Joining me on What Should I Read Next today is the multi-talented Julia Whelan! Julia is the author of My Oxford Year, and her new book, Thank You For Listening (releasing August 2nd), but that’s not all: she’s also a beloved audiobook narrator. So many of you have shared your appreciation for how Julia gives voice to some of your favorite books—including Rebecca, my podcast guest in Episode 337: TBR solutions for an extreme mood reader!
Today, Julia and I enjoy a delightful conversation about the joys and challenges of the professional reading life, and what actually goes into creating the audiobooks so many readers love. And as two professional book nerds, we share a long list of titles we’ve loved, including a bunch that are particularly great on audio. Whether you’re a dedicated Whelan-ite or you’re new to Julia’s work, you’ll have some recommendations to choose from and a new appreciation for how audiobooks are created after listening to our show today!
Connect with Julia on Twitter.
JULIA: But we've got to sustain ourselves to be able to make that happen. And that's where the space potatoes come in. [BOTH LAUGHS]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey, readers, I'm Anne Bogel and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 340.
Welcome to the show that's dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don't get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we'll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
ANNE: Readers, My Reading Adventures, my new book journal for young readers comes out next Tuesday, August 2nd.
It takes the thoughtful features, useful tools, and inspiring book nerdery from my adult journal, My Reading Life, and presents it in a fun and approachable format that's perfect for your eight to 12-year-old reader. Although I should say my 15-year-old daughter and many of our non-teenage team members are just as excited to buy and use a copy themselves.
When you order your copy before August 2nd, you'll get an assortment of bonuses as a thank you. You get an exclusive digital reading list featuring my top picks for kids, our reading guide for grownups, and adorable and useful custom stickers sent directly to your mailbox via snail mail.
Visit modernmrsdarcy.com/kidsjournal to find the links to buy your copy from your favorite bookseller and claim those bonuses once you've ordered. That's modernmrsdarcy.com/kidsjournal.
Readers, my guest today is author, actress, audiobook narrator, and What Should I Read Next? team favorite, Julia Whelan. You may know Julia from her book, My Oxford Year, her audiobook narration of favorite titles like Book Lovers, The Four Winds, or Educated, or her newest book, Thank You for Listening.
Whether you're a fan of Julia's already or new to her work, this is going to be a great conversation for you.
Julia joins me from her home recording studio in Palm Springs to talk about the joys and challenges of the professional reading life and what actually goes into creating the audiobooks so many readers love.
And of course, as two professional but nerds, we talk about a whole bundle of titles from what Julia calls her absurd TBR, two, the books we love that balance literary detail with compulsive readability. Let's get to it!
Julia, welcome to the show.
JULIA: Thank you for having me.
ANNE: Oh, this is our pleasure. Our listeners have been clamoring to hear from you specifically and also from another audiobook narrator for a long time, because we have had one on the show before. Audiobook narration, is that professional world like authors where not everybody knows each other, but you're never more than a degree or two of separation away?
JULIA: I would say yeah, definitely. Especially the people who have been doing it for a while, there's been a boom in the industry and a lot of the new people, especially because we haven't had any in-person events for a long time. So I think that some of the new people we may not be as familiar with, but you know, the old shoes, yeah, we all know each other.
ANNE: Well, we talked to Adam Werner about professional narration-
JULIA: Oh, lovely.
ANNE: ...five years ago. And not only is there so much more to say, but things keep evolving [CHUCKLES] so rapidly. And something I loved about your new book is that you hint at that in the pages. But we're gonna get to that shortly. Who are you when you're not reading audiobooks in a booth for our listening enjoyment?
JULIA: That's a very good question. [ANNE CHUCKLES] Well, I'm in Southern California. I live in the desert in the Palm Springs area. I moved out of LA about five years ago when I realized that I really didn't leave my booth and my booth could be anywhere.
You know, it's recently occurred to me that I don't actually have hobbies that aren't books. So, yeah, if I'm not in the booth recording a book, I'm writing a book, or I'm reading other people's books to blurb them. Very little elective reading, but I just feel like I live in the world of books. That's kind of it. [CHUCKLES]
ANNE: Okay, so I have to ask you, though, about being a tea sommelier. I heard a rumor. Is this true? Are you a certified tea sommelier?
JULIA: I am. I am. I think my skill set is probably a little rusty at this point because this was about 10 years ago when I was just starting in audiobooks, and you know, I was acting on camera. I had been out of college for a couple of years and I just missed learning about things. And I've always loved tea.
I happened to be at a hotel in Chicago and went to a high tea service there and saw this guy kind of lighting from table to table to talk about the tea and properly serve the tea. And I was like, "What is he doing?" Who is he?" And he was the house tea sommelier.
And I asked him, "You know, what is this? How do you do this?" And he went through a very extensive program where you actually like go to Sri Lanka for two years and learn everything there is to know about tea.
JULIA: I was able to find an online program. And again, that also has changed over the years. Now that's proliferated and there are more options. But yeah, I went very, very deep down that rabbit hole and thought I was gonna make a business out of it, and then audiobooks took off. And you know, there's only so many careers you can have or have time for.
ANNE: Really? You thought you might make a business out of tea?
JULIA: I did. I thought I could have a tea shop. What I was actually focused on more than anything was teaching people, especially in this country how to make tea properly. So I was getting into consulting for restaurants where I would design a tea menu for them and then teach their staff how to prepare the different teas because this is just something we don't do.
