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After a Life of Telling Others' Stories, Julia Whelan Decided to Tell Her Own

By: William Liao

Julia Whelan is one of the most in-demand audiobook narrators today. But many years ago, this wasn’t the path she had dreamed of.

As a child actress, she was schooled at her home in Salem, Oregon, while her parents, one of whom was a firefighter and served on the Oregon House of Representatives, worked. As a young child, Julia loved books, and started acting in local theater productions when she was five.

In 1999, she traveled to Los Angeles to audition for the “Once and Again” creators Herskovitz and Zwick. When she did a reading as Grace Manning, one of the main characters of the series, they knew they had found the person for the role.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Check that box: Done,’” Zwick said. “There are people who you meet at an early age who you know understand things that cannot be taught,” he added, mentioning actors like Claire Danes and Evan Rachel Wood, whom he also worked with when they were children. “Julia is one of them.”

The show was canceled in 2002, which was when she decided to attend college, a novel experience for her, especially so because she had been homeschooled for most of her life. She studied at Middlebury College in Vermont and spent a year studying abroad at Oxford University. After a Rhodes Scholarship she had hoped for didn’t work out, she returned to Los Angeles in 2008 to continue her career.

She earned spots on shows like “NCIS” and “The Closer” in addition to some movie-of-the-week roles, but due to a lack of momentum, she failed to secure spots any bigger auditions.

After failing to pick her career back up, she remembered how, during her graduation from Middlebury, a friend’s mother had approached her. She worked for Brilliance, an audiobook publisher, and had told of the ever-growing opportunities in her field. Now, a year later, Julia called back, deciding that she would try her hand at narrating.

For a few years she took on audio projects, eventually earning the opportunity to narrate a bestselling novel, namely Nora Roberts’ “The Witness.” It was only the first of over five books written by Roberts which she would narrate.

Another big breakthrough came in 2012, when she landed a gig to narrate Amy Dunne, the female main character of Gillian Flynn’s thriller “Gone Girl.”

“There aren’t a lot of actors that I think could do Amy,” Flynn, who, as a fan of “Once and Again,” became familiar with Whelan, said. “Julia has a way of putting little curls on certain words.”

“I have an absolute voice crush on her,” added Olivia Nuzzi, New York magazine’s Washington correspondent whose work has been narrated by Whelan. “There is some Joan Didion quality to her voice, detached but not uninterested, with a conspiratorial tone that makes her a very compelling storyteller.”

Since then, she has been one of the most prolific and in-demand audiobook narrators on Audible. Diana Dapito, the head of the company’s consumer content, praised her narrating. “You have a lot of driveway moments with Julia,” she said, meaning that you can’t turn off the car and stop listening, even once you’ve arrived home.

“Who doesn’t like to see their friends in such high demand?” Taylor Jenkins Reid, the best-selling author of “Daisy Jones & the Six” and “Malibu Rising,” said. She became friends with Whelan after she narrated Reid’s 2015 novel “Maybe in Another Life.”

One a recent morning, Whelan, now 38, recorded a “pickup” for an article in The Atlantic after avoiding dairy since waking up at 6 a.m, refraining from alcohol the night before, and she had run through the humming and vocalizing of her warm-up exercises. A “pickup” refers to an already-recorded piece which needs some minor fixing.

Then, she turned to the narration of a book, “Thank You for Listening,” which was written by her. It centers on the story of a woman who found success in the audio industry, voicing the stories and experiences of others - until she is paired with Brock, an “enigmatic male audiobook narrator,” to read a famous romance novelist’s last book.

This and another one of her works, My Oxford Year, reflect her own life experiences and its ups and downs – how she had failed to get a scholarship to continue studying at Oxford and pick up her career in the film industry but found success as an audiobook narrator. And now, after a lifetime of telling the stories of other people, she has given her own a voice.

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