As I say, every so often — if you’re really lucky — you’ll find a book that just clicks with you the instant you pick it up and leaves you wanting to recommend it to everyone you know. Such is the case with Julia Whelan’s forthcoming debut novel, My Oxford Year (HarperCollins, 2018), which is centered around Ella Durran a 24-year-old American Rhodes Scholar who sets off for a year at Oxford — a long-held dream of hers — and English local Jamie Davenport. An engaging, brilliantly written, exceptionally insightful book that captures the complexities of interpersonal relationships — whether romantic, familial or friendships — and, for that matter, of life in general, I can guarantee you that this is one read that you will find hard to put down. Last month, I had the opportunity to speak with Julia about her book. Read on to see what she had to say about the inspiration for My Oxford Year, Ella and Jamie, some of her own favorite reads, and much more.
Andrew DeCanniere (AD): First off, can I just say that I think your book is brilliant? It’s just so well written. Could you talk a little bit about your inspiration for the book? How did it come to be?
Julia Whelan (JW): Sure. The process of how the book came to be is unique in that is began life as a screenplay. I was hired to work on the screenplay at a certain point, and fell completely in love with the characters and the story. When we all realized there’s more of the story to tell than can be fit into the pages of the screenplay, they asked me if I would be interested in novelizing it. At that point, I was so excited by that idea, because when you’re writing a screenplay, there are so many things that hit the cutting room floor, and because I did have a personal connection to the story, it seemed like a very exciting prospect — not just for myself but for the story and what I felt it had to offer.
Personally speaking, I spent a year at Oxford, so I understood what it was like to be an American in that city — and what it was like to have something that had been a dream of mine for so long finally realized. I, however, did not go as a Rhodes scholar. I was there for my Junior year abroad from Middlebury College. Middlebury has a very intimate relationship with Lincoln College — which, in the book, is Jamie’s college. As a result, I wasn’t treated like a regular American. I was fully matriculated and was given Bodleian rights. I’m considered an alum of Oxford. So, I had this very integrated, immersive experience, not just in the city but in the university and in college life. Consequently, it’s as vivid to me as the time I spent at my undergraduate institution. I wanted to convey that love for the city — and for the institution and its history — in book form. I think even if it hadn’t been this story, at some point in my career I would have found a way to have written about Oxford. It’s just a magical place.
AD: Speaking of which, I took a look at some of the places you mention in your book and they really are just spectacular. I Googled a few of them and found some photos and other information. I think you can certainly imagine quite a bit of it just from the descriptions in your book alone, but I have to admit that I was still a little curious to see what some of these places looked like. Blenheim, for instance, is amazing.
JW: Actually, in the year I was there, the Oxford Union had a ball at Blenheim Palace, and so I had this experience of being in a place I couldn’t imagine ever having been to — especially not in a ball gown in the Orangery. That was something that I felt — especially for an American going abroad — that was such a kind of fairy tale fantasy that it needed to find its way into the story somehow.
AD: And, of course, as an avid reader myself, I thought that the library was pretty incredible as well.
JW: The Bodleian. It’s a dream. That place that does it right. Absolutely.
AD: I don’t mean to say that there aren’t any stories where the central character is this strong, intelligent, independent female. There certainly have been. However, historically speaking, there haven’t been enough — at least from my point of view — even though there were countless women throughout history who have undoubtedly been all of those things. Thankfully, I think that has been changing over time, but I just thought that for that reason — and many others — Ella is just an absolutely wonderful character. She’s bright, she speaks her mind, she’s definitely independent, and I think there’s also an unmistakable emotional intelligence to her as well — which is, arguably, beyond her years. I think there’s a real understanding of others there and an ability to empathize. Anyway, she has to be one of my favorites.
JW: Thank you. In many ways, it’s a fish-out-of-water story, but Ella is hardly a typical naïve. She just hasn’t had the same time or leisure to travel as broadly as she would have liked, but I find this with many of the Rhodes scholars who find themselves at Oxford. They usually come in with some political leanings or political ambitions and find that everything they’ve done in life up until the point that got them the Rhodes — everything that will get them to Oxford — doesn’t prepare them to actually be there. It just measures two totally different things. I was a Rhodes finalist but, unlike Ella, I had no political ambitions. I didn’t want to go down that path. I just wanted to go back to Oxford and study George Eliot a little more. I don’t think that the Rhodes committee knew what to do with that.
AD: And I think that disconnect seemed to be a little bit of a surprise to Ella as well — how the things that get you to Oxford don’t necessarily prepare you for being at Oxford.
