Trump as an agent of mayhem: an interview with George Saunders

The Booker winner discusses the historical Lincoln, racial tension in America and why the current US president is beyond satire.

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Less than 48 hours after winning the Man Booker Prize for fiction, George Saunders sat down with me in front of an audience at Foyles bookshop in central London, to discuss his novel Lincoln in the Bardo. Saunders, 58, is an American author often described as a master of the short story form. Born in Texas, he attained a degree in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines before working with an oil exploration crew in Sumatra and as a knuckle-puller at an abattoir.

After being awarded a Masters in creative writing in 1988 he began a career that has produced several award-winning story collections. His debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, begins with the death of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie in 1862 and proceeds, through 166 different voices, to assemble a portrait of the cemetery’s undead residents as well as a violently divided America and its grief-stricken president. At Foyles, Saunders was tired but elated. He showed me a photo of the £50,000 cheque on his phone and hitched up his trouser leg to flash his Lincoln socks, before launching into a sharp commentary on the art of fiction and its role in Trump’s America.

Tom Gatti: You seem to have captured Lincoln so perfectly. Why did you create such an extraordinarily complicated way of approaching him?

George Saunders: When you start a book about Lincoln, you’re just filled with dread, because it’s like writing about Christ. Everyone knows him: we know his diction, we know it to the point of cliché, almost. So what I had to do was to say: “Mr Lincoln, I’m not looking at you directly, you’re over here, let me just glance at you for a few seconds.” To develop that clarity of voice, my approach was situational. I could only do him if I knew exactly the psychological state that had brought him on stage. So he’s just been in the crypt, two minutes ago; he maybe still smells the boy on him; he’s sitting in some grass. With that in place, you say: “Well, he’s Lincoln, but he’s also any father.” I did a lot of reading of his speeches, but the danger is you don’t want to do that voice, because it’s a written voice. So you want to have his habit of mind, with a little less refinement.

The novel has such an unusual, multifaceted structure. Can you give us a sense of how you arrived at that form?

The problem for me was that you can’t do first-person Lincoln, and there’s nobody else in the graveyard. I tried it as a traditional third-person thing and it was just like Gore Vidal on stupid pills: it wasn’t interesting. Originality is only valuable if it serves the emotional purpose. So with this book, I was like a bouncer in a bar: “Well, hold it right there. Why are you so long?” I said, and the book answered: “Well, because I’m earning it.” “OK, why are you using this weird form?” “Well, we need it for the emotional content.” So every time the book would take a weird turn, it would sort of have to check with me at the door and I would begrudgingly let it.

In a lecture that Ali Smith, your fellow Booker shortlistee, gave recently at Goldsmiths University, she said there’s no such thing as the historical novel: a novel always reflects the time in which it’s written. I know you began this book in 2012 – and you’ve been thinking about it for decades – but looking at it now, can you see current events or concerns bubbling up through it?

No – well, yes. If there was any politics, it was thinking about the killing of so many African Americans by police. If you do research on the Civil War you think, “Oh, that aspect of the war actually never ended: they abolished slavery, they quit the fighting, and then almost instantly put in a bunch of rules in the South that were like a second-hand slavery.”

As far as Trump goes, I was writing from that place of “When Hillary’s president, maybe I’ll meet her at the White House.” But writing this book felt like a chance to get back in touch with the country and realise that this process of imagining one’s country is ongoing. We have to constantly say: “What do we stand for?” But it felt a little academic at that point. And then the book came out right after the inauguration, and it wasn’t academic any more.

It was beautiful, actually, to go and tour the book around and be in auditoriums with mostly young people who were so upset and agitated. Somehow the book did seem well-timed: it gave us a chance to talk about things. I’m of the David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen generation, and we did a lot of talking back in that time about earnestness and irony in fiction, and the events of the last year have made me think that fiction is so vital to what human beings do. It’s not peripheral, it’s actually the essential human activity. It’s always easier to write negativity. To express the positive valences of life I think is just technically harder, but I think it’s morally as important, because otherwise you’re getting quite a distorted picture of things.

In some ways Lincoln can be viewed as an anti-Trump.

Lincoln had a thing about trying his best never to speak extemporaneously. So if he was called out to do it – when someone would do a serenade and he would have to come to the balcony of the hotel – he had these beautiful phrases like: “Were I to speak off the top of my head, you would find nothing there and so I must end.” It was a way of getting himself out of improv, because he was really afraid that, as president, if he said something dumb or incorrect, it would go out and ruin the world. We’re not so worried about that any more! If he spoke publicly, he would always insist on writing it and revising it extensively, so that there could be no doubt about what he meant. And in that incredibly fraught time of slavery, the beauty of those speeches, the micro-tuning that he did, is just remarkable.

That goes outward. He had such respect for the office; he had such respect for the country; and throughout his presidency, in this almost mythical way, his tent of empathy got bigger and bigger, and it went out to include people – it included the soldiers of the South, it started to include the slaves and former slaves in a really radical way, so at the end of his life he was almost ready to give the vote to African American men, and then he was killed.

