When prepping for an audiobook recording, Whelan must make note of pronunciation and character accents. She does so at home, seen here surrounded with artwork by, from left to right, Roeland Kneepkens and Joy E.

In the Studio With Audiobook Narrator Julia Whelan

Ahead of her Rancho Mirage Writers Festival appearance, Julia Whelan invites us behind the curtain at her La Quinta home and studio.

Maggie Downs Arts & Entertainment

When prepping for an audiobook recording, Whelan must make note of pronunciation and character accents. She does so at home, seen here surrounded with artwork by, from left to right, Roeland Kneepkens and Joy E.

When prepping for an audiobook recording, Whelan must make note of pronunciation and character accents. She does so at home, seen here surrounded with artwork by, from left to right, Roeland Kneepkens and Joy E.

There’s a large painting hanging above the fireplace in Julia Whelan’s home. It’s based on an image of a 1963 cocktail party at George Plimpton’s apartment in which clusters of literary darlings are frozen in time. Each figure is poised to talk, drinks in hand, as if caught midconversation. 

It’s an apt piece of art to take center stage here, because Whelan is the person who gives writers their sound. 

Not their voice, of course. Writers already bring their voice to the page. Whelan is an audiobook narrator, the person who lifts the words from the page and infuses them with sonic life. This house in La Quinta, surrounded by stunning mountain vistas and leafy bougainvillea, is where she does it.

Mastering the Art of Audio

If you’ve ever listened to an audiobook, there’s a good chance Julia Whelan’s voice has been inside your head. 

The 39-year-old is prolific, having narrated more than 500 books across all genres, including some of the biggest titles. Educated by Tara Westover. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Just about every Emily Henry novel. The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes.

Armando’s Bar

Whelan poses outside of her home.

Since recording her first novel almost 15 years ago, Whelan has emerged as one of the top narrators in the business, collecting almost every possible accolade. Named Audible’s Narrator of the Year in 2014, Whelan has won multiple Audies (awarded by the Audio Publishers Association) and Voice Arts Awards (from the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences) and received the Golden Voice lifetime achievement award from AudioFile. 

Plus, The New Yorker called her “the Adele of audiobooks,” likely because she’s pitch-perfect. Her voice is crisp and clear without the over-enunciation of a schoolmarm. Friendly without delving into syrup.

So, when Whelan appears at the sold-out Rancho Mirage Writers Festival later this month, she’s bringing a valuable entry point into the audio world, says festival founder Jamie Kabler.

“Good God, who doesn’t listen to audiobooks these days? I listen to about 150 Audible books a year, and it’s a passion of mine,” Kabler says. “What’s interesting is that it’s such a huge market in the publishing industry, and we’ve never had that represented before.”

Audio is indeed a substantial market, attracting all types of listeners, and it’s only gaining more momentum. In 2022, the Audio Publishers Association reported the 11th straight year of double-digit growth in audiobook sales, for an estimated industry total of $1.8 billion.

One fan of the form is Gen. David Petraeus, a retired Army general and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Petraeus is a partner in the global investment firm KKR, where he analyzes geopolitical trends, which means he must consume an enormous amount of news but doesn’t always have time to sit with a magazine or book. He became familiar with Whelan through a longform journalism platform, Audm, where she narrated Susan B. Glasser’s New Yorker articles.

Armando’s Bar

Whelan’s home library.

“It’s not amateur hour when it comes to listening for me,” Petraeus says. “I’ve listened to a ton of people, and Julia’s interpretation of these pieces is uniquely brilliant. It actually changes the experience. It’s a real gift.”

So when it came time to match up speakers and interviewers for discussion panels at the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival, where Petreaus will be chatting about his latest book, he requested to be paired with Whelan. 

“She’s kind of the Michael Jordan of narrators,” he gushes. “I can tell you there’s nobody else in her league.” It’s a juxtaposition that even surprised festival organizers. 

“It’s the most unusual matching we’ve ever had,” Kabler says. “When Gen. Petraeus said he most wanted to meet Julia Whelan, I fucking fell off my chair.” 

Inside the Sound Booth

On this particular day, Whelan’s back aches. It’s a common side effect of spending hours inside a tight, padded recording booth. 

There’s a physicality to the work that some might not expect. First off, finding stillness in a small space is hard. (Think back to your last economy flight.) When Whelan is in the booth, she can’t make any movements that might be picked up by the mic. She can’t shift positions or fidget. A rumbling stomach can bring a recording to a halt. It’s not enough for her voice to be clear — she can’t get sick or congested or let exhaustion creep into her throat. 

