Narrator Kathleen Wilhoite on the Best and Worst Parts of Making an Audiobook

It’s strange to call someone on the phone—someone you’ve never met—after listening to them speak for ten hours. It’s even stranger when that person turns out to be as wry as the main character in the book they narrated.

I spoke with Kathleen Wilhoite, a singer and actress who played Liz on Gilmore Girls and Chloe on ER among other roles, about narrating Where’d You Go, Bernadette, how she met Maria Semple, and whether or not she’ll narrate any more audiobooks.

[Judy Oldfield]: What’s it like to record an audiobook? Can you tell us about the process?

[Kathleen Wilhoite]: I’ll tell you about a regular day. I have an elliptical trainer in my bedroom. So I would wake up, go on the elliptical, and read what I was going to read that day, to get an idea of the characters that I wanted to do and how I was going to do it. And get an overall spec of the arc of each chapter—study it a little bit. Then I’d finish my workout, shower, and drive to work with traffic, which I never do, because I’m an actress. I rarely drive with the flow of regular working-people traffic. So that was jarring. I can’t believe people drive in that kind of traffic every single day. That was weird.

I’d show up to work at nine o’clock and we’d start. I’d get a cup of coffee and start reading until lunchtime. Time flew because I was so focused. So much of my brain—the left side and the right side—was engaged. Maria is a great writer, and her book is great and engaging. Thank God it wasn’t dry or boring.

All of the sudden I had hunger pains in my stomach and BOOM it’s lunch. The time just flew. We’d have an hour of lunch and they always had delicious food.

The people I worked with were all young too, pipsqueaks, probably younger than thirty which was alarming, and they were really smart and great. And super talented, the engineer was talented, the director was talented, fantastic. The atmosphere had great vibes, and was super creative.

Then after lunch we would tackle the next half of the day. It was the same type of thing. Focused. I couldn’t boggle the sentence; I had to be crystal clear. We had to create, like I said, the arcs, the characters, and the scenes. It was really great fun, engaging work.

Then, I would get in my car and drive with the flow of traffic—working-people, bumper-to-bumper traffic all the way home. I cannot believe people work like this! That they drive in traffic like this, day in and day out. It was so bizarre to be a part of the regular world. I’m an actress and a writer. I’m rarely with regular, working-people traffic. I will avoid that traffic at all costs, even auditions. If they want an audition at nine o’clock, I’m like, “Yeah . . . can’t do it, I’ll be there at eleven.”

So then when I’d get home, I would make dinner for my kids because they’d say, “We’re hungry!” I’d been working all day and my brain is fried but you’ve got to feed your kids! It gave me tremendous respect for working people because that is a lot. And then by the time my husband got home (he’s a producer for television), he’d say “Hey Baby,” and I’d say “Goodnight!” I was out. And I did that for two and a half weeks.

[JO] Wow, two-and-a-half weeks.

[KW] But what was so cool about that process is how much my brain was engaged. I just don’t utilize my brain like that—that consistently—for that long of a period of time. Just think of how you focus when you read, right? How engaged you are. So if you’re reading out loud it’s absolutely not boring, but is totally exhausting.

[JO]: And you have to do so many different character voices, and get the nuances for each character right.

[KW]: I’ve been reading stories to my kids for years and that’s fun for me. I know it doesn’t feel like there’s a difference between acting and reading material but there’s a real subtle difference and I think it’s important to make a distinction. Because Maria Semple wrote her book to be read. It’s more like reading stories to your kids.

[JO]: Was it ever hard not to laugh?

[KW]: Oh we cracked up. We cracked up with tears in our eyes laughing when I had to do a New Zealand accent. My New Zealand accent is so bad, it was hilarious. The closest thing I can get is Australia, eh? And every time I would miss a line, I’d look in the booth and the kids were like, “Ahhhahahaha!” I was like, “You’re laughing at me because I’m sucking so hard!” We had a lot of fun.

[JO]: When it came time to sing, did you have to stop and warm up your voice before you sang the few lines of “Holy Night”?

[KW]: “No, I’m a singer and performer. I’ve made a couple records, and I sing at a nightclub. I felt like that part of the book had a lot of momentum. And I just blasted right through there. There was no stopping in that section.

