As any avid reader will know, every once in a while, you come across a book so brilliantly written that it immediately grabs your attention from the first sentence and holds it until the very last, leaving you thinking about it — and recommending it to others, of course — long after it’s over. One such book is Julia Whelan’s forthcoming Thank You For Listening (out next Monday, August 2, 2022, from HarperCollins / Avon Books), which centers around actor-turned-audiobook narrator Sewanee Chester who, it may be argued, is still coming to terms with a life-altering event that took place years earlier, and where that has left her both personally and professionally. An added bonus? The book also provides readers with something of an insider’s view of the world of audiobooks — something that even the most well-read among us are less-than-familiar with, but about which many of us have undoubtedly been curious. Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to speak with Julia about her latest book. Read on to see what she had to say about how Thank You For Listening came about, the popularity of audiobooks, some of her recommended reads and more.
Andrew DeCanniere: I always find it interesting to learn a bit about the story behind the story. To begin at the beginning, how did this book come about?
Julia Whelan: That’s a good question. I’ve had an idea to set something in the audiobook / romance world for about 10 years. It came from when I was recording a lot of romance myself. More specifically, I was recording a series with a good friend of mine who’s kind of like a little brother to me. We went to college together. I got him into the industry. We just have a very brotherly-sisterly relationship, and we were recording the audio of this romance series together, and we were sending each other messages asking questions very much like the ones in this book. “Are you moaning through this?” It was like “This is such a weird job. This is such an unbelievably humorous, funny, completely original job that we have here.” I thought it was good fodder for a rom-com. I didn’t know exactly what shape that would take. Up until about 2019, I wasn’t sure that people cared enough about audiobooks to care about this story. That was my major concern: was I writing about something that no one knew about? I just kind of trusted that people would care, and that it would find its audience. In those few years, especially post-pandemic, the popularity of audiobooks exploded. It became something that I felt confident that people would know what it was.
DeCanniere: It really does seem as though audiobooks have really just taken off. I mean, people were listening even before the pandemic, but it does seem that even more people have become aware of them.
Whelan: I think you’re right. The real testing ground for that came early on in the pandemic — in March or April of 2020. I definitely had the thought that maybe that was it. Maybe audiobooks have reached their peak, because if people are no longer commuting, are they going to listen to audiobooks? What became very clear very quickly was that people were choosing audiobooks as a form of entertainment. That kind of blew the idea that it was just something that one did to multitask right out of the water. It was clear that people were choosing audiobooks because, when you have been on your computer all day long, you don’t want another screen in front of you, so you’re listening to an audiobook — or maybe you’re prepping dinner while you’re listening to an audiobook, or you’re doing a puzzle while listening to an audiobook. People were trying them who had never tried them before. The last two years have been really remarkable, in terms of industry growth.
DeCanniere: And I think that it is fair to say that your book touches upon what it is like to work in the audiobook industry. Among other things, I think it illustrates that there really is much more to the whole thing than people who casually listen to audiobooks might assume.
Whelan: Yeah. Honestly, another reason I felt it is worth writing this book is that I would get the same questions all the time. No one really knows how this job works or what it is, so the questions are very similar. So, it seemed to me that was something that was missing from the culture. There’s no television show about audiobook narrators. There isn’t any other media about it. So, people really don’t know what it is, how it happens, or the people who are involved in it. It’s such a massive part of publishing, of culture, and of media, that people don’t really know much about. It’s a very small, insular community. I thought people would be curious. I just didn’t know if the timing was going to be right, because books take so long to write, and so long to come out. It seems like it might be the right time.
DeCanniere: Right. Most people definitely don’t have that first-hand knowledge, so I think it’s really interesting to take a peek behind the curtain, so to speak.
