An Interview with Julia Whelan

When I first heard STAY was going to be an audiobook, I thought it was pretty cool, but I also thought it might be strange to hear someone else reading my work. I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d want to listen to it.

Then, I heard Brilliance was doing the audiobook, and well, when it comes to audio books, it doesn’t get better than Brilliance. And then I got to talk with Julia Whelan before she recorded STAY to go over name pronunciations, etc. From our talk, I could tell that she really “got” Van, and all of a sudden I couldn’t wait to hear the audio version.

At the risk of sounding completely sappy, I am so so thankful to Brilliance and Julia. Because of them, I got to HEAR my characters. Julia’s reading of STAY is what Van sounds like in my head. And getting to hear her read my words is an absolute gift. So, I
‘m going to add the Stay audiobook to the STAY Reader Photos project prize! If you haven’t submitted a photo of STAY, do it!
I got to visit Brilliance while I was in Michigan in July and had a wonderful time touring the studios and meeting everyone. It’s a company run by people who care so passionately about bringing books to life. It was exciting to be there. I loved learning about the process of how a printed book becomes an audio book, and wanted to post about it, but I thought it might be more interesting coming from Julia.

AL:How did you get started recording audio books?

JW: Actually, one of my best friends from college is a narrator (Ellen Grafton). We were both English majors at Middlebury and studied together at Oxford for a year. Her mother, Laura, works for Brilliance Audio. Knowing my background in acting and my degree in English and Creative Writing, she suggested that I submit a demo. Actors who can read obviously make good narrators! Kidding. I actually discovered that narrating is a completely different skill than either reading or acting. So I took five pages out of four books that I thought showed some range (i.e. accents, straight narration, men vs. women voices, different genres, etc), worked with my coach on them, and sent it off to Laura. To my surprise, she responded by sending me two YA titles to record, and I was off and running. I enjoyed the recording process immensely, and was anxious to do more. Somewhere along the line I was given some adult titles to record, thus allowing me to branch out from YA. STAY was my 9th book.

In fact, with STAY, Laura emailed me and wrote, “We have a book for you. Contemporary romance (light romance)” – she knows I don’t do the graphic stuff – “about a girl with a broken heart who drunkenly buys a dog off the internet. It looks adorable!”
Me: The dog doesn’t give her advice, does it?
Laura: Nope!
Me: I’m in!

AL:How do you prepare to record a book?

JW: I read the manuscript with a trusty yellow legal pad next to me. I write down every character name that appears, and any defining features they have, especially any vocal hints (such as, “she rasped, in her distinctive husky timbre”… that kind of thing). Then, I write down any words I don’t know how to pronounce. This list can become embarrassingly long. I consider myself a pretty well-read person, but how often do we read outloud? And there are some words that exist almost exclusively in the written form. For instance, when was the last time someone said, in real life, “His hair was tousled from sleep?” (It’s pronounced TOW-sulled, by the way). Or “she clambered up the stairs.” (The B? Not so silent.) I’m sure many people know this stuff, but I didn’t, and on more than one occasion I’ve felt like a complete idiot. As I read the book, I put a character’s initials in the left margin, before their line of dialogue, so I know who is speaking before I get half-way through a line and realize, “Oops, that was supposed to the French grandfather, not the eight year-old girl.” I also highlight any vocal intent next to the dialogue, such as “he whispered,” or “she screamed” so, hopefully, I can see it coming before I even start the line. Then I look up all the words I don’t know how to pronounce, develop whatever voices I need, try to find recorded examples of the obscure accents that are undoubtedly in the book, and hope that I’m doing the story – and the author – justice. Everyone preps a book differently, but I’ve found that this process works for me.

AL: What is the recording process like? How long does it take to record a novel?

JW: I honestly think someone needs to film the process, it’s pretty hilarious. Imagine a small, windowless, padded room with nothing but a chair, a music stand, a microphone, and a bottle of water in it. Then picture a scruffy, unkempt narrator (at least in my case) sitting in that chair, trying to read the pages spread out on the music stand while keeping their mouth close to the microphone. Add in the occasional stomach growl, unflattering mouth noise, and expletive when they mess up, and you pretty much have one of the weirdest jobs ever. To further complicate matters, the microphone is ridiculously sensitive. Every little noise shows up. And I mean EVERY. You learn a lot about yourself, though. For instance, if I don’t have a big bowl of oatmeal in the morning, my stomach is growling so loudly by lunchtime, we have to stop recording. Even if I’m not hungry! Only oatmeal can cure this, for some reason. And my wrist cracks. Until I started recording, I thought my wrist crack was only something I could feel, not something that could be heard. So no flamboyant gesturing while I’m reading.

When you mess up – and you will mess up – the engineer saves you. You just take it back to the first solid space in the reading you can find (the previous sentence, comma, sometimes even a breath) and start over. Gone are the days of cutting and splicing tape (not that I was around for those days… jeeze, listen to me, the hard-bitten veteran).

How long a novel takes to record depends on the novel: the size of the font, the layout, how many complicated characters there are, how many run-on sentences there are that only an alien could get through in one go, and whether or not I’ve had my oatmeal. I usually average about 150 pages a day. And a day is a normal working day… that is, about 8 hours, with the occasional fifteen minute breaks and lunch. So I think I did STAY in two days. I know that seems fast, but it read so easily that at times it felt like it was reading me!

AL: I get hoarse from talking on the phone for forty minutes! How do you manage to read an entire novel out loud and keep your voice working the whole time?

JW: A lot of training. I have really extensive vocal training, stage actor training. At least with audiobooks you don’t have to project to the back row of a 1,000 seat house! I have found, though, that flipping between different accents can cause some vocal strain. Apparently different accents work different parts of the vocal chords. I did a book where the main character was from North Carolina, all the other characters were from Maine, and the sexy hero was Irish. I didn’t talk much after I got off work that day! Also, low, husky male voices can get a little sore after awhile. And then I’ll listen to the book later and think: “That’s not deep at all! I really worked for that, and it just sounds like me with a cold!” But we’re always our harshest critics, right? Right?

AL: What’s your favorite part of recording?

JW: Losing myself in the story. If I didn’t have to turn the page (and if I never messed up!) I’d just keep going and going. (I did hear from fellow narrator Ray Porter that he’s experimented with reading off an iPad and loves it! Silent page turning! Might have to look into it… plus, I’d be going completely green, something I know you could get behind, Allie!)

Look, I’m a reader first and foremost. I wind up loving every book I record, even if it’s not something I’d ever pick up at the store. Because I connect to it, and invest in it, and hope – above all else – that I’m doing the author’s intent justice. As a writer myself, I can’t imagine someone else reading my work. But I have had the most wonderfully complimentary and supportive authors… especially you, Allie. It was an honor – and more importantly, way too much fun – to record STAY!


  1. Awesome interview! I’ve always wondered about audio book recorders. Thanks for a little insight into that job! Very interesting.

    And congrats on the audio book!

  2. That’s so cool! I’ve always wondered how the audiobook-recording process works. I’m going to have to get the audiobook just to hear you as Van, Julia!

  3. That was a truly fascinating interview! And I would have made those same pronunciation mistakes. In fact that seems to happen to me all the time: I’m used to reading a word, try to use it in a conversation, and get all sorts of quizzical looks.

    Very much looking forward to reading Stay–Rebecca is my agent too!!

  4. Love the interview. So interesting–it takes a lot of talent to do this well!

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