Interview with George Saunders

Posted by Goodreads on February 6, 2017
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.

Interviewer Todd Leopold caught up with Saunders, who also teaches fiction at Syracuse University, on a phone call from Watsonville, California.

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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.

GR: I was struck by the structure of the book. In the way the book is told by multiple narrators, I'm reminded of oral history. It's also been compared to a Greek chorus, and I even thought of something experimental like William Gaddis's JR. Were these in your mind, or did the structure come naturally?

GS: Strangely, the answer would be both. The way my mind works is that everything I've ever read or seen in a movie, it's in the hopper.

Sometimes a work of art is just trying to solve a problem. In this case, if I believed Lincoln went into that crypt, then that was really an interesting problem—and it caused a bunch of associated technical problems. For example, Lincoln in the graveyard late at night—how do we know? Who would be there to narrate this for us? That's where the ghosts come in. Also, given that moment in the crypt—at least for me, as I imagined it, it was so charged with all the other stuff that was going on in the world and in Lincoln's life—there's a technical problem that says, we have to get that historical spine in there, or the moment won't be as meaningful.

It was hard work, but hard work always led to pretty steady progress. It's difficult after the fact to remember and re-create what happened—it was sort of a four-year frenzy.

GR: In the early chapters you apparently quote from historical accounts. But it turns out some of them were fictional.

GS: Originally the intention was to use the straight historical documents and cut those and arrange those into a narrative. And what happened is, when I did that, I noticed a kind of a mismatch between what was on the page and the version that had formed in my head over all those years. So if I have to smooth over the latticework a little bit by adding some things, then it's a novel and that's fair game.

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GR: Were there rules to the bardo?

GS: That's actually what I was doing when I was revising. In some places you'll have, this thing happened on page 10 and this thing happened on page 60, and they don't make sense together, so you have to choose. And by making those choices, draft after draft, you start to codify those rules a little bit. The interesting thing is, when you submit to that, the book rewards your quest for specificity by paying you back with some meaningful action.

GR: Some of the ghost figures aren't conventional. Where did those visions come from?

GS: In some ways you're always drawing on your own work and bringing it forward. I had a book called The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, which is all about these sort of made-up objects. There I got in the habit if a character has a certain psychological component, is there a physical manifestation of that—if somebody is very rigid in his thinking, can he be made of plywood.

Also, I think writing is sometimes a form of me as the writer anticipating your possible objections as a reader. For example, the word "ghosts" never appears in the book because I don't want you thinking of these as ghosts. Because if you think of them as ghosts, you think of them as white sheets. Part of the game is for you to be slowly drawn in—what are these things exactly? And if you say, They're ghosts, the book is saying, Welllll, not exactly. Part of the compositional challenge is to recognize when you're treading in too-familiar territory, and when you're in the territory, try to shake it up somehow, if for no other reason than to reinvigorate the reader's interest in some way.

The second reason—which is actually the same reason—is that one of the challenges of this book was to make it a little fun. My instinct is, if I'm getting too straight in a narrative, is to jangle it up with humor somehow. In this case there was the added benefit that the physical weirdness of the characters had to do with their psychological reason for being there.

GR: One of your other works is the short story 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.

GR: From Saira: I'm very interested in how Buddhism has changed Saunders's approach to storytelling.

GS: My experience has been that the principles that I would call Buddhist principles were in play from the very beginning. When I first learned to write stories and became halfway decent at it, I was surprised that the main move was, simply, read what you've got already and see how you're doing. And if you're not doing very well, then tweak. Instead of imposing my projections on this moment and deciding what it is, I'm going to be as nonjudgmental as possible and react accordingly.

GR: This one is from a person who calls himself the Other, Lesser George.

GS: Oh, I know him. That's me most days.

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GR: Could you elaborate on the allure of the apocalyptic for you personally and humans generally?