Whelan: It is, and then the question becomes “How much information is too much?” At the end of the day, I didn’t want the book to alienate people who didn’t know anything about audiobooks, and who might not like audiobooks, or who might not care about them. I wanted there to be access points on other levels. You don’t want to create something that only the diehard fans will appreciate. It’s hard to explain your entire industry briefly and concisely, and to know what is important to dwell on and what isn’t. A lot of the challenge of putting the book together was “What’s really important? What really explains the world that these people are inhabiting, without inundating the reader with too much information?”
DeCanniere: Personally, while I am not against e-books or anything like that — I do own a [Barnes & Noble] Nook, for the record — but I do think that you are right. Especially with so many people spending so much of their time in front of screens — more time than ever, over the last two-and-a-half years, in many cases — I do feel that audiobooks are a great solution. Many people really are looking to get away from their screens.
This is a little off-topic, but I also have to say that when we are talking about printed material, I tend to prefer physical copies of books rather than e-books. Not to offend manufacturers of e-readers, but there is something about holding a book in your hand, and about reading from an actual book. There’s something about having the physical copy in your personal library. So, I do think that, for me, it’s either a physical book or audiobook — both of which get you off of your devices and away from your screens.
Whelan: I totally agree. There’s something tactile that is just missing for the convenience of an e-book. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Kindle, but there’s just something more intimate and tactile about a physical copy. I feel, in the same way, there is something more intimate about audio. To go back to the beginning of the pandemic, I think that was something a lot of people were missing. The sound of a human voice in your ear. So, I think all formats serve their purpose, and they are all very different experiences.
DeCanniere: I don’t want to give too much away, but getting to the story itself, I will say that Sewanee — who is at the center of the book — is arguably coming to terms with a major, life-altering incident. And, it seems that despite the turn her life has taken, she wants to get back to what she had. I feel like that’s a very natural, very human inclination — especially since she seemed to be satisfied with her life and the career she was pursuing. However, she also seems uncertain in terms of just how to move forward, and a little uncertain in terms of what she wants out of her professional and personal life.
Whelan: For me, I was just starting from the basic fact of who is my main character going to be? I knew people would probably pick up the book assuming it was going to be auto-fiction. You know, here I am writing about the subject, and I wanted to put as much distance between myself and my main character as possible, to keep reminding people that this is fiction. This is a novel. The major question I had to ask was “What is her conflict?” As a writer, you generally start with that question, but part of the reason that character could not be me is that I love my job. I love my life. There is very little friction. So, what would be the thing that would be bothering her? What is her impediment? To me, the question was whether you can have a job that you love — that you love objectively, and you are grateful for it, but you just feel that it is not what you are supposed to be doing.
That tension was interesting for me to play with. This isn’t someone who hates what she’s doing. She loves it. If she had come to it of her own volition — if she had sought it out — she would feel her success. She can’t, because it wasn’t the plan. It wasn’t what she had always dreamed of doing. That dream was taken away from her, so this is her fallback. I just thought that was something that resonated with me because, in many ways, this job was my fallback, too. However, once I saw how great this job is, and how much I love it, I was like “Fantastic! I’m going to go in this direction now.” I feel like that’s kind of a universal thing, especially in the last few years, where things did not go according to plan. So many people have had to kind of shutter the life they had, and make due with the life they have now.
DeCanniere: Absolutely. So many people have been thrown a curveball in the last two-and-a-half years. Sometimes more than one. I know that there have definitely been aspects of life that have gone very differently than I would have anticipated, and I don’t think anybody saw so much of this coming. She also seems convinced that people see her through the filter or lens of this incident, even though there is obviously so much more to her than that.
Whelan: Yes. Part of her story is that this was a beautiful woman who moved through the world as a beautiful woman, and the amount of privilege that gave her was something she just took for granted. Now, there is something very noticeably different about her, and she doesn’t know how to move through space that way. When you couple that with the fact that she has chosen this job where she is just hidden away in a four-by-four sound booth, where she doesn’t have to interface with people — even though it has been seven years, she is still not totally adept at moving through space as who she is now. Even when you walk outside, and you have a pimple or something, and you’re like “Everyone is looking at this.” You know, they may notice it, but they are not fixated on it the way that you are. It’s just such a different way of experiencing life for her, and she has not totally gotten used to it yet.
