George Saunders on Making Lincoln in the Bardo, His New 166-Voice Audiobook

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Rachel Smalter Hall

Staff Writer

Rachel Smalter Hall may be a professional Book Rioter, but she still hangs out in the public librarian clubhouse. Two of her top three loves include audiobooks and knitting, and her favorite song is Cold Hearted Snake as performed by Alyssa Edwards and Coco Montrese on season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. She co-runs a boozy book club in Lawrence, Kansas, in her spare time. Twitter: @rach_smalls Website: Rachel Smalter Hall

Lincoln in the Bardo is such a special audiobook, unlike any other I’ve heard. Based on a true story, it takes place over one night when Lincoln visits the cemetery to hold the body of his newly buried 11-year-old son. The audiobook is narrated by 166 voices, including Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, and many more household names, who all play ghosts. And I love it to bits. No book has ever made me weep (or laugh) so openly.

Author George Saunders and executive producer Kelly Gildea kindly talked with me to give Book Riot a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Lincoln in the Bardo. They worked closely together to co-produce the audiobook, which Kelly Gildea directed.

Rachel Smalter Hall: I still have about 10 minutes left of the audiobook, because every time I listen to it I just start crying. It’s so beautiful.

Kelly Gildea: Oh just wait til the end, because Don Cheadle is going to punch you in the heart. It’s gorgeous. He was the perfect ending to the book.

RSH: So…. why 166 narrators?

KG: I ask myself that every day (laughs). George contacted me really early in the process before I had even looked at the book with this fear of “Do I have to read this myself?” I was surprised because I thought he enjoyed narrating his audiobooks. But when I physically opened the book, I totally got it because it’s structured kind of like a play, so we agreed to use multiple narrators. Then one day he threw out the idea, “Do you think it’s possible we could ever get one voice for every speaking part in the audio?” When I came up with that number of 166, he backed off and said, “Oh, I get that that’s probably impossible.” And then we got fixated on the idea and we just ran with it.

It helped that we had a lot of volunteers. We added up who was committed to it initially, and then we decided, well, we have 50 more people to find, so let’s just do it. At that point, it was like why not go for it?

RSH: What was your elevator pitch to get some of the higher profile celebrities on board with this project?

KG: George is not a hard sell, that’s all I have to say. He and Nick Offerman are pretty close friends, and Nick was the first to jump on board, along with [his wife] Megan Mullally. Then we needed to find our other lead. We knew that David Sedaris is a big audiobook fan and likes George’s work, so we decided to put a shot out in the dark to see if he would do it. We both almost fell off our chairs when he said yes.

So we had our three main readers, including George, and then we pitched that team of three to other actors. We reached out to a lot of actors who were fans of his work, and Nick and Megan helped with some of the actors, too. Some people said yes just based on the size of the cast at that point and how exciting the book was. It really wasn’t a hard sell.

RSH: That’s great that having Nick Offerman attached from the beginning helped with the rest of the casting. At what point did you know that you wanted him to voice Mr. Vollman?

George Saunders: Pretty much the moment I turned my mind to the audiobook. He has such a trustworthy, grounded, loveable presence, and I always saw Vollman as sort of “The Scarecrow” of the book. Nick has this wonderfully real and affectionate quality as a person and that comes through beautifully in his performance. We have to like Hans and we have to like Bevins, and both Nick and David have that ineffable “something” in their voices (and selves) that make people lean toward them.

RSH: David Sedaris is so well-known and well-loved for his audiobook performances of his humorous essays, but I’m not aware of any fiction that he’s narrated before.

KG: He hasn’t. He never has. Which he reminded me of many times when he got into the studio (laughs). He’s so good. He’s so good! I think he was actually a little concerned that he didn’t have acting chops. He was like, “are you sure you want me to do this?” And we said, “Yes, absolutely!” And then he actually said, “If you don’t think I’m good enough, please tell me, because I don’t want to sabotage this production.” I told him that it was just one character to inhabit, and if he could find that character’s voice, we’d be fine. And as soon as he started reading, he was perfect. When George listened to it, he said that David was a revelation.

RSH: Ms. Gildea, you would send emails sometimes after a particularly great performance to say “tears in my eyes” or “I’m feeling chills.” What were some of those performances that gave you both chills?

KG: I feel like I wrote that after every recording (laughs). Absolutely after Nick and David because we had spent a day with each of them and they’re so pivotal to the book. The man who plays Willie Lincoln, Kirby Heyborne, is a very seasoned narrator and a friend of mine, and I kind of saved that role for him. I think he’s perfect.

GS: There were so many wonderful performances that I hesitate to say. Nick and David were extraordinary. Soulful and funny. What was really beautiful was to hear all of these talented people be open to the “reading moment,” i.e., that combination of what was on the page and what was within oneself, just then. I’m familiar with the writing version of that moment – where you take stock of what has come before and just…leap. So it was strange to hear, over and over, the aural version of that being enacted. Somebody would say a line and it would be…perfect. For reasons I couldn’t quite explain.

