Long-regarded as one of America's most ingenious satirical short story writers, George Saunders has now published his first novel, a bewitching and mysterious volume titledLincoln in the Bardo. Composed solely out of dialogue and excerpts from historical texts both real and imagined, the surprisingly vivid story concerns the death in 1862 of President Lincoln's young son Willie, as seen through the eyes of ghosts in the Georgetown cemetery where the child has been entombed, and from the perspective of poor Willie himself, as he struggles to comprehend the fate that has befallen him. (The very opinionated ghosts in Saunders's story steadfastly refuse to admit they're dead, hilariously referring to their coffins as 'sick-boxes.') The fantastical action all takes place in one strange night, and was inspired by old newspaper accounts of a heartbroken Lincoln visiting Willie's crypt to bid his son farewell one final time. At turns absurd, wry, surreal, and sad, Saunders's novel is a stirring choral requiem of unexpected depth.
We spoke with Saunders by phone on the eighth of February about Lincoln in the Bardo and life under President Trump. Tonight Saunders will discuss the book and other topics with New York Magazine's Boris Kachka as part of the Brooklyn By the Book series organized by the Brooklyn Public Library, Community Bookstore, and Congregation Beth Elohim. Tickets here.
How are you?
I'm good—hanging in there. We're out in California, and we're getting a ton of rain, so it's been like Noah's Ark up in here for the last week. But you know, small problems.
I guess so.
You're in New York?
Yeah and we have this really weird, unsettling weather today where it's 63 degrees in February, breaking records, and tonight it's supposed to snow. We're supposed to get a foot of snow overnight. It feels like the weather is matching the collective mood of the nation's politics.
That's what it feels like here, it really feels like just apocalyptic rain, like it's just going, 'all right you dummies, here you go.'
Are you there for a book tour?
No we actually bought a house here a couple years ago. I only teach in the fall at Syracuse. Usually it's gorgeous here, but this has been a different kind of year hasn't it? Good Lord.
You've had such a successful career as a short story writer, and during that time many readers who have enjoyed your work probably hoped that you'd write a novel. Now here it is, and I wonder if this is what people expected—that's not really your concern, but I wonder what drew you to the form that you deployed here?
Well really, honestly, after the last book I had become really proud of the fact that I only write short stories. I felt kind of like a purist, and I was kind of resigned to it, and really was happy to just cruise through life never having written a novel.
But this idea had been bouncing around for almost 20 years, this idea of Lincoln going to his son's crypt. I heard about it back in the '90s, and it was really intriguing to me, but it felt like one of those ideas that you should think about but not try. At that time I didn't think I had the necessary chops for it. I knew I wouldn't want to approach it satirically, but earnestly. I could feel that I didn't have the ability at that point. So I just kept pushing it off all those years. Every so often I'd fart around with it—I tried to write it as a play—so I could never find a satisfactory form. But the idea just kept bugging me, in a positive way, like when I felt really happy it would sort of show up.
So what happened was Tenth of December was done, and it was about to go out and I could feel it was going to get more attention than the other books, so I had a conversation with myself like, 'Well if you're not going to try it now, you probably never will. And wouldn't that be kind of a disappointment, to get to a fork in your artistic road and say, well that direction on the left there is really interesting to me, really intriguing and bothering me for 20 years, but I'm not up to it?' So I kind of gave myself a pass to try for four or five months before Tenth of December came out. I think, in a way, I was trying not to write a novel, trying to keep it shorter than a novel, and trying to avoid the kind of traditional, novelistic moves that I knew I couldn't pull off.
What wouldn't you be able to pull off?
It's funny how sometimes in art, the devil is hidden under little tiny rocks. In this case, I thought, okay, Lincoln's in the graveyard, and I always imagined him there at night by himself. And then you get into the thought like, okay who’s narrating the thing, you know? So really it could be a first-person book from his point of view, which just terrified me. You know like, "Four score and seven minutes ago I did something to this graveyard."
Or it could be narrated by somebody, but who would it be? A gravedigger who was still there at midnight for no reason that you could come up with? So that was just kind of an obstacle, and the goals came naturally out of that obstacle. And likewise, later I was trying to solidify the story, because ghosts are a little bit whimsical—the author can just do whatever the hell he wants, and that can wear thin. So I was trying to get some historical spine in there, and that's where the historical nuggets came.