DeCanniere: Right. I think that, from her perspective, it is such a central feature of her being. She doesn’t notice that this one aspect of her is not all anybody else can see.
DeCanniere: There’s this one point, when she’s out with her mother, and her mother makes this point about self-acceptance. I just thought it was such a valid point. She points out that Sewanee seems to be waiting for others to accept her, so that she can accept herself. Her mom tells her that she must accept herself first, to be able to effectively move forward, and for others to be able to accept her. Her mom tells Sewanee that she will need to make the first move where that is concerned.
Whelan: I think that’s just a general human thing, where we search, first and foremost, for validation from others, when we don’t actually need that. That is a thing that we are looking to fill because we can’t do it ourselves. I think that, for me, that was just an interesting thing to explore, and the real turning point for her. She’s like “Okay. Yeah, I still have a lot of work to do, and this can’t come externally. It has to come internally.”
DeCanniere: And I just thought that was such a valid point to make, and something that is such a universal thing as well. I don’t think you need to be going through something quite as dramatic and life-altering as what Sewanee goes through for that to really resonate. I also thought that another interesting point is Sewanee’s having been a part of the entertainment industry, and what can often go on. For example, her best friend, Adaku, is a part of this production, and it would seem that the others involved in it don’t seem to care about Adaku’s well-being. They are much more worried about the production and keeping things on-schedule.
Whelan: It was a joy to be able to put that into a book, because I think that, again, when people who aren’t in Hollywood write about Hollywood, they get a lot of things right. However, usually it is black or white. It’s either the glamour of it, or it’s the degradation and falling off your pedestal. It isn’t about the minute, day-to-day, slow deterioration of your humanity in little ways. That, to me, is where the rubber meets the road in this industry — and that someone as successful and as talented, with her star on the rise, is still subjected to this. Part of it is because of [Adaku’s] race, and part of it is because this is just the way the business works.
DeCanniere: You would think that there has to be a better way forward for the industry. There must be a better way than steamrolling over the individuals who make up the whole.
Whelan: At the end of the day, it is a business. I don’t know that there is a single business that prioritizes individual welfare over convenience and profit. I think that we just expect Hollywood — because it is a humanity, and it is people making things for people — to somehow be better, and it’s just not.
DeCanniere: Right. I think that many expect it to be more about the art.
Whelan: Yes. And I think that, when Sewanee gets her hopes up for this job — She knew she didn’t want to go back in, because she didn’t want to be hurt. She’s been saying that for seven years. She finally convinces herself to do it, and she was totally right. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good thing for her to do, and that it wasn’t a good thing for her to experience. She needed to do it for herself, but she was right about the business. That’s the story I wanted to tell, too. I didn’t want it to be a victorious, righting of wrongs. I just didn’t feel that was honest.
DeCanniere: And it seems that, at one point, Sewanee and Adaku realize that when they thought about “making it” in the business, their fantasy was actually about making a million dollars before they reach a certain age. It wasn’t so much about the art or the talent, but it was more about becoming this commodity.
Whelan: Yeah. They commodified themselves.
DeCanniere: So, I just thought that it was something of an interesting revelation that they end up having.
Whelan: And these are people who went about doing it right. These are two women who are very smart, who are very educated, and who learned their instrument. They are incredibly, undeniably talented. Yet, that was still the measure of success for them. It was this push, again, to that kind of external validation — just the trap of that. That was something I felt was worth exploring.
DeCanniere: Not to get too off into the weeds, but I think that, at the end of the day, it does have so much to do with our society as well. With the messages that society sends us. I certainly don’t believe that the wealthier you are, the more of a success you are. However, I feel as though that is the message that society sends, and the way in which things are viewed.
