After George Saunders finished writing his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo—a story that unfolds through the commentary of dozens of ghosts in a graveyard—he encountered an unforeseen problem: the audiobook.
Saunders, whose short stories have made him something of a literary cult hero, usually narrates his own work, but Lincoln in the Bardo’s dizzying cast of 166 characters was daunting. And Saunders’ acting chops, he admits, are limited. “I can only do a working-class guy, kind of a woman, and a British guy,” he says.
So he approached producer Kelly Gildea with an idea. “I said, ‘Can we just get a different actor for each voice?’” Gildea agreed, even though at the time she didn’t know exactly how many parts were involved. “But I had the same thought as he did,” she says. “There’s no way in hell you could do this by yourself.”
Early on, Saunders’ pal Nick Offerman agreed to play one of the main supernatural characters; soon after that, writer David Sedaris snapped up one of the other big parts. Offerman’s wife, Megan Mullally, asked if she could play half of a foulmouthed, low-class ghost couple, and Bill Hader signed on as her partner.
Offerman and Mullally helped Saunders wrangle other celebrities, including Julianne Moore, Lena Dunham, Jeffrey Tambor, Carrie Brownstein, Don Cheadle, Rainn Wilson, and Susan Sarandon. Still, many of the 166 narrators — most of them nonactors — had never set foot in a recording studio, including Saunders’ parents, wife, daughters, and high school buddies, as well as staff from his publisher and literary agency.
All in all, the project took four months and 17 different studios, from L.A. to Minnesota, with Gildea Skyping into sessions she couldn’t attend. The finished audiobook’s tapestry of voices perfectly mirrors the novel. Saunders is thrilled, and not just because his vocal cords got a break. “It was the ultimate fanboy experience to have all these people you’ve admired for years agree to read your words,” he says. “My whole career is over now. I’ve peaked!”
Below, listen to an exclusive clip from Chapter 27, featuring — in order of appearance — Nick Offerman as Hans Vollman, Julianne Moore as Jane Ellis, Susan Sarandon as Mrs. Abigail Blass, George Saunders as The Reverend Everly Thomas, and David Sedaris as Roger Bevins III.
A version of this story originally appears in the Feb. 17, 2017 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Pick it up on newsstands Friday or subscribe online.