George Saunders on Lincoln, the Afterlife, and Writing a Novel
On February 20, 1862, Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son, Willie, died. The president, already drained from the ongoing Civil War, was distraught—so much so that, a few days later, he allegedly went into the crypt where his son's body was interred and took it out of its coffin. Comfort, anguish, sorrow—nobody has ever been quite sure why Lincoln did it, or even if he did. The tale may be apocryphal.
George Saunders couldn't get the story out of his head.
The Tenth of December author and short story master made several false starts at the emotional material before finally settling in to write something unusual for him: a novel. The result, Lincoln in the Bardo, uses a variety of voices—historical accounts, Lincoln acquaintances, cemetery spirits of many eras and backgrounds—to express something both personal and universal about that one night in 1862. The following is an excerpt from our full interview that appeared in our February newsletter.
Goodreads: Why the Buddhist "bardo"? Why not "Lincoln in Purgatory"? Or "Lincoln in Limbo"?
George Saunders: I was raised Catholic, and my understanding of purgatory is, you go there until you kind of work off your sins. The distance you are from God is a form of terrible punishment, and after many, many years of this, you can escape. To me that was a little bit—it's like jail. But the bardo idea, the way I reimagined the bardo, you're there kind of by your own consent, in the sense that as long as you continue to have a deluded or confused idea about who you are, you're going to stay there. So these beings are free to leave at any time if they only have the correct realization about their own nature. All they have to do is recognize that they're dead and recognize that they're temporary, and then they can be freed.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. Do you have a particular fascination with this era?
GS: Something about it is just cool to me. Maybe it's the idea that these mythical events that could be out of Homer happened here—where there's now a Chick-fil-A or a mall parking lot. That's always been interesting to me.
I tend to kind of go where my interest takes me without a whole lot of intellectualization about it. To get a work of fiction done, you have to be so deeply interested in it. If something is only intellectually interesting to me, it tends to not be enough to sustain a whole project. But if it's viscerally interesting—if I can get some good jokes out of it, or if there's a verbal reservoir available to me—then I know I can proceed.
GR: Let's get to reader questions. Several readers—Emily, James Figy, Kayla—want to know the difference between writing short stories and writing a novel.
GS: I really had kind of decided NOT to write a novel. I was very proud of the fact that I was not a novelist and very content with being a short story guy. But this material had been nagging at me for all those years, and once I got started, it wasn't long before I realized it was going to be longer than 50 pages. I was constantly telling the book, "You'd better not bloat up. I want you to stay short. If you can be a story, I want you to be a story because you know that's what works for us." So in a sense the book kind of pushed me around a little bit and said, "No, I insist." I was excited to see it wasn't a whole different world. It was just on a slightly bigger frame.
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