I mean, it's like embarrassing to me still that I'll go into a restaurant and ask for tea and I just get like a tepid water and a tea bag. [ANNE CHUCKLES] You know, I don't order a cake and then you give me a box of Betty Crocker and two eggs. That's not, to me, tea.
ANNE: So in an alternate reality, listeners are hearing this podcast and putting your tea shop on their destination list.
JULIA: Well, I do it for fun. Like I created a tea blend for my first book for promotional purposes. I just finished creating one for this book. And it's just fun for me. Now it's just something I enjoy. And when I'm in the booth, I pair tea to the book that I'm recording as a kind of a sense memory thing. That I guess is my hobby.
But still there's this Venn diagram, as you're saying, your listeners... You know, book people like tea. That's what I've found. [BOTH LAUGHS] So there's a crossover there for sure.
ANNE: I only like tea after about 2 p.m. when I can't have any more coffee.
JULIA: That's fair.
ANNE: Unless I'm recording in, which case traditional medicinals Throat Coat, which I don't know what your tea sommelier in Chicago would think about Throat Coat, but can really be a lifesaver.
JULIA: Oh, it's essential. But don't overdose on it.
ANNE: Is it a tool of the trade as much as it is that sense memory thing when you're pairing a tea with audiobook you're currently recording? I'm just thinking about the hot beverage... and some people really depend on honey.
I read my own audiobooks. I really need tips from a professional narrator. But I had to record my last one in the very early days of 2020 just in the nick of time in Manhattan, and I was sick. And I just remember the studio person walking me to the little office closet going like, "Here are all the teas. Here's the manuka honey. Here's the saltwater if you're one of those gargling people," which I am not.
It was really interesting to see what people who read all day long for a living relied on in order to do their job, which is a lot more physically demanding, I think, than listeners would ever imagine.
JULIA: Oh, thank you for saying that. That is a thing we do not talk about enough, I think, in this industry. I mean, obviously, it's mentally challenging, but it is physically really, really demanding. And there's a certain level of stamina involved.
And part of that is your vocal health. When I look back at how I started and recording as much as I recorded, I was doing maybe 70 books a year. (a) that's just entirely too many just for focus and quality and all of that. But it's also too many miles on the body and on your voice. And I ended up in a situation where I lost my voice.
ANNE: Oh, no.
JULIA: And I'd had to take vocal rest for a month. And that was kind of like the first wake-up call of like, this is actually a physically demanding job and you've got to treat your instrument well.
ANNE: I think that is not necessarily something that occurs to people when they're thinking about the rhythm of your work life. I remember getting stopped when I was recording my first audiobook because I was trying to push through a chapter until lunchtime.
And they were like, "No, we can actually hear your belly rumbling. Like we got a break right now." And then things like your neck hurts and you don't know how to sit in such a way that your shoulders aren't screaming at you. And that affects your hips.
It sounds to listeners like there's this beautiful, disembodied voice that does all the accents coming at you and making you feel the story, but that voice is not actually disembodied. So tell me a little more about the demands of your job and what you need to do when you are and also when you're not in the booth to make sure you can keep doing it.
JULIA: Sure. Well, first of all, I always like to preface this by saying like I really don't want this to come off as you know, "Woe is me, I'm in a manual labor job." I'm not down in the mines. I've been in physical therapy twice for this job because of neck and lower back issues and finding, you know, the right position to sit in.
Because I think the thing is, I mean, we're all learning right now, especially the negatives of being at a desk job which is essentially what this is, is sitting for that long. But the difference here is that you literally can't move. You can't move or you'd make noise.
ANNE: No treadmill desk for you.
JULIA: Right. So there's no moving. The stomach is like, "That's my kryptonite." My kryptonite is I just have always had a very loud stomach and it is never happy. It will not shut up no matter what I put in it. So I usually record with a pillow over my stomach.
Like I said, for the vocal health part of it, I don't have dairy on the days I record. I don't drink the night before I'm going to record. Obviously, no cigarettes, smoke, things like that. And a lot of hydration and that's where the tea comes in.
ANNE: Is the green apple thing true?
JULIA: It's so true. I'm not entirely sure why, but any recording studio will have green apples on hand. Yeah. For mouth noise, for just that kind of cotton mouth clicky sound that happens, it just cleans it right up.
ANNE: I'm a little surprised to hear about the pillow. Because when we're prepping our What Should I Read Next? guests who've often never been on a podcast before to come on the show, that's our low budget, super accessible, grab all the pillows you have if you feel like your acoustics aren't good in your room and put another one in your lap and you'll sound so much better. And I just hadn't thought of the other benefits to doing that. That's really fun.
JULIA: There's not a high tech solution to this. [BOTH LAUGHS] The solution is a bowl of oatmeal and a pillow. That's it.
ANNE: So often we're looking for really sophisticated solutions to what feels like big problems. But no, maybe sometimes it's a bowl of oatmeal and a pillow.
JULIA: I mean, in post, I'm sure there's like some high pass filter or something that an engineer can put on to take out stomach grumbles as long as they're not like directly on words. But again, that's way above my paygrade. I don't know. [ANNE LAUGHS]
ANNE: Julia, we're gonna step back from the audiobooks for just a moment, although the answer to this question may be intimately connected with them. We'll find out. But tell me a little bit about your reading life. How would you describe what that looks like at this point in your life?
