Julia Whelan, author of HG Book Club pick My Oxford Year, talks storytelling, grief, and lit snobs
Traveling far from home, by choice, for the first time is like falling in love for the first time. Each detail is crisp, each moment stretches on as its own universe, and at the same time, everything exists in this heightened, hazy atmosphere, a little magical, a little unbelievable. To experience both at once — first love and first departure from home — can be the ultimate intoxication, and in her debut novel, My Oxford Year, Julia Whelan captures it so well, in all its foolishness, pain, and joy.
The novel follows Ella Durran, a Rhodes scholar from Ohio, at Oxford to study literature for one year before returning to the U.S. for a career in politics. On day one, she's nearly run over outside a fish-and-chips shop by a "posh prat" who turns out to be her instructor, Jamie Davenport. They fall in love, which is not less satisfying for its predictability, and then the story takes a major turn. The less you know about it going into the book, the better.
Before My Oxford Year became a novel, it was a screenplay, originally written by Allison Burnett. Because of Whelan's experience studying abroad at Oxford, she was brought on board to work on the screenplay, and when the idea came up of turning it into a book, she jumped at the chance. Along with her writing work, Whelan is also an actress (best known for the TV drama Once and Again, which she starred in as a teenager) and an audiobook narrator (the voice of Gone Girl). I met her at a writing conference in L.A. in 2017, when she spotted my college water bottle from across the room. We both went to Middlebury College, a small liberal arts school between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks in Vermont, a campus that at its best nurtures curiosity and at its worst can be an elitist bubble. This dual nature of education and ambition threads through My Oxford Year and into Ella's ultimate decision: When her careful plans are threatened by the unexpected, how will she define a successful life?
For this interview, Julia Whelan spoke with me by phone, from her home in the Southern California desert.
HelloGiggles (HG): What are the scenes or moments you think of first when you look back about your time at Oxford, ones that made it into the book and otherwise?
Julia Whelan (JW): Ella's living arrangement was exactly my living arrangement. So, I have very vivid memories of that first trip up that staircase, which, by the end of my time there, I'm flying down, I can do it drunk and backwards. But that first climb— coming from the U.S., especially, these stairs, clearly— there was no fire code, or regulations. There was nothing that made them in any way safe. In fact, the girl who lived across from me, that was in "Charlie's room" [in the book], we had this understanding. I would hear her fall down the stairs occasionally, and she'd shout up, "I'm okay!" We did that as a courtesy to each other, because we were like, "Did you crack your head open?" "No, I'm okay!" "Okay, great."
There are some moments that come so vividly into my head that I never incorporated because they didn't feel authentic to Ella, but those feelings of just getting transported through time. Like, I have a very specific image of this group of guys coming from some kind of party, and they're all in top hats and tails, and it's probably midnight, and they're just five abreast, strolling down Broad Street, with, like, a light drizzle going on. And I was like, not "Where am I?" but "What time am I? How is this still happening?"
HG: One thing I love about this book is that not much is given away on the back cover, whereas I can imagine other books with similar storylines being marketed in a very different way. How are readers reacting so far?
JW: I've seen some reaction from people being, like, "I don't like tearjerkers, so I wasn't sure I wanted to read this, 'cause it's marketed as Nicholas Sparks meets JoJo Moyes, but then it's actually much more uplifting than I thought it was gonna be." And then I read from other people being like, "This was not the rom com I was expecting."
And I just think at a certain point, the book just has to stand on its own, and it'll find its audience. And some people are gonna be down for that ride and some people aren't, and I don't, in any way, take it personally. I accept when people are like, "This is just not what I wanted. I wanted a really light, fluffy, beach read." I'm like, "Yeah, sorry." I get it, you know? We were hoping that maybe by having a cover that had very serious Oxford blues on it, maybe it wouldn't signal the typical chick lit reader, but you never know.
HG: I also saw someone describe your book as "porn for English majors," which I can definitely see. It is in many ways a rom com, but also Ella is at Oxford studying "English literature and language, 1830 to 1914," and there are all these beautiful descriptions and excerpts of the kind of work she's studying. Have you come up against people's expectations about the divide between literary fiction and popular or genre fiction?
JW: I was expecting to get some pushback from literary readers. I mean, I already have.
But I think that I am the person who reads those literary novels, that is what gets me excited, and therefore this book has a lot there for those readers, the English majors who want their porn. This was written for them, because that is me. Like, Possession is one of my favorite books, by A.S. Byatt, because undersexed Victorian academics is, like, my kink.
HG: When you were in college studying creative writing, did you have a specialty?
JW: Yeah, Victorian was my jam. Specifically, when I was in Oxford, the weird little rabbit hole I went down was the Victorian appropriation of the Middle English Arthurian legends. So, the way that the legends of Camelot and King Arthur came back with a vengeance under Victoria and why. And one of the leaders of that is Tennyson. So, that is why I had a familiarity with Tennyson. That's the level of nerdery that I'm talking about.
HG: Were there any particular fictional couples or love stories that helped fuel you as you were writing the story of Ella and Jamie?
JW: I hadn't read Me Before You until I got through a solid draft of this, and what was helpful about having read that book is that I didn't feel like I was out in the wilderness alone anymore. I thought, "Okay, if people can handle this type of relationship, then maybe they can handle Ella and Jamie."
So, in that sense, I think it's more in the tradition of those great Victorian novels, of the Brontes and George Elliot, of even Austen, that there's a sense that the romantic quest of the heroine is not just about the love story, but about what she determines about herself.
