George Saunders Talks History and Ghosts in Lincoln in the BardoAuthor photo by David Crosby Books Features George Saunders
As the ancients tell us, we can never be too rich, too thin or have too much George Saunders. I just invented the third part of that saying, but it ought to be true. Calling Saunders the greatest living short story writer in America is like naming the Moon the best natural satellite of Earth: Who else could it be?
After decades of brilliant work in the brief yarn vein, Saunders recently released his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Set in 1862, the book features the 16th President and a Washington graveyard full of ghosts—including the president’s recently departed son, Willie Lincoln. Each specter converses in such a unique voice that Penguin Random House cast 166 people in the audiobook dramatization, including Nick Offerman, David Sedaris and Carrie Brownstein.
The novel has wowed pretty much every critic, book pundit and think piece originator within the greater literary cosmos of 2017. I could wax endlessly about Saunders, but that would take away from the main attraction: an interview I did with him over the phone, where the author spoke with warmth, wit and no small amount of charm.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Paste: There are a lot of books about after the Civil War—The Brown Decades, Lincoln at Gettysburg—where the authors talk about how people didn’t know what to do and were grasping towards something. They couldn’t square the death that existed in the world with the Darwinian mechanistic cosmos, and that’s where all the spiritualism came from. How is that figured in your thinking?
Saunders: Well, what’s that book? The Republic of Suffering, is that Drew [Gilpin Faust]?
Saunders: Yes. Yes. For most of the Civil War, people had this idea of “the good death.” You were surrounded by family. You were all right with God. You weren’t in pain. You faded away with a last grateful smile … and then suddenly, all these families are finding out that their son has been blown apart on a battlefield, that they can’t actually find the body, and that maybe he was terrified at the end and all that. So the one thing that I, when I was reading about Lincoln, the thing that really intrigued me was that he was not naturally a Christian. It seemed like he was one of those politicians who kind of talk the talk when necessary, but at heart a lot of people who knew him said he didn’t really believe in Christ or in God necessarily.
But then in those last few years, you can see him enacting a form of what you just described. This reality was so horrific and so out of control. And it ran so contrary to any kind of controlling narrative that people had at that time. And I think it drove him into a place of saying, “Okay, let me assume there’s such a thing as God even though I can’t understand what God might be.” And then by looking at the world, and looking at the war, trying to figure out what the divine will might be.
He just wrote down a sort of syllogism on a paper about slavery, and they found it after his death. So I think the thing was, he was really saying, “Okay, I’m going to pretend there is a God, and I’m going to watch and try to see what God wants me to do.” Operating in that vacuum that you just described, the reality was going so fast and so insanely that he kind of just threw up his hands. And what really moves me about him is, in that moment, he came to conclusions that we’re still trying to live up to today about equality and about the will of God being expressed through blood basically. He said at one point something like, “Providence could end this war and slavery if it wished to, but it appears not to wish to. So therefore, to serve God, we must see these things through to the end.” Which was pretty apocalyptic.
Paste: There’s this part in your book that I ran up against. I didn’t think you would have Lincoln in the graveyard saying—before I read it, I didn’t think you’d have him saying like, “This graveyard cannot exist half alive and half dead,” or anything like that.
Saunders: (chuckles) Yes. That was a fear.
Paste: But there’s this moment where you go inside Lincoln’s head. And it’s not like Henry Fonda, but he says something like, “No, this is not unholy.” The cadence is Lincolnian and measured. And there’s something about that man. Even if you grew up in America with the penny and the monument, even after all that, when you really look at him, when you read about him, it’s like he’s waiting for you. He welcomes you in, somehow. … What is it about him?
Saunders: I think you’re right. And I don’t know. I think that’s why he is so enduring in a culture because people—he was quite private, actually. And there’s nothing that I know of, where he wrote about his feelings or about his beliefs. So he’s kind of a blank space that you can project on to. But what I loved about him was in his writings, in his more formal writings, he is such a logical thinker. And as a former engineer, that really appeals to me. He would approach a problem almost syllogistically, reason through it, now turn the crank of logic and whatever came out, he would accept it. And so that was one way I can approach him—writing him—was just to kind of read a bunch of this stuff and find sort of my inner Lincoln core, a part of me that’s fairly logical. And then you see that moment of truth. When he had to talk, I thought, “Well, even in grief, he would approach this thing somewhat mechanically, but logically. ”
I think he was actually a very advanced spiritual being, however you want to define that. If you look at his learning curve those last four years, it was almost straight up. He became such a deep soul, but I think anybody with any interest can look at him and find something inspiring. I think he was just in a race with time, actually. I don’t know if he knew it. But when you think about that, the number of hurdles he jumped over in those last three years, it’s kind of astonishing. So I don’t know. I don’t know what it is, but he’s certainly somebody that—well, I say this from experience: once he gets in your head, he doesn’t leave very easily. So the last year I’ve been trying to wean off that period, but it’s really hard. I just want to go back to 1862.
Paste: Daniel Day-Lewis said the same thing. And it’s weird, because Lincoln’s both a celebration of the ordinary person, a guy with no education doing this. But he’s also kind of a subtle repudiation of it, because he’s so much bigger in every sense than the people around him.