JULIA: I think it's very wide. It's kind of all over the place, which I really enjoy. A turning point for me came through this job actually, which is that I was a creative writing and English major in college and, you know, had read the classics.
And my go-to joke about that is when I graduated I hadn't read anything written in the last 100 years. And then when I started doing this job, suddenly I was reading books three or four months before publication, and in genres and categories I wouldn't normally read.
It was at the time of the YA boom. So, you know, I was discovering that category as I was recording it and realizing the incredible writing that's happening in YA. I was reading thrillers, I'd never read those before. I was reading romance, I'd never read romance. Like it was a sampler of all of literature, and it made me a very wide reader who appreciates all category and genre as long as the writing is good.
And that was sort of a de-snubbing process that I went through of, you know, being told from an academic perspective what is quality writing versus my experience of what good writing is. Now I will read anything when I connect with the voice.
ANNE: I love to hear it. What stands out in your memory as some of those early titles that you read because you were assigned and ended up, to your surprise, I imagine, just really loving them.
JULIA: The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson is astonishingly beautiful. I mean, it's just poetry. That was the first moment where I just... I mean, I enjoyed other YA novels. You know, they were compulsively readable.
And that was the other thing I was like getting used to. I was like, "Oh my God, I actually want to turn the page with these books." What a concept! But with Jandy's, it was just like the prose level was you could teach that book. That was a teachable text in a creative writing classroom. It's just gorgeous.
Gone Girl, I felt the same way about. You know, I didn't care that much about thrillers. You know, I wasn't a whodunit sort of reader. Mysteries didn't do anything for me. But I read the first couple pages of Gone Girl and just was like, "Oh, this is extraordinarily written."
ANNE: And readers, we have to take you back to the time where not every book was the next Gone Girl. Like it was fresh and new.
JULIA: Domestic thriller was like not even a thing. "Girl" was not in the title of every single book [BOTH LAUGHS] in the before times. I think I felt that way about Emily Henry's YA novels. Same thing where I was just like, "I will read anything she writes." And I'm so happy to see her success now.
I feel the same way about Taylor Jenkins Reid, who was always punching above her weight. Her backlist was... I was just like, "No one's giving her enough credit for how good she is." Ali Larkin writes women's fiction. Her first book was called Stay. I loved it so much.
It's kind of in women's fiction with a romantic element in what we would call the pets and vets sub-genre. [BOTH LAUGHS] So if you like dogs, you will like this book. But it's also just beautifully written. And all of her books are beautifully written.
And last year she just came out with The People We Keep, which she wrote As Allison Larkin, because for her, it just felt like a turning point in her career. And it is beautiful. And I think it was finally the book that got her attention for the writer that she is—that she is a deeply, literary thoughtful, but again, compulsively readable writer.
ANNE: Oh, that's my favorite kind.
JULIA: So check it out because it's just... This was a book that was about 15 years in the making. It was the book she was always kind of writing on the side as she was writing her other books. And it's one of those characters who would just not go away. The People We Keep... it's gorgeous.
ANNE: Compulsively readable, but also beautifully crafted, you know, literary in that sense. That is my kryptonite. It's interesting that you mentioned Emily Henry and Taylor Jenkins Reid, because I was looking through your catalog today and noticing how some of these writers who are now like big name bestsellers, you've been reading them for a long time.
ANNE: Perhaps before you were a household name among serious book nerds. And I think it's so interesting and satisfying to see how y'all have like come up together in a way. I'm in Kentucky, Julia, that y'alls just came out. [JULIA CHUCKLES]
JULIA: I liked it a lot. Well, speaking of Kentucky, there was Jojo Moyes' book, The Giver of Stars... She's always been one of my favorite writers ever. Like in terms of if there were a writer that I'd say "that's what I want to do," it's kind of Jojo Moyes.
And I just always accepted that I'd never get to record one of her books because she's an English novelist who writes about stories set in England. Why would they hire me? And then she wrote The Giver of Stars set in Kentucky, and I just... I've never responded faster to an email. I saw the subject line come in. She's like, "Jojo Moyes," and I was like, "Yes! Yes!" [ANNE LAUGHS] "And what do you need from me? I will send you files tomorrow. What do you need?"
ANNE: That's amazing, how something you never thought would happen would. And I love how good books keep surprising us in ways that we hope for it and ways we don't even know.
JULIA: I mean, honestly, for Taylor, and for Emily, for instance, I love that too. I love watching their success. When Taylor finally listed, I guess it was for Daisy Jones, I cried. Like I don't think I would cry if I listed. [ANNE LAUGHS] But seeing what happened... seeing like someone finally...
And it's such a nebulous metric. It's not the end all be all of anything. No one really even knows how the list works and like all of the complications around it. But it's such a kind of superficial stamp of you have arrived. And that was something I felt she deserved for years. I love seeing both of them have the success because they truly deserve it. They're not only great writers, they are just really good people and good literary ambassadors. I adore them.
ANNE: The whole premise of the show is to help good work find its right audience. And it's so satisfying to see that happen. It's so satisfying to experience that, whichever side of that equation you're on. And I'm so glad that you get to advocate for these works that you have gotten to read and love, that maybe you wouldn't if it wasn't for your work.
Tell me more about how you decide what to read. Do you even have the luxury to read outside of your quote-unquote, "assigned reading"? Not that assigned reading has to be bad. But tell me about the shape of your reading life.
