George Saunders, who after several acclaimed short-story collections has recently published his first novel. Photo courtesy Blue Flower Arts

An Interview with George Saunders

A Kindly Presence of Mind

When I first e-mailed George Saunders in September to see if he’d be willing to chat about his not-yet published first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, his response was surprisingly prompt (within a day) and incredibly generous (yes, he’d be happy to). The promptness was surprising for one of the most successful—and most celebrated—writers of American fiction. His four collections of formally adventurous serio-comic short stories, including 2013’s Tenth of December, have won Saunders a passionate following (no literary writer attracts a more devoted, fanboyish following than Saunders), a MacArthur, and a Guggenheim. He’s almost certainly the only short story writer to be named by Time as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. If the promptness of Saunders’s response was unexpected, his generosity was not. Over the years he has developed a reputation for warmth to his fellow writers, dedication to his students (he teaches creative writing at Syracuse), and humanity, even love, towards his screwed-up, deeply pained characters.

We didn’t actually get to talk in earnest until December. A lot happened in the interim. On the existentially terrifying end of the scale, Donald Trump was elected president. On the existentially reassuring end of the scale, Lincoln in the Bardo was published. (And Saunders’s brilliant, complicated essay on the Trump phenomenon, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?”, was nominated for a National Magazine Award.) Lincoln in the Bardo takes as its premise a situation that Saunders readers will find reassuring in its weirdness. It’s 1862. Willie Lincoln, the president’s young son, has just died, and his ghost currently lingers in a Washington graveyard, along with a host of other spectral figures (a gay man who committed suicide, a former reverend, and many, many others). The novel is set in the bardo—the Buddhist in-between state where souls wait before their next incarnation. (Saunders, a former Catholic and current practicing Buddhist, has admitted that he plays fast and loose with Buddhist theology here.) The novel is devastating, especially on the several occasions when the president comes to visit and hold his son’s body, and it’s also exuberantly comic. Saunders may be trying a different genre, but this formal shift has only reconfigured and amplified the tonal and thematic elements that make Saunders so great.
 

Anthony Domestico: In July 2016, you wrote a piece for the New Yorker in which you tried to understand the Trump phenomenon in all its complexity: the candidate’s fear-mongering and nastiness, his supporters’ constant anger and occasional civility. You ended with this thought: “I thank [Trump] for this: I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail. But I imagine it that way now.” What’s your sense of the strength or fragility of the American experiment at this moment, five months and a startling election later?

George Saunders: Well, I think we’re at a critical turning point. In the best case, we’ll have to endure four years of a very strange right-leaning and billionaire-infested administration that will be working from what I think is a discredited conservative view of the world: rigid, ungenerous, incurious, harsh, Other-averse. In the worst case… well, I don’t want to think about that. What concerns me most is the horrible degradation our notions of truth, civility, and decency have undergone. Also the way that language has been malformed—we have been overcome with banality and the cynical misuse of language. When a candidate runs a campaign on a series of dog-whistles to bigots, then turns around and talks about “healing the wounds of division,” that is right out of Orwell. On the other hand (he says, trying to brighten things up a bit), this might be the beginning of a new movement in American politics, that turns away from the familiar and reductive right vs. left discourse in which we’ve been trained by the corporate media, and back to questions which are now more than ever wide open: What does it mean to be an American? In what do we truly believe? Is there a way to re-establish a common national premise? Is America “about” something (love, inclusion, growth) other than material gain?

AD: All the way back in The Braindead Megaphone (2007), you described “our national discourse” as “degraded” and “dumbed-down.” How to combat this, you asked? By “small drops of specificity and aplomb and correct logic, delivered titrationally, by many of us all at once.” Do you still think this is right? Another way of putting it: does this moment call for a more direct political engagement by our writers? Or is the writing of good, truthful prose and poetry itself enough of a political act?

GS: Yes to all of that, only louder now, with more confidence and swagger. Writing and reading and speaking with specificity and skill has never seemed more important to me than it does at this moment. It’s what’s between us and chaos. 

