Hera Lindsay Bird talks with George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, the stand-out novel of 2017.
This story was first published on 8 May 2017.
I first started reading George Saunders because someone told me to. I don’t always read what other people tell me to read, because there are only so many unhappy marriages one person can take. But on the cover of Tenth of December, Saunders’s 2013 short story collection, there is a quote by Jon McGregor which goes: “These stories are so good they make me want to punch myself in the face with delight.”
So I read Tenth of December, and not only did I punch myself in the face, I went on to punch the faces of all my friends and family. I punched children. I punched teachers. I burned down the city hospital. I found an old horse by the side of the road and pushed, until it toppled sideways into the grass. What I am trying to say is: I love George Saunders’s writing very much.
There is a tendency when speaking about George Saunders to get over the top. It’s not just me, it’s everyone else, too. The last writer that made people produce so much collective mouth-foam was David Foster Wallace, who said of Saunders: “I think he’s the best short-story writer in English alive”, which is the kind of thing I’m glad I didn’t know beforehand because I’m suspicious of the kind of people who get described as being the best alive at anything. In my experience, when people say someone is the best alive, what they’re really saying is that the aforementioned person is both depressing and intelligent.
To be fair, George Saunders is intelligent. He won the McArthur Genius grant, and you don’t get that for eating yoghurt with a fork. But his stories are also very funny, and err on the side of hope. But was David Foster Wallace correct? Is George Saunders really the best short story writer alive? Is it fair at all to make such lofty pronouncements when we all know that taste is subjective, and engaging in literary hierarchies is boring and elitist? Yes, he probably is.
I work in a bookshop, and try and recommend George Saunders to as many people as possible, but it’s hard work. Nobody buys George Saunders, because he’s a hard sell, and I’m a terrible salesperson. I hear myself saying “these stories are good…………one of them is set in a theme park for…. caveman??? They’re kind of ‘high concept’ and…. about violence & capitalism, but narrated by a republican mom driving her children around while trying to instill in them a sense of the magic of Autumn.”
And then people leave the bookstore with the new Jonathan Franzen instead.
People also don’t buy George Saunders because George Saunders writes short stories, and nobody really likes short stories except for other people who also write short stories. But George Saunders has written a novel this time, and the world is finally paying attention.
The novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is about the death of Lincoln’s son, whose ghost becomes stuck in a kind of purgatory, ie trapped in cemetery land. All the other ghosts feel sorry for him and try to get him out. I loved it very much. It’s a lot more complicated than that. You can look up the synopsis yourself.
When I found out George Saunders was coming to the AWF, I demanded Steve Braunias get me his phone number. I promised Steve I wouldn’t just ask him heaps of boring questions about literary technique, and then I accidentally asked him a lot of boring questions about literary technique. Luckily George Saunders is good at answering boring questions about literary technique, in an unliterary and non-boring way.
HLB: George Saunders! How are you?
GS: Good, I just came off the tour and I’m trying to become a person again
Yes I’ve noticed you’ve been doing millions of interviews. Are you losing your mind yet?
Oh my god, uh … It’s been easier this time. I’m kind of trying to have fun, trying to not let it get me negative. I’m getting a little repetitious which is an occupational hazard. I kept waiting for it to get difficult, but it’s kind of been all right so far. How are you doing?
I’m good, it’s 8 o’clock in the morning over here so if I sound scrambled it’s because I’m just waking up.
Oh that’s all right. I’m like that all the time because I’m 58.
I’ve just finished listening to the audiobook for Lincoln in the Bardo which I loved. It has a huge cast of voice actors including Nick Offerman and David Sedaris and Miranda July. Were you involved in the process of putting it together?
Yeah, a little bit. I had proposed it as a way of avoiding reading the whole thing myself because I had that feeling of like, I just couldn’t imagine reading nine hours of faux 19th century voices.
I heard you are making it into a movie. It must be weird for you trying to translate your work into a visual medium because your stories are so intent on capturing people’s inner voices and weird linguistic tics. How do you represent that onscreen?
Yeah, I’ve been on and off trying to get movies made for 20 years and you’ve kind of capsulised the problem, which is that they look like movies, they read like movies and when you actually go to make them it turns out they aren’t. Mostly with all this stuff I kind of feel like you don’t really know until you try. I don’t know how you work as a poet but I never have an idea of how to proceed until I start, and then you see that the form is talking to you a little bit and kind of nudging you in this direction or that.