The ratio for recording is approximately two hours in the booth for every finished hour of audio. That doesn’t include Whelan’s research on pronunciations and time spent communicating with authors, getting clarifications and determining the right tone. That drives up the clock, making it closer to four hours for every hour recorded. 

At one time, Whelan narrated 70 to 80 books a year, an exhausting pace. Now she keeps that number to around 30, aiming for two finished hours per day. This can also vary depending on the text, whether she’s narrating slow seduction or loud and violent war scenes. 

tacquila palm springs

Whelan’s home recording studio.

Though she’s a bibliophile, this wasn’t what Whelan expected to be doing with her career. A successful child actor, she starred in several Lifetime movies and appeared on three seasons of Once and Again on ABC. The roles brought with them a certain level of fame, where Whelan was recognized on the street. “It’s one of the reasons I was happy to walk away and turn to other work,” she says. “It is the most uncomfortable thing for someone who doesn’t really like to be the center of attention.”

Now she’s far more comfortable in the art-filled, Coachella Valley home she shares with husband Geof Prysirr — “it’s so removed” — and jokingly calls herself “if you know, you know” famous. It’s not the kind of celebrity where paparazzi follow her around the grocery store, but she has amassed her share of devoted listeners.

 “It’s a very niche, very small fame, but the fans I have are devout,” she says. “I never could’ve predicted this.”  

Armando’s Bar

Whelan's beverage cart. 

Whelan’s entry into the audiobook field came when she recorded a couple of young adult novels, just as YA was booming. Then a producer approached Whelan about recording something darker, a thriller. She accepted the job narrating Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which went on to sell 20 million copies across all formats.

“That book was such a juggernaut,” she says, smiling. “I had no idea what was coming.”

Bringing Books to Life

Let’s say you’d like to listen to a Julia Whelan–narrated book. Long before you ever press play, here’s what took place to bring the story to your ear. 

First, a producer connects with Whelan, who works as an independent contractor. At this point in her career, Whelan has a cache of authors she works with and admires, like Emily Henry, Kristin Hannah, and Rebecca Serle, and their books take priority. When Whelan receives a manuscript, she’s not skimming to see if she likes it; she already knows she’ll take on the project.

As she reads, Whelan keeps two lists. One is for words she doesn’t know how to pronounce. (Sometimes these are actual words, but occasionally they’re words the author invented for the fantasy world they’ve created.) The other is a character list, where Whelan notes biographical details, quirks, and the vocal traits ascribed by the author. Along the way, she also creates a map of the story, showing all the characters and how they interact with each other. 

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“I think about voices, determine accents, and figure out which characters are in dialogue most often, so those voices can be truly distinctive,” says Whelan, who boasts a “working actor, passable knowledge” of accents and dialects. 

After the book is recorded, Whelan uploads the files to the producer. Then an editor listens to the files while reading along with the text. Mistakes are flagged and returned to Whelan for corrections. This continues until all the files are polished for the finished product. 

There’s a level of engagement with the text that Whelan brings as a performer. She is the author of two novels herself — My Oxford Year (2018) and Thank You for Listening (2022) — so she brings a literary sensibility to the booth as well. Every time she records, she wants to honor the writer’s intentions. She’s there to do right by the story.

It’s because Whelan has a passion for audiobooks that she wants to correct some systemic problems within the industry. She launched her own audio platform, Audiobrary, at the end of 2023 with the intention of disrupting the current compensation model. As is, narrators are paid by the finished hour, and they don’t receive royalties, even if that book goes on to sell 20 million copies. Whelan created a royalty structure for Audiobrary that brings audio in line with how the rest of the publishing industry works.

She also wants to collaborate with authors to push the boundaries of the form, bringing unusual pieces to life. “Because I’m not beholden to any big corporate entity, we can just create audio versions of interesting stories,” she says. “At the end of the day, that’s what people want.”

Since storytelling drives what she does, Whelan isn’t too concerned about artificial intelligence taking over the audiobook industry.

“Yes, it’s going to change the industry, but the big X factor in all of this is if the listener is going to be interested in it,” she says. “Call me hopelessly optimistic, but I think there’s still going to be a market for humans who want human stories told to them by a human.”

To Whelan, AI narration is akin to artificial flowers. 

“There’s something really easy about them, they’re consistently perfect, and you don’t have to worry about them, and they have their place. But they didn’t get rid of plants,” she says. “People still like plants, because there’s a relationship involved. It’s something that grows and changes. There’s life.”