On October 17, George Saunders was awarded the 2017 Man Booker Prize for fiction. This piece was published shortly after he spoke at a New Statesman / Goldsmiths Prize event in London in March.
“Hey, I don’t want to be the guy whose gravestone reads, you know, ‘Avoided doing that which he most longed to do’”, thought the acclaimed short story writer George Saunders, before embarking on his first novel: Lincoln in the Bardo. Speaking at Goldsmiths University, Saunders admitted that his first attempt at a novel – “La Boda De Eduardo” (“Ed’s Wedding”) – was such a disaster that he spent 20 years avoiding attempting another one.
Lincoln in the Bardo is set in the graveyard where Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie was buried in 1862 and, through the interactions of Lincoln and the cemetery’s spectral inhabitants – “Bardo” is a Tibetan term for a transitional space – Saunders explores the themes of death, grief, love and kindness and the crisis of a divided country (the American Civil War is raging). Soon after publication in February Lincoln in the Bardo climbed to the top of the New York Times bestseller lists, and a film is now in the works. In a packed lecture hall at Goldsmiths, Saunders, who is also a creative writing teacher, talked about the mysterious craft of fiction and the perils of navigating American politics in the Trump era. Here is an edited extract of our conversation.
Erica Wagner: Lincoln in the Bardo is a remarkable capturing of Lincoln. What kind of research did you do?
George Saunders: It was strategy. If you’re a writer and there’s something you don’t want to do, there’s probably a good reason for it, and so one of the ways you do it is by being really open to yourself about why it’s a problem. So, with Lincoln, the problem is everybody knows everything about Lincoln.
So my solution was, first of all, to say, the book’s not about Lincoln, actually; the book is about the love, maybe, for his son. Then you can make sure Lincoln doesn’t get in there too much. I realised verisimilitude was not the goal. To do the real Lincoln: nobody knows who that was, that’s not the point. So then I just thought, “Well, I’m free to infuse him with my own phenomenon,” and so mostly the research was reading enough of his speeches that I could internalise not only the rhythm, but the logic: he was a very syllogistic thinker. At the moment of truth, the reader is not really wanting factuality or verisimilitude. I think they want your intuitive swirl, you know?
The book quotes “historical sources”, but some of them are made up by you. I wonder how you worked out which ones were going to be real, and how you feel about this now in the era of “alternative facts”.
The book was finished before Trump began whatever he’d begun, before “alt facts”. In the States, on tour, we were talking a lot about Trump, obviously, because it’s so much on everyone’s mind, and it occurred to me that one thing that needs to happen is we need to be precise in understanding what’s going on.
I hope that when you read the book, you won’t be able to tell which ones are true and which aren’t. So when a writer does that, the reader is saying, “I consent to this game with you, we’re going into the hall labelled ‘novel,’ you actually want me to do whatever I need to do to do the ultimate aim of the novel, which is to produce an irreducible magic”. So it’s kind of like when you tell a ghost story, you say, “And it happened in this very room,” well, it didn’t, but we’re going to agree that it did in order to have some fun.
So I think that’s one thing. Now, what’s going on in Washington, you know, where a duck walks into the room and Kellyanne Conway says, “It’s a rhino!” that’s a different ball game.
This universe you have created has its own rules. How much were those from traditions of Buddhism, how much are they of your own invention?
Some of the rules were inherited. There’s a wonderful book called Ghosts by Hans Holzer that’s 1,000 pages of parapsychological interventions he did over the twentieth century. And one of the strange things is, a ghost often doesn’t know it’s dead, so the trick they use is, they say, “What year is it?” and the ghost says, “1724” and you go, “No, no, no,” and you show them the newspaper, and the ghost basically goes, “Oh, jeez,” and takes off. So I thought that was kind of beautiful and sad – that’s got to go in.
And in the Tibetan tradition, this idea that your mental habits continue, that was kind of a big thing. But about half-way through, I just said, “OK, goodbye history, goodbye Bardo,” and started using these traditions, but at the same time twisting them as needed.
There are so many wonderful characters in this novel: the audiobook has 166 narrators. Did some of those voices come from the research that you did?
Sometimes I would find, in my reading, a typographical habit, so somebody would use ampersands, or somebody who repeats the same phrase. So that was one way – if you’re going to make up, you know, a hundred and whatever voices, typography is actually your friend.
I found out in my early days that if I had a plan for a story and I had an ethos and I had some message I wanted to deliver, the story would just die. So I always have to be tricky with myself and consider the whole thing as sort of an improv. So I’ll be writing along, thinking, “I need a ghost’s story on the left hand side,” and there was just a little move, really, where you turn your mind to that ghost, try to keep you conceptions out of it, and actually let the thing speak – not in any kind of mystical way, but like doing improv. So I found that if you did that enough and you remembered what you’d done behind you, you could always make a new voice.
You began this novel in 2012 and it’s published in 2017. It’s a book about a divided nation, so tell us a little bit about your experience taking this book round the United States.
