166 Voices: Talking LINCOLN IN THE BARDO with George Saunders and the Team Behind the Year’s Most Ambitious Audiobook
George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, the most hotly anticipated novel of the season, comes out today from Penguin Random House in print and on audio. The latter has garnered far more attention than most audiobooks, and not just because of its author’s pedigree. It’s also an astonishingly ambitious work: a recording containing 166 voices that took four months and 17 sound studios to come together. Oh, and many of those voices belong to celebrities including Susan Sarandon, Nick Offerman, Lena Dunham, Ben Stiller, and Julianne Moore—not to mention A-list audio narrators like Cassandra Campbell, Kirby Heyborne, and Scott Brick. The final production, masterminded by Kelly Gildea with post-production by Ted Scott, not only orchestrates this behemoth ensemble, but includes a brilliant soundscape that evokes the swampy setting of Oak Hill Cemetery, where young Willy Lincoln’s body is interred.
When I finished listening to Lincoln in the Bardo—before I wrote my starred review—I emailed Kelly Gildea about what it was like to helm such a production. (I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly once before.)
GILDEA: George and I started our conversations about Lincoln in the Bardo in early spring of 2016. Basically, he told me the audiobook would ‘stink’ if he had to read it all himself. Knowing firsthand that George is a wonderful narrator and has always seemed to enjoy the process, I was surprised and intrigued that he’d say this. It wasn’t until early summer that I had a chance to sit down and read the book, and WOW, he was absolutely right. There was no conventional way to treat this text.
I first mulled over the idea of having a small group of actors read (many) multiple parts each, which seemed like the most sensible thing to do. But our excitement about this project kept building and eventually, when George tossed out the idea of using an individual voice for each speaking part, instead of balking I (perhaps stupidly at the time) said, YES, let’s do it! Now, I can’t really imagine this audiobook as anything other than what it is. To me, so much of what George writes about here is the fact that everyone has a story, and that everyone’s story matters. We were in the unique position to give every single character a voice. A literal voice! And I think that’s very powerful.
Kelly was nice enough to share my question with George Saunders, who shared his take on the recording process:
SAUNDERS: [It] was a labor of love. So many people pitched in so generously, with Kelly leading the way. I’d mentioned the idea of getting a different voice for each part, half-expecting that this would be impossible, but Kelly was just kind of like: “Huh. Yes. Let’s do that.” And then she proceeded to arrange it. How, I honestly don’t know. Throughout, she floored me with her energy and creative judgment. We were fortunate enough to get David [Sedaris] and Nick [Offerman] for the main parts, and I reached out to some actors I knew, and Nick and his wife, Megan Mullaly, were incredibly helpful and put us in touch with other actors. But the beating heart at the center of it was Kelly. She was tireless. She knows the book better than I do at this point and made such exquisite, sensitive casting decisions. She also was so wonderfully willing to record remotely, which allowed us to get many actors we couldn’t otherwise have had, as well as many of my friends and family members (even the two Chicago high-school teachers who got me into college back in the day).
What I really love about the finished product is the wild mix of American voices—trained, untrained, from every part of the country. It fits perfectly with my vision for the book—or, rather, the vision the book led me to, a sort of Platonic vision of what America is trying to be: truly egalitarian and loving, inclusive of everyone, big-hearted and full of variety, which it celebrates. The finished product is also very moving to me in the way it represents artistic vitality and intensity—in the form of Kelly, who saw the possibilities and was so wildly energetic in enacting the project, and in those 166 voices, each of whom took the trouble to step away from their lives and get into the studio and brought such a variety of beautiful life-force to their performance. Especially right now, when it seems like we are, as a culture, becoming addicted to the quick, snarky riposte (the exact opposite of art, which is ok with complexity and contradiction and reexamination, and believes that truth and language are intimately related) it felt good and healing, to see so many people willing to give of themselves in service of a big and possibly nutty artistic endeavor.
Kelly kept me posted throughout and it was so much fun—she’d email me something like, ‘Just recorded X. So amazing. I am in tears right now.’ Or: ‘Y gave me goosebumps with the way she read the final section.’ I took so much pleasure in how much she was enjoying the readings. It was, I think, the most enjoyable and fruitful artistic collaborations I’ve ever experienced. I am now planning my next book, which will consist of, uh, ONE MILLION separate voices—a novel about, let’s say, everyone who goes through Disneyland in a given year. Just kidding.Although, now that I think about it. . .
Finally, Kelly asked Ted Scott of 50 Nugget Wash Productions to give us a glimpse inside the post-production process:
SCOTT: In meeting the challenges presented by Lincoln in the Bardo, I was able to draw on all my past experiences editing, mixing, and mastering audiobooks, in a groundbreaking format. With 166 readers across 17 studios, creating a cohesive experience for the listener was the most crucial aspect of this project. Because each reader was recorded individually, the audiobook had to be created from all the separate components. Pacing the readers to make them sound as if they were all in the same space was critical. Music selections for the historical sections, as well as design elements for the Bardo scenes chosen by my wife, Heather, provided the finishing touch and were essential to the effective transition between the two types of scenes. It’s been a great honor to work on the fine performances, and be part of the team with Kelly Gildea and Penguin Random House Audio to help bring George Saunders’ masterpiece to life.
If you’d like to sample a bit of this amazing audiobook (and you should), here’s a clip.