It was just necessity producing these weird moves. When I think of writing the kind of big novel that other people can really do beautifully, like multi-generational third person novels—when I think about those, I don't see a way of making verbal overflow, which for me is the way that I proceed. It's almost like if you were a musician, and there was a certain kind of music that you just couldn't really think of anything to do in that mode. For me a lot of my career has been making constraints for myself and walling off small areas to work in, with the main purpose of just trying to keep the verbal energy up. So the book was not at all by design, not at all; I didn't know what it would be. But I just kept making these small swerves to both make it more emotionally compelling and also to avoid approaches that I knew I couldn't pull off, if that makes sense.
I think it really worked. It was emotionally affecting and I think, if you set out to convey the sadness of losing someone dear, that was successful, for me.
Well, thank you. For me it was also about that, and you know how a book just writes its way into some other thing than you planned. It was that conundrum that... if I look at my intuitions about things, the one thing that I know is that affection and love comes naturally. In difficult times, I'm sustained by that, I look to that as kind of a bedrock. That seems to be true for most of us. And then, the conditionality of everything. It's so harsh, the juxtaposition of those two truths: that you love, and that everything is gonna...
So mostly I think you either deny it, or what I do is I make up almost kind of a New Age [reassurance]: "Yeah, but that's why life is beautiful." But that doesn't actually satisfy. I found that out when I had a plane scare many years ago; an engine went out on a plane. It was about 15 minutes of real scary uncertainty. In the scale of disasters it was pretty small, but not when you're on a plane. But it was amazing how ill-prepared I was. I'm Buddhist and I meditate and everything, but when that happened, it was almost like if you think you're in really good shape, and you talk yourself into that, and then somebody suddenly leads you on a leash on a 20 mile run. I didn't realize how off my perception was from reality. In that moment, I saw how ill-prepared I was for death. So I'm trying to figure out a way to engage that stuff without being so depressing that it can't be taken, but in the thought that, if you could walk right up to that truth, and figure out a way to live joyfully and live safely with it that would be a real spiritual accomplishment. Other than denial, which is what I do now.
You said in an interview that the book is about how we love in a world in which the objects of our love are so conditional. How do we do that?
I think we mostly don't think about it, and it might be Darwinian. I've had the experience of having somebody that I love die. And for a few days you're in this crazy zone of clarity, where everything gets aligned more intelligently and honestly than it normally is. And what I've always noticed is that fades. And I've always been a little relieved it faded, because it was too intense to live in that mode. So I'd say that in that situation, you are really in touch with death and you see everything in light refracted off of death. And it's almost impossible to stay there, you know.
What I do is that I hope for the best, hope for the best and deny it. I think, too, my working model is if you just try to remind yourself that it's going to happen, it should be clarifying. Now for me what that mostly means is—and this might be a big leap—but for me it translates into trying to have faith that the small things that you do that are positive actually matter. In other words, the small kindnesses and your meager attempts to improve your awareness, your presence, those actually aren't trivial.
And also the notion that the reason death is so hard is because we live entertaining delusional ideas about what we are. The reason that plane was so upsetting for me was because I had not really gotten that I was going to end. And I hadn't accepted that I was just a little flare up caused by a certain combination of mind and body, and that I wasn't actually the hero of the world's story, just like one little frog in it. So I think part of any spiritual practice would be to kind of soften those beliefs. If you could really see the truth of it, which is that we're kind of these weird consciousness phenomena, that of course they flare out, if you could really feel that then it wouldn't be shocking when the piano fell on your head.
I've been thinking about so-called little actions that you mentioned. In the wake of the election, many people I know have been struggling with this sense of despair and terror and futility, and what I've been trying to remind myself at least is that it's not inconsequential to call a senator or participate in a protest, or whatever it is that one wants to do to push back.
Exactly. And if you multiply that times a million, then you've got an undeniable force. As you saw with the women's march, that was incredibly heartening to me. But you know, it's funny, because I think, at least for me, I'm conditioned to want to do the big thing, the big dramatic thing that changes everything with my one action. It's just ego.
But maybe we haven't understood what community really was until now. And I think community is exactly what you just said: pressing that button, even though you know in itself it's a tiny, almost inconsequential action, but multiplied times a million, it's going to change things. I feel already a sense of duty with these petitions, like normally I would say, this isn't going to help. And now I feel like, okay, all over the country at that moment there are 700 people who are about to press the button, let's all press the button. Not that there's a petition button, but you know what I mean.