I finished it and about a month later, Trump started to ascend, and the New Yorker emailed me and said, “Would you like to go on the road with Trump?” I’m like, “No, I’m a novelist, I’m relaxing,” and my wife said, “I think you should do it: even if it’s hard you should still do it.” So I went on the road with the Trump campaign off and on for five months, and it was so hard. Mainly because in a sense these are also my people: I’m from kind of a working-class background, and my stories are mostly about people who probably would be Trump supporters, so on the one hand, they’re nice people, and I felt kind of weird about throwing them under the bus. It didn’t feel very sporting, you know?
I trolled, and said, “Hi, I’m a liberal, so somewhat left of Gandhi,” and they would go, “Oh, we’ve never met one of those before,” and we’d have a nice fight. I submitted it to the New Yorker twice and it got rejected. [The editor] David Remnick had one of the great one-line editorial things. He said, “It seems to me you’re avoiding the hard work of analysis.”
Then, the book came out, and in the States, that’s all we can think about. People who show up at readings, who tend to be progressives, are all in mourning and trying to figure out what to do. And the big question seems to be: should we resist fiercely with all our energy and fight, fight, fight, or should we be our same old empathetic, sympathetic, progressive selves? And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s right, you should do both of those things. That might be the most effective way.”
Your piece on the Trump supporters was distinct from many of the others about the “basket of deplorables”. And one thing that distinguishes your writing as a whole is compassion.
Revision tends to move your writing towards a point of something like compassion or sympathy. But then you get into that timeless question of, “Do you ever compassion yourself into what the Buddhists call idiot compassion?” where somebody drives a spike through your head and you’re, “Oh, thank you so much for that,” and they’re hitting your head with a rock and you’re going, “I love geology, it’s so cool”. That was really the issue: at what point was I becoming an enabler, and at what point was I being unnecessarily harsh? And one of the things that Trump supporters hate is a shrill, hyperbolic liberal, that drives them towards Don. So I think it’s just an ongoing question. How much empathy can you give before you’re enabling?
But my answer has come to be: an infinite amount. So that’s what I’m trying to do, but the great sin of the Trump campaign, in my view, was that it took all these people who were already vulnerable – Muslims, migrants, immigrants – and threw them under the bus for what was basically a series of projections.
From the audience: There are different finish lines throughout the book for different characters, and I’m just wondering if you can talk about how you mapped that out or how you think about it.
I didn’t map it. This wasn’t that different for me than writing a story, except in the way that if you imagine a story as like the writer throwing a bunch of bowling pins in the air, that’s the action; here the bowling pins went up and multiplied on their own, and then they came down, honestly, almost of their own volition in the last third. I never had that happen before.
So it really was just a matter of not thinking about themes, but almost like seeing party guests. It almost felt like I was like a bouncer,: “You come in, you wait. You two come in, you wait,” and then you end up in that last scene, just dropping the plates. I’ve never had it happen that automatically, so that was lovely.
From the audience: Could you talk a bit about the pleasures and the challenges of the short form versus the long form for you?
I’ve said that this book was almost like if you spent your life designing custom yurts, and then someone said, “Would you like to build my mansion?” you’re like, “No! Well, yeah . . . Maybe I could just combine a bunch of yurts, you know . . .” – and it really was kind of that.
When that happens, especially after such a long time in the wilderness, you’re kind of scared to give up your ship, you know? I’m the funny guy, I’m the sci-fi guy, I’m the first-person guy: don’t bother me. So over the years, some of that fell away, but basically, I had a reflexive aversion to what I considered straight writing, earnest writing, writing that went for a while without a joke or some kind of stylistic thing that would assure you that I was a hipster, basically. Because that’s what got me to the party, and I didn’t want to get kicked out of the party.
So, for me, this book was really scary and wonderful, because there are times when you’re writing about a father holding his dead son’s body where you just can’t veer into joke time, you just can’t. And believe me, I tried! Out of insecurity, I did, and it didn’t work. So you’ve got into that wonderful feeling of “I’m on thin ice, I’m being earnest, I’m talking about life the way I actually feel about it.” That’s an amazing gift, which I don’t think I would have got to in the short form, because I’m very habituated in that form.
Erica Wagner: It strikes me that quite a lot of your earlier work is set in an indeterminate near future, but this is in the past. Given what’s going on in the world, are you tempted to directly address politics?
You know, the one thing I’ve learned is this: I don’t know. Not to be mysterious, but, you know, I have this model for story-writing which is basically just a meter in your head: this is infinite positive, this is infinite negative, and since that first book, my approach has been, don’t think about it too much, write something, read it, see what the needle does. And if the needle stays positive, you’re good. You’re writing just the right thing.
That’s the golden ticket for me. Don’t get ambitious, don’t get elated, just try to write a little bit of shit and see if you can revise it into a little less shit.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” is published by Bloomsbury