From geophysicist in Sumatra to winner of the Man Booker Prize, author George Saunders has made quite a bit of his 59 years on the planet. At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, February 20 at the New Orleans Advocate (840 St. Charles), he’ll add “reading from my book in New Orleans” to the list. WRBH’s David Benedetto caught up with Saunders a few days ago to discuss Lincoln in the Bardo, covering the Trump campaign, and what to do with those story ideas that just won’t seem to go away. This interview was conducted via phone at WRBH’s studio on February 17, 2018.
WRBH’s David Benedetto: Thank you for joining me from your drafty hotel room in St. Louis! I appreciate it.
George Saunders: If you hear anything, it’s me starting a fire here.
WRBH: [Laughing] Good! I will take no offense to that obviously. You’re going to be coming to New Orleans on Tuesday, I believe?
GS: Yeah, my first reading appearance there ever. I’m super excited.
WRBH: You’ve never been to New Orleans before?
GS: I’ve been in New Orleans. I have family there, but I’ve never done a book-related event there.
WRBH: Close family?
GS: Yeah, my parents lived there, and my sisters and my nieces and nephews and just about all my immediate family. They’re not from there, but they’ve been there 20 years or something so it’s pretty much their home.
WRBH: I’m excited to talk to you a lot of things, especially the book that you released last year, Lincoln in the Bardo, but I wanted to start off with a piece you wrote for The New Yorker a couple of years back now called “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” How did you get assigned to that piece, and what were your goals for it?
GS: Well, David Remnick [Editor of The New Yorker] called me, and we’d been talking about doing some non-fiction for a long time. I come from kind-of Southside Chicago, and I’ve done some weird jobs in my life and know a little bit about the working life. He thought that would be a good fit to go [and do] something about the Trump movement. So I went to two or three rallies in Arizona, in Wisconsin and then in California. I kind of like to do those pieces every now and then just to put my head into the world again and confuse myself. That piece definitely fit the bill.
WRBH: I could see that. And what was it like being there during that time? It was in June of 2016, and you were interviewing people that were there for now President Trump, as well as people that were protesting him.
GS: Well, it was different. I didn’t know what I was going to find. And this was just before he was nominated, so I could still think of it as this kind of little, niche movement event. But it was really energetic and kind of angry. It was kind of interesting in retrospect because I didn’t know what I was seeing.
First of all, the charge to write about “Trump Supporters” is pretty broad— I mean that’s a lot of people. So it was a bit like write about people who like baseball versus football. Turns out there are so many people who are involved in that movement for different reasons. And then I guess the biggest thing I took away— what now almost seems commonplace— was the extent of the divide between the Left and the Right and how unbreachable that was. I’m a liberal, somewhat left of Gandhi, and it was interesting to be face-to-face with somebody who’s nice enough and you’re having a conversation and you get to a point [where] you are drawing on different factual universes. It was the beginning of a much deeper confusion than I have now about the whole political situation in our country.
WRBH: I can see that, and I love the way, in the piece, that you kind of [give] play-by-plays of people on opposing sides of these thought processes going at each other in this kind of tribal interaction— which is a microcosm of any argument you see on the internet every single day now.
GS: Yeah, it was kind of funny to feel it come apart in front of me. There was one scene where there were these two guys, both of them had been in the Marines. They’re on opposite sides, and they were screaming to each other. You could see that it wasn’t doing any good for either one of them; they’re both kind of heart-sick about it. I had just finished this Lincoln book actually and went on that tour, and it was a process of— I guess, America was being made more real to me. When I thought about Lincoln for four years and then dropped into the campaign, you just see that it’s a pretty beautiful country that never has quite lived into its promise. And, maybe too, the idea that people understand it in different ways.
I understand it to be about— well, what it says it is: equality for everybody and, basically, everybody is a fully valid child of God and has got to be treated that way. And then I think other people see it a little more—to me it felt—fearfully, you know? That America was about gathering certain things and not giving them up no matter what. So it’s like— for any piece of writing, what you want is to be confused by it and to kind of be led deeper into the details of an issue. I find that usually makes me a little less certain and maybe a little more open, a little more sympathetic, but less partisan. I’m actually a little sadder to be honest with you. All these non-fiction pieces I’ve done, you get out and you see that the pain is real, the anger is real, the violence is real, and there aren’t really any solutions handy. So in a kind of a paradoxical way, I like that. I like to be made less than sure of myself and to be kind of mystified a little by things.
WRBH: I remember really admiring [the piece] when I read it the first time, that it was something sort of different from what I’d been reading because it meant to be as all-encompassing as you can be with all these nuanced fragments going in and then really trying to put pieces together there that maybe don’t quite fit.