So now what’s happening is the tent of empathy is getting little, tiny, until it’s only as big as the President: “I like everybody who is just like me, and I like everybody who likes me, and everyone else is to be excluded.” That’s a complete inversion, in my view, of the Lincolnian vision of America.

Abraham Lincoln. Picture: Granger/Bridgeman Images

Both Lincoln and Trump preside over deeply divided nations.

Yes, and when Lincoln was elected, that was the end of the union, because the Southerners hated him so much. But the thing is, we are deeply divided, but we weren’t this deeply divided a year ago.

Trump is an interesting character, because he’s not an ideologue; he actually is just a mayhem guy. And psychologically, I don’t know what that’s about, but it seems that in any situation, he just wants to disrupt, and then draw the attention to him. It’s not an intellectual position, it’s not a political position, it’s a psychological strangeness, and actually it’s quite a skill.

So I think in some ways, it’s a particularly dangerous position, because you can’t predict it: it’s literally just: “Whatever’s going on, we’re going to tilt the table.”

People have tried to satirise Trump, but he’s kind of satire-proof, isn’t he?

Yes, I think so. Stephen Colbert is doing a brilliant job, and John Oliver, but my sense when I covered the Trump rallies is that the supporters don’t care: they’re not watching. In the old days, David Letterman could satirise something and it went out across the country; now we’re so polarised that, whether it’s satire or persuasion, it’s not finding a home. So that’s kind of alarming.

I was at the Trump rallies, and I would not sit in the press pen, but go in the crowd, and I’d say, “Hi, I’m George, I’m a liberal, left of Gandhi,” and they were like, “Oh, good, let’s fight.” And we would fight and it was fun. But when you would say: “I write for the New Yorker,” they’d just go: “What is that? Is that some liberal thing?” It wasn’t as though they were dismissing me, but there just wasn’t any crossover.

The other day I wrote something on Facebook about the NFL kneeling thing, and I was trying to be very gentle and polite, and the first comment was: “You sound like a total pussy.” If what you say does cross the border, then the other side knows you’ve got a big L on your head for Liberal and they just whack you. So it’s a little scary and discouraging, because I totally believe in writing as the way to melt somebody, but the level of persuasion that’s needed now is not subtle. You need a big thing, and I actually don’t have any answers.

It must have been a year-and-a-half ago that you went to Trump rallies for the New Yorker. Since then, have you seen any change in the Trump supporter mindset?

I have a lot of people in my sphere of family and friends who are Trump supporters and they’ve gone quiet, which I think is promising. The thing that’s interesting to me is that only 20 per cent of Americans voted for him – approximately 50 per cent didn’t vote at all – so it wouldn’t be hard to overturn it. But he’s also – as I say – very clever. The NFL thing was a few very courageous young men kneeling against racial bias, and then the moment kind of passed. Trump brought it back to life again: why? Because he could look at the demographics and see that some large percentage of white Americans, regardless of politics, didn’t like it.

And then he did a nice little rhetorical twist to say: “Oh, it’s not about race, it’s about the troops.” And now, remarkably, it seems that the sentiment is changing in favour of him. I think he’s intent on keeping that little 20 per cent by any means necessary.

One of the bleakest moments in the novel is a section describing a fight between a white slave owner and a black former slave, which proceeds “with a fury that suggested the two might well fight on into eternity unless some fundamental and unimaginable alteration of reality should occur”. Elsewhere in your fiction we see the possibility that kindness or empathy can solve these things, but here it seems perhaps it can’t.

I’m kind of a knee-jerk Pollyanna-ish person: I like to find hope, sometimes irritatingly: “Oh, there’s a nail in my head. It’s great, I’ll hang a coat on it, that’ll be good.”

The one place in my life where I can fix that is through fiction, because if nothing else, I’m a narrative purist, and I don’t like stories that lie. You write something you like, it agrees with your views, but then the story goes: “Excuse me: if you don’t reverse this, you’re going to be full of shit.” At first I probably wrote that scene so that the slave owner and the former slave reconciled – but you read that and you go: “Er, no. Not in this book you don’t.” Fiction has the capacity to teach you to tell the truth when your natural impulse is to not.

I think that in terms of race, it will get better. How long? Well, it’s been a very long time. But the burden is on white people. It’s the white person’s disease, and you don’t fix that disease by going: “We’re doing great.” You have to have a fist and hit yourself, because, at least in the States, the racial stuff is so deep and so encoded, that even if it doesn’t manifest overtly, it’s manifesting in thousands of small ways all the time. So in the short term I’m not very hopeful. It’s been going on my entire life, and we’ve mostly been OK with it. 

“Lincoln in the Bardo” is published by Bloomsbury. Watch the full interview on our Facebook page here. Read George Saunders' manifesto for a better world here

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.