JW: The one thing that became clear to me as I was writing is that when there is this thing that a character has wanted since they were a child — for very important and very real, yet also very mystical reasons — sometimes the thing that we get into our heads when we’re kids, the idea that this is something that she has to do comes up against who she has become in those intervening years. I sometimes wonder — and I’m often confronted with this in my own life — did our younger selves know us better than our current selves? This thing that was telling her at such a young age to go to Oxford, and that this is the key to everything. As her life went on and she started working towards other goals, I think it became more about the political climb and her career than the romantic childhood notion. Maybe 12-year-old Ella knew herself better than 24-year-old Ella does.
AD: Right. I don’t want to call it a ‘distraction’ because I think that it all ends up providing her with some valuable experiences, but she kind of does end up straying from the path that she originally intended for herself, and I think she ends up coming to that realization somewhere along the way, because she does say that being good at something and your calling are not necessarily one and the same.
JW: Right. There are stories about people who don’t know what they want to be or don’t know what they want to become, and this is sort of a story about a woman who has many options and what the burden of capability can be on people. When you’re good at something and when you are smart, people expect you to do things a certain way, because you make their life easier, but is it really what you want to do?
AD: And I think she does come to realize that she’s not the political animal that she perhaps thought she was, but that she’s more drawn to education.
AD: But I feel that’s something a lot of people figure out. I feel like that’s not uncommon. Even speaking for myself, what I ended up doing is something that I clicked with far more than anything else — including some of the other fields that some people had perhaps expected I might end up in.
JW: Absolutely, and I don’t know how one can answer that for oneself until they get out into the world and put skills into play and see how they feel about it. That’s the thing about college. It’s a fishbowl and definitely a very rigid path. So, what you’re excelling at — or even what you like — in college is not necessarily what you’ll excel at or what you’ll like in life, because the rules are different. The game — the board — is completely different.
AD: Looking back, I can see that I wasn’t even aware of all of the possible careers out there, in part because I think that our education system doesn’t really do a very good job of exposing students to all of the possibilities that exist out there. Mostly, I feel as though you’re exposed to the same subjects — albeit at different levels — over and over again. In my experience, it wasn’t until I was in college that I came to realize that there are all of these possibilities I found something— a degree and a career path — that clicked with me far more than anything else I had ever known or far more than any other possibility I had ever explored.
JW: For sure.
AD: I also think the dynamic between Ella and Jamie is an interesting one and I think that it works because of their personalities. Though they are both obviously intelligent and independent, I don’t think that their relationship would’ve worked out the way that it did if they had different personalities. I think you also have to have room for somebody other than yourself in your life, and I think that Ella and Jamie both do. They’re not just focused on themselves, and I think that they really complement each other in many ways, if that makes sense.
JW: I would hope so. Obviously, when we first meet Jamie, we don’t know any of his backstory. He just seems like someone who has everything and has his life together. He’s impossibly handsome and impossibly smart and impossibly charming and all of these things, but he doesn’t feel like a real person. Obviously, that’s never the case — certainly not in life and it shouldn’t be the case in fiction. It takes somebody like Ella to challenge him into thinking that maybe there actually is a person who could understand who he really is. I think he’s just come to accept that he’s not going to meet a woman who will be able to understand everything he has gone through. He’s pretty young, and being the sort of person that he is, not many people would understand the challenges he is living through. Ella happens to be someone who does. She doesn’t come from his privileged background. She’s worked for everything that she has accomplished and she has the intelligence and emotional maturity to be able to take on what Jamie is bringing down.
AD: And I think I says something about not judging a book by its cover. When they first meet, I think that they may have both thought they have each other pegged. It seems like each kind of feels as though they’ve got the other’s number, as it were.
JW: Absolutely. Especially with the political being that Ella is, you get very good at summing people up — judging that book by its cover, categorizing that book and dealing with them in whatever means you need to deal with them to get what you want out of them. While she’s not a heartless, callous political operative, I think she definitely moves through life in that way. Both Jamie and Ella subvert each others’ expectations.
AD: And then I think they are both caught so off-guard because they both thought that their relationship would be this extremely short-term thing.
JW: And for very different reasons. I think we all know people who have found themselves in these kinds of relationships and you keep asking yourself ‘Really? Are you really surprised that this thing that was supposed to have no strings attached became so complicated?’ For them, they both have very serious, concrete reasons for why their relationship should be temporary. It’s not just that they’re deluding themselves. There are actual, external factors that would lead them to believe this is the arrangement they’re entering into and it’s going to be fine.