HG: In the book, Ella is working really hard towards a goal, but all of a sudden she has to reevaluate it. And it sounds like, as someone who got into acting as a child, you were similar to Ella in having that kind of clear ambition from early on. So, did you ever have a moment like Ella did, of having to think, "I've come so far on this path, but is it what I really want?"
JW: Yeah. When I was 27, I was starting in audiobooks, I was starting a tea company, I was working out four times a week, because I was acting. I was putting myself through like a physical wringer. I was acting on camera, I was just doing one guest star after another, and I booked a film, and I went to North Carolina to film, and five days into the filming process, I got a call that my father had died, suddenly. That was the first great moment of reevaluation in my life. It knocked me so far off my feet, and the shrapnel from that explosion just went into every aspect of my life.
The circumstances were also such that my father left my grandfather and my step grandmother in what would become the final three years of their life, with really no one to look out for them. And so I had to step into that kind of caretaker role, suddenly. So, from being a young, single, ambitious, driven woman in L.A., acting, writing, trying to make everything happen— suddenly, family was the most important thing.
And the challenge, but also honor, of being there for people in their last years, put everything into perspective. I just had to step back and go, "Okay, what do I really want to do? What is really important to me? What am I even aiming for, at this point?" That was the first time that I'd had that experience of things not going according to plan.
HG: Was there anything you were able to let go of during that time that was actually a good thing? Like, anything you decided you weren't going to worry about anymore?
JW: Yeah, I think the major thing was, "I'm done caring what other people think." And that is a hard thing, as a woman. It's a doubly hard thing as an actress to accept, but, man, when I turned that corner and really said, "I'm in charge of what I do," that was incredibly freeing. I wish it hadn't had to come out of such a traumatic experience, but I'm glad, in the end, that it happened.
HG: The ending of My Oxford Year strikes a balance between very sad and somehow very hopeful. How did you navigate the ending? Did you play around with different options before you landed there?
JW: We had come to this conclusion over multiple drafts of the screenplay. Every possible version of that ending had existed, but for me, where I eventually got to in the book was the way I always wanted to tell the ending. Because I don't want to give people— I certainly didn't want a miraculous ending, because I think the whole book is about the realities of living and dying. For me, what was important about this story had to do with everything that I learned through the grieving process, and then everything that I learned, again, through the dying process.
HG: What have you learned about storytelling from narrating audiobooks?
JW: On a craft level, it's taught me a lot about how a book is constructed. Something happens when you're inhabiting the story, which I think is what we do when we perform it. It's a different experience than reading it. You are really a conduit in some way and the story is passing through you.
A friend of mine, an Oxford friend of mine, actually, wrote this really great blog post about how the experience of hearing a story on an audiobook is different than reading a story, because for us, especially, the kind of overeducated English majors, we sort of intuitively know how to make our own reading experience. So, we start going into pastoral descriptions and we're like, "Got it, got it, got it, got it, go, next part." Audiobooks really force you to slow down and take in the whole story as the author intended. And I think that there's something really valuable about that. I learned a lot about pacing that way a lot about the way we experience books as readers.
HG: What are some kinds of books that you had to read because of your work that you wouldn't have read otherwise?
JW: I'm not a thriller sort of person, so it's kind of funny to me that I've become known as the voice of domestic thrillers right now. I wouldn't have read YA if it hadn't been given to me, and then, I discovered that that category has some of the best writing going on anywhere. I don't read paranormal or fantasy. I'm a contemporary, literary reader. But for plot, you learn a lot from romance novelist. For world building, you lean a lot from fantasy novelists.
HG: I'm glad that you mentioned that, because I had a lot of Middlebury flashbacks while reading this, even though it takes place in Oxford.
JW: One of the things I had fun with in the book, is talking about how being an overachieving American student does not in any way prepare you to be at Oxford. Like, Ella comes in and writes that essay for Jamie, and it's, like, so not the point. I remember the year that I was applying for Rhodes, and I was a finalist, that same year, the previous Rhodes scholars had written an article. They were from Harvard, and they had written an article in the Crimson basically about how Oxford was terrible, don't bother going, everybody's lazy, the library is closed at 5:00, like what an absurd place. And it was like, you just cannot compare— the people that achieve at Harvard are just not the same people that achieve at Oxford. It's measuring two totally different things.
HG: What were they measuring?
JW: At Oxford, my experience there was, bring your well researched ideas, and we'll have a chat about them. There wasn't a right or a wrong. There's a certain deference to the actual text that I found refreshing, without having to overlay your opinions on it. And then, it just wasn't a competition. That said, the actual testing process at Oxford is extremely competitive. And there is a lot of stigma around doing well there, getting a first there. So I'm not trying to say that it's like a hippie, Montessori version of education. It is intellectually rigorous, but there aren't hoops. That's the only way I can describe it, which is kind of what Jamie tries to get across to Ella in the tutorial.
HG: Is there anything in particular you learned about yourself while inhabiting the character of Ella?
JW: I think tracking the book from beginning to end, which for Ella is nine months, for me, really encapsulates 10 years. So, her at the beginning, this kind of doe-eyed ambition, living her dream, the whole world laid out in front of her, transitioning to being blindsided by something you can't control, ending up at a place of peace and acceptance, comfortable in the choices that you make about your own life, was like a 10-year process for me. But that's the good thing about fiction is we can consolidate that into one person's journey.
HG: Was it cathartic to do that, to give it this kind of narrative structure?
JW: It was, unexpectedly. Because in no way is this a memoir, none of this happened to me. So, I think I identify with Ella in no way differently than a reader would identify with her. So, I think that journey is cathartic, but perhaps not more for me than it would be for anyone else.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Join the HG Book Club discussion about My Oxford Year on Instagram.