JULIA: I don't. I think the last book I read for fun was probably like Wolf Hall ten years ago. And it's still one of my favorite books. Sometimes I wonder, If I could actually read for fun, I bet I'd have a lot more favorite books.
I mean, at this point, the books that I'm given to record are so good. I'm so lucky that way. Like I've paid my dues, I put them in my time. The audiobook producers know me and know my tastes, and so I get books that I would normally read just if I had the time, which is I'm so lucky.
Beyond that, I'm sent books to blurb. You know, when authors need a quote, I try to get to those. I often can't just because of recording schedule.
And then if I'm in a writing project of my own, I'm reading for that. Like when I started writing Thank You for Listening, I kind of needed to update my understanding of romance because it had been about five years since I'd been out of the romance game a little bit. And so I just started reading a bunch of indie romance as well as popular romance just kind of burned through them to get, you know, the lay of the land a little bit. And then found favorite authors in that category.
So, you know, it's a very hodgepodge thing. My TBR pile is absurd. The stack of books beside of my bed is like just guilts me every day.
ANNE: How would you describe your tastes? They're probably files on audiobook narrators that describe the kinds of genres they do and popular authors they've read and what their tastes are inclined towards. And what would your say about your taste?
JULIA: Oh, that's a good question. I'm a sucker for character-driven pieces. I need character more than I need plot. So when you have both, that is magic to me. Like looking at Gone Girl, for instance, that's a book that doesn't have the same impact without those two main characters. Yeah, you've got a great turn and you've got a great suspense and you're trying to figure out the story as you go along, but I wouldn't care if I weren't fascinated by those characters.
Another book that occurred to me as we were talking earlier is Katie Cotugno's Birds of California. I know Katie. I've done one of her books before, but she's, you know, another YA writer who I just always felt was much better than she was getting credit for.
I saw her post, the description of the book, which was basically two child actors who played brother and sister on this family show. Fast forward five years later, and one of them has kind of just like had this kind of like Britney Spears implosion, and then has been hiding out and they want to do a reunion of the show and she is completely against it. And so they send in the guy who played her brother to try to convince her to do it, and romance ensues.
And I just, based on the premise, was like, "Oh, I have to read this. This is sort of my alley. I have to read this." And then got into it and remembered what a wizard Katie is with character and dialogue, how much we cared about these people. It just elevates the book for me.
I'm with you that, you know, I come from that literary fiction background. And, you know, there's kind of this feeling in that world of like sometimes it feels a little navel gazy and it feels like the people writing that type of work are only writing it for the ten other people in their workshop who can like actually appreciate what they're doing. And I'm one of those people. Like I really do appreciate literature just on a sentence level.
As Garth Greenwell says, "Syntax is my kink," I feel the exact same way. But for me as a person who wants to be entertained and wants to feel something, when you can have the marriage of that with compelling characters, I'm in.
ANNE: And so at this point in your professional life, it sounds like those are the books that come to you much at the time.
JULIA: Yeah. I don't know how I manifested that, but I'm very lucky. Like I said, I think, you know, the kind of unsung heroes of audiobooks are the producers who get to know narrators and know their tastes. Because very much like authors, we have voices. And I don't mean our physical voice. I mean, the way that a voice applies to a writer is the same way that like an eye applies to a director. It's your take.
And I think that really good narrators have their own take, and really good producers learn that about their narrators, and give them the projects where that voice and that take come together.
ANNE: Okay, not to get ahead of myself, but I really enjoy that glimpse into the directorial process and the production in Thank you For Listening. And we'll get there shortly, but first, could you walk us through what it looks like? Like you get that email that says, "Please record The Giver of Stars," or Julia, pick whatever book you'd like to walk us through, but what happens after you know that you're going to be recording a book?
JULIA: I will get an email from either the producer or scheduling coordinator at a given publisher's audio division. They will say, "We have a book. We need it recorded within this window. Can you do it?" And sometimes those emails come in six weeks before they're needed. Sometimes they come in six months. Sometimes they come in like a week, and then I'm like, "I can't do that. So sorry."
But they will tell you explicitly how many hours they predict the book will be—finished hours, not studio hours—and then a synopsis of the book. You know, sometimes at this point, if it's an author I know well, or I know that this book is on my radar or something, I will say, "Yes, I can," or "No, I can't."
And very often it really just comes down to schedule. It's not necessarily a taste thing, or "This isn't the right book for me." It's really just schedule at this point. But if I can do it, "I take the manuscript and I start prepping it."
And in that situation I'm looking for I do read and I am creating two different lists. One of words that I need to find pronunciations for—often this will just be going back to the author—and then character lists of any vocal descriptions that the author gives them, any biographical information that I need, so I can start building the voices and the performance. I'm also getting a sense of, obviously, the narrative voice of the piece as well while I'm doing this.
And then once all of the questions have been asked and I have the answers, I sit down and I record. Typically, I try not to commit to doing more than two finished hours a day, which is about four to five hours in the studio. And I record myself usually. I'm usually just there by myself running the rig, recording myself.
And I send the files off, and then they come back to me with any corrections, misreads. And I record those and I send those off. That's how a bill becomes a law. [BOTH LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well, I really enjoyed all the tidbits that appeared in the pages of Thank You for Listening. Like how you will check pronunciations with author sometimes. Like how do they want their protagonists' name pronounced? How do you pronounce the name of this company?
I also really enjoyed the smaller commentaries on like how the industry is evolving, and oh, that was a solo recording but if it were cast today, it would probably be a dual cast or you know, full cast narration. And just those little glimpses inside were fun.