Whelan: Definitely. I don’t think that’s getting into the weeds, because that’s something that I was playing with on the Stu and Marilyn side of the story. You have this guy who never had any reason to spend his money. He never had a wife. He never had kids. He just had his job that he loved. So, here he is and he hits retirement and he has this money. It’s like “I don’t feel that means anything about my success. I failed as many times as I succeeded. I don’t know how I got here, and the thing that really mattered the most to me is the thing I never had. I never got to have that.” It’s not like the book is about money, or as though this is a major theme. However, I think that when you come from an industry where money is just thrown around in such an obscene way — there’s this hierarchy of either you have it, and you have it in excess, or you’re struggling. That’s the paradigm in which you’re doing your work. So, for someone like Sewanee to have come up through that system, and then be doing this job — toiling away in obscurity, making a living but watching her best friend have everything that she always wanted — I felt like that was something that couldn’t be avoided.
DeCanniere: Also of interest is the relationship between Sewanee and her grandmother, whose nickname is “BlahBlah,” and who is also sometimes referred to, simply, as “Blah.” We see that there is clearly a very different relationship between Blah and Sewanee versus Blah and Blah’s son / Sewanee’s father, Henry. Part of this, obviously, is due to the fact that Sewanee and Henry are very different people. That said, I just thought it’s interesting to see the difference in dynamic between Sewanee and her grandmother, and between Blah and her son.
Whelan: Yeah. I knew that what I was writing was essentially a rom-com, but I wanted to talk about the intergenerational relationships that so often define our lives. For me, what became clear as I was writing this book, was that Sewanee’s relationship with BlahBlah works because BlahBlah is sort of the one person who didn’t treat Sewanee differently after the incident. It’s because this is a woman who has always lived in denial for her whole life. Just “Fake it ’til you make it.” She’s show folk. So, she never treated Sewanee any differently. Sewanee is still “Dollface.” She’s still the most beautiful girl in the world. For Sewanee, watching her grandmother decline, and watching her reality shift, she is losing that one touchstone to who she once was.
As someone who was a caretaker for my grandfather and step-grandmother as they were dying, something that became very clear to me is that you don’t have that sort of immediate parent entanglement. The grandparent position is so different, unless you were raised by your grandparents. In this situation, she has the ability to have uncomplicated affection for her grandmother. As that starts to change, she has to confront who she is without that uncomplicated affection.
DeCanniere: My grandmother passed away 16 years ago. I could relate, because, toward the end of her life, my grandmother also had some memory issues. I still remember when I found out that something was wrong. I went over to her condo to visit with her one afternoon. Ordinarily, she would be expecting me at that time. However, when I arrived, I found that she wasn’t there. Unbeknownst to me at the time, she had been taken to the hospital earlier that day. Unfortunately, things just sort of spiraled from that point on, and she passed away nine months later. Obviously, everyone’s experience is different, but I thought that it was so important to touch upon that aspect of the story.
Whelan: It is. I also knew, from the beginning, I wanted the story to kind of touch on the tension between fantasy and reality — which is the tension between romance novels and women’s fiction, which is the tension between your idealized self and who you actually are. Dementia seemed like another way of talking about that. As someone just slowly disconnects from reality, what shared ground do you have anymore?
DeCanniere: You also see Henry’s relationship with BlahBlah and with his daughter. I think that is also kind of a very contrasting relationship. Maybe it’s passing judgment on Henry, but I feel as though he is self-centered or self-involved. You can see it in his reluctance to spend money on his mother’s care. Then, on top of that, he tries to dissuade Sewanee from spending her money on her grandmother’s care. He basically says that it’s just as good someplace else, and that she won’t even know where she is anyway. That kind of thing. I just feel as though he is not particularly attuned to other people’s needs or feelings — to put it mildly.