When I first shared that piece with David Foster Wallace, he liked it but said he thought the ending was a bit anticlimactic—too small a solution for too big a problem. And I agreed with him then and agree with him now. I don’t think that solution sufficient, but I do think it necessary—a requisite first step in all that we do. We have to move toward specificity, intelligence, facts, proof, and mutual affection. What I think people have to do now is be very, very assertive about the utter essentiality of intellectual undertakings. This—where we are now—is where a culture gets to, when it has chosen, for many years, banality over intelligence, the literal over the immaterial or complex, materialism over spirituality. This is the result of many years of disrespecting the intellectual project—of a collective acceptance of the idea that thinking and reasoning and reading deeply in difficult text and being respectful of history are somehow “wimpy” or secondary. I think it is time for a new pride in the intellectual life, and a new impatience with people who take pride in ignorance, or somehow use “elite” to mean “person who has taken the time to know” and then are eager to dismiss, say, striving, or the notion that improving one’s self out of difficult conditions is a noble thing.  

Is America “about” something (love, inclusion, growth) other than material gain?

AD: Let’s switch gears from politics to fiction. Your new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, employs a kind of collage aesthetic: different voices speak with and at one another (and with and at themselves). There’s a choral effect achieved: the voices of the dead form one chorus, the historical record another, and the two together a third. Indeed, the novel seems as much an act of orchestration as it does an act of creation. What were the different challenges faced—and the different gifts offered—by working in the more expansive form of the novel, especially with regards to voice and structure?

GS: I think I arrived at that form from the demands of the material, mostly. It was a relief to not end up writing a “normal” novel, which I really had no desire to do anyway. It was basically a case of being fascinated by the idea and then having to find a means to open out that idea that wasn’t lame. So—if you start with the idea that you are going to be writing about a night in a graveyard, and that there are only a few living people in that frame, all sorts of interesting and difficult technical problems arise. And then form—new form, or experimental form—might be understood as just trying to tell that story most movingly and efficiently. 

AD: Many of your short stories think through how we remember the past (and how we monetize such acts of memory), from the amusement park of “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” to the cave people reenactors of “Pastoralia.” In Lincoln in the Bardo, you’re again interested in how we represent the past—both the national past and our own pasts. Do you see the novel as participating in this career-long exploration of historical representation? What new territory were you hoping to explore in this work?

GS: I think you’re right in this observation but to be honest I find I don’t have much to say in response. So much of what I am doing in my fiction is just trying to get into interesting places in terms of language or form, places that don’t bore me. And this happens via hundreds of quick micro-decisions that are done “to taste,” so to speak. So the experience is one of groping toward that interesting place—trying to leap away from anything that seems boring, or about which I don’t have strong opinions. Essentially trying to avoid that moment where, devoid of any strong feeling, I start conceptualizing. That, I’ve found, produces dull and over-controlled text. So, a reasonable answer to a question about why a writer gravitated toward certain material or a certain approach is actually, you know, “I just liked it.” I love that Flannery O’Connor quote: “A writer can choose what he writes but he can’t choose what he makes live.”

AD: Can you talk about some of the research and reading that went into Lincoln in the Bardo? Were you interested in writing a story about Willie Lincoln and so then started combing through the Lincoln shelves of the library? Or was the trajectory the opposite: you read about Abe and Willie and Mary Todd and that got you interested in the story? Were there other historical novels that you looked to as models for what you were trying to do?

GS: Yes—the way it happened was that years ago (in the 1990s) I heard this story about Lincoln—that after his son died, he went into the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the body. And that just stuck with me, for many years—the image of Lincoln with the body across his lap. At the time I didn’t think I was ready to write a story like that—felt I lacked sufficient chops—and I was right. I tried writing a play about it and, during that time, read a little about the circumstances of Willie’s death. And a narrative started to form itself in my head, about the death and its effects on the family. And when I started, finally, trying to make a novel of it (around 2012), I found that 1) a book of all ghosts needed a spine of factuality and 2) the most efficient way to provide this was to simply excerpt the actual texts I’d read (as opposed to having some character talk about the history etc.). I remember rather frustratedly asking myself, “Well, how do YOU know all of this history?” and then the answer just sort of hung there and produced that aspect of the form—those direct references from history books. So once that became a thing, I found myself focusing my reading—I’d realize I “needed” a certain historical section. I wanted, for example, to know everything I could about a certain party the Lincolns threw just before Willie’s death, so any book on Lincoln I found, I’d go to the index to see if that party was mentioned. And sometimes it worked the other way around. I found this great book called The Physical Lincoln that listed pages and pages of quotes and observations about the different parts of his body, and that made me think that that might make a good historical section: a choral listing of his physical features. It was really a great adventure in terms of the story dictating form, and then the form sometimes dictating the necessary research.