GS: Yeah. Honestly, those stories are what result when I try to keep the stories lively on a line-to-line basis. Basically, what's fun. And then you pursue that for as long as it takes to get the story done. And you look up and you go, Oh wow, it's dystopian. Then I go, All right, that's something I believe, but maybe I didn't know I believed it.

I'm always sort of embarrassed to say this, but it's mostly just trying to make a really jangly interesting surface, and what I found if I concentrate on that, all the other stuff happens just fine.

GR: Ben Griffin wants to know about compassion, a theme of your work. He asks: At any point when you were writing [The New Yorker article] Who Are All These Trump Supporters? did you feel like the actions at the rallies were beyond compassion?

GS: Not actions I saw…Depending on how you define compassion, actions are never beyond compassion. Sometimes we misunderstand [compassion] as being this bland, kowtowing niceness: Somebody hits you in the head with a rock and you say, "Thank you so much for the geology lesson." But compassion in Eastern traditions is much more fierce. It's basically calling someone on their bullshit. At the heart of it there's a clarity that would say, If I could press a button and make that person see his own actions, that would be the best.

I'm just trying to be really watchful in my own heart for any kind of gratuitous negative emotion. I'm [thinking] Jesus was here, Buddha was here, Gandhi was here, Tolstoy was here, Mother Teresa was here, and they all said basically the same thing: Our capacity for understanding the other is greater than we think. It's not easy and we're not very good at it habitually, but we can get better at it and it's always beneficial. It's beneficial to you, and it's beneficial to the other. That's what I say—in real life I'm swearing under my breath on the internet.

GR: Who are some of your favorite writers, and what are you reading right now?

GS: I just read Zadie Smith's Swing Time, which I loved, Michael Chabon's Moonglow, an amazing book. I'm reading Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and I'm looking forward to [his] Exit West on Zadie's recommendation. I wrote an introduction for a kind of collected works of Bobbie Ann Mason, so it was wonderful to go back and read some of her work. I also did the same thing for Grace Paley recently. I'm doing an event with Colson Whitehead in February, so I've been holding The Underground Railroad back, and that's what I'm about to start.

GR: Are there influences you always come back to?

GS: There's a Russian writer named Isaac Babel that I love. I can drop in anywhere in his works, read a few pages, and go, Oh yeah, language. It's almost like if you were tuning a guitar and you heard a beautifully tuned one and you say, Yeah, that's what we want. We want something that perfect. When I read him, it recalibrates my ear. It reminds me of the difference between an OK sentence and a really masterful sentence. Isaac Babel does it for me.

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Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Mary Ann (new)

Mary Ann Fun interview. Thanks!

message 2: by Mike (last edited Feb 07, 2017 05:54PM) (new)

Mike I am looking forward to reading 'Lincoln in the Bardo'. Thanks for the interview George.

message 3: by Maureen (new)

Maureen Madden Thanks George!
A wonderful and thoughtful interview.
Our LA book group is now looking forward to spending
Time in the Bardo with your new novel and seeing you at the writers guild. Lincoln in the Bardo

message 4: by Ben (last edited Feb 08, 2017 11:52AM) (new)

Ben Great interview. Thanks Goodreads for posing and Mr. Saunders for answering my question.

"Babel In The Bardo" is a catchy title and the end of Isaac Babel's life was incredibly intense and came under very controversial circumstances....

Just sayin', George....

message 5: by Dywane (new)

Dywane That's Wonderful Book?

message 6: by Don (new)

Don Singleton If the novel is anything like his short stories, I'll take a pass.

message 7: by Marcia (new)

Marcia The Tenth of December is one of my favorite books and one I recommend to people all the time. I am so looking forward to reading Lincoln in the Bardo.

message 8: by RD (new)

RD Chiriboga Moncayo I've never read this writer but will do so now.

message 9: by Peter (new)

Peter I first encountered Sanders when the New Yorker published Pastoralia. That was wicked funny. Then I read his other stuff. George rocks.

message 10: by Jamie (new)

Jamie Berger Thanks! Also this, podcast conversation with GS on everything *but* the novel, so no spoilers here!

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