"I'm not somebody who would normally suppress my verbal energy in writing": An Interview with George Saunders
More than twenty years into a distinguished writing career, celebrated author George Saunders is publishing his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, out February 14). “Bardo” is a concept originating from Tibetan Buddhism, referring to a “transitional state” between life and what comes after, which is where much of the novel’s action takes place.
The novel pivots on a profoundly moving image: as the Civil War rages on and his popularity plummets, President Abraham Lincoln visits his dead son Willie in a graveyard, alone, and holds his body once more before saying goodbye—a purportedly true event which captivated the Saunders’s imagination. Around this history, Saunders spins an arresting story about fate, love, and the basic struggle to do the right thing. There are ghosts in it, dozens of different narrators, and many quoted historical documents—some real, some not—which provide background context. Befitting the author’s celebrated penchant for blending pathos with giddy absurdity, it’s also frequently hilarious.
Over a phone call, Saunders and I discussed his new novel, theatricality in fiction, the challenges of formal invention, and why Donald Trump would make a terrible Buddhist.
Jonathan Meyer: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I am a huge fan of your work, as is everyone here at Gulf Coast, so this is quite the honor. I have to mention on a personal note that I love teaching your story “Sea Oak” in my creative writing classes. It always gets a tremendous response from students.
George Saunders: Thanks, that one must be a shocker for them. I’m trying to write a TV pilot based on that story now and boy, it’s so interesting to go back and go, “God, who thought this shit up?” It’s so dark. But then you have to double-down and make up new stuff that’s in the same mode, so it’s been kind of fun.
JM: As you know, Gulf Coast is published in Texas. Being a Texan myself, I was delighted to learn that you were born in Amarillo before growing up in Chicago. Do you have any distinctive memories about that pre-Chicago time in your life that may have influenced your writing?
GS: Oh, for sure. We used to go to Amarillo every summer for two weeks to visit my mother’s family and it was just this wonderful, sacred pilgrimage we’d make every year. There was one thing that happened. I had forgotten about this until recently, but in Amarillo in the 70s there was this outdoor shopping mall that was called Las Tiendas, and it was one of the first themed malls that I’d ever seen. It had kind of an Old Mexico theme. And I think that place had a lot to do with those later theme-park stories that I wrote. There was something magical about being in that altered environment.
I remember having a revelation: I was wandering around there—I was maybe 13 or something—and I was trying to figure out the rest of my life. Before that, I had always wanted to be a baseball player. I remember kind of working through it logically, thinking, “Well, if I did something artistic I could do it until I was 90. If I’m a baseball player, I’m done at 28!” So there’s this pathetic kid wandering around that mall, planning out his life in that way.
There are so many Texas influences and Texas memories because I also lived in Amarillo for most of my 20s on-and-off, coming there from college, and coming there after having been overseas. So that place is deep in my heart.
JM: That’s wonderful to hear. I love what you said about those self-contained “altered environments.” You see that a lot of that in your work, so it’s interesting to trace back.
Your new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, takes place in a similarly distinctive environment.It is, in part, about Willie Lincoln transitioning from life to death (or the afterlife). It’s also about Abraham Lincoln transitioning from grief to action, to leadership. You, too, are making a transition, from—if you’ll excuse the reductive labels—short story writer to novelist. How has the public rollout of this project differed from that of your previous works?
GS: It feels a little bigger. I can’t quite explain it. I once asked a writer friend who was great at both novels and stories what the difference was and he said it was about a four-to-one ratio in terms of the amount of attention you’d get. And that seems to be holding up.
Honestly, the writing process didn’t feel that different to me. Once I got past a certain set of superstitions—wherein you think everything should be different and it should be a whole different mindset—it was actually very similar to writing a book of stories. I actually don’t know yet [about the public response]. I know there’s been a lot of interest. And it feels like a lot more pre-interest than ever before.
JM: That’s probably to do with the scope of the project. It’s a big historical novel that plays with the form and goes to strange places, so people are curious. I’ve also read in interviews with you that you’d never considered yourself specifically a short story writer in the first place, that you were always working in service of the story itself. And that’s very moving, and a good piece of advice for emerging writers.
GS: That’s right. And that was also a mantra on this one. I kept thinking, “Maybe this is a novel?” And I kept countering that idea by saying, “Only if it needs to be.” So let’s not let it get bloated up, let’s not get all excited and do this sort of auto-expansion that at least I tend to do. So I was always trying to hold the book to the same standards as the stories, which are, one, you’re here to serve emotionality. You’re here to make a connection with the reader. And two, don’t put anything in the book that doesn’t serve that purpose.