AD: While we’re on the subject of Ella and Jamie, another thing they both seem to share is that they both seem to have a rather complicated family dynamic — even though they both come from fairly different backgrounds.
JW: The family ended up being important to the story in the way that when you become involved with someone, their family because important to the story. Again, there are things about Jamie that are so well hidden that the family doesn’t really figure into the story until they must. It is to understand him and what’s going on, and I think that’s also a process of growing up. When you enter into a life with someone, you enter into the lives of many. One of the things that became important to me during the writing process was that her choice — not too give too much away, but her choice became not just about a boy, as Gavin sort of derisively suggests, but rather about the possibility of a family. These people she didn’t even know she had wanted have become so important to her personally. I think that’s also what happens when you go abroad. Your friends become family, too. You build a community and then you’re just expected to leave.
AD: Which can be pretty difficult. It can be hard to move to another state in the same country, let alone to another country. Anyway, I thought that just worked really well because, ultimately, however they judged each other initially, I think that they really got to know each other — their true selves. I think they also both know when to put someone else’s needs ahead of their own, or how to put someone else’s needs ahead of their own, which I feel is important in any relationship.
JW: It’s true. They are not people who’ve been in many long-term relationships, so this is kind of the first time for either of them that this has come up. I think that’s one of the rude awakenings of adulthood. There’s a challenge because women are told that they can have it all, but at the end of the day, choices have to be made, and at certain points in your life you are going to have to prioritize certain things. There are people I know who’ve left relationships because of a career opportunity. That wasn’t an easy choice to make, but at that moment in time, the career was more important to them. I don’t think it’s about right or wrong, but I think that these are very real decisions people make everyday.
AD: The way I see it, first and foremost, it’s not my job to judge. Second, being outside of the relationship, you really can’t judge. And when Ella does end up making the choice she ultimately ends up making, I thought she makes a really good point. She talks about how the act of making a choice and of choosing a path does not mean that the other path disappears. It means you have to live with the fact that the other path runs parallel to the one you’re on and, regardless of whatever choice you make, you’re aware of whatever it is that you gave up as well.
JW: Right. And there comes a certain point in life where the effects or impact of the choices made becomes exponential and you can almost never really get back to see the original path you were on, because there have been so many branches and offshoots of where you were headed. For instance, that first major decision many people make is ‘Where am I going to go to college?’ Often, a college experience is pretty interchangeable, but you would’ve had different friends, you would’ve had different professors, you would’ve lived in a different place. And once you start making those major decisions, the possible paths keep multiplying and I think that’s one of the things for someone like Ella who has been so regimented, and for whom every decision has been made because it was clearly the best choice to make, and this is the first one that was not clear cut — and maybe not even in her own best interest. It was what she wanted to do — not what she ‘should’ do.
AD: Right. Maybe it’s my interpretation, but I think her head is telling her to stick with the pre-determined path. Meanwhile, her heart is telling her something completely different.
JW: Absolutely, which is how life often happens. As Antonia says regarding choice, ‘We can’t always choose what happens to us. All we can do is choose what to do with what we’re given.’ I think part of the maturing process is taking stock of where you are and what you really want on an almost moment-to-moment basis, because even in the six months she has been at Oxford, what she wants has changed and her own understanding of that has not caught up with where she feels that she’s being pulled, because it is so divergent from everything she has thought she wanted.
AD: Right. What you want evolves as you grow.
JW: I would hope it does. I think if all of us were the same people we were when we were 18, I would mourn for the world.
AD: Being a bit of a planner, as she is, she also says the hardest thing about being in love is being in love with no expiration date, no qualifiers and no safety net. I think that all of that is even harder, if possible, when you’ve spent your life planning everything out.
JW: I think that happens to a lot of people after college, whether there’s a significant relationship in their life or not. It’s the end of the expectation of a safety net. You’re not on an academic calendar anymore. You don’t have people telling you what you need to do at any given time, and the degree to which you need to do it in order to accomplish the thing. Suddenly, you’re left to your own trajectory. What is that going to be? Who’s going to be in it? What do you want? Those are big questions that I don’t think we necessarily do a good job of preparing people to answer.
AD: Right. I feel like it’s just something that you kind of have to navigate on your own.
