George Saunders on Lincoln, Trump and impressing his wife
The revered short story writer discusses Lincoln in the Bardo with Paul McVeigh
George Saunders: “some people have been saying that this artistic act had reawakened in them the idea of art as a form of resistance or a form of engagement. That was pure luck.” Photograph: FilmMagic
You mentioned before, on handing your wife your first attempt at a novel, years ago, that you saw her soon after with her head in her hands and you knew it had failed. That reminded me of talking to Irish author Donal Ryan, who told me that he writes to impress his wife. What is the relationship between you, your wife and your work?
I can go back to when I was young. I had a lot of female cousins and we would go to Texas every summer and it was always wonderful to see them and try to impress them and preform for them – I was the only boy. That carried through my life and, of course, when you get to high school, you’re always trying to impress girls. And, in my wife’s case, right back to when we first met, she was the most intelligent, sophisticated person – beautiful – so, naturally, you just fall into that position of trying to impress her. Later, when you’re married, you have to go for that highest level of impressing somebody – especially once they know all your shit – the easy ways of impressing them are burned out so you have to go higher and higher.
You start off as a peacock.
Right, peacock all the time. So the thing that she brings me is so valuable, and I hope I bring her it to her work too, is that we know each other so well. She’s knows when I’m phoning it in at 72 per cent, the easy charm, she’s knows it and is not impressed. So I look to her for a genuine, undeniable, emotional reaction, and she’s not got a poker face, so I give something to her and she’s moved by it, she’ll tell me and I’ll believe her and I’ll go ahead. If she’s not then I’ll go back to the drawing board.
Is that the number 1 question? Is she moved?
Yes. She doesn’t have to be weeping but for her to be, for a time, in that state of mind where she has nothing to say but “yeah, keep going, that’s it”. There was one story in Tenth of December, the title story, she’d read it and was going out, she left a note on it that just said: “ tears”.
Do you think that relationship will change now? Before, it was a reader’s response and now she is a novelist…
She was always a novelist. When I met here she was Tobias Wolff’s favourite student, she studied under Toni Morrison. She got a delayed start because of our family but her intelligence and her sensibilities were always as a novelist. She’s just finished and sold a novel herself, with Random House, called The Distance Home. It’s a beautiful book.
You have always been one the pillars of the modern short story, like say, Alice Munro, an author who had written almost exclusively for the short form. Most writers I know were exclaiming: “George Saunders is writing a novel!”
I’m glad I didn’t know that while I was writing it.
Was that a seismic shift, writing the novel, or something more organic – a seed with a long history coming to fruition?
Organic is the perfect word. It was an idea I’d heard 20 years ago about Lincoln visiting his son’s crypt and it seemed like a good idea for something. And maybe you do this as a writer, you hear a story or some source material, so you move your mind over there, almost exploring for a voice – and nothing ever came. I’d think about Lincoln and try to imagine the voice in which to work with that material and I just would draw a blank. That’s usually a red flag for me, I just don’t do it. Over the years, it was always there. I wanted to do it. I tried to write a play.
Once I got started it didn’t feel that much different from the story-writing process, maybe a bigger frame to stretch the fabric over. I had two outline points; one was that I knew Lincoln was going to come into the graveyard, hold the body and leave, and the other, I knew that his son’s spirit would eventually go on and leave.
I think if I thought “I’m writing a novel” I would have panicked. It just grew a little every day. And it took such an unusual form I’m not even sure it is a novel really. I’m calling it one and I guess it is one but, in the old days, when I thought of writing a novel, I thought of a multi-generational, cross-city saga – I still can’t my head around that – but to says, write 60,000 words in an unusual form, constrained to one night and one location, I felt I could do that.
You mentioned a play there; partly because of the layout and attributions, the confined setting, the Greek chorus, the narration – it’s quite farcical and theatrical too – I was thinking of a play while reading Lincoln in the Bardo. I wondered if I wasn’t, in fact, reading a play and not a novel.
I tried to write it as a play for 10 years but I had this funny mental glitch when I thought I was writing a play I was writing a “plaaaaaay”. And it wasn’t good prose somehow. I was thinking too much about it being spoken aloud rather than the prose on the page and then Deborah Treisman at the New Yorker said “Why don’t you just write it as a novel?” and just that phrase changed everything. The form is basically the same but the permission she gave me was to write prose written in the play format. I think so much of this is gaming yourself to trick yourself into doing your best work. Saying “it’s not a play, it’s a novel” opened up certain boxes in my head.
Though the text, at first glance, could look like a play, when I started to read I was struck by the attributions coming after the text rather than before. I would have to go to the end of the next bit of text to find out who was talking to me or which book was being quoted. This disrupted the flow. It stopped me falling into scanning mode and made me pay more attention. It made me think of the Brechtian theatrical convention of breaking the fourth wall.
