March 2017

George Saunders

Lincoln behind the veil
Interview by

George Saunders, the prize-winning short story writer, waited a long time before he showed the beginnings of his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, to his wife, writer Paula Redick.

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George Saunders, the prize-winning short story writer, waited a long time before he showed the beginnings of his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, to his wife, writer Paula Redick.

“She reads my stuff and knows where on the emotional spectrum it lies. So if I do something clever, she’ll go, yeah, yeah, it’s clever. Or she might say, you typed this, you really typed this!” Saunders says, laughing, during an early morning call that reaches him near Monterey, California. Saunders teaches in the esteemed writing program at Syracuse University, and for much of the year, the couple lives outside of Oneonta, New York, where Saunders writes in a converted toolshed that is just far enough from the house to “send a message about what my priorities are.” A light spring-semester teaching schedule, the desire to escape snowbelt winters and the success of his remarkable short stories (which earned him a MacArthur “genius” fellowship) led the couple recently to buy a winter place in California. At the time of his conversation with BookPage, their daughters, age 26 and 28 and also writers, were visiting.

“We’ve been married a long time,” Saunders continues, “and—I’m never trying to phone it in; but sometimes you can inadvertently phone it in—and she knows when that’s happening.” That wasn’t her impression of the new book. “She was like, this is really good. All I needed to know was that she was on board, and it was worth polishing.”

Lincoln in the Bardo is good. In fact, astonishingly good. Yes, it is strange—part ghost story, part historical novel, maybe a little sci-fi-ish—but in the end, it’s an incredibly inventive and deeply moving book that often reads like an epic, elegiac poem. Saunders says he applied the same standards to this novel as he does to his short stories: “Be efficient and brisk and do whatever you’re trying to do as quickly as you can.” Cross this novel’s threshold and a reader will be entranced, magnetized by the beauty of its language and the brilliance of its conception.

“During the Bill Clinton administration we were up in D.C.,” Saunders says of the initial impulse behind the novel. “We drove by Oak Hill Cemetery, and my wife’s cousin pointed out that Lincoln’s son Willie had been temporarily housed in one of the crypts there. And then she offhandedly added that the newspapers of the day reported that Lincoln had gone to the crypt on several occasions to hold the body. I had this idea of Lincoln with his son’s body across his lap on a dark night, kind of like the Pieta. I wondered what were the mechanics of him leaving the White House, why would he do that, and then why would he stop? That was really interesting to me.”

But for many years, Saunders felt the story was beyond his capabilities. “I was like a mountain climber who every day walks by a mountain and goes, nah, no, can’t do it.” Later, in his early 50s, Saunders decided to give it a try. “I’d never written a novel before. I kind of liked the idea of being the defiant short story guy who was getting more attention than is normal for stories. But this idea just kept coming up and sitting on my porch and going, OK, I’m here and I want you to take care of me. You can only walk away from that so many times.”

“But I thought, Lincoln? Sheesh! I might as well write a novel about Jesus. It’s just so daunting. You don’t want to be disrespectful and you also don’t want to rehash the same old clichés.”

Still, there was the problem of writing about Lincoln. Saunders, who was born in Texas, jokes that he has “almost a fashion interest in the Civil War. I love the look of it and the idea that it happened a relatively short time ago. And of course this last election kind of showed that the war is still being fought.” Over the past 20 years, “as a hobbyist,” he has wandered the Lincoln/Civil War section of any bookstore he’s been in, and his research for the novel has benefited from an impressive collection of Civil War books and documents donated to Syracuse by conservative journalist and presidential speechwriter William Safire.

“But I thought, Lincoln? Sheesh! I might as well write a novel about Jesus. It’s just so daunting. You don’t want to be disrespectful and you also don’t want to rehash the same old clichés.”

Saunders resolved his Lincoln issue by limiting the number of occasions Lincoln is actually present in the novel. And even when present, Lincoln is revealed through the eyes of others—which has the eerie effect of making his grief over the death of his 11-year-old son—and his increasing distress over the growing carnage of the Civil War—even more palpable.

Most of the novel’s action takes place in Oak Hill Cemetery on a single night at the end of February in 1862. The story is narrated by a weird and raucous medley of voices. Saunders says that in making the audiobook, he discovered that there are 166 different personalities in the novel. These voices also include a beguiling weave of quotations from actual and invented historians describing—in conflicting accounts—the Lincolns’ growing alarm during a February 1862 White House party while Willie lies upstairs dying. For most of the novel, there are three main narrators, and at some point a reader will likely become skeptical about them. They seem stuck between life and whatever comes next, the transitional place that Tibetan Buddhists call “the bardo.”

Saunders was raised Catholic, but he and his wife have practiced Buddhism for many, many years. “I was really happy to be writing this book because I felt the things it is about are the things I am thinking about: one’s own mortality and the question of how you persevere with a loving heart in the face of the harshness of the world,” he says. Later he adds, “The notion of the bardo is not fake to me. I think in some ways my whole life has been spent trying to get into some relation with death. . . . I love the idea that there are people who are trying to get a little behind the veil. And there’s evidence from really advanced spiritual people that the end is not the end.”

Saunders is quick to add that he tries “not to have too many thematic thoughts because I don’t want to derail the story with simplistic answers.” Instead, his entry into prose has to do with sound. In revising his fiction he says he is “trying to make the sound distinctive, which in turn makes the sense more precise.”

The sounds—the voices—of Lincoln in the Bardo are indeed distinctive, often funny, sometimes bawdy, despite the fact that the novel is about death and grief, good and evil, the nature of human existence.

“I really love writing contemporary voices, or imitations of contemporary voices. This book was a struggle because I usually go out of my way to be funny and funny in a contemporary way. Wondering how I would be funny in a 19th-century way was a constraint I really enjoyed. In writing, the use of humor at its highest level is trying to mimic the comic nature of the universe. We’re trying to imitate the mind of God, and the mind of God doesn’t work like a human mind. You have to remember that the universe runs on its own timer.”

Summing up, Saunders says, “I didn’t want to write a historical novel. I find myself averse to anything pro forma. I didn’t want a reader to [think], oh, I see, he’s going to milk the juice out of the night Lincoln went to the grave. “The trick was to find the means to shake it up a bit. Going back to it after a few months away, I think, wow, it’s a strange book. A little deformed. But it’s deformed because it’s trying to get to the emotional core more directly. This book was kind of a weird blurt. I can stand behind that because I know it’s efficient and I know that its heart is in the right place.”

 

This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Get the Book

Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders
Random House
ISBN 9780812985405

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