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Julia Whelan on narrating her romance novel about a narrator who hates romance novels


All right. Listen closely to this next voice. If you are a fan of audiobooks, it may sound familiar.

JULIA WHELAN: The girl wakes up in someone else's bed.

I can certainly consult for you while reading books and writing about...

Was Donald Trump's de facto headquarters for much of...

Doing it is meaningless, especially in literature from...

A novel written and performed by Julia Whelan.

KELLY: Julia Whelan - she is all those voices you just heard. She is one of the most prolific, most in-demand narrators in the audio book business. She is also a novelist, now out with her second book, titled "Thank You For Listening." It is the very funny tale of Sewanee Chester, who is an audiobook narrator. And, yes, if you want to listen rather than read off the page, guess who narrates it? Julia Whelan, thanks for joining us.

WHELAN: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Is this the most meta thing ever? How are you keeping fact from fiction straight at this point?

WHELAN: I don't know. At this point, nothing makes sense to me. I knew obviously when I was writing it that I was writing a very meta novel. But when I got into the booth to actually record the book, it just hit different. And I understood that I had written something that was possibly so meta it just spins off its axis.


KELLY: All right. Well, I want to talk a little bit about the book and then how you do it. Your main character, Sewanee Chester - she is not you. She is fictional. Introduce us to her.

WHELAN: Sewanee Chester is a former on camera actress who suffered a pretty tragic event, and it ended her on-camera career. And she has found herself doing audiobook narration. And while she loves it, it's hard for her to accept that life has just not gone according to her plan and what she wanted to be doing.

KELLY: OK. So she's at a crossroads in her career. She gets a request out of the blue to narrate a romance. And she is not happy about this because she doesn't really like romance, the whole genre. But meanwhile, she is paired to read with a male audiobook narrator who turns out to be pretty dreamy. Did you write a novel that pokes fun at romance but is itself a romance?

WHELAN: Yes, that was sort of the intention. I love romance. I'm a romance reader. I love recording it. But I understand the typical issues that people take with it. So I wanted to write a book that was firmly rooted in romance while also saying, if you found yourself living in a romance novel, would you actually trust it or would you sabotage yourself?

KELLY: I mean, it's one thing to narrate a non-fiction book where it's one voice telling you a story, quite another to narrate fiction, where you are flipping between all kinds of voices and different accents to try to bring the dialogue to life. I want you to give us a little bit of a taste. And this will not - we don't need any plot spoilers here. This is Page 1, very first page.

WHELAN: Page 1 - absolutely.

(Reading) Things were heating up with no possibility of cooling down, not this time. She could see it in his eyes. His pupils were throbbing. The gentleman of the last three weeks was gone. He was now anything but gentle. He was all man. Their eyes were locked and loaded. He raised his hand and flattened it against her white silk blouse. Her heartbeat grabbed at it. He kissed her hotly, wetly, then took hold of her, straddled hips and lifted her off him. She gave a startled cry as he flipped her - something to drink? - on to her back on his expensive crepe de chine couch. Ma'am, we shouldn't be doing this, he growled. You're my intern, and grandfather insists I marry Caroline. Something to drink? The long-suffering tone broke through, and Sewanee Chester, startled window seat occupant, whipped off her noise-canceling headphones as if they were on fire. What? Sorry. What?

KELLY: You have no idea how hard I was trying not to groan, moan, laugh and scream. How do you prepare? If - I mean, I just asked you to do that and you did it like a pro, as you would. But normally, what do you have to do to kind of get in the zone?

WHELAN: I have - I do a very thorough prep read to begin, and in that prep read, I'm keeping track of all of the characters who open their mouths and any vocal traits that the author gives them - any accents, any description, any biographical details that I think are important. And so by the time I'm actually stepping into the booth to record, I kind of have a game plan, and I'm ready to get going.

KELLY: Just listening to you, your reading voice, your narrating voice is a little different from your voice just talking to me. Is that deliberate?

WHELAN: People have definitely pointed that out to the extent that when I'm in a car, for instance, with a group of friends on a road trip and we're listening to maybe an article I've recorded, it sometimes takes them 10 minutes to say, wait. Is this you?

KELLY: Really?

WHELAN: Yes. But I think it's - you know, to me, it feels like there's a narrator voice that I feel is the least intrusive for the listener that I've developed over the years that is a consistency that they expect. I'm curious, do you find that your voice is different when you're conversational versus when you're on air?

KELLY: People recognize my voice when I'm out and about, like, checking in for a flight at the airport or...

WHELAN: Oh, that's so interesting.

KELLY: ...At the coffee shop or something. Does that happen to you?

WHELAN: No, but it's happened to a couple of narrators that I know.

KELLY: I mean, it's interesting. We, for radio, are trained to try to sound just the same as our conversational voice, which is crazy that that would require training. But it does because the instinct - for me, at least - when you get behind a mic is not to sound like your normal self, but to assume some sort of very authoritative voice of God telling you the headlines instead of just...

WHELAN: Right - just the news, everyone.

KELLY: How do you think about who you're reading for, who's listening?

WHELAN: One of the things that for me is important is I'm always trying to represent the voice of the book, first and foremost, not my voice. So that's what I mean by I have a consistent performance voice that I think people are familiar with, and therefore they don't have to get into a new voice when they settle into a new story.

KELLY: I can't help myself. Can I ask you to read one more scene?

WHELAN: Of course.

KELLY: I just want to hear a little bit more of this in the voices. I picked out one one more - Sewanee sitting in a bar in Vegas, and a guy wanders over and tries to pick her up.

WHELAN: Which is a scene that always goes notoriously well, as we all know.

KELLY: (Laughter).

WHELAN: (Reading) She looked up. A rather striking man stared down at her, hands on his hips. Hi. You can't be leaving. We just met. Now, that was a smile. It rendered the cheesy line charming. Oh, God. Swan wasn't ready for this, this lanky-limbed, broad-shouldered, tanned wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, 8 o'clock shadowed, tall, iced umbrella cocktail of a man. She made a point of looking back at the bill, but he said, may I? And before she could answer, he sat down on the opposite end of the long Chesterfield, leaving a respectful distance between them. Cheers, he said. And for a stupid moment, she thought he was toasting her. But when she looked up at him, he was gazing out into the room. It's crowded here, and she realized he hadn't been toasting her. He was British. Cheers, as in thanks. Cheers as in, I don't need your permission, but I'm a gentleman, so I asked anyway. Cheers as in buckle up, toots.

KELLY: And indeed, we do. Well, if that wasn't enough to whet people's appetites for seeing where this romance goes, I don't know what would be. Thank you.

WHELAN: Thank you so much for having me. This was a delight.

KELLY: That is Julia Whelan reading to us from her new novel. It's titled "Thank You For Listening." And I want to say thank you for joining us and for writing this and reading it.

WHELAN: Absolutely. It was my pleasure, all of it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.