Your New Yorker article about the Trump campaign was very powerful, and the ending really stuck with me. You wrote: "...although to me Trump seems very opposite of a guardian angel, I thank him for this: I never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could within my very lifetime fail, but I imagine it that way now." Can you share what your experience was when the election results came in and how you've processed it since then?
I was flying from California to New York. It was really strange because I got on the plane feeling that the anxiety that started during that [New Yorker] trip—what I can now see was a genuine panic reaction to what I saw there—I thought okay, tonight that panic is going to end, we're gonna have Hillary for president. I think I was listening to music, but I could see my neighbor's TV, he had on CNN, and you could see it was looking a little weird: Trump, Trump, Trump. And then I got to, maybe Detroit, and was lingering around there and called my wife and there was more panic. By the time I got to Albany it looked really bad. They hadn't called it but it looked really bad. I drove this long stretch of 88, from Albany to the Catskills, with intermittent AM radio, just getting these crazy messages. I just remember thinking, 'President Trump? Can that be?'
I still haven't really gotten over the disappointment of it. And that's too-small of a word for it. But I'm also trying to tell myself this: If an outcome crushes you—your partner breaks up with you or something—and it just emotionally ruins you, it's not actually the world's fault. The world is the world. It's actually just telling you that your previous perception was deeply flawed, and you're just taking a corrective.
And in this case it's a really painful corrective, because that means that mine—our—imagining of our country was just way off somehow. Maybe not way off, just a little off. That New Yorker piece for me was all about that: how is it so clear to you and to me that Trump is a totally inappropriate candidate, like a candidate from a bad satire, and why was it that somebody was carrying that poster around about the guardian angel? I got an answer that even now looks like a crazy mathematical equation: If somebody despises Hillary Clinton, times right-wing media, minus, you know... It'll spit out the numbers, but at this point it doesn't really matter that much. I think the trick is to figure out what's the stance now, that we can move with sanely, without going into despair.
And what do you think that is?
Well, I'm working on it. I've been saying to myself: truth is truth, cruelty is cruelty, and love is love. Nothing has changed, those things are all still true. My take on it, especially having spent some time with Trump supporters, my take on it is, okay the practical thing is that there is some percentage of people who didn't vote, voted for the Green party, or voted for Trump holding their noses and/or because they couldn't stand Hillary. So that's a pretty big number—if those people could just get moved over to the other side of the equation, it's over.
My early take on it, that our country is rotten and I'm so disappointed, actually got amended a bit. Just looking at numbers, the 80,000 votes in the three states that turned red, and the 3 million [popular vote difference] for Hillary. So that to me fits with my natural inclination, which is kind of a compromiser or negotiator.
So what I think needs to happen is, no flinching, no despair—because despair at this point is just going to lead to loss. Let's just get over that. Big, big demonstrations and online actions, but done in a very peaceful spirit. And I would call it even an artistic spirit, which means let's make the arguments with so much specificity, and good heartedness, and detail, that that middle swath of people can't ignore it.
I think the shrill tendency is an enemy to the progressive movement right now. Because there are people who, let's say, voted for Trump reluctantly, they had that X-factor that we don't understand—I don't understand how you could cast a vote for the guy, but these people, it even seemed wonderful to them, or good that they did it. So is there some fraction of those people that we can persuade over to our side, using that argument that this is not American values. And I think there are those people, and I met them on the Trump rallies. I'm guessing that some of the people I met have already made the jump back over, just on the basis of the first couple of weeks. So, I think it's the old method: non-violent resistance and show of numbers, I think that's really it. And I think it will work, because I don't think that he's nearly so popular as he thinks he is.
In the meantime, it's also a challenge to live knowing that someone who appears to have dementia and to be delusional to have some serious cognitive problems is still in charge.
Yes, it is.
I guess that's where your meditation or Buddhist philosophy might help you.
The biggest thing that I can see happening is just battle fatigue. Everyone was fired up two weeks ago, is it lessening now? I know I'm so sick of hearing about this thing, and that's a real danger. I'll tell you what concerns me most: he is such a strange president, such a strange choice, and has so many personality issues and so many judgement issues, and what seems like a lack of knowledge of our system, that eventually there's going to be a big mistake. What concerns me is that the partisan divide is so strong that the people in the Republican party who should be stepping forward and saying, "yeah enough is enough," I'm not sure they'll do that. That's the scariest thing to me.