Saunders: Well, he had the curiosity that was taken from being even in a sub-average—I mean, he was sort of in a Neanderthal environment in Indiana, and he just had that sort of steady curiosity, he trusted the electoral process, trusted reading. It’s very amazing. I think he’s a little bit like all great writers, there’s something when you read him, you feel as if those words were coming from inside, not from another man. So when you read him, it’s like when you read David Foster Wallace, when you read Grace Paley, it’s not as if there’s another person who you’re talking to. It’s as if there’s another person in you that you’re very familiar with, and suddenly, you’re seeing that language objectified. And so I think the reason for such a connection is that the things that he says are so wise and so purified in style, that they don’t feel manufactured, they feel like they’re just being summoned up.
Paste: Yes. He has this line, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” Jesus.
Paste: Okay. I want to speak about Lincoln all day.
Saunders: Yes. I do too. But he also had—you can see this—in his prose style, he’s a natural poet or he’s a natural reviser or both. And as a writer, you just love the fact that he believed that the truth is, you only get there through precise language, which, in everything he writes, that’s evident.
Paste: It’s lawyerly and logical all the way through.
Saunders: Yes. He said, “We must disenthrall ourselves and then we will save our country.”
Paste: Okay. So I probably should ask about some other stuff, too. Where did Mr. Vollman come from? [Hans Vollman, a character in the book, is a naked, dead printer who hangs around Earth pining for his young wife.]
Saunders: I don’t know. I had written [the novel first as] a play for many years, and I know that name was in the play. One of the ways I had to approach each of these goals was that you had to figure out why [the ghosts] were still there, why they hadn’t gone on to the afterlife. So with him, I think originally, I had him married to a woman who wasn’t faithful to him, and that was his heartbreak. And then somehow, when I went to write this, I was tired of that idea. It seemed somehow not right, so I intuitively just slipped to where he was the guy who hadn’t consummated his marriage.
I have trouble talking about those things. They really happen kind of intuitively, and I always just assume that if I’m deep enough into a project, and I let my mind just start riffing, it’s actually not riffing randomly. It’s already been informed by having read the book many, many times to that point. Every one of those ghosts, none of them were sort of like preplanned or orchestrated or—and I think they just were—at the moment on Thursday I was working and this guy just suddenly got blurted out. And then the trick is to—you make that initial improvement of the text, and then you just start revising. You have to kind of make it more shapely, or more funny, or more sad, and then you keep doing that day after day. The character does kind of emerge, and then that character starts informing the future improvements. And that’s really the whole truth. It’s not very fancy but that’s really how it was done, a series of improvements for four years basically.
Paste: It makes total sense. Where do you go when you write? I don’t mean physically. What happens to you when you write?
Saunders: That’s an interesting question. It’s really just a very lucid place of being able to be in touch with the text. So it’s nothing transformative at all. Just sitting there and getting—it’s sort of like I give my mind a cue to clear up a little bit and pay attention to the language, get all the thoughts out of it, start reading, editing at speed or typing, and then that’s it. Almost like a tensing up of that attention and then relaxing, get up and walk around the room, get a cup of coffee. So it’s really just a enactment of a certain state of mind that I would probably say is somewhat low-concept …. I kind of try and be a little quiet-minded, and then just look at the text and see what it’s doing to me. That’s really it.
If you’re doing that over the course of the day, there is something else that happens, like kind of a rising tide feeling, where the ideas are coming a little more repeatedly and it’s really—actually in this book, there were some really amazing afternoons where—it’s a little bit of a cliché, but you really are just standing aside and letting the subconscious, or whatever that’s called, vent. … after these many years, there’s some kind of the neurological equivalent of muscle memory in place somehow. But very pleasant. Very. I mean, I crave it and I love that state so much. You ever see those films about writers and there’s always wild violins playing and the guy’s hair’s sticking straight up? My hair is sticking straight up, but there’s no violins playing!
Paste: The writers are always young and hot whenever those movies are made.
Saunders: Yes. That’s right. And they always rip the pages out of the typewriter and throw them out triumphantly.
Paste: I want to ask you a question about graveyards … I read that originally, the idea was that they were actually places for the public to come and gallivant and walk around. And for the people to actually participate in, not to shun.
Paste: Does that square with your experience too?
Saunders: I think that was a 19th century idea. They had the big one up in Boston, kind of like a big public garden basically. Yes. I think that’s right. … I think actually there’s something deeply wise about that walking-to-the-graveyard-idea because it—this is a subtle reminder of what we’re doing here on earth. And we were in Key West a couple of months ago and they had photographs of the people on stones. And that was really something. And some of the people had died three or four years ago and you could imagine having seen them at the mall a couple hours before.
The other thing is the Tibetan tradition, they have something called eternal ground, which is they just—you die, they chop you up with hatchets, and they throw your body in this kind of public place on top of a hill. The vultures come down and eat you. The animals come out and eat, and that’s considered to be a really choice spot for meditation. So monks will go out there at midnight and meditate on the eternal ground.
Saunders: Same idea. Just to say, “Well, look, you think you’re this cool guy walking around with your nice clothes, but actually that’s what you are. You’re that little pile of pieces being fed on by birds.” So it’s cheerful.
Paste: Yes, it’s metal as hell.
Jason Rhode is a Paste staff writer from West Texas. You can follow him on Twitter.