s just going to into the booth and self-recording and talking to yourself, except when we get to see them in the studio together, which is rare but does happen, for duet narration particularly. It’s the constant care and attention to your voice, always being aware of — when she tenses up at mispronunciations. Being totally unfit for any kind of human socializing is the main point.

Zibby: I loved your mischievous pet peeve.

Julia: Yes, mischievous, that’s like nails on a chalkboard for me.

Zibby: Did you get into audiobook narrating after wanting to be a non-audiobook actress?

Julia: My story’s a little bit different. I think now because audiobooks are popular and people actually see it as a career path — somebody will say, I want to become an audiobook narrator. When I was starting, most people, all of us fell backwards in this industry. It’s because we were actors. I had been a child actor and then left the business and went to college and was focusing on creative writing and English and was going to graduate and come back and act on camera but also write screenwriting, but then also prose. Then this just came in to pay the bills. I remember thinking, if I could one audiobook a month, that would just take some of the pressure off while I’m doing everything else. That would be great. Then within a couple of years, I was doing seventy books a year. It was my full-time job. I was leaving no room for writing and everything that I intended to do. A few years ago, I made the concerted effort to get back into writing and start pulling the books that were sitting in my hard drive collecting digital dust, started bringing those back out and working on them.

Zibby: Tell me what that path was like selling the first book and all of that.

Julia: The first book, actually, My Oxford Year, came out of a screenplay that I had been hired to work on at Sony. I think the producers got to know my opinions about it and everything that I wanted to bring to the book and the story and what was important to me. This was actually right after my dad had died. I was like, there’s a whole book here about grief and carrying on and what that looks like. I was always trying to bring that to the screenplay. There’s limitations there. There’s only so much room. One of the producers said, “Do you think there’s a book here?” I was like, “No story has ever wanted to be a novel more than a story that’s a book about an English professor at Oxford. Please let me write this book.” That’s how that came about. They gave me free reign to tell the story that I really wanted to tell, which I will be forever grateful for. That sold to HarperCollins. I wrote that book really fast because we were trying to beat the movie. The movie was in preproduction. There was a cast. It was going. Just trying to do that, trying to be quick on a publishing timeline is impossible.

Zibby: Then what about this one?

Julia: This one was after — I was writing literary fiction. I came out of a literary program. I was writing short story collections. I had a historical fiction manuscript going for a while. Then I wrote My Oxford Year. It was sold and marketed as a rom-com, which it’s not, but at the time, I don’t think we really knew what to call it. It was like, what’s your next book going to be? I was like, I don’t know. This is not the way I think. I don’t think in this market, in this genre. I had been playing around with, again, a screenplay idea set in the audiobook world that was a rom-com. I just thought, actually, this could be a book. I think it would be a very bookish book that bookish people would enjoy, a book about books. With some reworking and cannibalizing Sewanee from another novel that I was working on and folding her into it, just finally was able to bring this idea to fruition after about ten years of noodling on what a good story set in the audiobook world would look like.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so cool. Now is it going to go backwards? Will this be a movie or a screenplay? Are you adapting this?

Julia: I don’t know. No, I’m not doing anything right now with it. I’m letting it sit there. I’m working on the next thing and just moving forward. My experience having been in Hollywood most of my life is, for me, it’s a question of — people have to come to you. Everyone has to think it’s their idea for anything to work. That’s my sense. At this point, I don’t like to pitch things or go in and try to sell them. I just feel like it’s got to happen organically for people to have enough passion about something to carry it through to the finish line because that’s the hardest part.

Zibby: Interesting. I like that. Should I know what you were in as a kid? Am I embarrassed to not know?

Julia: No. It was very popular for a very small group of people, but really wonderful, critically acclaimed series called Once and Again. It was on ABC. I’m still super proud of it. You can’t even stream it. It’s just in that black hole, late nineties, early two-thousands. Those shows just aren’t anywhere yet. Recently, someone sent me one of the episodes that was up on YouTube. I was like, it’s so good. It is objectively. It holds up. We had a great cast and fantastic writers. It was the guys who’d done Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. It’s a really good show. It ruined me for all other shows. I was like, if I’m not getting to do this writing on a weekly basis, I don’t want to do it.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I’m going to look it up. Maybe I watched it. My brain doesn’t work properly anymore. I feel like all show knowledge has seeped out of one of my ears or something. Do you listen to audiobooks yourself? Are you over it by the time you finish recording?