But also to think about making art in this time... It was funny, I finished this Lincoln book and maybe a month later I went on to the Trump piece. And it was really interesting to have to go from a full-on artistic mindset—which to me is the best version of my brain, to be in the middle of an artistic project, because you're so curious, and happy with ambiguity, and you're getting daily messages from your subconscious that you didn't even ask for that are really smart and all that. And to go from that into full-on political mode was just... I was trying to be ass-deep in CNN, and Fox, and social media. It's almost like two different brains! And the second one is really a dummy. It seems designed, just by looking at my own reactions, for aggression, discontent, agonizing, and pithy one-liners designed to cut somebody.
And it was interesting to see the two [mindsets], within two weeks of each other. And I assume we're all somewhat in the second mindset, everybody in the country. It's a big factor in what we're going through, that we're not thinking expansively. And it's hard for progressives, because that attitude—thou shall think expansively—is very close to what feels like enabling, or what Buddhists call Idiot Compassion, where you have this election in which the country elected to humiliate and disenfranchise millions of good people, because they're Muslim or because they're Mexican or because whatever. You have that, and it seems very weird to say that the response to that is to be compassionate.
But I think, understood in the right way, it's still true. Because it would mean doing whatever skillful work we could to persuade. And it would mean not losing our equanimity, because in my experience getting mad, getting hyperbolic, getting shrill, doesn't really do anything good for anybody. It doesn't help the person that you're confronting, and it certainly doesn't help you. But sometimes we confuse that with being firm. To be firm and loving, that would be the two words I would say: be firm and be loving as we proceed. And that's a pretty hard combination to be.
Have you been able to work creatively, and to maintain this equanimity, post-election, with all this shit going on?
No! (laughs) Partly it's that this book is coming out so I wasn't really planning to work. I've been writing some TV for Amazon, and that was easy. I mean, it was not easy but it was sort of in the spirit of the time. It's this story called Sea Oak
, so it was a way of channeling some of this stuff.
It's kind of what we started our conversation with: Your best friend as an artist is a big fucking problem. When you go into a story and you go, 'Oh my God, turtles can't talk. Shit.' Or in this case it's a problem that's, how can I write a story about anything and not put Trump in it? Well, your artist mind goes, okay good point, so the answer is either to put Trump in it, or really don't. Set it in some alternate universe, knowing that it's going to get in there anyway. I mean how could anybody write about anything else?
But there's kind of a way in which ideas in art go from the superficial to the deep. So to write a story about Trump, that's one level. To me, the real understory here is the left-right divide. That's why Trump happened, I would say. Okay, even that is a little superficial, so go one more. It comes down to something about that terrifying existential proposition that you and I are actually never talking to each other, that communication is inherently flawed. Now we're kind of getting into Shakespearean turf, you know? And especially if you combine that with a seemingly malevolent intent on one side, that gets really tricky.
I think you could do it, it's just that right now I feel like there's two or three news cycles a day. It's really hard to get clarity. When I was writing that Trump piece I'd come home with notes and I'd be typing them up and kind of stumbling toward some sort of idea, and then something would be on in the next room that overturned everything. And it happened daily. I think it may be a technique—I know people have said this—chaos technique.
Those of us who are in the arts, in journalism; we have a secret weapon which is long-term thinking, that produces long-term values. This is a crazy storm, the craziest one I've ever seen in my life, and I'm not young. But we do have a stability that comes from these practices of being engaged. I think what's happened, just speaking for myself, I decided to be a writer when I was maybe 24 and was in Asia. And it seemed so glamorous. Quickly, I saw that the culture didn't think about short story writing in the way that I thought about it. It was kind of a marginalized, kind of a sweet little thing, like if you did paper swans or something, origami.
So I was okay with that. But now I think that part of the reason we're in such a stupid place, and that we're such victims to this banal aggression that the Trump movement used, is because we allowed art to be marginalized. And I don't know who 'we' is exactly; I don't know how 'we' did it. But if you look at what art means to us, it mostly means a frill. It means something kind of on the side. And if you buy into what I said earlier, that the artistic mind is vast, and can solve problems better than any other mind, with happier outcomes for everybody, it's a real tragedy that we put it off to the side.