Usually, the last thing I want to ask an author is, how much of this book is your real life?
JULIA: Right. [CHUCKLES]
ANNE: But you wrote a book that's a very meta take on the industry that you work in. And I'm assuming that all those little nuggets that Sewanee and Nick were tossing back and forth about what their jobs are like were totally real.
I especially appreciate the little moments for like, "Oh, people always think and if they only knew." That was really fun to get to be an insider when usually I'm an outsider.
JULIA: I'm glad. I'm glad that that came through. I think that, you know, the biggest task for me is like... general wisdom, especially in this kind of romance, women's fiction space is like people don't actually care about the jobs. Don't give your character a job that needs to be explained.
And I was like, "That is entirely this book." Like, I need to start from the ground up to explain this world because an understanding of this job does not exist in media. There's no television show about audiobook narrators. People don't even have shorthand- [ANNE LAUGHS]
ANNE: Because it would just be you in the closet all day long.
JULIA: Right. I mean, yeah, it would be a very boring show. But people don't even have like a shorthand understanding of what it is that we do. And so even starting from the very like basics of the guy, the bartender who like doesn't understand that there's only one voice on the audio-
ANNE: That was amazing. I really enjoyed that scene.
JULIA: That happens, you know. She's there with her best friend who is always trying to build her up and always trying to say, you know, "She's amazing at what she does." So we have a bartender who's like, "Oh, yeah, I love audiobooks. Anything I would have listened to, which is also always a question. And I'm like, I don't know what you read, man. Like, there's thousands of books published a year and I do 30 of them.
They find a book that he did listen to, and he was like, "Oh, yeah, that's so great." He's like, "You are awesome." And then he asks, "Who was the guy in the book?" And I've gotten that a lot where people just don't realize that it's the one narrator doing all of the voices.
ANNE: Even though it says that at the very beginning,.
JULIA: I know. You would think, but it just melts people down a little bit. And so yeah. The way that the recording actually happens... and again, all of this stuff... I mean, there's so much I could have written that did not pertain to the story. I tried to keep any information that I gave to the story. But it needed to be explained.
The entire book hinges on the way that this industry works and how people work together in this industry. So, therefore, I had to build that understanding.
ANNE: And it was totally fun. This wasn't like, "Okay, children, let me explain to you." It was totally fun. I was delighted to be along for this ride. What was the kernel that made you think, yes, I want to write a romance novel, set in the world of audiobooks. This is a great idea." What was the nugget of inspiration there?
JULIA: The nugget of inspiration there is that I did not see it as a book at first because at the time, I was writing screenplays predominantly. And I had an interaction with another narrator who is like a little brother to me. We went to college together, I got him started in the industry. He is a little brother to me.
And we were cast to do this romance series together. The text messages and emails that we were sending back and forth, we were just trying to break down the performance. "How are you saying this word? Are you moaning during these scenes? How breathy are you going to make the dialogue?"
And I just was like, "This is the most awkward and also absolutely hilarious situation." And I knew it was right for something. Like it's just such a weird job that we have. I really was seeing it as kind of, you know, a screenplay or rom com. The idea of who the guy was changed. Like I had an initial concept of he would actually be a writer writing under a female pen name, writing romance under a female pen name, that would be the reveal. And I still think that would have worked.
But what happened over time is that when romance audio really took off and I started seeing the kind of subculture celebrity built up around, especially the male narrators in that field, I just thought, "This is what it is. This is what needs to be the center of the story."
So it's been percolating for a very, very long time. But I didn't really see it as a book until I wrote my Oxford Ear, and then it was like, "I need a second book." [CHUCKLES]
ANNE: Tell me about the process of writing your own work while your day job is literally to give voice to other authors' stories, you know, to be deeply immersed in someone else's voice. That sounds like a challenge.
JULIA: You're right. Thank you, first of all, for recognizing that. Look, this is a challenge like any writer who is not a full-time writer goes through: how do you balance the day job with the writing? In my case, especially if you're in the same lane, that gets complicated.
Part of the reason that it took four years between books is that the writing process for My Oxford Year was so arduous because it happened so fast. I was at my height of recording. That was back when I was doing 70 books a year. And I really killed myself to do that. And I told myself I would not do that again. The physical toll it took, the mental toll it took, it was just nothing was worth that. So I had to kind of reconstruct my life and reconfigure it so that I could have more time to do the next one.
I think at the very beginning of my career, you know, like I said, I graduated with a creative writing degree. And I had a thesis that was a novel in stories, and I was editing that, I was revising that when I graduated. And then I was working on a YA novel, and then I was working on historical fiction.
What became very clear when I started doing this job is that I wasn't good enough yet at either thing to do them simultaneously. I could not stay in my historical fiction writer voice and get into the booth with a YA book about Pixies, and like be jumping into a different author's head every four days, and then stay consistent with my own writing voice. It wasn't going to work. So I took a couple of years off from writing fiction because there was no way that I could do both.
ANNE: You had this great piece about avoiding burnout while writing your novel in a pandemic. And this novel is Thank You for Listening. Tell me a little bit about not only writing this book while you're working but writing this book in a pandemic while you're working. Because you had a very deliberate approach.
JULIA: So that's part of like the best-laid plans. I mean, it's funny to me that this book, that's all about accepting the things we can't change, happened during [CHUCKLES] this pandemic.
ANNE: I know.