Whelan: He’s not. Whenever I’d be writing a Henry scene, I would just keep hearing that line from The Big Lebowski, where he’s like “You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an asshole.” Henry actually has some valid points, but he’s coming from a place of such bitterness and repressed anger that it just invalidates any of the points he’s making. I think that what Marilyn goes on to say about him, and how he just never felt appreciated, is such a common thing that a lot of men of a certain age carry. That they were just not acknowledged enough for what they did. We’re all standing there going “What did you do?” It’s like, you took care of your people around you — the family that you chose. What did you do? I don’t know why you want a gold medal for that. For that person, he just never felt that he was fully appreciated. That has wreaked havoc on every relationship he had. His only way to counter that is to bully people into thinking that he’s right.
DeCanniere: Obviously, he ends up sabotaging what he had with his wife as well.
Whelan: Yes. He ends up sabotaging all of the relationships he has, where he doesn’t feel appreciated. I think that, again, is his own sort of trope. The book is sort of built up of tropes, and the difficult father is certainly a trope, but I wanted to talk about why someone like that is difficult. It doesn’t mean they should be absolved for what they’ve done, and it doesn’t mean that they should be forgiven. It just means that they should be understood.
DeCanniere: While I don’t think you could say Henry comes around, exactly, I do think that there is something of an evolution in terms of the relationship with his daughter as well.
Whelan: That’s kind of the thing. I didn’t want it to be transformational. I didn’t want it to be totally resolved. I just wanted them to come to an understanding. The title of the book actually exists in that scene, when she says “You listened. Thank you for listening.” That’s all she ever wanted. To me, that’s so much of the battle — just listening to the person who frustrates you most, and trying to understand where they are coming from.
DeCanniere: Then there also is this relationship between Sewanee and this guy. I’m trying to figure out how to refer to him without giving too much away here. There’s this relationship between the two of them, and I thought that is also such an important relationship to touch upon. You kind of see the evolution of their relationship, on both a personal and professional level as well.
Whelan: I wanted this book to be a very loving send-up of romance tropes. So, I wanted to do as many of them as I possibly could. I wanted to see if I could have insta-love with a slow burn, and just how to do that. I wanted to play with both of those tropes. Just the immediate connection you have with someone that is undeniable and fated, with really getting to know someone — the slow evolution of a relationship — and what happens when those two things come together.
DeCanniere: And I do think that you really do see them grow as people, as well as in their careers, in a way that might very well not have happened at all if they hadn’t come together.
Whelan: From my perspective, that’s the goal of any good love story. Not just two people finding each other, but two people learning about themselves through that other person. That’s what makes a love story rewarding to me.
DeCanniere: Absolutely. I think that one of the nice things about the relationship that they have is that they push each other to be the best version of themselves — both personally and professionally. He becomes a better actor, based on her influence. He — along with her mother, of course — also influences how Sewanee sees herself.
Whelan: I think that, ideally, you have two people who genuinely care about each other, and who want the best for each other. How do you nudge that person into being the best version of themselves, for them, whether that includes you or not? That, to me, is a true love story — where these two people have built enough trust with each other that they can point out the other’s flaws. They know that they are doing it for the reason of wanting the other person to come to some sort of resolve in themselves. I think that is a love story worth telling. How, when you approach a relationship with, first and foremost, care for the other person — not what you are going to get out of it. I think that is the biggest leap you can take.
DeCanniere: I wholeheartedly agree. I think that if you are prioritizing the other person and their well-being, and if they are reciprocating, then I think that is a huge thing. If, on the other hand, you are just in a relationship because of what you can get out of it — never considering the other person or their needs — I think that spells trouble from the very start. Speaking of their relationship, you also kind of touch upon Sewanee and her issues with the whole genre — her whole issue with doing romance novels in the first place — and the promise of “Happily Ever After” or “HEA.” I thought that is interesting as well. I think that her perspective, where that is concerned, clearly has an impact on their relationship as well.
Whelan: Yes. The criticism that always bothered me about romance novels is when people would look down on the genre, saying “Well, it’s just unrealistic.” These are the same people who would happily read science fiction or thrillers, and I was just like “What is it in you that finds the human capacity for love unrealistic?” I honestly think it says more about them than it does about the genre.
