Julia Whelan spends many of her waking hours shut inside a soundproof studio with a microphone, an iPad and a bottle of water.
There, she has recorded herself reading some of the bestselling books of the past decade. After several years as a child actor, Whelan began a career in audio narration when a friend’s mother, an audio producer, approached her about a job at her college graduation. In 2012, she became a breakout new voice, reading “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn. Since then, Whelan has narrated a host of other major titles, including: “Educated” by Tara Westover,” “The Great Alone” by Kristin Hannah,” “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh. To date, she has recorded approximately 400 books.
I spoke to Whelan about her experience with sexism in the audiobook industry, and why she thinks listeners tend to trust a man’s speaking voice over a woman’s. Through her own narration, Whelan says, she hopes to help shift our understanding of what makes an “authoritative voice.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: Is your daily speaking voice the same as your reading voice?
Julia Whelan: Not at all. I was actually in a car with some friends recently, and I played the audio of an article I’d recorded. And about five minutes into it, one of my friends stopped and said: “Wait, is this you?”
I think I kick into my theater and vocal training when I am narrating. And actually, I’m happy I can let my training go in conversation. Otherwise that would just be a lot.
CK: What is it about your voice that you think has made it so popular?
JW: One thing that people have repeatedly said to me, as I’ve developed, is that I have a very trustworthy voice. I don’t totally know what that means ... but I do try to convey to the listener: “I got this. You sit, I’ll tell you what the story is. This isn’t on you.”
CK: Do you ever narrate books written by men?
JW: Very rarely. Generally the industry tries to cast based on the author’s identity, unless the subject matter calls for a different, more creative casting. I’ve done fiction books by men with a female protagonist. But I don’t think I’ve ever done a nonfiction book written by a man, ever.
CK: Is that a problem?
JW: Well, there is a group of really well-known male narrators in this industry but fewer women who have that kind of reputation.
I think it goes back to [the gender disparities in] publishing. The books that get the most marketing money, the books that make the biggest splash, are still mostly written by men. So if you look at these famous male narrators, the books they have done, and the books that continue to come their way, it’s easy to see how they get on more people’s radars.
One of the things I love about reading for Audm [a company that records articles for major magazines, like the New Yorker and the Atlantic] is that I regularly read work by men. I’ll do a Ronan Farrow piece, an Adam Gopnick, a David Frum. I’d never do that kind of male nonfiction for audiobooks. And this is only happening because Audm, as a company, is trying hard to shift the way we think about what makes an authoritative voice.
CK: Why is it so hard to make that shift in the audiobook industry?
JW: I think an underlying issue is that male listeners, in particular, can have a certain reaction to a female voice. They’ll say things to female podcasters and narrators like, “Your vocal fry is really off-putting,” “Why do you have to speak so high,” or “Why do you sound so shrill?”
CK: Do you think we believe women’s voices less?
JW: Yes. I think part of the problem is that women have been socially conditioned to present their voices in a certain way. Maybe we have told them that high and breathier is sexier ... or that they should present their statements as questions, that they should pull back from anything declarative, or deliver statements with a tone of apology. And I think those kinds of vocal patterns are off-putting to a listener of either sex. If you want to create a very trustworthy, capable, “just-sit-back-I-got-this” feeling, that’s not the way to go about it.
CK: Do you ever find yourself slipping into those kinds of stereotypically female vocal patterns?
JW: Obviously they can be used intentionally, depending on the character. But at this point, it’s been so weeded out of me, in narration and in life. I don’t do that anymore.
Sometimes I get these messages from men who are surprised that they can listen to an entire book narrated by a woman without being annoyed. And I just have to reply and say, “Thank you so much.”
CK: In a lot of the books you read, you have to do a man’s voice. How do you approach that?
JW: Early in my career I would really dig deep for the most convincing, realistic guy voice … only to listen back and say, “I swear to god, this is only a half octave lower than my normal speaking voice.” I was killing myself in the booth. I ripped my throat apart ... and I got nothing out of it. At this point, I just ask myself, “Who is this guy? Who is the character?” I approach the men the same way I approach the women.
CK: Do you like the sound of your own voice?
JW: I really have no objective sense of what my voice sounds like. ... I don’t think anyone really does. Most people can’t stand to listen to themselves, and I think it’s because of the disconnect between what they think they sound like and how they hear themselves. It’s so rare that we are forced to have an objective sense of something about us.
CK: It’s kind of like when you see a picture and think, “Oh my god, do I actually look like that?"
JW: Exactly. And with both of those things, there is something a little artificial in the experience ... like, this wasn’t supposed to happen. There is nothing natural about hearing our own voice played back to us in a recording. There is nothing natural about photographs. I just think, as humans, we’re not equipped to deal.
CK: What do you think makes someone a successful narrator?
JW: A lot of people come up to me and say, “I’ve been told I have a good voice, I should do audiobooks.” And I’ll be like, that’s not necessarily true. It’s like saying, “I like to help people; I’m going to become a brain surgeon.” Being a narrator requires skill, but not just that one skill. It’s not just having a great voice.
CK: What other skills do you need?
JW: The first thing most narrators have to learn how to deal with is the sound of their breathing. Especially at the beginning, you’ll go back and listen and be like, “Oh my god, I sound like I’m in labor right now.” You learn how to read a waveform in your recording program so you can see where you might have to go back, re-record and breathe quieter.
The next skill is learning how to best represent characters in ways that take into account the voice and tone of the book and letting that inform how far I go with characterization. On camera, so much can be conveyed with a look. Subtext can become very clear in someone’s eyes. You have to make up for that in other ways with audio.
CK: What do you love about doing this?
JW: I love books. The lit nerd part of me is highly activated doing this job. I love being able to inhabit characters that, on screen or on stage, I would never be allowed to play. It’s a full cast production with just you. It’s an actor’s dream.