JULIA: Because it changed the tenor of the book and it changed the writing for me. I was going to write this as kind of a much more satirical... I won't say snarky, but a little darker, I would say. And then I got into it and it was just the pandemic. And I was like, "No one wants this. I don't want this. I want joy but I also want to feel that we find the joy in accepting our situation."
So what started out... I mean, I wrote the proposal for this book, the first 75 pages or so plus an outline at the end of 2019, and had a meeting with my agent to discuss the pages and what we wanted to do with them at the beginning of March 2020. Then everything changed. I don't know that I would have honestly had the time to write it as quickly as I did if it hadn't been for the fact that my entire calendar just evaporated.
But recording was still going on. I had a job that translated very well to the pandemic and that nothing changed. I was still recording from home. Publishing timelines were kind of collapsing around me and books were getting pushed and pulled. And so there was chaos for a while, but the work remained the same, and it can remain consistent.
The other part of this is that 25% to 30% of my actual recording output is not books, but long form journalism for an app called Autumn. so at the time, I was recording up to the minute news articles of what was going on there. So there was no blocking it out. And I think trying to write a rom-com in a world where nothing felt particularly romantic nor funny was the challenge, but we got around it. [CHUCKLES]
ANNE: I'm glad, for our sake and yours, that a rom-com was what you chose to write during that time. Something that I really enjoyed about the book is the seamless way that through crankiness, I mean some like winning crankiness and conversation, your protagonist really educate the reader on what is romance? What's the difference between romance and women's fiction? How does the job work? What would listeners be surprised to hear? Like what are readers always confused about? Like, I really enjoyed that perspective.
And I'm an ex-romance isn't serious literature snob, and I fully repented, and I'm sorry, readers. Now you'll hear great romance all the time on here and on Modern Mrs. Darcy. But I really just thought it was so fun and life-giving to have this book be such a... I'm trying to think of the word I want. Like just so passionately pro-romance novel. Did you know going in that like that was going to be all wrapped up like in the very structure of the book and in your plot?
JULIA: I did. You know, part of this actually goes back to Emily Henry because, like I said, I've been thinking of this story while My Oxford Year came out in 2018. So around 2017, I was starting to think about, what's the next thing I want to write? And is there something to this story?
And the kind of feedback that I was getting from my editor and from my agent, and also my own questions, were "I don't know that audiobooks are big enough industry to support this story." Like, do people care? That's a very fair point. So I just was like, "Okay, maybe it's not the right time."
And I also knew that I wanted to do this thing of I was like, Can I write women's fiction about romance? Can I write romance about women's fiction? Can it be that meta? And I'd never seen anything... I'm sure it existed, but I just never seen anything like it.
And then when Emily was branching out from YA and writing adults, she sent me Beach Read to blurb. I was like, "You did it. You wrote a meta book about books about this divide between literary and women's fiction in like the most delightful, illuminating, but not heavy handed way."
I Just saw that she was going to pave this path for me, where people would at least understand. They would be like, "Oh, okay, yeah, I see what this is. This is a very loving send up of this genre we all enjoy." And so that gave me the confidence that I could do something like that but I didn't know how far I could push it. I never want to insult readers.
I think my love for the genre comes through, but there is a difference between reading it for fun and having to perform it. You know, when it becomes a job, [CHUCKLES] it changes your relationship to it.
ANNE: I imagine. And I love how you did slip in some things that readers might be surprised to hear. Like your protagonist says at one point, "You know I don't listen to audiobooks. When would I do that? I listen to my own voice in my ears all day long." And I thought that was really funny.
JULIA: When I was sending the book out to some other narrators, Sarah Mollo-Christensen, who's a friend of mine had just literally was reading and screenshotted that one page and circled that and was like, "Lol. Lol. Lol. Lol" [BOTH LAUGHS]
ANNE: I'm assuming that's funny because it's true.
JULIA: Yeah, yeah. I mean, by the end of the day, when all I've heard is like my own voice in my ears all day and I have been in story, in text, I don't want more narrative. I really don't. It's going to be a podcast, or it's going to be music. I can't yet have another book that I'm keeping track of.
ANNE: Yes, makes perfect sense to me. And this is slightly different, but readers, I don't listen to literary podcasts. Every once in a blue moon, if there's a specific episode like about the industry are with an author whose work I adore. But I don't know that I want that voice. I want What Should I Read Next? to be its own thing. And I don't want that voice in my ears.
Julia, writers talk about how with some books, the words just fall in the right place. I have some thoughts about what works really well in Thank you for Listening. I think number one might be like the banter is so great in the story. And I haven't gotten to listen to this on audio yet, because we're talking in June and this book is out August 2nd. I read an e-galley in the beginning. I actually read it twice. I just finished it again this morning. I know if a book is one that-
JULIA: Oh, wow.
ANNE: ...I'm excited to read twice-
JULIA: Gold star you. Wow.
ANNE: I mean, I love the banter. The dialogue just sings. And I know it's going to sound amazing in your own voice. So I might have to listen to this too to make this like a three-time reading experience. [BOTH CHUCKLES] But also the emotional hurt, like the relationships your protagonist has with her friend, her mom, her grandma were just so touching and resonant with me.
But what I'd like to know is, what just feels really satisfying to you? What do you feel like really worked out in a way that maybe worked really hard for, maybe you didn't see coming and had a delightful surprise. But what really works on this book, to your way of thinking?