Also, more importantly, why shouldn’t that be the goal? Why do we denigrate things that are positive? So, I understand that criticism — I hear that criticism — and, at certain times in my life, I have felt that way, and that’s where Sewanee is coming from. “Don’t sell me this line of crap. I don’t buy it. I’ve seen too much in my life to buy it.” As she starts to develop her relationship with this guy, she starts to see that maybe that kind of love is actually possible. It isn’t that it’s assured. That is the part of the romance novel that is delivering to the readers what they want. That is the promise you make a reader when you say “This is a romance.” That it will have a happily ever after, the same way that if you were writing a murder mystery, they find the killer in the end. That is not some great societal commentary about how you think love should work, or life should work. Once she comes to realize that, it frees her for the possibility of “Yeah, things may not work out. This may not work out between us, but the end should not nullify the entire point of the relationship and everything that we got out of it.”
DeCanniere: And maybe it’s just my perspective, but I feel as though when it comes to at least some of the people who take issue with the genre, and who see “Happily Ever After” as an impossibility, it might have something to do with society. It can feel like society has this tendency to equate cynicism with intelligence, and I just feel that equation of one automatically equaling the other could have something to do with it.
Whelan: I think that’s very true. I think that, yes, we don’t separate the things that we find enjoyable and affirming and that fill us up. Somehow, they are viewed, again, as just not important or worthy. I don’t know why we do that to ourselves.
DeCanniere: I think that you can not have the attitude that Sewanee has about the genre — or, at least, the attitude she has about it at the beginning — and I don’t think that demonstrates naïveté or something. If you don’t go in with that attitude, it’s not as though you are going to believe everyone you come across or you’ll take candy from strangers or something. I don’t think you must be cynical to be intelligent.
Whelan: I am also always suspicious anytime society tells women — because that’s who we are talking about in this situation, predominantly female readers — what is realistic or what is not, or what they should like or what they shouldn’t. I always feel there’s an ulterior motive there. They don’t want women to know what a successful, happy, fulfilling relationship looks like. That’s my little secret CIA brain. You know, my societal paranoia brain that’s like “Why don’t you want them to read this stuff?”
DeCanniere: It’s just strange to me that people have that attitude. I don’t think cynicism is automatically indicative or not indicative of somebody’s level of intelligence. I feel that can be an oversimplification of things. Certainly if you go by that alone.
Whelan: It is. Look, I came out of English and Creative Writing programs. I came out of the literary fiction world. That’s why so much of the book has quotes from “the greats,” and then also June French, who is a megastar in her own world — who, realistically, if she were real, people probably would’ve denigrated. At the end of the day, all of these people are storytellers, and they have their reasons for telling their stories, and I’m certainly not going to genre-shame or say that one is less than the other. That’s just not going to happen.
DeCanniere: Last, but not least, I know I am always curious to know what you are reading, or else who you may count among your influences. Do you have any suggestions?
Whelan: I’m excited about The Villa by Rachel Hawkins. I have not read it yet, but I’m excited about that one. I’m excited about The Rewind by Allison Winn Scotch. That would probably be a good one for you to check into. Again, these aren’t ones I’ve read, but I love both of them as writers. I was talking to Allison the other day about The Rewind and it just sounds great. The new Cormac McCarthy novels are astonishing. I mean, unsurprisingly, but astonishing.
Julia Whelan is a screenwriter, lifelong actor, and award-winning audiobook narrator of over five hundred titles. Her performance of her own debut novel, the internationally bestselling My Oxford Year, garnered a Voice Arts Award. Whelan is also a Grammy-nominated audiobook director, a former writing tutor, a half-decent amateur baker, and a certified tea sommelier. You can find out more about Julia and her work online by visiting her website. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.
Thank You For Listening is available now for pre-order from Avon Books and will be available on August 2, 2022.
Please note that you can read my April 2018 interview with Julia regarding her brilliant debut novel, My Oxford Year, by clicking here.
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