I think the same thing with this movie stuff. I feel like in fiction, there are always conventional ways of doing things and I tend to kind of cringe at those a little bit. One thing I’ve learned over the years is to trust my cringing, so whenever I’m writing and there’s a cringey kind of familiarity or banality – it’s a sudden lurch away from that which usually guides me. I think it would be the same thing with the movie. Just see what feels lame and then try not to do that. I mean that’s my whole writing principle.
In interviews about writing process you talk a lot about intuition and being comfortable with being unsure. Have you found yourself over the years needing to make yourself unsurer on purpose?
Yeah, I mean if you’ve written for a number of years you’ve trod over certain material and so you have to kind of avoid that stuff, but you know it’s funny, I think I’m actually getting better at being unsure because … I don’t know if I’m reading more or getting a little smarter but I’m a lot more sure of how empty my knowledge is now. I think when I was younger I had such a strong set of attractions and aversions in terms of prose that I was kind of not very doubtful. And now I’m kind of getting into new enough territory that I don’t know what to do any more. It’s actually getting easier. I think I burned through a lot of my early prejudices about prose. And the other thing that’s happened is that I’ve either written or lived my way out of a certain kind of kneejerk negativity that I used to have in place, which is good, but then also suddenly it leaves me really unsure of how to proceed.
Like in this last book I think I got into some places that were kind of new tonalities for me. I’m still pretty unsure, although the thing is when you’re on tour like I have been you talk so much shit that you start you hypnotise yourself into thinking that you do know, but what I find is that when I sit down, there’s that old muscle memory of nudging yourself into that place where you’re not sure – it kind of takes over.
I think I’m talking like it’s 8 o’clock here in the morning, too, sorry I’m a little vague.
One of the things I loved about Lincoln in the Bardo is that it’s a deeply emotive book, but you’ve also included a lot of weird grotesqueness in your vision of the afterlife, and incongruous rules about ghost life. Did you have lots of ideas about the afterlife you had to discard?
If I have those rules I try to be really difficult about them because those are rules you make up consciously, and it seemed to me that a work of fiction or a poem is like a dynamic system, it’s already talking to itself and talking to the reader, and the reader’s expectations and dread. I think my thing was to try and trust those rules would show up very naturally in the course of things and partly what I liked about that was, just this notion that if you had an afterlife that was orderly it wouldn’t really be the afterlife. My thought is that, whatever happens after death, we’re not prepped for it. It’s something very strange. It’s like when you go to a theme park and you look at a rollercoaster and you think oh yeah, we could go on that rollercoaster and then when you’re on it you’re like oh shit, my imagination is too … impoverished.
So anyway, that was the game. I wanted the afterlife I made to not be too tidy and certainly not to be, in line with some pre-existing religious situation, because then it might sound like I was advocating for … or if nothing else it would be so over controlled. Part of that was to say I don’t know the rules and if I start to know I should kick a little bit and see if I can loosen it up. Also, this might be a little too boring and technical, but there were ways in which the plot itself, or the story needs would sort of vacuum-form the rules of the universe.
So for example there was this arbitrary rule that kids can’t be in the bardo for very long or else they get demonic. That just sort of evolved because I needed some pressure on Willie to leave. So in that sense the world rule came out of a plot need, and then you kind of look at it and go oh that’s kind of cool, this arbitrary god that would make a stupid rule like that and then you think are there any real word corollaries? Are there any rules in the real world that are arbitrary and cruel? Yeah, there are a million of them. Like if someone gets born with a terrible illness.
But for me it’s all process. I try to go in and say to the book very humbly, you tell me, you tell me what you want me to do, and that works out better for me, because my preplanning brain is very very pedestrian and it makes boring shit. But if I surrender to the book and trust that the process will tell me how to become complex I’m a happier camper.
The other thing is I have this principle which is not exactly a principle, but is kind of an internalised principle that if you put an element into a work, then the perfect work of art is one in which that element always escalates. So for example if I introduce the idea that these ghosts will have, uh, physical manifestations of whatever neurosis they had in life – early on those were all physical manifestations like Vollman’s penis, so at some point I thought, if I’m introducing new ghosts that riff is getting a little tired because it’s a little linear. Everyone has a physical manifestation, so this principle of escalation says is there some other form of manifestation that isn’t, strictly speaking, physical? And if so, that would be a more beautiful pattern.