JW: When you take away the expectations of other people that, to me, is the definition of finding your own voice. When Ella stops listening to Gavin and Janet — and even the ghost of her father, to a certain extent — and is able to hone in on her own voice, to me that’s when she makes the biggest step forward into adulthood.
AD: Which I don’t even know if she realizes that she has, to a certain extent, been listening — as you say — to the ghost of her father. I don’t know if she necessarily even realizes that’s what she has been doing until after Antonia speaks with her. Antonia suggests that that’s how she’s keeping her father alive, in a way, by kind of pursuing the path that she’s pursuing to a certain extent.
JW: Picking up the task that he left undone. Antonia means it charmingly, right? In an endearing way — but I think that is something that has not really occurred to her.
AD: Right. I think that from Antonia’s perspective, it’s this sort of wonderful thing — this wonderful tribute or connection. However, it seems as Ella might not even have thought of it or realized it. Switching gears a bit, what do you hope is the takeaway from your book?
JW: I think that, for me, the takeaway is everything we’ve been talking about regarding choice. I would really like to see people moving away from this idea that there are right and wrong choices. Choices are hard and life will give you choices you didn’t even think were going to be choices, especially for someone like Ella who has planned her life and structured it in a certain way as to eliminate ever having to make a choice. I hope people are able to walk away from the book, even if you don’t agree with the choice that is made, respecting it. I think that’s ultimately what I’m lobbying for in human relationship.
AD: I certainly think so. To begin with, as I said, I don’t think there’s necessarily a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in terms of the choices Ella ends up making. I think you really do have to follow what will make you happy and fulfilled — and, just as importantly, what works for both you and the other person in the relationship. That’s true whether it’s this relationship or any other. Unless you are one of the two people involved in a relationship, I really don’t think you can pass judgment.
JW: I agree. I think that’s also seen with Antonia and William. I think a lot of people will say ‘What is this wonderful woman doing with this awful man?’ Only in getting to know them both better — and especially getting to understand William a little more — does it become something that actually is quite lovely. These two people that balance each other out in some way. So, I think that, again, for me this book was about the characters and about the choices that they make. While it kind of hits on the big questions, I hope that the relatable aspects of the character allow the reader to put themselves in their shoes and to feel empathy for them.
AD: I think it certainly achieves that. I think it truly is well written.
JW: Thank you.
AD: As someone who is always looking for something to read next myself, who would you count among your influences or what have you been reading lately?
JW: Sure. For this particular stage in my life, I’m very interested in what I would categorize as ‘book club fiction.’ I know you’ve interviewed Taylor [Jenkins Reid]. To me, she’s kind of the be-all-end-all of that. I also love Robinne Lee’s The Idea of You.
AD: I’ve not read it yet, but I certainly will be adding that one to my list.
JW: Yeah. Check that one out because it would fall into — we both have the kind of same thing where we’re like ‘Is it romance? Is it women’s fiction?’ I mean, it’s love story-centric, but it touches on much larger issues and kind of the central conflict of the book is not necessarily the love story — which maybe is the line between romance and general fiction. I’m not sure. But, Robinne’s book is doing things on a level that I don’t think you would expect from the story that it is. So, I think you’re going to get a lot out of it.
AD: Is there anything else you’d like to recommend?
JW: It’s so funny because I was just telling someone the other day, I have friends’ books that have been sitting next to my bed for a year because my day job is reading. I’ve been in the booth every day since the beginning of the year, so I’m trying to think of books I’ve recorded recently. Honestly, speaking of education, have you read Educated the new memoir that just came out by Tara Westover?
AD: Actually, it’s sitting right here, near me. I just recently started to read it. I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s already a really interesting read.
JW: It’s wonderful. To me, especially when it comes to memoir, it’s rare to find something where the story is as compelling as the writing or vice versa. This is just an exceptionally well written story and how she had the ability to stand back from her own life and write so astutely and clearly but also vividly about it is a skill. She’s amazing. There’s also a book called Head Case [by Cole Cohen]. It’s about a woman who grew up not knowing she had a hole the size of a lemon in her parietal lobe, I think. It’s just an incredible story about someone who has dealt with challenges their whole life, but she’d never been put in an MRI machine, so she didn’t know that this was what was causing this issue. It’s not going to get better, but once she knew what it was, what she had to do to address the individual issues and cope with them.
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 in England, her flirtation with tea blossomed into a full-blown love affair, culminating in her eventual certification as a tea master.
My Oxford Year is available now for pre-order from HarperCollins and will be available on April 24, 2018. You can find out more about Julia and her work by logging onto her website.