It was about being in the moment. I told the production team before we did it, “You guys know that I actually sing? I made a couple records. So when I get to this point, I’m just going to freakin’ sing.”

At that point I felt like we were in a really special flow place. It just felt natural and then the singing came in. The pacing in Where’d You Go, Bernadette is really good. Maria Semple comes from television and her stuff is very easy to visualize. The rhythm of the words and the cadence of the sentences she chose fit nicely with me. That’s why I think she wanted me to read it. It was a good fit.

[JO]: So she asked you personally to narrate the audiobook?

[KW]: Yeah, I’ve never narrated a book before. In fact, if you hear of anything let me know, because I think I was pretty darn good at it.

[JO]: I keep seeing bloggers say that this is a book that is even better on audio. I was really surprised to see that this was your first and only audiobook. Do you think you’ll do any more?

[KW]: Yeah, in fact I’m debating—you know I’ve written a couple books myself.

I’m debating whether or not I should do an audiobook for my own novels. I have two of them. Well, I’m working on them. That’s where I met Maria—in writing class.

The answer is, if you hear of anything, I could use the dough. And I thought I was sufficient at it, and this makes me feel fantastic that you’re saying this about people enjoying my reading. I appreciate that very much.

[JO]: Yes, I’ve heard so many people say that. One last question: what’s your favorite moment in the book?

[KW]: When Bee finally sees her mom. It’s so beautiful. It’s such a relief. When I was reading it out loud I was crying. I thought that was beautiful.

I really like the characters. And I love my friend Maria, so it was nice to read her stuff. It was a very good experience for me. All together very positive, so I’m very grateful to her for choosing me.

To find out more about Kathleen Wilhoite, visit kathleenwilhoite.com


It sounds like Kathleen is up for more work in audiobooks. What book do you think would be a perfect fit for her?

Book of the Month: Where’d You Go, Bernadette

One of my favorite parts of cofounding Libro.fm is picking the books we champion on our blog and through our Book of the Month. Each month, we select a different book to promote and create discussion around. In May, we selected What If? by Randall Munroe. In April, we chose Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck.

At a team meeting a few weeks ago, conversation naturally led to which books we had recently listened to and which we looked forward to reading. Both Nick and Judy (whom you may have noticed around our blog) said that they looked forward to listening to Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a book I’ve enjoyed. We’re all Seattleites, and it takes place in Seattle, so it seemed like a natural fit for our first fiction Book of the Month choice.

Judy went as far as to say that she feared being kicked out of Seattle if she didn’t listen to it soon.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette isn’t just for Seattleites though. While a visit to Seattle might help in understanding a few of Maria Semple’s jokes, it draws on broader cultural trends and skewers them at every turn. Helicopter parenting, technology obsessions, organic vegetables . . . nothing is too precious to escape Semple’s scathing wit.

Semple structures the novel in a series of emails. Bernadette has had it up to here with Seattle, the parents at her daughter’s school, and life in general. Becoming increasingly reclusive, she hires an online personal assistant from India to manage her day-to-day affairs. But when her teenaged daughter, Bee, reminds her that it’s time for her promised trip to Antarctica, it all becomes too much. So Bernadette just . . . leaves. And it’s up to Bee to put the pieces back together, sleuthing through her parents’ emails, as well as those of the parents of her schoolmates.

And, of course, hilarity ensues. After all, Semple has written for shows such as Arrested Development and Ellen, so her comedic skills are already proven.

This is one of those books that I keep hearing book bloggers and booktubers say they think is even better on audio. Kathleen Wilhoite does a fantastic job moving from Bee’s adolescent voice to Bernadette’s misanthropic voice, to Manjula’s (Bernadette’s virtual assistant), and every character in between. At one point, Wilhoite is tasked with singing “O Holy Night”, a performance that sends chills down Bee’s spine. She hits the notes perfectly, with all of the emotional gravity that Bee picks up on. As an audience, we can really feel it too.

Listen to a clip of the first few minutes of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, in which Bernadette reluctantly agrees to go to Antartica.


Want to find out more about Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Head on over to Libro.fm.