Julia: It’s funny. It’s not that I’m over it, but I don’t have a commute, and I can’t have any more narrative in my head. Between the books that I’m writing and the books that I’m recording and then the books that I’m being asked to blurb or something, I can’t jump into — there have been so many books that I get to blurb, and my first instinct is, “Can I get the audio?” before realizing that the book’s not out yet. No one’s done the audio for you. I get a book to prep myself for audio, and it will occur to me, I’m like, I wonder if this is on audio. It’s like, no, honey, you’re doing the audio. Any opportunity I have in life to listen to audio, it doesn’t happen. That said, I kind of like that in a way because the people that I love in this industry — I do love, love, love — my fellow narrators are just amazing. They’re people who I just like as people without necessarily knowing their work. There’s something really freeing about that.

Zibby: Do a lot of narrators really use pseudonyms the way you said in the book?

Julia: Yeah, for romance particularly. I always like to take the opportunity to explain this to people and why we do it. Novelists do the same thing, so it’s not unfamiliar. For some people, it’s just a question of keeping the branding straight. If I’m recording children’s books or YA, I don’t want a kid to stumble upon something they shouldn’t if they’re looking in an Audible catalog. For other people, they have very real-life concerns. For me, as a child actor, I had weird, stalker-y interactions. I never wanted those men to be able to listen to me reading them erotic scenes. That felt like a huge invasion of privacy. I didn’t want that. Other people have contentious custody issues or something. They don’t want to give the ex-husband a reason to be able to say, she’s unfit in some way, even though it’s a job. It’s romance. There’s nothing shameful about it, but this is the society we’re in. I always tell people, fans, we all appreciate when you hear somebody’s voice and you love it and you want to help other fans find that person by saying, did you know they also record under these names? You can’t do it. Don’t do it publicly. Do it privately, if anything. That is important to so many people. You do not have the right to out someone, even if it’s best intentions. You can google the person, and you’ll find out very quickly whether they’re open about it. Some narrators, like some authors — Nora Roberts will say, I’m also J.D. Robb. Some narrators are very clear they work under both. Some are private about it. I ask for politeness and consideration. Hopefully, people get that.

Zibby: Which everyone in every industry deserves but doesn’t necessarily get.

Julia: Somehow, it just doesn’t happen. Information is too easily spread these days.

Zibby: Is there an organization like the ABA for books or something like that for audiobook narrators? Is that how you’ve become close with them? Is it through informal ways, like just conferences? How does that community get formed?

Julia: That’s a good question. This is, again, how much the industry has changed over the years. When I was getting started, we were still recording in studio, so you would meet people in the studio. In 2012 particularly, there was this audiobook boom where Audible really dialed everything up and was like, we want to put — I think it was so ambitious. We want to put every book ever written into audio. There were studios in LA that were open twenty-four hours. We were pulling graveyards shifts. It was recording, recording, recording. I got to know a lot of the LA narrators from that. There is the APA, the Audio Publishers Association. We have our yearly conference and awards show, the Audies. We all come off of our islands and meet up there. Then a group of narrators just started the Professional Audiobook Narrators Association, PANA. Literally, if you’ve recorded one title but you want to join, you can. I’m on the board of that. Full disclosure. We just wanted to be a safe space for narrators that are not about publishers. The APA is wonderful, but they’re there for the publishers. We have SAG-AFTRA, our union. That is incredible for negotiating for our purposes, but not every audiobook narrator is a union member. We just felt that there was this vacuum. That’s how we’re trying to build a sense of community and bringing people together through that organization.

Zibby: That’s great. I’ve recorded four audiobooks, I’ll have you know.

Julia: Wow. How did you find it? I’m curious. I also direct audiobooks. I did in the past. I would direct a lot of author reads. I would run through my list of things to give them ahead of time. Here’s how you may feel. At the end of the day, all I could really do was just be there for them for whatever would come up. Did you find it difficult?