Like let’s say you have a world where there’s a bunch of cutlery on a table, and the cutlery is alive and at some point whenever someone says something in a certain vein, all the cutlery starts to quiver with excitement. A shaking metallic noise, right? So now we have several pages of that, someone says something with which the cutlery agrees, and it trembles. Then if you keep just doing that, I’m saying you failed in escalation. But if you say, OK, now what’s the next point on that curve? Maybe the spoon gets up and actually does a dance. It stands up on edge and spins. So now what does that mean? Well, who the fuck knows what that means? But we understand it as an escalation of the primary condition.
You teach creative writing at Syracuse University. What have you learned from teaching other people how to write?
One thing is the extent of the mystery. We can have these talks about “craft” as we call it here, and they’re good as far as they go, but they’re really not sufficient to express why this writer is interesting and this one isn’t. So it’s like a form of ritual humility, talking about it. But for me, selfishly, what’s nice is, every year we get these six really talented fiction writers who are off the charts they’re so good, and just to be an older person, reminded that talent doesn’t diminish over generations. Every generation is alive equally and that’s good for me because there’s such a tendency when you’re old and you’ve written a while, and you had some success, you think you have some kind of insider line on what art is, and it’s really wonderful to get reminded every year that it’s always going to take different forms. And you as an individual don’t have a monopoly on it.
And you know just that kind of common project of getting together with people who are as strange as you are and talking about these kinds of inexpressible things, or at least trying to, it strikes me as kind of monastic in the best sense. Like to keep going back to this ineffable thing and trying to do it better is, I think, really good for a person’s humility. And happiness. Or something like that.
You met your wife in a creative writing program and got married three weeks later. Do you read each other’s work still?
Well actually we fell for each other before we’d read each other’s stuff, we weren’t even in the same class. She has been so helpful to me because she knows me really well, beyond anybody, so she can kind of just tell when I’m phoning it in a little bit, or I’ve got to an ending in a story and haven’t really had the guts to look into it. She will critique me just with an eyebrow basically.
Your stories are often about people changing their minds, or being at a crossroads in their life where they could be open to change, or persuasion. Do you still think persuasion is possible in this political climate and how do we go about it?
Yeah, I think it is, I think it is actually. Over here it feels like this stuff all came up because we gave up on persuasion, you know. There was a big kind of polarization between the left and the right that I think a lot of people didn’t even recognize was happening, on both sides, it just happened and we were okay with it. And then you get down to this Trump thing and not only was there this incredible misunderstanding about the possibility of him being elected, but now there’s not really a vocabulary with which to talk about it – that’s the really strange thing.
I have a lot of people in my extended family who voted for Trump and I love them and they love me and we get along, but when you get into the political thing there’s just no common vocabulary anymore for talking about what would we like our country to be. My perception as a writer is that whenever you go there it falls into these very media infused ways of speaking – I’m a leftist so I have my way of talking about it, the right wing has their way of talking about it, and it’s kind of bizarre, it’s kind of robotic. A three-dimensional person in the political sphere suddenly starts talking in jargon, and you can track where the jargon comes from. It’s very easy.
So, I think I am more enthusiastic about fiction than I’ve been in a long time. I mean I was always pretty enthusiastic about it, but now I’m really feeling like it’s the one way where you can induce commonality in the guise of a made up individual person, and a lot of people can look at that person and feel empathy and sympathy without characterizing that person as part of a group or politicizing it. I’m definitely speaking optimistically.
The other part of me says I just did a 24-city book tour here and I don’t know how many Trump supporters came. I don’t know actually, but probably not very many. You can make these fictive scale models of the universe that are supposed to create empathy but if people aren’t reading them then I don’t know.
I think one of the reasons we’ve got to this path in the states is that for as long as I can remember , there’s been an anti-intellectual, anti-art sort of cloud, that we’ve all operated under- even people like me never believed in anything really. There was always this kind of feeling like don’t mind us, we’re just over here with our berets on you know, doing this masturbatory thing. But then you see that so much of the Trump movement has to do with people who are in poor relation to language, who don’t know how to hear propaganda when they hear it, who are not in their habit of, how do I say this? Specification. Like they talk about immigrants. Well the literary habit of mine is to say “which immigrant?” you know, show me one. Let me hear her name. Let me look at her shoes. I haven’t quite been able to articulate it but I know that the gradual marginalization of the artistic is somehow contributory to this big sad thing going on over here.