GS: Yeah, I love that model; it comes from fiction and in particular Chekov where, in his stories, they’ll be two or three competing ideas. As a reader, you keep waiting for Chekov to weigh in and tell you what to think, but what he’s really good at is making compelling, persuasive cases for each point of view and then he kind of just steps back. I think Shakespeare does the same thing. So I like that idea that although we human beings are more comfortable with judgment and knowing where we stand, we’re actually probably better when we’re comfortable with ambiguity and confusion.
In that piece, I was really just trying to find stylistic ways or linguistic ways to let my own very genuine confusion into the piece because, as I said, I worked a lot of jobs. In all my fiction, I’m very sympathetic with the working class, and there was certainly some working class angst in the Trump movement. But then to go into it and find out that there was also some stuff that wasn’t working class angst because you didn’t see a lot of working class people of color at the rallies. There were a lot of racialist undertones and overtones and just some general misinformation, people who were relying on unreliable sources for the news. So again, to confuse yourself to a certain extent is good because it I think it opens up the heart, basically.
WRBH: To move on from that into Lincoln in the Bardo— Congratulations on the Man Booker Prize. How are you feeling about that?
GS: Thank you. Good! I’m still surprised as the day I got it. Feeling really good about it.
WRBH: To start at the beginning of the writing process— you’ve talked about this image of Lincoln in the crypt with his young son who had just passed away really affecting you and spurring on this writing moment. I’m interested in why that had such an effect on you. Was it something personal, or was it something abstract? Have you ever really quantified that?
GS: No, I never have. I find that in fiction there are just certain little ideas or images or notions that will get in my head and not go away. I don’t really usually know why. In a certain way, it’s not that important. If there’s something that’s powerful and compelling and it doesn’t go away, I know, OK there’s something to this for me. I don’t know why. Often as you’re writing, you’re almost trying to figure that out—why is this idea not going away.
I think in that case, in some ways, there was a sort of gothic element there. That a person at that time could and would want to physically interact with the corpse of somebody that he loved. And also the notion that Lincoln could just leave the White House alone and go spend some time in a graveyard was compelling because it was so different from our present reality. There was something too about the physical confinement of the story possibly. That [it] would all take place in one night in this one graveyard. You know, I’ve come to learn that if ideas are persistent—I almost—I just want to be respectful and come up to them saying, I don’t know why you’re interested in me, but would you let me look around here a little while?
It’s kind of like that— after a 20 year delay. It was interesting. I think what happened was I kind of grew my own meager abilities over the years to where I could finally feel comfortable enough to take on something that 20 years ago seemed a little earnest and a little straight for me. So that was, I guess, some indication of growth I suppose.
WRBH: Were there other novel ideas in contention for the prize of your focus, or was this always the one you were working towards?
GS: It was the only one that I turned to when I felt happy, when I finished another story or book and I was feeling like oh good, you’re free of that one…what would you most like to do? This idea would always drift by and generally over that period, I would think, Nahhh, I don’t know. I couldn’t figure out a voice in which to do it. I tried it as a play for a little while, and it never really took fire so it was just something—almost like an aspirational thing—and I thought someday that would be a real stretch to try and try to do that.
So about 2012, I was finished with Tenth of December, my previous book, and I felt like, Gosh, if I don’t do it now, when am I going to do it? And more than that—why am I so afraid of this? I kind of had a conversation with myself, and the answers were like, Well, it’s too sincere. There’s too much heart in it, too much about love. You know all these answers that actually are reasons to try to do it rather than to avoid it. So I kind of did the subtle psychological gamesmanship or I just gave myself like a six month contract and said OK, look. Don’t tell anybody you’re starting it. If it’s no good you can just pretend like you were taking six months off. It’s almost like I had to do that in order to grant myself permission to try it.
I think for an artist a lot of it is actually—you have a certain talent, small or large, and then you have a secondary sort of a talent for having that talent, which is a lot of tricking yourself actually or kind of easing the way for yourself with a little bit of sometimes reassurance, sometimes strictness, sometimes a kind of system of rewards, and not altogether healthy.
WRBH: You mentioned before in that response about the sweetness [of the book’s concept]. It is a very tender moment that if done in the wrong way could be very saccharine or almost off putting. As a writer, how do you balance your want to show these tender moments in a way that doesn’t become saccharine?