Zibby: I went into it having had lots of authors tell me how emotional it had made them. Not in the context of me. Just as I was interviewing them. I had a heads-up that there might be floodgates, so I knew to be prepared. I brought tissues. Whereas had I not gotten that, I would’ve been blindsided and perhaps more emotional for some parts of what I was reading. I found it really fun. I love to read. I read to my kids. I read out loud. I’m used to talking into a microphone. All the interruptions — okay, let’s take it back from there. Let’s just say this one again. You know what? That whole part where you were just crying hysterically about your grandmother dying, just do that one again.

Julia: It wasn’t clear. We didn’t totally get it, so if you could just go back.

Zibby: I’m like, really? Really? Again? Then I would do it again and cry again. Just the last little bit. It was funny. I enjoyed it. I was like, this would be a great job because you read books all day. That’s what I was thinking. I wasn’t that good at it. If I were good at it, it would be a really great job.

Julia: Look, because there’s not a lot of money in it, so the question is, even for other voiceover actors, it’s like, if you don’t love books, if you don’t love spending eight hours a day in the booth, you’re going to hate this. This is not worth it. I think this is why I like all of the narrators in the industry. It self-selects people who are fine just living in the world of books, talking to themselves, being a little bit vampiric in our booths never seeing the sun. It’s a very specific type of person.

Zibby: We should really do a big marketing campaign to get our books just into audiobook narrators’ hands. They’re all such big readers outside of work.

Julia: Yes. That’s the thing. Especially now, audiobook narrators have their own followings that they bring to books. You’re able to borrow the audiobook narrator’s fans. It’s a rapidly changing, really profitable industry. I think everyone’s trying to figure out what it’s going to be in the next five years. It’s dynamic. We do it because we love it. That’s what it comes down to. It is fun.

Zibby: Amazing. If you had to choose audiobook recording or writing and you had to give up one, which would you give up?

Julia: Oh, man. For me, I would probably go with writing just because that is what I always was setting out to do. My whole life, that’s been the impulse. I have so many stories that I want to tell. When I’m recording other people’s stories, I just don’t have the time to tell them. Again, we go back to, in a nice narrative device to loop back to the beginning of the conversation, but that “life is too short” thing is always hanging over me. I’ve recorded over five hundred books in my career. I love it. I love what it’s given me and the relationships it’s given me and the authors that I have become close with as a result. I love it, but I don’t think at the end of my life I would look back and say, I really wish I’d done another audiobook, where I will absolutely say, I wish I could’ve written another novel.

Zibby: Interesting. That makes sense. Are you working on another novel?

Julia: I am. This was not part of the plan, but this one story could not let me go. It’s the book that they’re recording in Thank you for Listening, the that they’re recording , which started as, what’s the most ridiculous romance premise I can come up with? Then I had to work out so much of the story and the characters to make the scenes work in Thank you for Listening that I was like, actually, this is way more interesting than it has any right to be. I’m exploring that. I’m hoping to do that soon. I think it’s mainly for audio. I’m going to just do the audio and then move on to the next thing. I got to get it out. I got to share it with people. Too many people have asked for it. I’m really enjoying it, as ridiculous as it is.

Zibby: I think that is brilliant. That’s such a great idea. I can’t wait for that one. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Julia: For aspiring authors — I’m not a prescriptive person. You won’t hear from me, you have to write every day. You have to have so many rejections or whatever. I don’t do that. I think everyone has a process that works for them. The one thing I will say, because this is what my day job has given me, is read widely. Read, read, read. Read also in categories that you do not want to write in. That’s the thing that being a narrator — I don’t know anything about sci-fi. I would get a book, and it’d be like, figure it out. Sometimes when you only read in your genre, you don’t have — it’s helpful to see how a sci-fi writer solves the third-act problem or how a horror novelist does a hook. Those are things that when you read it in your own genre sometimes become invisible. Read like a writer. Read like you’re trying to figure out how something was constructed. Sometimes that’s easier to do when you’re reading outside of your own genre. That’s my advice.

Zibby: Excellent. Very specific and actionable. I like it. Thank you, Julia. Thank you so much for the book and the conversation and the tips and all of it. Thank you.

Julia: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. This was lovely.

Zibby: Thank you for Listening.

Julia: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.


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