It was on a long-ago visit to Washington, DC, that George Saunders first heard the story of Abraham Lincoln and his eleven-year-old son Willie, who died in 1862, and how the bereft president of the United States visited the boy’s temporary tomb to embrace his lifeless body.
That image stayed with Saunders for fifteen years, but he couldn’t put it to paper. “I didn’t think I had the chops,” he told Eleanor Wachtel, host of CBC’s Writers and Company, in a conversation at the Toronto Reference Library this past April. Saunders, who had previously published four acclaimed collections of short stories, eventually found a way forward, and the result was Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel. This week, it won Britain’s Man Booker Prize.
Writing in the Guardian this March, Saunders, now fifty-eight, explained what finally got him started on the novel in 2012: “Noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read ‘Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt,’ [I] decided to take a run at it.”
Reviewing Lincoln in the Bardo earlier this year for the New York Times, Colson Whitehead deemed it “a luminous feat of generosity and humanism.” Set in the intermediate, or transitional, no man’s land between the living and the unquiet dead—what’s known in Tibetan tradition as the bardo—the novel layers the ghostly and phantasmagorical against a background of historical fact. As a grief-stricken President Lincoln struggles with the loss of his dearest boy, the battle for Willie’s soul roils the Georgetown cemetery where he lies.
Not long after Lincoln in the Bardo was published in March, I arranged to email George Saunders a parcel of questions, which he answered from his home near Syracuse, New York.
To start, what’s the view from there: What do you see when you look up from the computer screen?
I’ve got a blank wall, a window looking up a hillside (with three clustered redwoods up there), a bulletin board with a copy of a postcard my great-grandfather sent from Greece in the 1930s, and a Christmas card my daughter made to notify me of a Spotify subscription. The books are behind me, on a long shelf. I also have a card I always bring with me to any place in which I hope to do some writing—a Richard Pettibone drawing of a train, with this quote: “These excursions served to carry my roots ever deeper into the vigorous soil of truth.”
I wonder about something you said in 2006 interview with Deborah Solomon of the New York Times: “When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you.” Is that generally true, too, of a novel? And Lincoln in the Bardo in particular—a novel about death and the dead and how they’re reckoning with the lives they’ve lived?
Yes, I think so. I hope so, anyway. If I had to approximate that feeling (as I’ve had it, finishing reading a beautiful book) it might be just, you know: “Huh, I’m still here, in this beautiful world.”
Anyone who has been moved by a book knows that it is essentially an irreducible experience, very difficult to talk about. There’s a period after you’re read something where things have just changed, in terms of how you are perceiving the world around you. Gradually that fades, and/or the thrill of that makes you want to talk about it. But I see those as two different (valid) modes: the feeling (speechless) and the analytics (talking up a storm, writing reviews, etc.). So, in this sense, when you’re writing a book, you may not know what you are trying to do, but you have the sense that by following certain instincts, you will cause something to happen—and you want to see what that thing is, hoping that it will be too complex to name.
In your Toronto conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, you said that you do think that this is a more compassionate book compared your collections of short stories. Why so? How did that happen?
Well, I think I got older and also got better at my job. Whatever that tonality is, of which there is more in this book—compassion or tenderness or maybe just “straightforwardness”—I think it came from me being more comfortable with things as they actually are, and more technically capable of making some power out of that. I think that’s the whole job: to keep one’s technical chops ever expanding, so that more of the world can be got into the work. It might be that the sad and depressing and dark are more easily represented in fiction, so we might tend to get to those first. But they are not the whole story. I feel like I am getting fonder of the world as I get older and also more confident that, even expressing that fondness, I can still make prose that has life in it.
But I’m not sure, really. There are qualities in those earlier books that I really like—an edge and a bluntness and a despair that I think are also real parts of life. So maybe the idea would be, you try to represent whatever life is to you at a given moment in your life, and then, when you’re all done, the sum total might approximately represent existence? And anyway, by that time, you’ll be dead and enjoying your “eternal reward.”
Regarding the bardo: one of my responses as a curious reader was to go off and browse The Tibetan Book of Living And Dying as I was reading the novel. Your characters Bevins and Vollman don’t recognize that they’re in the bardo (as such), nor does (as far as we know) Abraham Lincoln. What does a reader of yours need to understand about the idea of the bardo?