That’s kind of where the strange form of the book came out of: this desire to tell this very emotional story in the most honest way I could, and at the same time, avert a lot of familiar historical novel tropes. Because I felt that those would undercut the emotional power of the book. So all that amounts to say that this book was an attempt to be a useful experiment, to do whatever I had to do to serve the heart of the book, even if that meant doing some odd, quasi-experimental things.
JM: I know you’ve dabbled in some dramatic adaptions of your own stories. In the interview that concludes the galley of Lincoln in the Bardo, you mention that you first tried, unsuccessfully, to use this premise in a play. After reading the book, with its single setting, its chorus of narrators, and its farcical episodes, I can’t help but describe it as gleefully theatrical.
GS: [Laughs]. I like that. We should put that on the cover.
JM: I’m wondering, though, what was the impetus in utilizing this kind of theatricality for your first novel?
GS: It’s funny because I did try to write a play, and it was such a lame-ass play. I think it’s because there’s something in my mind that kicks in when I tell myself, “Okay, now you’re writing a PLAY.” You know, capital letters: a PLAY. And then I start invoking this kind of phony-baloney thespian tonality. But as soon as I turned the switch and said, “No, you’re not writing a PLAY, you’re writing a novel,” the language got more interesting. And then paradoxically, as you pointed out, it does become quite dramatic. It becomes play-like. So that’s a trick. I have the same problem with poems. If I say, “I’m writing a POEM,” then I write a POEM, you know? But if I just think, I’m trying to communicate something urgently, I can sometimes write a poem that’s actually poetic.
So that’s one thing. The other thing is I really just stumbled on this form by trying to avoid other forms that it felt would be lame. My thing is, with art, originality sometimes means declining to suck in familiar ways. You think about writing a novel about Lincoln, and instantly, these historical novel tropes present: “On that dark evening, Abraham Lincoln entered the graveyard with some trepidation...” And it’s your own revulsion at that familiarity that makes you think, No, I’ve gotta try something else.
Again, my watchword was heart. I want the reader to feel somewhat like this actually happened to [Lincoln] or that he witnessed this. Part of that is that there are all these tropes; you know, there are ghosts in the book. So again, you don’t want to write, “A gauzy figure drifted in over Abraham Lincoln’s shoulder...” That doesn’t do it for me. So, you’re thinking, “Well, I can’t do that, I can’t do that, and I can’t do that. What other ways are there to get at this material that won’t shut down the machine at the beginning?” Because if I’m reading a book and someone says that line about the gauzy ghost, I feel a lot of resistance. And the resistance, one, makes me not want to go on. And two, in a certain way, that sentence has typecast the ghosts so that they’re reduced to being movie ghosts.
If you come at it another way, there might be a time in the book when the reader is going, “What is this? Who are these beings?” Which is exactly how the reader should feel. If one of these beings showed up in your bedroom, it wouldn’t be wearing a white sheet. It would be an emanation that would have a personality and be really off-putting. So essentially, the form came out of trying to make the material strange enough to feel new.
JM: They certainly don’t think of themselves as ghosts.
GS: Right. I don’t think that word is even in the book.
JM: No, I don’t believe it is, either. Spirit, ghoul, specter—none of that is in there.
GS: They’re just people. They’re people who have gotten a little lost and they can’t get back to their full selves. Which I think is what it would feel like. If my heart stopped right now and I dropped to the floor and there was some part of me remaining, I don’t think I would I go, “Wow, I’m a ghost!” You’d be so frantically trying to figure out what you were. And I think one of the background premises of the book is that, whatever the afterlife is, it has a lot to do with this moment right now. Your thought-energy and your thoughthabits are very powerful and, possibly, that’s what will continue to exist after the body goes away.
JM: That’s a really interesting notion. You see it in the book. The “spirit” characters seem to live in this state of perpetuity, or even a state of denial, where they’re unwilling to accept their fate. That’s why they’re sort of stuck in this place. It’s such a resonant theme because it applies to the struggle Abraham Lincoln himself is going through at the same time.
GS: That’s exactly right. There’s even one more thing, which is, in order to continue to stay there, they have to actively keep denying. Which is why they keep telling their stories over and over again.
JM: Right, and that’s how the book opens, with Vollman restating his familiar story up to the moment of death, and Bevins filling him in on words and details he’s forgetting. On the one hand, it’s extremely funny; on the other hand, it’s extremely moving to think about that level of denial.
GS: It’s a little bit like people who have known each other for a long time. You see that person telling the same stories over and over again, and it might become clear that those stories are the essence of who they are. You’ll notice, with people who are very old, sometimes their personalities get reduced to four or five familiar stories that they’re kind of auto-telling. But they’re also telling them to remind themselves of who they are, which is very moving and sad, but it also gets to this question of what personality really is, when you get right down to it.
