We all love a good book to usher us in from spring to summer, and fortunately for us, actress, screenwriter and narrator Julia Whelan, now debut author, has written the perfect book for us. My Oxford Year, which follows Ella Durran as she finally realizes her dream of getting to study at Oxford University. But while Ella expected nothing more than the academic and intellectual fulfillment she’s always dreamed of, she’s not expecting the friends she makes, her own personal growth, and falling in love.
My Oxford Year actually contains shades of the author’s own life, who spent a visiting year at Oxford University as a student in 2006, before she returned to Middlebury College, from which she graduated magna cum laude.
With the novel now being turned into a movie starring Supergirl’s Melissa Benoist and Outlander’s Sam Heughan, it’s becoming very clear that Julia Whelan is writing gold. Read our interview with the debut novelist, where she talks about Oxford, writing romance, and transitioning from being in front of the camera to behind a writing desk.
BookTrib: This is your debut transition from actress and narrator to author. What made you want to write a book?
Julia Whelan: I’ve been writing my whole life and I was a Creative Writing major in college. I’ve started many novels and completed two. But the day-job of audiobook narration (while amazing because I get to read books all day), definitely cut back on my ability to stay in my own narrative voice. Every three or four days of recording, I’d be jumping into a new book and I was always inhabiting other authors’ voices.
This book happened in a roundabout way. I’m a screenwriter, too, and about five years ago I was hired to work on an existing screenplay set in Oxford during its development process at a studio. There was so much I wanted to do with the story and characters, but screenplays don’t leave much room to explore. The people involved knew that I had “a take” on the story. So, when I flushed it out, turned in a hundred pages for their review, they gave me the go ahead and a novel was born. I came to realize that I’d been seeing this story in my head as a novel all along. It’s the format the screenplay needed as well as the format I needed to explore these characters with the depth I perceived in them and to introduce themes that had become important to me (I go into this in more detail in the book’s PS Section).
BookTrib: In this book, Ella Durran gets to study at Oxford University, where you also studied. How much of your own experience went into the book?
JW: The experience of being a young American woman at Oxford is obviously close to home. The feeling of reverence and awe coupled with some serious bouts of insecurity and imposter syndrome were very familiar experiences for me. Also, making incredible friends you don’t want to leave and feeling instantly at home in this historic city. But beyond that, I was very diligent about not mining my own personal stories for material. Everything Ella goes through is entirely fiction.
BookTrib: Ella is such a compelling character, and throughout the book she really grows and becomes more sure of herself. At the end, she makes this really hard, life-changing decision. Can you tell us about how you first saw Ella, and the journey that you took her on as a character?
JW: I really do love her. I think at the beginning of the story, she’s a driven, smart, capable young woman who might be a little intimidating to those around her. And like many capable women, she also believes she has it all together, that everything’s going exactly as she planned. But she finds her match in not only Jamie, but also the friends she makes. At Oxford, she’s no longer the cleverest person in the room. And I think that exposes her to the aspects of herself that are not as complete as she thinks, things she’s denied for far too long. She begins to realize that maybe life isn’t a checklist. Maybe you can’t control everything, plan everything; maybe sometimes life just happens to you, you don’t always make life happen. Ella learns the true test of who you are is how you choose to deal with those things you didn’t choose. Sometimes you just can’t have it “all.” But you can decide how you define “all.” To me, that maturing process is a fundamental turning point in everyone’s life. And that was the moment I wanted to explore.
BookTrib: You write relationships so beautifully and effortlessly, not only between Ella and Jamie, but also Antonia and William and really capture the unspoken elements of relationships. Is this something that comes easy to you?
JW: I wouldn’t say “easy!” But, as an actor and screenwriter, first and foremost I’m drawn to character. And the relationship between characters is where the excitement is for me. It’s not as relevant to know what a character chooses to do, it’s way more interesting to understand why. What may appear effortless is approximately two decades of acting training, a lot of interpersonal and self-development work, and being the nerd who writes her undergraduate thesis on the way character is portrayed.
BookTrib: I don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s a line that Jamie says towards the end of the book about love and bottles of wine. This was so powerful to read (and re-read!) – can you tell us a little about writing that part?
JW: I love wine. It’s a hobby of mine. And I’m kind of an amateur collector (emphasize amateur). And sometimes I look at my ridiculous wine fridge and think “What if there’s an earthquake? What if the refrigeration unit goes out while I’m away for a month in the dead of Summer? What if, what if, what if?” And, to me, that’s the question we should be asking ourselves about the people we love. “What if either one of us died tomorrow? What if one of us suffered a horrible accident? What if one of our “refrigeration units” goes out (sorry, a little levity never hurts)? What would be left unsaid?” I lost my father very suddenly and I thank myself literally every day that my father and I were current in our relationship. That we’d expressed, and had continued to express, our love for one another up until the day he just didn’t answer the phone anymore. So sometimes I open a special bottle on a random Tuesday because why not? Life deserves it.
BookTrib: I know that this has just come out (literally), but do you plan on writing more?
JW: Absolutely! Now that I’m back in a writing grove and have found a good balance between acting, audiobooks, and my own writing, I’m digging into the next book now. Too early to get into details, but it will definitely share the character-driven, relationship-exploring, lit-nerd DNA of My Oxford Year. Write what you know, after all.
My Oxford Year is now available for purchase.
ABOUT JULIA WHELAN
Julia Whelan is a screenwriter, lifelong actor, and award-winning audiobook narrator. She graduated with a degree in English and creative writing from Middlebury College and Oxford University. While she was in England, her flirtation with tea blossomed into a full-blown love affair, culminating in her eventual certification as a tea master.