This interview was conducted and sponsored by Penguin Random House Audio.
When Stars Are Scattered, by Omar Mohamed and Newbery Honor-winning author and artist Victoria Jamieson, tells the true story of Omar Mohamed’s childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya, caring for his brother, Hassan, who has special needs. When Omar has the opportunity to go to school, he knows it might be a chance to change their future…but it would also mean leaving the only family member he has left.
The audiobook edition of When Stars Are Scattered, read by actor Faysal Ahmed (Captain Phillips) and a full cast, stars Somali actors and speakers, with music, effects, and authentic background narration in Somali. Here, audiobook producers Kelly Gildea and Julie Wilson discuss how they worked closely with the authors to create a meaningful, authentic and thoughtful listening experience.
How did you two work together and with the authors to prepare this audiobook project? What was the process of developing the script that the narrators read? What was the most challenging part of this process?
Kelly Gildea, Senior Executive Producer: I think, after Julie and I read the book, our first question to Vicki, whom we had worked with previously (on Roller Girl) was, should we be looking for Somali actors, or using Americans who can do accents? Vicki felt strongly that it was important to have Somali actors in our cast, and Omar agreed, so an extensive search began. The book itself did not need many tweaks, in terms of adapting the text. In a few cases, we did change the language a bit, to make it listener-friendly, but for the most part, the audio reflects the original text. And though we did have help creating a user-friendly script, in studio, we ended up working directly from the graphic novel. Sometimes the art can really inform a performance, in terms of the visuals you’re seeing for the characters in the scene.
“Sometimes the art can really inform a performance, in terms of the visuals you’re seeing for the characters in the scene.”
Describe the process of casting this audiobook. How was it different than other full-cast projects you’ve worked on? What challenges did you come across, what factors came into play and how did you shape your vision for the final product?
Kelly: Though this was an incredibly challenging project, the fact that we eventually located and hired actors from Somalia, Yemen and Ethiopia, enhanced the program in ways that are too numerous to count. Our cast is rounded out by a few talented African Americans who used a Somali (or Kenyan, or Ghanaian) accents. The main obstacle, during recording, was actually the reading of the English text with a Somali accent. Though the book stunningly portrays life in a Somalian refugee camp, some of the language is adapted for an English-speaking audience. What results is something very unique. Omar’s voice, portrayed by Faysal Ahmed, is so specific and individual and unlike anything else you’ve heard. Omar is sweet and earnest and hopeful, and Faysal elevates all of that.
Julie Wilson, Senior Executive Producer: As co-producers, Kelly and I were able to discuss every character and listen to and talk through auditions we received. We tended to be on the same page about casting, but this gave us an extra ear to rely on. Once we reached a consensus about which actors we believed were best suited for the roles, we presented those ideas to Vicki and Omar. Both Kelly and I really value our authors’ input and, like Kelly said, this audiobook became the unique recording it is today because of how Vicki advocated for a Somali cast. I won’t say it was easy to find our core cast. We utilized every resource we had from reaching out to agents to posting on private ADR (automated dialogue replacement) Facebook groups. But I think all of that extra effort ultimately led to a recording that’s unlike anything we’ve heard before. For instance, if you listen close to the background sounds in certain scenes, you’ll hear our cast’s voices overlaid and their authentic dialects create an incredibly distinctive atmosphere.
You worked together on Roller Girl, also by Victoria Jamieson. How did your experiences working on that project inform your collaboration on this one?
Kelly: With Roller Girl, we received so much support and enthusiasm from Vicki, from her blessing on the choice of the main narrator, to her trust in leaving the remainder of the casting up to us, to her enormous input on the text variances for audio. We knew that we could lean on her again. She offered up some resources she’d used when researching the book, including a few sources in Minneapolis, where there is a large Somali population. One of her sources, who was an early reader of the book, expressed interest in narrating. She ended up sending us an incredible audition & was cast in a lead role! Vicki also connected us with Omar, who was invaluable. Omar listened to many samples that we sent, giving us his feedback, and also left many voicemails with Somali pronunciations. An extra special thing is that we were able to include both authors as narrators on this program, since they wrote Authors’ Notes. So, you hear this beautiful full-cast performance based on Omar’s life story and then you get to hear from Omar himself, followed by Vicki.
Julie: With Roller Girl, Kelly and I developed a process of sharing information, reviewing the script, and exchanging ideas about casting. I think when you work that closely together you develop a trust in your producing partner. That support helped us through the more trying moments of casting When Stars Are Scattered. For instance, when we had yet to find Faysal. We were both worried that we wouldn’t find “our Omar,” as Kelly often put it. But when we heard his audition, it just clicked. Collaborating again with Vicki was also a treat. At Penguin Random House Audio, we’re lucky to have what we call “legacy authors,” which means that if you’ve produced an author’s audiobooks before, you’ll likely produce all of their future recordings. We felt Vicki’s confidence in us throughout this entire process. I think she knew that we would handle this audiobook with care because of how well Roller Girl turned out.
What did you learn from working on When Stars Are Scattered together?
Kelly: With a title this complex, it’s great to have two heads (and two sets of ears) to put together to make decisions on casting. We would lend support to each other when one of us was focused on a specific task. For instance, when I was in the studio with the actors, Julie was managing some marketing and publicity queries. Also, we must give credit to Ted Scott and Heather Scott, whom we collaborated with again, for their incredible edit and mix. All of the choices you hear in terms of music and effects were carefully selected by Ted and Heather. They once again took multiple performances and weaved them together to create a beautiful soundscape.
Julie: I love collaborating with Kelly because her commitment to production is rivaled only by her dedication to directing them. As producers, we often collaborate with actors, directors, sound editors and quality controllers, but often we don’t get a chance to learn from our fellow producers. I hope that as Kelly and I continue to co-produce, we’re able to further hone our process and work on new projects—like When Stars Are Scattered—that challenge us creatively.
This recording stood out to me for many reasons, but the one that hit me the hardest was the idea of bringing Omar’s life story to an American audience. I hope that this audiobook will expose this generation of kids to a life in a refugee camp that looks so unlike theirs, and at the same time promotes compassion and understanding. Perhaps it’s because I’m an auditory learner, but listening to Omar’s story made it resonate with me on another level. There are tough scenes, in which Faysal’s voice breaks, and viscerally I felt like Omar was right there sharing his very personal story with me. More than anything, I hope those emotionally raw moments resonate with listeners.
Kelly: Yes, Julie makes such a good point here. When I was prepping this book, my 10-year-old son kept popping over and asking if he could read it next. I think he saw the format (graphic novel) and saw it as immediately accessible. It struck me as quite profound that a book about Somalian refugees could be of interest to an American kid. What Vicki and Omar have done is quite remarkable, using the graphic novel format to tell this emotionally complex story and make it accessible to kids. The line “No one chooses to be a refugee” has stayed with me, when I first read it, and especially when I heard it, and I think it’s so important that my son hear that line too and really let it resonate and find meaning. I’m so glad to have worked with Julie on this project, as she shares the same deep passion for great text. We were able to geek out together about how much we loved this book, and later, how much we loved our production.