It must have been really weird starting to write this, or continuing to write this book, about classic American values and Lincoln. Do you think that the political context of the world has affected the way people are reading this book?
Very much, and it was totally accidentally, because it was done before Trump came onto the scene, but when it first came out there was a review that said it was a perfectly wrong book for its time. But ever since then it’s actually been an advantage that the book came out when it did. Because you can’t help it, you do everything here in a Trump context, you wash your hands in a Trump context, whatever you do Trump comes into it. At first I thought, oh my god what terrible timing, but when I was on the road, people were so hungry for, I don’t know what you call it, but just basic human ideas, like what is happening here, how do we behave, what should we do, and I think that somehow this material did resonate with people. I think people are tired of the kind of snarky, telegraphic thing which always puts you in opposition to other people and I think the notion of settling into something a little more comfortable with ambiguity was nice for people.
And then also Lincoln, you know, a guy who came a long way in a short time, and he did it by being more curious about other people, and more willing to revise his ideas about slavery. I was happy to have finished it when I did because so many writers here are like what should I do? what should I do? and I felt like I did it, I did the best I could, I spent the best part of four years trying to make this really deep work of art. That’s what I got, you know. I can tweet about trump but you know that’s not …
Do you remember what the last big thing you changed your mind about was? Have you had many moments where you’ve done a complete 180?
Yeah, I mean actually I think I’m doing it now. My understanding of the Trump phenomenon is something that’s evolving every day, trying to, get as much complexity in there as I can. For example looking at the people in my family who voted for him and really trying to understand why it seemed like a good idea to them. And I’m trying to think about their economic context and their educational context and all that. And I’m actually seeing that – what I think Trump did is usurped a lot of progressive ideas. So for example, your typical American town has gone right down the shitter in the last 30 years, it really has, so people feel less secure. And that was my mantra a few years ago, and it was very progressive, Trump kind of swept in and claimed that, in a certain way, and he locked in a bunch of nationalist and racist ideas and so on.
But I guess I’m saying I’m trying to change my mind. Or not change my mind but make my mind smarter about what’s actually happened here. Rather than saying we’re fucked, people are so stupid, trying to lift myself out of that ditch of self-certainty and say, OK, let me do a writer’s job, which is to talk to people and see if I can actually do that imaginative leap where I’m seeing the world from the mind of a Trump supporter. That’s something that I’ve changed my mind on. I’m not sure if that’s big enough. Isn’t it funny though, because to talk about it is easy, but to actually do it is a little harder you know.
Your books are in some ways about the weirdest excesses of America, pushed to their logical extremes. But there’s also obviously a deep fondness and enjoyment in the absurdity of the US. Do you like the campness of America? Do you go to theme parks and all the rest of it?
Oh yeah, I love it. I mean I’ve travelled some, but this is really my home, and I love every part of it. And if I don’t love a part of it, that’s on me, as a novelist or fiction writer. It’s my job to be really fond of my country just as it is. I don’t mean uncritical, but as you’re saying, you should go into these weird places. In the 60s they used to use that phrase “dig it” and I liked that as a phrase, because it doesn’t necessarily mean you like it, but it means you’re opening yourself up to it and you’re saying oh well this is a weird thing, but … Yeah I’m a real Americana kind of fan, and this Trump this is part of it. I mean in a certain way it’s like this crazy kind of xenophobic nationalistic thing, this anti-women thing, this anti-gay thing, it’s always been America. Mostly it’s been a struggle. But for the last 8 years it was a little bit down. Well now it rears its head again but it’s not like this is 100% new, it’s been there all long, and if you really track American history you can see it. Have you been over here before?
My stepdad was from LA so we visited once. My only experience of America is like Universal Studios and Hard Rock Café and all that stuff.
You got it then. If nothing else, you gotta admit it’s pretty energetic. It’s like if you gave human beings a lot of time and a lot of money what would they come up with and it’s like, whoa … I’m kind of still studying it you know.
Whose writing do you owe the greatest debt of gratitude to?
That’s a great question. I will give you the answers and some of them are writers I don’t like any more, but you know how that works. It was Ayn Rand, cause I wasn’t even going to go to college and then I read Atlas Shrugged and it was just the fact of its bookness that made me go oh my god, I read a book, I could go to college.