Another way to say it is that we sacrificed a level of articulateness by taking literary language and literary processes and sidelining them a little bit. So then you get this crazy Trumpian rhetoric, which is, I don't even know how to describe it. But I think there's something in that, people like us, let's say, who have made a life by the word, and by the notion that you could actually get to the bottom of things by writing about it, and revising what you've written. Part of this is that those people have to say, "Wait a minute." It's like if the grownup was in the back seat of a car, letting the kid drive, at some point you gotta say, "Hold on a second, I'm gonna help you with this."
Now that gets tricky because I think that's probably elitist. But I'm becoming more of a fan of elitism with each passing day. Elitism meaning, if you're good at it then you should do it. Elitism, meaning which dentist do you want: do you want the actual dentist or the guy who once walked past a dental school?
Well did we get everything solved? Is it gonna be fixed now?
I think we're good! I think we're going to be okay.
I saw today that Trump went after Nordstrom? Is that...
Even surreal doesn't seem to cover it anymore. Because surreal kind of knows it's surreal, but this has no limits to where it could go.
I'm just struggling with the obsessive aspect of this regime. Part of it is work, and then I go to sleep, and often I'm thinking about it as I'm falling asleep, then dreaming about it, and then I wake up and the first thought is that I'm still living in this. This is not sustainable.
I remember used to watch The Apprentice around our house, and kind of enjoyed it. Can you imagine if somebody had told you back then, that that guy would come to obsess your dreams, that he would be the first thing you thought of and the last thing...it's crazy. I remember that one episode where there was that blonde women and she said something about 'I'm on my knees begging you not to fire me.' And he said, 'on your knees, that's a pretty image.'
Oh my God.
Can you imagine if somebody said to you, now that guy right there, you're going to think about him more than you think about Jesus in two years.
I remember when I was a kid, seeing one of my classmates read the Art of the Deal. I think I was in 5th grade, and I have a vivid memory of seeing him read the book and thinking, why would you read that book? That guy Trump is such a greedy asshole. And now it's...
Yeah, I'm just starting to think, okay, where is that line where you withdraw from this stuff, without being an ostrich? And that's hard. Because I think part of what keeps your agitation up and your awareness is to feed this stuff into your body and go, oh, this is where this is going. I don't know the answer really.
I heard a really wise person once say this thing that I'm still struggling with, but he said, "Life is not fixable." And I think he was speaking to the fact that when we're agitated, we're always looking for the sort of capping notion that will make us feel relaxed again. Sometimes it's just, I'm a good guy, you know. In this one, I found myself... it's almost like in The Christmas Carol, when Scrooge puts the hat on the Ghost of Christmas Present, I think, and the light goes out. I keep trying to put a conceptual cap on this, so I can feel in control, and it keeps refusing to be capped. Which is a really disorientating thing, I think. It makes you go crazy, when you can't have a moment of rest during the course of the day, with some sense of certainty.
The biggest thing I hear people saying—again, people like us, who would maybe pride ourselves on being somewhat empathetic—what is the correct attitude for somebody who you know and love who voted for Trump? Or somebody who you don't know and love who voted for Trump? What's the correct stance? And I personally have a lot of anxiety over that, and I flip back and forth. And I don't know but I keep thinking, well there should be no flinching and there should be no apologizing. There's no acting like we are somehow less citizens because we're from the coasts or something, or because we're liberals or because we're thinkers, that's not legit.
But some sense of being really firm, and even provocative, you know. When I was reporting that Trump [New Yorker] thing, it was really fun, I would walk up to a bunch of guys and I'd say, "I'm a liberal, left of Gandhi, can I hang out with you guys?" And they really loved it, were never hostile. And sometimes they'd say stuff and I'd say, "That's bullshit, you gotta be fuckin' kidding me!" And it was all right. They would often would take correction in that mode. So I think there's something about being confident, that we have as much of a right to a say as anybody.
And also, this is a weird thing to say but I think this is true, it's a big generalization, but most of my friends who are progressives have a vision of a Trump supporter that makes them much more angry and aggressive than they are. The sad thing is that when many of them pulled that voting lever, it was out of a kind of a hope and resignation, and often, in my view, out of misunderstanding. But it wasn't a scary atmosphere. And that also makes it complicated.
Thank you for your time.
Thank you, I really enjoyed it. We'll be okay, I think. I think what has to happen is that people like you, and me, we have to say, "We are 100% valid here. We may not be salt of the earth, but actually we are salt of the earth. We're allowed. We've got kids too."