The 7-Hour, 166-Person Audiobook That Feels Like a Movie

Most audiobooks feature one voice, maybe two. 166? That’s unprecedented. But it’s something George Saunders felt was necessary. The author’s new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, reads like a script, and each speaking part is a person whose spirit haunts the graveyard next to Honest Abe’s recently departed son. “I imagined myself reading the attributions in this monotonous South Side Chicago accent, trying to do all these different people, and I just thought it would be a drag,” Saunders says. So he suggested to audiobook producer Kelly Gildea that they assemble a motley crew to do the voices. To his surprise, she agreed.

The result ended up being…well, it ended up being something that led Penguin Random House Audio to pursue a Guinness World Record for most individuals’ voices on an audiobook. “I’ve been producing audiobooks for 15 years, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever done,” says Gildea.

Those individuals prove to be the perfect complement to Saunder’s hyperspecific, wryly comic tone. Bill Hader and Megan Mullally play a foul-mouthed bickering couple that can’t let anything go; Keegan-Michael Key shows up as a dead slave who’s determined to prove his intellect through refined diction. And hey, is that Nick Offerman as a ghost with a boner who’s inhabiting the body of Abraham Lincoln? Sure is! The cast doesn’t stop at sketch comedy all-stars and Parks and Recreation alumni, either. The slate includes Don Cheadle, Julianne Moore, humorist David Sedaris, the author’s agent and two sisters–and yes, even Saunders himself. “It was like a big community art project,” says Saunders.

Deciding to get a different actor for every voice was one thing; finding those actors was another. After Gildea had recruited 40 or so professionals for the major roles, she and Saunders realized they’d have to broaden their scope to cast the other 100-plus characters. The strategy became, as Saunders describes it, “let’s go to Random House, let’s go to my agency, let’s go to my friends and family.” Eventually, they found enough pros–Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon, Jeffrey Tambor, and others–to fill the roster.

Over the next six months, people recorded lines for the audiobook in 17 studios across the country. Ben Stiller recorded in New York City. Saunders’ parents recorded in New Orleans. Joe and Sheri Lindbloom, who taught Saunders at Oak Forest High School–geology and American literature, respectively–recorded in South Bend, Illinois.