JM: Piggybacking off that theatrical quality, I’ve heard that for public readings of Lincoln in the Bardo, you’re enlisting a group of actors to “perform” the various narrators’ voices on stage with you. Can you say a little bit about that process?
GS: We’re still figuring it out because we’re doing 20 cities in 23 days, so that’s a lot of organization. So what I’ve done so far is I’ve picked out a certain part of the book that is dramatic, and also requires maybe four or five people, and can be done passably well, even by non-professionals. But in Houston, we’re going to have some wonderful actors actually doing it.
I’m not sure there is something I can read from the book on a standalone basis that would really go over. I’m going to have to find something. Ideally, the dream would be: each city we go to, we get four or five volunteers to go up there and read to give a taste of what the book is like. We did a test run in Key West and I was really happy with it. The main thing I want to do is to prepare the reader for this weirdness of the first 30 pages, and as much as I can, ease the way in a little bit.
JM: I have just one more question for you. At the end of 2016, Merriam-Webster’s announced that its word of the year was “surreal.” Oxford christened “post-truth” as its word of the year. This novel paints Abraham Lincoln as a grief-stricken, even tortured, man, desperate to do the right thing as his son lies dead and the Civil War grows bloodier. I can’t help but ask how you think Lincoln’s deep thoughtfulness might compare to that of our current administration (or if such a comparison can even exist). I’m thinking of your essay “The Braindead Megaphone” here.
GS: [Laughs]. So am I. If you look at a human being long enough, you can kind of see what their simple mantra is. You can see what really motivates them. And with Lincoln, I think he was an incredible, one-in-a-billion spiritual being, who started out just a disadvantaged kid in Indiana, but had some quality that made him constantly moving up. He got more intelligent; he got more worldly; he got more ambitious. And then, in the moment of truth, which is the period I’m narrating here, you can feel him turning the corner from someone who’s essentially political to someone who’s essentially spiritual. You know, he’s always described as being very, very sad, and very kind. And he has this quality of getting into a situation where a normal human being would find himself fighting for his point of view or trying to maintain power. But Lincoln’s move was always to do whatever would be most beneficial in that moment, even if it meant an embarrassment for him, or a kind of sucking-up of his pride, or the embracing of an enemy, or telling a dirty joke sometimes. He really had what in Buddhism would be called a bodhisattva characteristic, which is trying to make things turn out well for everybody in every situation. I think that’s why we love him so much, because even at the end of his life, he was still growing. Even at the last few days of his life, he was still growing. So at the heart of that man’s existence was a love for others. That’s the best way to be: to have a genuine love for other people—every other person—not just for people like yourself.
So I think with Trump, it would seem to me, as far as I can tell, that he’s somebody whose main interest is in self-aggrandizement. I don’t even mean that pejoratively. He just wants to be more known and more correct and more famous and more powerful. So I guess the question is, under the weight of the office, will that convert? And I think in some ways, you could say that the process of being on the road and doing all those rallies, I think it did make him more sympathetic to the people in his crowd. You could see that happening at the rallies. He was really touched by these people’s loyalty. And I’m guessing, that this guy who’s a billionaire—pretty isolated, very famous—did have his understanding expanded by this process of campaigning. He did actually become more alert to this group of people’s concerns. So that’s the hope. But, my feeling is he’s done so much damage with the percussiveness and the aggression of his campaign that I don’t see much hope. The main difference between Lincoln and Trump is that with Lincoln, you’re hard-pressed to find him after a certain point in his life ever saying a harsh thing about anybody. That’s a huge difference, to have the wherewithal and the self-possession to be publicly kind all the time, and to really work actively to try to expand the range of his affection.
JM: I apologize for the loaded question. Perhaps there is no comparison.
GS: Well, they both had two legs, you know? But here’s another truth: Lincoln took a lot of grief in his life. There were a lot of people piling on him early, too. So it’s a loaded question, but it’s one everybody is thinking about: What are we to think about this new political time? The other thing about Lincoln is that he was big on truths. He would tell the truth no matter what it cost him, because he saw the truth as a way to get to higher ground. In a given situation, if you just tell it like it is, it might be painful, it might set you back a little bit, but ultimately it’s going to put you on the road to a higher ground. The current administration seems to have a different feeling about truth, and that maybe is the thing that is most alarming to me.
A complete version of this interview will appear in the next print issue of Gulf Coast, out by early May
George Saunders with be reading in Houston on Monday, March 6 at 7:30 PM at the Alley Theatre as part of the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.