Technically what happened was, originally, I had ghosts attributed at the top, as they should be in a play, and the historical texts at the end – but I got to the point where that just bothered me so much. I didn’t like the way it looked. It signalled, to me, too clearly, the distinction between the living and the dead. And, also, it looked stupid on the page. My thing is, a lot of what we do as writers is down to those micro preferences that are hard to defend. The day I moved those attributions to the bottom was a big day. I was so happy. And really, I just let it sit there for a while, and I was aware of this potential problem – I love this idea that in the creative world what you’re really doing is following some indefensible instinct, that is being given to you by some deeper part of your mind, and you’re trusting that if you do that the book will be the better for it. So, that was an example of that.
Now, people say it’s a disorientating experience that fits with the setting and I’m like “yeah”, after the fact, but it wasn’t anything pre-planned, it was just that those different attributions were like nails on the chalkboard.
You create the bardo, with this effect, which was unplanned. What did you set out to use to create that world? Or what came to you on the journey? I’m thinking now of the writer as magician, and the words, the spells, to conjure up the magic. Because the novel definitely creates another world. Or does the world somehow exist and it tell you how it is?
It was that more. This sounds a little mystical, it does tell me but it tells me through a very technical routine. In other words, when I’m working, I’m not thinking so much about themes, or any of that, I’m just trying to figure out the mechanics of the page, really obsessively. Who’s standing where? Is this sentence good enough? Is this juxtaposition of speech interesting or not? And it seems to me that, in doing that, lets all the other things come out almost like all these other different elements that we love, the magic, as you said, they are little woodland creatures, that are shy, and if you look directly at them they run away, but if you keep your eyes on the technical stuff then, slowly, they’ll come out and you almost have to say “they’re coming but I’m not going to look at them”.
It makes it harder to talk about, afterwards, because for the artist, the job is to try find some way into this kind of immersion that will produce this magic. My experience is that most of the moments are intuitive and they’re iterative – coming back to the text again and again. So the magic does come but, for me, the less I’m thinking about that magic the more likely it is for it come out of the woods.
Also, I think it’s important to really believe in the fictive reality you’re making, in other words, to not be too far removed from it conceptually. Could he sit like that? Is this really the direction his thoughts would go? What other physical sensations is she feeling at that moment? Almost as if they’re not made-up people but real people over the top of the scrim, you’re trying to see over to what they’re doing. I think that level of belief in the writer produces a belief in the reader that’s hard to quantify or count on. With this book I believed in it so fully for those four years that now I’m having trouble coming out of it.
I set out with an intention when I write even when I don’t know the plot… sometimes I think of it as a philosophy – “I want to say this one thing”, for example. I wondered did you have an intention with Lincoln in the Bardo? Was there something your wanted to say?
Let me ask you – in your novel did you find surpises along the way that added to or subverted that intention?
Absolutely – but I think without the intention I wouldn’t have kept writing…
That’s for sure.
It was the thing that made me turn up at the desk before I did a day’s work and when I’d come again that night. Without that… energy source… I don’t know whether I would have kept writing it over the years.
I think this one of the great unspoken things in writing/teaching, is that, if I get up and you let me talk for an hour about my book you’ll hear an exposition of a certain method but every writer has a different method. So, when I teach, I try to say “I’m going to be very passionate about my method but please know that it’s not yours. So, if there’s anything you take from it…”. The one thing I’ve found, I think pretty universally, if the text is only a fulfilment of that intention it is going to be somehow less energetic, but you do have to have an intention. Along the way hopefully it gets broadened or confused or complicated. I guess that’s a version of “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader”.
For me, my intention with this was, I’d heard this anecdote about Lincoln going in to his son’s crypt and it came for me laden with all that beautiful 1860s Gothic feeling. It felt like a rich thing and if I had an intention, it was to lean on that for however many of the years it took and see what the additional modes of beauty were. I didn’t have a voice or anything I wanted to demonstrate but thought that something would be demonstrated or yielded by four years of attention to that topic. It’s almost like if you walk by a house and there was this really wild party going on inside, you don’t know the details but you’re attracted to the energy of the party. You want to know what’s in there.
When I read the novel, I thought that grief was the prefect subject matter for you. It didn’t surprise me that this image/story of Lincoln stayed with you for so long and demanded voice… I remembered we had talked about grief in our last interview and how it had informed our concepts of kindness, for example. I remembered, also, that I thought your writing was changing, becoming more tender and braver emotionally and that I thought it might signal a new George Saunders… where your writing was going.
I remember you saying that, actually, and that was meaningful to me because I think that that was an exit ramp for this book and there was one passage that we talked about where I just suddenly realised that being emotionally straightforward and stylistically interesting weren’t mutually exclusive.