JULIA: For the first couple of drafts, I didn't actually like the hero that much. I was basing him on a kind of amalgamation of different friends of mine, which makes it seem like I don't like my friends, which is not what I mean. [ANNE LAUGHS] But they're the type of guy that is too charming by half. And as a person who would have never dated them, I just was like, "You can't be trusted. You're a personality factory. I love you as a friend, but no."
So it took a little while I think to figure out who this hero was and what there was that made him trustworthy. The last act of the book was very different in the first draft. It was darker because, you know, we were all living through what we were living through at the time.
I kind of had a really good conversation with my agent, my editor, and they were like, "There's nothing wrong with satisfying people, [BOTH LAUGHS] including yourself." I feel now that that relationship feels so wholly them that I wasn't trying to impose any third-act breakup on them or any misunderstanding that needed to be cleared up.
That it was just these two people who have so much care and respect for the other person at this point, that they're afraid to hurt them. That feels really, really satisfying to me in a very mature relationship. Two good people coming together sort of way. So where did that got to over the revision process and over me really understanding my hero, I'm very satisfied with that.
ANNE: I thought that was very satisfying on the page as well.
ANNE: Just gonna say hi to Shannon on our team. She's a huge fan-
ANNE: ...who has been stalking you on Instagram and says that according to over there, you have another writing project in the works. Anything you can tell us about that?
JULIA: Well, I can. But I say this with absolutely no promises of what I'm going to do about it. I am playing around with the book that they're recording in Thank You for Listening, the Casanova project by June French.
JULIA: Yeah. [CHUCKLES] So that would be more straight up and down romance novel, which I think is fun to write. And, you know, the characters that had to come together. Just to be able to write Thank You for Listening, the story and the character work that was done is something that I'm enjoying. I'm enjoying exploring that.
So again, no promises about what shape that's going to take. It might just be an audio thing that I do. But I'm really enjoying it. I'm kind of considering that like book 2.5. [CHUCKLES]
ANNE: That's so fun. That is not what I expected.
JULIA: I know, right? [CHUCKLES] Book three, I'm not sure yet. I've got a couple of ideas on playing around. I mean, the thing that happens when you're writing a book is you're constantly thinking about the other book, the shiny new object that is perfect because it hasn't been touched yet.
And so the whole time I was writing Thank You for Listening, I was making a ton of notes about another project that I think I'm gonna go to next. But you know, again, I'm not a writer who's going to be writing a book a year. So I'm not with the day job and not with just the way that my process works.
So I like to give time to things and let them marinate and really figure out what I want to write. Because I can't start writing until I know why I'm writing something.
ANNE: What are you trying to say in Thank You for Listening?
JULIA: My first book to me was a story about reevaluating your dreams, especially what happens in our mid to late 20s where you've been pushing your whole life toward a certain type of person, let me put it that way. An overachiever type a sort of person that's been contorting their whole life toward a certain goal, only to maybe realize when you get there that it's not what you thought it was going to be. And there's no shame in readjusting that and choosing a different dream.
And so I'd already kind of written a book about choosing a different path. I wanted to write a book about the absence of that choice. When that choice is taken away from us, how do we accept the absence of that choice? That process of becoming okay with the version of yourself that you are now even if it's never where you thought you would be or who you thought you would be seemed valuable. And the pandemic was really kind of the extra like kick in the ass that I needed to say, "I think this is really valuable right now."
ANNE: Hearing about your creative writing background, reading tons of books that were 100 years or more old. And the first quote in the book is from Tolstoy, and the next is from your fictional romance novelist June French. And that push-pull, you know, subverting expectations, giving the reader both what they expect and what they absolutely do not is present in the work in a way that is so playful and fun with this emotionally resonant story.
We get a comment on nearly every episode that says, "I love how as readers," to quote, you know, another 100-year gone white man, "we contain multitudes." It's really true.
JULIA: Linda Holmes once said in an event that I went to when she was promoting Evvie Drake-
ANNE: I just listened to you read Flying Solo.
JULIA: Oh, God, I love Flying Solo. She was talking about how pop culture, you know, which is her day job is reporting on pop culture. She was quoting from like The Martian, where the main goal, right, is to get off of Mars. But in order to do that, he's first got to like grow food to sustain him.
She was saying that, like, Yeah, we have all of these overarching, large, humanistic projects that we need to fix. And especially in this country, especially right now, it can seem very daunting. But we've got to sustain ourselves to be able to make that happen. And that's where the space potatoes come in. [BOTH LAUGHS]
You have to be growing the space potatoes. And that's what pop culture is. That's what entertainment is. Those are the texts and the shows and the entertainment that fuel us to get us to the larger project. So I think they coexist. Space potatoes has stayed in my head every time I was writing this book, and I'd be like, "This seems very frivolous," and then I'd be like, "No space potatoes. [CHUCKLES] This is space potatoes."
ANNE: I have listened to you this summer so far read me her book, Flying Solo and Abby Jimenez's Part of Your World, and The Measure by Nicky Erlich, where you did all the voices. I was really wondering how they were going to cast that one.
JULIA: Yeah, if that hadn't been in like a solid, omniscient third person, that would have absolutely been a multicast situation.
ANNE: I'm interested in hearing, what do you think makes for a truly exceptional listening experience?
JULIA: As someone who doesn't listen to audio-
ANNE: No, as someone whose job, we can hear you take very seriously, is to craft a book with your voice in such a way that it really lands for the reader. Some of that is what you bring to it, but a lot is that is the raw materials that you have to work with.