GS: Well, in a way, you’ve just said it. What you do is you try to be aware of the pitfalls. You kind of say, OK, buddy. You’re writing this scene that could really go over the top. Don’t do that. I [also] do a lot of rewriting, so you’ve always got your finger in there and you’re like, OK, am I too far in this direction? Too far in that direction? And, kind of like riding a bike, you’re constantly counterbalancing, which is something you have if you rewrite a lot because then—let’s say you do it wrong. That’s not a big problem. Come back the next day, [and] you adjust it.
So part of it—for all stories—is to be aware of how it could go wrong. I did some work with a producer in Hollywood, and he said, “Could you write a little domestic scene in the kitchen between the wife and the husband?”
I said, “Yeah, but if I do that and we shoot it wrong, it’d be so corny.”
There’s kind of a long pause, and he goes, “How about we don’t shoot it wrong?”
So in art, it is always not really about what you do, but how you do it. I think to be totally aware of what a moment is rife with is actually part of the artistic thing. Then you can always kind of catch yourself. I think you’re in that dance with the reader. You know, if you say, I’m going to write about Lincoln going into his son’s crypt, every reader kind of bristles with it and goes, Oh, I don’t know. That’s a pretty raw moment. It could easily descend to something not so good. And you say, Yeah, I agree with that, but let’s see if we cannot shoot it that way.
WRBH: I love that. For our listeners who may not be aware, what exactly is a bardo, by your definition, and why did you decide on that framework and setting for telling the story?
GS: The bardo is a Tibetan word that means “transitional zone” or “transitional space.” So we’re in one now, the one that starts at birth and goes to death. The one in the book, the bardo, it starts at the moment of your death and goes to whatever happens next. So the idea is the story is told by all these bardo beings—or kind of ghosts basically—who, for whatever reason, couldn’t leave. They died, and they just sort of seized up for different reasons. Generally, they have too much attachment to the world whether they’re too happy with it or are too frustrated with it, so they’re kind of willfully staying behind.
I think it was partly just a matter of narrative expediency because I didn’t really want Lincoln to narrate the book, and actually, there was nobody else around. So you kind of look around and say, Who can narrate this thing? Once I had that idea, it was exciting for me to think about a book told by people who had gotten kind of a rough shake in life, people who just didn’t reach a point in their earthly existence where they were satisfied with it. That also gives you an incredible range of characters who theoretically you could have, people who died two-hundred years ago in this graveyard with people who died twenty minutes ago.
The other part of it that I liked was this kind of Buddhist notion that if you want to know what your death is going to be like, look at what your mind is like this moment. It’s not going to be a different mind than you die with, so in the Tibetan tradition they say whatever your sort of mental habits and tendencies are right now, they’ll get supersized after you go. So if you’re a greedy person, multiply it by a 100 thousand. Or if you’re a little self-accusatorial, multiply it by a 100 thousand. So that gives you a lot of paint to throw around in a dramatic sense.
WRBH: What do you think your personal bardo would be if you were to go there at this moment?
GS: [Laughs] You know, I’ve got a lot of self-involvement about writing. I really like writing, I’m really happy that I’ve accomplished something. So sometimes I’ll look and think, Wow, you’re really thinking a lot about your career. A lot about your aspirations. Sometimes it’s just sort of career; sometimes it’s more a pure artistic concern, but there’s a lot of inward energy. Also I’ve got a pretty strong sense of the person I’d like to be, kind of really full of love for other people and calm. Unfortunately in real life, I’m a little bit anxious, and I often feel that moments go by when I missed an opportunity to be helpful. I was too much in my own head. It might just be I was pinned under a tremendous writing pen or something like that. [Laughs] And can’t get up.
But one of the fun things about this book is you’re positing an afterlife, and you know you have to kind of be a little humble about that because who knows what’s going happen? So part of the fun was to kind of build into this bardo a kind of absurdist strain so that it didn’t look like any other representation of the afterlife that we’ve seen before. Kind of the idea that no matter what your religious beliefs are, if you died and heaven was exactly what you thought it was going to be, that would be weird. It would imply that you are much more godlike than you imagine, so letting the afterlife throw me a few curves in the writing process is really fun. To kind of make a weird ride for the reader.
WRBH: I see throughout that kind of playfulness. You mentioned trying to write this as a play at first, and that comes in with the format you’re using with the mixture of oral histories and almost like a playwriting format right there which I love. How was it experimenting with that?
GS: It was fun! I mean, I look at it, and that book really was 20 years in the making because I had another novel way back in the late-90s that was set in a graveyard and had a theatrical format. That one never really took off, but there was something intriguing about doing it that way. Other elements like I had a former student who said to me, just offhandedly, “If you ever write a novel, you should do it in all monologues.” For me, when I’m trying to decide what to do, if I can feel a little flicker of joy, or excitement, or intrigue— that’s really the best barometer. When he said that, I went, Oh, yeah! That would be fun.