AD: There’s a beautiful moment in the novel when the voices of the dead describe what they most miss: human touch, the physical signs of affection that tell us “we [are] perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.” I’m wondering what role physical embodiment more generally has in your sense of spirituality. How do you think about the relationship between religious mystery and our experience of the carnal and material? You were raised Catholic and are now a practicing Buddhist, and I’m curious as to how those two traditions have informed your thinking on this question.

GS: Well, thanks. What I loved about writing this book was just that my aesthetic interests and my spiritual interests became a unity, so to speak. As one gets older, this question of, uh, death, becomes more vexing and urgent, of course. So it was good to spend these years trying to look directly at the thing, through art. My view is that our minds are incredibly powerful animals that are, during life, kept somewhat in check by the load of our bodies. Once that load is gone (or so some ancient texts teach us) the mind is like a horse off the tether. So the habits we get into here might have something to do with what happens to us afterwards. An exciting but harrowing idea, given the everyday state of my mind. But also hopeful, since that’s something a person can work with. The bardo-being or ghosts in this book find themselves trapped by those habits (by longing, regret, greed, hunger, etc.)—but just as we are, right now. So pretty quickly the book moved from being “about” the dead to being about all of us, just as we are.

AD: Another highly regarded short story writer, David Means, recently tried his hand at a novel. Like you, he succeeded wildly. I’m sure that you don’t begrudge writers working in whatever form they find most fruitful, but are there other short-story writers you’d like to see stretch their legs within the novel form?

GS: No, really not. I feel pretty strongly we should just let people do what they like and want to do. I try to keep my artistic opinions not so much “to myself” but “on myself.” And the story form is so wonderful—I can’t wait to get back to working on some stories. Also, my experience with this book made me feel the two forms aren’t as different as I’d believed. They both work along the same lines… an expectation is created, somewhat satisfied, a new expectation is created, etc. So the frame is bigger but the method for covering it is basically the same, maybe….

AD: Your friend and colleague, Mary Karr, published a poem in this magazine called “The Voice of God.” Here it is:

Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you
    could be cured with a hot bath,
says God from the bowels of the subway.
    but we want magic, to win
the lottery we never bought a ticket for.
    (Tenderly, the monks chant, embrace
the suffering.) The voice of God does not pander,
    offers no five-year plan, no long-term
solution, nary an edict. It is small & fond & local.
    Don’t look for your initials in the geese
honking overhead or to see thru the glass even
    darkly. It says the most obvious crap—
put down that gun, you need a sandwich.
 

I’m wondering if you could walk us through your response to it—what you find interesting, what you find moving, what kind of thoughts and desires and fears it activates within you after reading it.

GS: I love Mary’s poems. And she herself is such a powerful and positive force. Reading this today, a few weeks after the election, it makes me think that our first responsibility in all things is to preserve our goodness of heart—then and only then act. What evil does first in the world, maybe, is distract us from our pursuit of goodness. So I’ve been having this idea of drawing a tight circle around myself, that includes all of the things I can actually somewhat exert control over (chief among them, my mind). This involves being suspicious of projections and agitation-from-afar. The best thing we can bring to any fight is a calm and compassionate mind. And it is going to be a fight here, for the next four years, and the negative forces are very real and energetic. So I say yes to the hot bath and the sandwich—to getting ourselves into the best possible mental shape to identify and then fight the necessary fights from the best possible mind-state: calm, loving, affectionate, precise. Not pushovers but also not zealots. With the idea in mind that “our enemies” are not our enemies; they might seem like that in their present form but that form can morph. We really are large, and really do contain multitudes. But I think it all has to start with a kindly presence of mind, and the aspiration to affection for others.

Published in the July 7, 2017 issue: 
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Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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