And grief, to me – I’m always in grief. We’re always in grief. Or in Buddhism they call it suffering. It just means that you are constantly aware of your own shortcomings, maybe, or the fact that whatever little island of happiness you make may crumble and everything you love is conditional. And, so, I think the challenge is to make a positive life out of that. We can’t deny that fact. Maybe most of the stories are about grief, or sorrow, the idea of impending loss, but maybe the early ones were morbidly about that. You know, I feel it now. This is wonderful day we’re having but…
But basically, for me, now, at this stage in my life, the challenge is, can I be fully cognisant of everything that is going to happen to me and everyone I know and still enjoy the ride? Or, more than that, can I be a positive force in the world knowing that things are going to end? I think that’s a more interesting place for me to have arrived at artistically. More interesting than “everything’s shit”. I don’t think that was ever the idea in my early stuff but there’s certainly less room in those stories for the positive to appear. I’m not even sure if I believe that, actually, I haven’t read my stuff in a while.
I know when I wrote the first drafts on my novel it was very dark, and the ending too, but I changed that to a complex, happy one. I think to give hope is a much more daring thing in a literary novel than giving darkness. Hope can be a radical/political act in the world we live in but as a writer you do set yourself up for ridicule. It’s easy to sneer at hope, at positivity and kindness as if it’s some kind of weakness, or cowardly, an easy way out as a writer, like, you don’t have the guts to be dark.
I think that’s a good point and one of the things artists have to keep in mind is that a given story does lead you to a small set of conclusions, so maybe the correct stance is to let the story tell you what the outcome is without rooting for either. Not rooting for it to be dark so it can be edgy, not rooting for it to be hopeful so you can be this luminous person, but to say, when I set this story in motion it has a certain internal logic that’s somewhat dependent on what we know of the real world, so a given story will have to have its fated outcome. So if you get to the point where you think the story with a positive ending seems dishonest then you’d better not do it. And conversely, if we find ourselves using auto-darkness we shouldn’t do that either.
I think the harder responsibility is to say “Is life good or shitty?” – “Well... yeah.” The uber-hopeful position is that a given artist can look uninflectedly at the story progress and do the right thing by it.
In the novel you have these characters who are at odds with each other, who are disjointed, and yet they come together to do this one act of kindness, perhaps a redemptive act, that seemed like a George Saunders moment.
I think I earned that because I didn’t see it coming. The story kept telling me that they had been in this hopeless, passive state for a long time, they had no volition. The damatic arc tells you that they should maybe change, at that moment it isn’t really a moral/ethical wish on my part, it’s a narrative thing. This is the day when that’s going to change. When that came to me I was interested in this idea of viral goodness. If you look at way the world actually moves, if at a particular moment 1,000 people decide to do this slightly assertive thing the whole country changes. It’s very alive in my mind with the way things are going on the States. There are millions of progressive people and if each makes 20 per cent more effort it might change the outcome for the whole country.
Did you ever think while you were writing a book about a US president that by the time the book came out the US presidency would be the subject on the lips of the world?
It’s nice, because in the States people want to talk about this so much, I think the mood allowed this quasi-historical novel about a president everybody thinks they know everything about, suddenly made it something that was kind of relevant. It’s been quite moving as some people have been saying that this artistic act had reawakened in them the idea of art as a form of resistance or a form of engagement. That was pure luck. But I think whatever you’re writing about that if you focus on it with all your energy for five years or so it will speak to a lot of things you didn’t expect. Just because you’re going deeply within yourself or the text…
I hate the question “So what’s next?” but I heard you refer to yourself as a novelist earlier and thought that was interesting. Is that how you see yourself now?
I find very useful not to see yourself – in other words, if you start to construct an identity for yourself as an artist, flush it. The only good it ever does for you is, it protects you from insecurity, but it also starts to rope you into a narrower and narrower hallway. So if you say you’re a novelist and a great story idea come your way, you might turn away.
Right now, I have nothing started, which is unusual for me. I’m going to go back and sit and hopefully see what happens. But honestly, I loved the long form, so it’s not out of the question, but for right now I’m trying to be a blank slate.
Watch this space. And it is a space.
Yes, it is. And I’ll see who I am when I get there.
George Saunders: Critical Essays, edited by Philip Coleman and Steve Gronert Ellerhoff, with contributions by Emily Bourke, Clare Hayes-Brady and Gillian Moore, is to be launched by Gavin Corbett at Books Upstairs, D’Olier St, Dublin, on Wednesday, May 24th at 6.30pm. Tickets €5 include a complimentary glass of wine and are available directly from Books Upstairs (01-6778566)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is published by Bloomsbury, at £18.99. Paul McVeigh is author of The Good Son, winner of the Polari Prize