For me that phrase— that would be fun— that’s really important in writing. I know when I was younger, I thought art’s not about fun, it’s about being deep or being profound or being maybe even stupefying to your reader. But the more I do it, I see that if the artist doesn’t have any initial charge of excitement about it, then she’s not going to be able to endure it long enough to make something really beautiful. You have to do so much rewriting and so much restructuring and reimagining that unless it’s fun, you’re not going to really have the energy to do it. You had to go on a 30 thousand mile car trip, hopefully your companions are fun. Or else it is going to feel like a 100 thousand mile car trip.
That runs counter to what we often hear [about] the tortured writer and the person who is struggling and so on, but I think most things in life that go deep, they kind of work better if they come out of some kind of positive emotion. That doesn’t mean it’s always enjoyable, but if it draws you in, you’re going to be more energetic as you go through it.
WRBH: Talking about your writing life— do you have any certain rituals that you do when you’re writing? Any certain habitual things you need [like] a cup of coffee on the desk?
GS: Probably coffee is good. With this book, I got into Graham crackers for some reason. It took a lot of emotional engagement, but also kind of technical engagement— I had to be really moving stuff around so I found that I would work in bursts and then, especially at the very end, go in the house and kind of go, OK, let’s try to regather our energies—almost like you want to be super alert when the messenger comes. So I write in a separate little shed, and I go into the house and have a graham cracker and listen to some music that I love. When I felt kind of sufficiently reminded of what beauty would be, I would rush back to the shed again.
I started writing years ago at work actually, and that was great training—I was kind of stealing time and fitting in what I could. So I think what happened there was somehow I taught my brain a little trick, which was I give it just a little bit of advanced notice like, OK, we’ve got a moment. Then something goes a little quiet in my head, and it’s almost like preparing backstage or something or you put on a certain superhero costume and you feel tougher. There’s just a little mental click that happens. So now I can pretty much write anywhere. I don’t really need a lot of ritual, and as I said, for me it helps if I’m a little bit happy. Just a slight good mood is helpful. So sometimes if I’m not feeling well, I’ll play the guitar. Or even going to the store and just watching people who are being out in the world will give me enough. You get a tiny bit of good energy to start with a hopeful heart and then see what happens. Once I get started, the process itself is really energizing, and I get kind of caught up in the task, and look up and six hours have gone by.
WRBH: Being a prolific short story writer, in your opinion, what is a good story?
GS: I think it’s the writer’s openness to the idea that every story is different. Of course you have your accumulated “wisdom,” having written stories before, but maybe a little bit like an animal tamer, you say, OK. I’ve worked with this animal before, but there’s a lot of danger here. So I better be careful. You’re saying to the story, You please tell me what you would like to be, and I’ll help you become that thing. You’re hoping that this story will work in a way unique to itself because that’s—on the story-front—that’s sort of what originality is. As you’re starting, you pretend that you don’t know any of the rules of what a short story is or isn’t.
My feeling is if I’m telling a story to you, David, you’re giving me the gift of your time and attention. In exchange, you want something that’s going to be emotionally powerful, like a type of little roller coaster ride, and you want it not to be trivial. You want it to be somehow related to your essential experience of life and beneficial in some way. So I feel like that’s the context. Now that leaves you a lot of room to work. The second part for me would be that a story, the way I understand it now, is that it’s a system of language that basically reacts to itself.
So whatever you’ve done in the first third of the story, you’ve set a lot of things in motion, and your ability to kind of bring those home is why the reader recognizes it as a story. But, in a way, there’s that old definition of pornography—you know, I know it when I see it?—for me, that’s the best idea of a story. We don’t know what they are. Every time you start, you’re taking the lineage off in a new direction. Then there’s this sequence of feelings that I get when I’m finishing a story that I couldn’t really articulate. Having those feelings are the things that made me think, Oh yeah, this is actually a short story, as opposed to an anecdote or a sketch or something like that.
WRBH: You’re still teaching at Syracuse?
GS: I am! I was off this year, but I start again in the fall. I really missed it. I think part of my writing process involves teaching, like the concentration on somebody else’s work and the kind of annoying lack of writing time for two or three days. Then on Friday, I’ve got freedom for the next four days. There’s some kind of a probably deeply Catholic tendency I have where I can’t possibly enjoy myself seven days in a row at writing, but I can enjoy myself working at teaching for three and then writing for four.