And then after that Hemingway. Just for those early books. At a time where the sentences are so tight and there’s so much sensual detail in them. He was big for me. And after that, Raymond Carver and Tobias Woolf, they were both at Syracuse around the same time that I was, and then maybe Isaac Babel, I’m kind of thinking in order here, and Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye was huge for me.
I think if I was being honest I’d have to add Monty Python to that list because that was the link between the literary and my actual life and how humour worked.
Then there was a Chicago writer called Stuart Dybek who was really important to me. He wrote stories set in my dad’s neighbourhood and also made one of the bridges: like, so real life is here, here’s a story about real life. Ah!
And you always have to throw in Shakespeare, but that would actually be true, like before I went to grad school I had never read Shakespeare, and I took a class at West Texas State University with this wonderful woman who really taught us how to read those plays and encouraged us not to be intimidated by them, and she’d kind of take them apart, a speech at a time. That was really liberating in the sense that you thought, how do I say it? That Shakespeare’s prose also described our time, there’s no limit to the kind of prose you could write that would be contemporary.
In Shakespeare’s time we think of the play as being the most democratic form of entertainment, and then the novel, and now people say it’s TV. What do you think about that? Are you a TV watcher?
I am and I’m also writing stuff for TV now but, for me, what I’m interested in is how could I make prose like a novel or a short story the most democratic form, but without giving up its special powers you know? Like I think TV is pretty good, but for me TV never does what an Isaac Babel story or a Gogol story, or, you know, EE Cummings does. It just doesn’t do the same thing and I think what prose does uniquely is really important. I think the closest thing to real empathy is when you’re reading another person who is writing with great nuance and passion. It does something to your brain. I think it makes you more aware that other people are real. So I like individual forms, and I think they’re really great, but for me my home is always going to be prose I think.
And then the question that’s very alive for me now is, I’ve been writing all these years and only in the last two books did I really get an audience, and I think about a third of the people who buy my books don’t like them. So the question in my mind is, is there a way my prose could become more democratic without getting dumb, dumber, or another way of asking is, is there something in my writing that is habitually exclusive to people that doesn’t need to be? Dickens doesn’t exclude people. Shakespeare doesn’t exclude many people. The Toni Morris of Beloved doesn’t exclude many people. So that’s what I’m wrestling with, how I can stay funny and a little dark but at the same time make the gates a little bigger.
Did you spend a lot of time hanging around in graveyards in order to write this book?
I went three times, to the Oakhill cemetery and the first few times were really exciting because it was like I’m going to get all this down, I’m going to use every tree and every bush, and then the third time it was a buzzkill because I had already started and I was deep into the book and I could feel that the actual graveyard would cramp my style a little bit, like which is interesting because I think I grew up with the idea that the novel was almost a documentary medium. You had the actual world in it and actual place names, and part of its function was to represent the real world. But when I got into it, I found out for me anyway that it’s primarily a dramatic form, so all of your loyalty has to be to the drama, not the particularity of the actual form.
So in other words, I needed the characters to walk from point A to point B and they need to see certain things. Now, do I have to make them see the things they would actually see? Or do I let them see the things that would make the story more beautiful. You have to answer the second thing, so basically you end up jettisoning the whole graveyard and making up your own. It’s funny – there’s a thing here now where, there was an article in the Washington Post, where the caretakers report that two or three people coming to the graveyard every day to read the book at the location. So I thought that was kind of cool. But then the caretaker listed a bunch of things from the book and he was like none of that is real he made it all up. I kind of felt a little bit sad about that. I don’t know how to describe it, but you’re either a photorealist or you’re a dramatist.
I think we have to be beauty makers. Especially these days because we have so many ways of representing the real, to be formal inventors is maybe the last bit of ground that is going to be left for us. To make these dramatic shapes that are kind of their own little animals and may or may not have any relation to the literal facts of the world but have a real relation to the kind of transcendent facts of the world.
George Saunders will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival on Friday, May 19, at 1pm, reading from his work alongside other writers; on Saturday, May 20, at 12pm, in a solo session chaired by Paula Morris; and his short story workshop on Sunday, May 21, at 9am, is completely sold out.
His novel Lincoln in the Bardo and collection of short stories Tenth of December are available at Unity Books.
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