JULIA: It is. I mean, there are some books that even when I'm recording them I'm thinking, "No one needs this on audio." Like yeah, people are going to want it and they're going to listen to it because it's going to be like a multitasking thing or they're going to enjoy the performance. But, you know, this just sings on the page and I'm not sure how much I'm bringing to it.
I mean, I think Abby's book is a good example where by having Zachary and I, you know, doing the dual narration on that just really amps up the rom-com feel. It gives you the ability to identify with two very individual characters. I think books like that work really well.
Multicast, I mean, I always go back to Daisy Jones, which I think was just purpose-built for audio. Like if you are going to write a fake oral history, and you get to do it as audio, that's why that book is legendary on audio now.
For me, you know, something like The Measure is like when I was doing it... I mean, I couldn't stop thinking about the premise of that book. And, you know, that dominated a lot of dinner table conversations as I was recording it.
So my job I felt as a narrator on that book was to just kind of set up the premise and be as unobtrusive as possible and let you feel like you were kind of zooming in on different people's lives with just dipping in and then dipping out and going to another character and just getting a very holistic view of the premise.
ANNE: Okay. So you're gonna let us eavesdrop basically on what is unfolding before us and these characters' real lives.
JULIA: That's what it feels like, yeah. And each book has a different task. I mean, Jean Hanff Korelitz's The Latecomer, which is just stunningly brilliant, came out a couple months ago, or maybe just a month now, I don't know, time is a flat circle, was so gorgeous. I mean, she's such an incredible writer. And the task for that was really just like holding the listener's hand through that story. Like, "Stay with me. You have no idea what's coming."
ANNE: I already have that downloaded. I'm gonna listen to that next.
JULIA: It's really good. It's a very slow burn and it is so well earned.
ANNE: Julia, what are a few books on the horizon? And I imagine you're most intimately familiar with the ones that you have recorded that listeners are going to want to have on their radar.
JULIA: I have the ark, but I haven't read it yet, but Taylor's new book, Carrie Soto Is Back comes out at the end of August.
ANNE: Are you reading that one?
JULIA: I am reading just parts of it. Carrie is Latina, and so Stacy Gonzalez is reading the majority of the book. And I'm just coming in the way I did and Evelyn Hugo to read the little newspaper clippings, the little interstitials. So as a result, I haven't read the book and it's killing me.
ANNE: I just enjoyed the e-galley when we were on [inaudible 00:47:18]. I'm glad I didn't have to wait for the audio, but I'm sure it's gonna be amazing on audio.
JULIA: Angel of Rome by Jess Walters came out. And it's an amazing short story collection that I co-narrated with Eduardo Ballerini.
ANNE: I didn't know he had a new one. I knew he had a new one coming out but this title was not... that was not on my radar.
JULIA: No, yeah. That's just though. He's like, "This is book ten." And he just will eventually at a certain point have enough stories for a collection. And some of the collection is out. And it's like it doesn't get the attention that his novels get, but they're so unbelievably good.
And Angel of Rome was actually... The title story is a story that he co-wrote with Eduardo. It's based on a situation that happened when Eduardo was younger in Rome. So I love that for them. I love their collaboration. And I was just really honored to be asked to be a part of the audio for the stories from the female perspective. I think that's all I can talk about right now.
ANNE: Well, Julia, thank you so much for taking us inside the booth today and just giving us a peek about what it's like. Friends, I told Julia our listeners were big nerds and we wanted to hear all about it.
So Julia, thank you for indulging us and for telling us about Thank You for Listening. I wish you all the success in the world as it finds its audience. I'm just so excited for you as you keep moving forward in your dual career.
JULIA: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. This was lovely. I love talking to nerds. [ANNE LAUGHS]
ANNE: It's been a pleasure.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Julia today. And I'd love to hear which of her novels or audiobooks you've loved the most. Let us know at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/340.
Today we put together a fun new format to highlight the titles that we talked about. And we would love to hear what you think. Just visit the comment section of that post. It's whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/340.
Follow Julia on social media @justjuliawhelan. That's consistent across all platforms.
To stay in the loop of our happenings in our weekly newsletter, sign up at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter. And follow us on Instagram @whatshouldireadnext. And follow me too @annebogel.
Share the book love by leaving a five-star review on Apple podcasts or starring your favorite episode on Overcast. Make sure you're following along in Apple Podcast, Spotify, Overcast, wherever you get your podcasts.
And tune in next week when we'll be sharing a special episode that celebrates the power of reading in young lives, including clips and memories shared by you, our What Should I Read Next? audience. It's a fun one.
Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with production assistance by Holly Wielkoszewski, and sound design by Kellen Pechacek.
Readers, that's it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, "Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading." Happy reading, everyone!
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Books Mentioned in This Episode:
This week we’re trying something different, and shining a spotlight on eight of the titles discussed in this episode. Let us know what you think about this format in comments!
• The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson (Audio edition)
• Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Audio edition)
• Stay by Allie Larkin (Audio edition)
• The People We Keep by Allison Larkin (Audio edition)
• The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes (Audio edition)
• My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan (Audio edition)
• Flying Solo by Linda Holmes (Audio edition)
• The Measure by Nikki Erlick (Audio edition)
• Carrie Soto Is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Audio edition)
• The Angel of Rome: And Other Stories by Jess Walter (Audio edition)