I think not much, really. If a person just reads this as a ghost story, or a story set in purgatory, the book works just fine, I think. The details of the book will tell the reader how “that place” differs from her idea of “a ghostly realm” or “purgatory.” For me, thinking of it as occurring in the bardo just helped, compositionally—kept me guessing, you might say…kept me from being too sure of the characteristics of the place, so that the place (the book) could tell me what those characteristics needed to be, to yield the most powerful story.
How did you come to include the shards of non-fiction that inform and inflect the novel? What were the rules you (or maybe the novel) set for those?
I heard the seed anecdote (about Lincoln visiting his son’s crypt) many years ago and had been (casually) researching the period ever since. And at one point, I realized that my constructed ideas (of Willie’s illness and death and that timing of that grief against the backdrop of the war, etc.) were critical to my emotional relation to the material. So then it became a question of how to get that information to the reader. The big leap forward was when I thought, “Well, dummy, how do YOU know all of that stuff?” and hit on the idea of just directly “sampling” those source documents. As for the rules—the big one was that the lurch into an historical section had to be “caused” by the real-time action—you couldn’t just drop some history in unprompted by the surrounding material. And then the responsibility became (as it always becomes in fiction) to escalate within that convention—to keep finding new and higher—stakes ways for the text to prompt the introduction of the historical bit.
Do you read other people’s fiction while you’re working on your own? If so, what guides you in that reading? How does it help, stir, daunt you? Are there particular novels that might be said to have inspired or maybe godparented Lincoln in the Bardo?
I do, just because, with my teaching, I “can’t not.” Generally, I just trust my instincts. If I feel that reading something won’t mess with my writing mindset, I go ahead. If something makes me feel a little aversion, I avoid it. This was written over about five years, so I read a lot of books during that time. But I always felt like this idea, and its method of execution, was coming from some deep place inside of me that wasn’t really going to be messed with much, no matter what I read. What’s funny now is that I’m getting lots of emails saying, “Oh, you must have read this (ghost-related, or graveyard-related) book,” and I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t read any of them. As far as books that did influence it—I would say Edie by Jean Stein and George Plimpton, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I think Reality Hunger by David Shields got me thinking about the spell-casting value of “fact.” The films Spirited Away and Beetlejuice and Wings of Desire. In some cases, I’d adapt a method and then go, “Oh, right, this feels like something I’ve seen in X.” So once I was well into the move of attributing speakers after their speeches, I realized it had a connection with the Ken Burns documentary series on the American Civil War. What was maybe new for me is that, whenever this would happen, this time around, I was glad about it. I think in the past I was trying to write free of apparent influence—but this time I felt like it was a big enough fish I was trying to land that I’d take any help I could get.
In Toronto you talked about working with historical fact, and you said that at a certain point in the writing you wondered whether this was a catalogue you were compiling or a novel you were crafting. And you said you finally decided: “It doesn’t matter if it’s factual, it just matters if it kicks ass.” Is that the true test for a piece of fiction? And how do you measure the ass-kickery?
I think it is, yes. As for how to measure it—right, exactly. I tend to revert to that old definition of porn: “You know it when you see it.” As I’m working it’s very micro—trying to get sections to be truthful, be fast, make sense, play by the extant logic, etc. And this all adds up to something bigger. At times, I could actually feel the book making itself bigger, as if by its own decision. But actually that was happening because, in being true to the evolving rules, I was opening up places for higher-level truths to get into the book. All kind of hard to talk about but it argues that the real process of art making actually is iterative and super- or supra-verbal. Like hitting a baseball, say. Two different hitters will generally talk the same game, but then one gets in and hits a homer and the other strikes out. (And that hitter is you, the writer, on different days, even.) So: an element of mystery has to pertain—which I really like…this idea of writing as more of a muscular, visceral act, in which the writer brings all that she is to that moment but can’t really explain what happens next.
It’s difficult, in 2017, to avoid news of US presidents. With a novel in hand about Lincoln, a reader does find current events pressing particularly at the edges of the pages. I don’t know how much Donald Trump loomed while you were actually writing, but is the current presidency somehow now part of the novel’s context?
I think it is, by definition. The book was essentially in the bag long before Trump even announced. But these days Trump (it seems, sadly) is part of everything’s context. But I think it was nice, really—to put out this book at this time. To my way of thinking, the book makes a case for the best version of America (even if that vision has not yet actually ever been embodied in the real country). I also like the idea of a complicated and possibly off-putting book selling really well at this time—just as an argument for the vitality of art.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.