There are a lot of voices in our heads these days, some more welcome than others. “I’m kind of on a Julia Whelan bender,” a reader tweeted recently. Most people have never heard Whelan’s name, but her friendly-firm timbre is familiar to anyone who listens to books or magazine articles.
The other morning, Whelan had a meeting at Bad-Ass Breakfast Burritos, in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles. She had been up at six to Zoom with a Canadian book club for the blind. “I was doing my makeup and shit,” she said. “And then I got on the call and was, like, ‘Oh. Wait.’ ”
She had only fourteen pages to record that day, new material for the tenth-anniversary edition of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” She ordered carefully anyway, requesting the spicy mayo on the side. “I’m Irish,” she explained. “My lips go numb.” Cheese is also a no-no in her line of work. “Makes you phlegmy.” But her biggest job hazard is her stomach. “It’s just really fucking loud.”
Whelan, who has stick-straight brown hair and pale skin, wore a loose black jumpsuit. She generally spends workdays at home, in the Coachella Valley, sitting alone in a dark padded booth, staring at a screen, talking to herself. “I know,” she said. “Very pandemic.” That day, she fled the jackhammering of workers installing a pool in her back yard for the offices of Penguin Random House Audio, where she could work alongside a longtime producer of hers, Kelly Gildea.
The two met in 2012, when Whelan, then twenty-seven, was making her living tutoring celebrities’ kids. (Prior to that, she’d narrated two Y.A. novels.) One day, she got an e-mail from Gildea, asking if she’d like to narrate a new book. “It’s a bit R-rated,” Gildea warned. The fee was a couple of thousand dollars. The book, “Gone Girl,” has sold more than ten million copies in all formats.
The book launched Whelan’s career. “People remember when you play a psychopath,” she said. “Gone Girl” was also a watershed moment in the audiobook world. The pandemic was another. “Everyone worried, ‘Will people stop listening to audiobooks now that they don’t have a commute?’ ” Whelan continued. “It turned out to be the opposite: they listened more.”
She didn’t set out to become an audio narrator. “No one does,” she said. As a child, Whelan, who grew up in Oregon, acted in a few Lifetime movies. At fifteen, she landed a role on ABC’s “Once and Again,” after Scarlett Johansson turned it down. “It was network TV in the nineties,” she said. “You were either the hot cheerleader or the troubled girl.” (Troubled girl.)
After studying English at Middlebury, she returned to Hollywood to start auditioning again. A producer told her, “College isn’t sexy. Rehab would’ve been.” She said, “I wasn’t Natalie Portman.”
Instead, she has quietly become a star of the unrecognizable kind. Whelan has recorded more than five hundred audiobooks, and has received AudioFile’s Golden Voice, an honor for lifetime achievement. (“I think they’ve gone through all the older people,” she said.) At the 2019 Audies—the Oscars with less cleavage, more eyeglasses, zero assault—she won best female narrator, for Tara Westover’s “Educated.” “It’s a brilliant book, but there are so many I’ve sweated more!” she said. “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.” (“Try aging a voice over three hundred years.”) “The Four Winds.” (“Accents all over the place!”) The most stressful title in her recording queue, she said, is her own. “Thank You for Listening,” her second novel, a rom-com about two audio narrators, is out next week. “I’m pitching it as ‘In a World’ meets ‘You’ve Got Mail,’ ” she said.
She also regularly records long nonfiction pieces for the Audm app (which produces audio versions of The New Yorker’s stories). The Trump years were draining, as was the pandemic. “I actually had covid while recording that viral New York Times piece about covid by Jessica Lustig,” she said.
Pronunciation research is arduous: “A piece about the cuisine of the Faroe Islands will come through, and I’m, like, ‘Fucking pass!’ ” (She did that one nonetheless.)
After breakfast, on the way to the studio, she vented about the pay scale. Narrators straddle the publishing and entertainment fields, yet often reap the financial upside of neither. She is paid per finished hour of recording, and although Whelan is at the top of her field, her hourly rate is only twice what it was a decade ago. “It’s an egregious miscarriage! This industry hasn’t caught up with how popular audiobooks are,” she said. “I still get residuals from acting shit I did when I was ten”—most recently, a couple of hundred dollars for “Fifteen and Pregnant,” in which she played Kirsten Dunst’s chaste younger sister.
At the studio, she greeted Gildea with a hug. Photographs lined the walls: Michelle Obama (“American Grown”). George W. Bush (“41”). Lena Dunham (“Not That Kind of Girl”). “They’re famous,” Whelan said. “They don’t put real narrators up.” ♦
Published in the print edition of the August 1, 2022, issue, with the headline “The Adele of Audibles.”