Also at Syracuse, we get six-hundred and fifty applications a year, and we pick six people to come. So they’re astonishing. Just to be around those smart young minds, it keeps you hopping, but it also keeps you reverent about talents because you see that every generation has the same amount of talent. And it might manifest in different ways, it might be curious about different things, but it’s an innate human thing. So it’s good, it’s kind of like warming yourself by the fire. You know to go, Yeah, we’re going to be good, because these young people are still brilliant and still ambitious and still trying to make beautiful things.
WRBH: What books do you find yourself kind of coming back to continually either for inspiration or because you just love them?
GS: I’m a funny kind of a reader because I had an engineering background, and I’ve read pretty well in some areas and not others. I tend to come back to the Russians, especially in 19th century. Chekov and Gogol and Turgenev and Tolstoy and then Isaac Babel towards the end of that tradition. I don’t know why really. It might just be that I was reading them when I was a student at Syracuse and when a lot of things fell into place for me. Those were the stories that did it. Especially Gogol for some reason. I don’t even know why I like him, [but] Dead Souls is a book I go back to again and again. It’s not the funniest book I ever read, it’s not the most profound or the most moving, but there’s something about it that really makes me think that Gogol was an American a little bit, you know? The book is very full of crazy, over-the-top people who think they’re right. And somehow the idea of an American Dead Souls is intriguing. [Laughs]
The other book I go back to— there’s two. One is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. A Christmas Carol just moves me so much, and structurally it’s a masterpiece. The Bluest Eye I read that just because—it was a book I read for the first time when I was about 26 I think or 27—it sent me back to my Catholic childhood when I had this a few years of real intense religious feeling and thinking that—at that time—my understanding of Jesus was that Jesus had the super power of being able to love everybody. With all their flaws, that he could look at you and go, “Yup, you’re alright. No, you’re not perfect, but you’re alright.”
When I was a kid, we did a lot of going to church and stuff, and it just struck me that that would be the most powerful position for a human being to be in, having no fear and all love. When I read The Bluest Eye, there were some point of view shifts that just reminded me of that— that Jesus essentially was in my young mind a kind of a novelist. That he could inhabit every consciousness with equal fondness. I thought Toni Morrison did that really beautifully in that book. So I read kind of to refresh my aspirations and remember what I wanted to accomplish when I was 20. I tend to go back to those books.
WRBH: What are you working on right now, and also what are you reading?
GS: I have had not as much writing time this year as I would like. So I just started this story, and I’ve got about 18 pages of it. It’s a total mess, which I love because I feel like, Oh yeah, I can still do this. I can still make a big mess and then feel neurotic about it. I’m a writer! And I’m reading— I’ve set myself on this mission of trying to read all of the Shakespeare plays in order. So I’ve got this beautiful Oxford edition, [and] I’m kind of plowing through that and just trying to kind of remind myself of why people love Shakespeare.
Of course a lot of the plays I never have read before. I think what I’m doing is kind of plowing the fields to start something else. Maybe bigger—but again, for me, most of the writing process is just saying I have no idea… [Laughs] I have no idea what I’m doing next and no idea what I’m in the middle of and then kind of trusting that your subconscious will get you out of all the fixes that you get yourself into.
WRBH: [Laughs] I get that. During your Shakespeare reading so far have you found a favorite that you didn’t expect?
GS: Well, I’ve been reading these early history plays which are a real slog, and I can’t say that I love them. I’m reminded of something really powerful about Shakespeare which is, you know, he’ll have these two families fighting over the crown, and he absolutely refuses to root for one over the other. So they’re both equally good and equally bad depending on—well, they just are. Both of them are murdering each other’s kids and celebrating about it and claiming that God is on their side. That’s something we don’t see too often in fiction or especially in TV or movies. You always kind of know who the good guys are, and he seems to have a beautiful gift for saying they’re both good and they’re both bad and then just letting them fight it out. So that’s gotten into my head a little bit. I don’t know what I’ll do with it, but I like that idea.
This interview was transcribed from an episode of The Writer’s Forum, a weekly program on WRBH Reading Radio for the Blind and Print Impaired focused on showcasing local and national authors, poets, historians, journalists and historians. You can find the full archive of programs here: www.soundcloud.com/WRBHreadingradio/sets/the-writers-forum
WRBH Reading Radio is a New Orleans station whose mission is to turn the printed word into the spoken word so that the blind and print handicapped can receive the same ease of access to current information as their sighted peers. You can listen to your favorite books, magazines, and interviews locally at 88.3 FM or stream on WRBH’s website www.WRBH.org.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.