Sometimes, the voice I heard was essentially the voice I’d had in my head back when I wrote the passage, as with Keegan Michael-Key, Bill Hader, and Megan Mullally. Other times, the voice was different than the one I’d had in mind, but would be doing more work. Ben Stiller’s Jack Manders is smarter and more loveable than the voice I’d imagined, and because he sort of whispered it as he did it, it evoked the whole scene: the silent graveyard late at night, Manders in his little shed.

RSH: Did you go into it having certain actors in mind for certain roles?

KG: Yes, absolutely. It’s interesting, George really, really wanted Jeff Tweedy to voice Captain William Prince, which is a very big, very emotional role, and I kept saying, “Are you sure you don’t want to give that to an actor?” Not to take anything away from Jeff, but I thought he might want something smaller because he’s not an actor. And George said, “No, I absolutely want him to do this.” And I was blown away! He did it so differently than I would have thought, and I love what he did. He was wonderful.

The role that Ben Stiller does is so cool and so different from anything else in the book, and it’s really hard vocally. He has such a rhythm that was so hard to nail down, but he did it. I mean, he’s just perfect in that role.

RSH: The Reverend has such a haunting, unforgettable role. Mr. Saunders, why did you choose him as the character you wanted to voice?

GS: Kelly chose that. Well….she enforced that. She made me, in other words. Once I saw what a great cast we were getting, I was lobbying to have a real actor do The Reverend. But Kelly felt – and she was perceptive in this, as she is perceptive in all things – that The Reverend is as close as we get to a narrator in this thing. So she felt it made sense for me to do it.

RSH: Could you tell us a little about a few of your family and friends who are cast?

GS: There was this moment where we realized that, as lucky as we were getting with booking actors and voice professionals, 166 is a lot of voices. So I asked my wife, Paula, if she’d do it, and then my daughters…and it kind of picked up speed from there. So my parents and sisters are on there, my brother- and sister-in-law and their kids, dear friends from college and high school and even grade school, and two teachers who saved my life by getting me into college. My agent is on there and people from Penguin Random House. It’s so nice, so moving, to hear these beloved voices suddenly come up in the middle of a scene.

RSH: Nick Offerman and David Sedaris had such great chemistry, and Bill Hader and Megan Mullally were also fantastic as Eddie and Betsy Baron. Did any of the actors do studio time together, or were those all individual recording sessions?

KG: No, those were all individual recording sessions! It was just logistically impossible to record together. That’s why it was so important for me to be there for every session. If I couldn’t be there in person, I needed to Skype in. It’s challenging when people are playing off each other, I have to remember how Nick read that line so David can respond.

RSH: We have to talk about the music and the soundscape. The book takes place in two different realms, and in the audiobook the scene is set for each realm with its own signature “sound,” which I loved. How did that come to be?

KG: George and I talked initially about wanting to differentiate the bardo from the historical sections with sound effects. When I talked to Ted Scott, who edited the book, he was like, “Let me play around with it.” We talked about wanting the bardo to be the sound of wind and night, but I never thought about adding something to the historical sections. When I was done recording and started listening to the program put together, Ted said, “I’m going to give you what I’ve done and see what you think.” And he had added the fiddles and some of the music over the historical sections and I LOVED it. That was totally his idea, and it was incredible.

RSH: Do you think this project would have gotten made 5 years ago, or is it only possible because of all the recent growth in the audiobook industry?

KG: Wow, that’s a really good question. Probably not. I think it helps that audio is a booming business and that people are more into it as time goes on. But looking back I honestly don’t know how else I would have done this. This was a lot of work and scheduling and logistics, but I feel like so much of what this book is saying is that everyone has a story and everyone has a voice. The fact that we literally gave everyone a voice is meaningful to me. I don’t know how else to do it in retrospect.

But yes, I think it helps that we anticipated a lot of people would want to listen to it. And I hope that a lot of people will!

RSH: A lot of die-hard print readers might miss out on this incredible audiobook. Mr. Saunders, what would you say to them to convince them to try it?

GS: It really is a different artistic experience. I found myself having more time to imagine the backstories of the ghost’s narratives…to imagine the towns and houses where they lived and so on. I felt them more as individual people, and that was simply because of the voices and the performative quality of the readings. I also found myself “noticing” things in the text that I hadn’t, until I heard the lines delivered. So maybe I’d say that a character, read by you, is a different beast from a character, speaking to you – and there was something deeply pleasurable in that.

I also think there’s something beautiful (and maybe even apropos to our political moment) about hearing this cacophony of American voices, from every region and ethnicity and so on, coming together to tell this story, which I always understood as a version of the formation myth: a crossroads moment for Lincoln and therefore the country.

Lincoln in the Bardo is available wherever audiobooks are sold as of February 14, 2017.