George Saunders | 'My goal is not to be smart, not to show off, but to move my reader'

George Saunders | 'My goal is not to be smart, not to show off, but to move my reader'

That George Saunders is an extraordinary writer could never be in doubt. His admirers include Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan and Thomas Pynchon. In recent years he has been elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts & Sciences, named as one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine and, on these shores, he won the inaugural Folio Prize with short-story collection Tenth of December. He has achieved this recognition for his short stories and essays (nine books in total), but March sees the publication of his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury), and it is stunning.

The seed of the novel was planted 20 years or so ago (he remembers that Bill Clinton was president) when Saunders first heard about the death of Willie Lincoln. The writer and his wife were staying with family in Washington DC when, during a tour of the city, his wife’s cousin pointed out the Georgetown cemetery where Willie Lincoln was buried. Saunders had never heard of him. “She enlightened me that [Abraham] Lincoln’s son had died while he was in office and that, according to her version, he had made his way across town late at night with nobody else around and had gone in [to his late son’s crypt] and held the body.”

While she was talking, Saunders says, an image sprang into his mind of the president holding his dead son, “and my mind doesn’t really work that way, but it did that day.” But he didn’t try and write about it. “Honestly, I knew at that point the limits of my ability [as a writer] and I thought, well that’s a nice story for somebody but I don’t have the talent. So I just sat on it really...for about 20 years.”

Risk assessment

Fast forward to 2012, and Saunders had completed his short story collection Tenth of December and was feeling, as he puts it “a little bit artistically adventurous... If I feel like I’ve done something good, I give myself permission to try the next thing a little harder,” he says. “I thought, if I don’t try this thing now... I’m not getting any younger, so maybe it would be a good time to take a real artistic risk, to genuinely risk failure.”

Strangely, given his previous success as a writer, Saunders was concerned that he didn’t have the “chops” to write the novel. He elaborates: “My experience of becoming a writer... I was a little late to the game. I wrote when I was younger but I could never get anything to really cohere, so for me the big revelation, before my first book [CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, 1996], was that I had to really restrict myself. I had to really constrain myself and write in a very narrow vein— comic, very contemporary, maybe a little futuristic. It was an internal constraint that I put on myself: not to go in certain directions; not to be too lyrical; not to be too what I would call ‘modernist’. I had a lot of failures when I was trying to be a modernist!” He searches for an analogy. “It’s like if you learned that every time you went to the doorway you had to turn sideways because you were too wide. That turning sideways would become a bit of a reflex.”

Day of the dead

It may have felt like a risk, but Lincoln in the Bardo is a triumph. Saunders has taken a single event - a grief-stricken President Lincoln holding his son - and written a novel that spins off into the realms of the supernatural in the most extraordinarily moving way. For Willie and Abraham are not alone in the crypt on that night in 1862. They are surrounded by ghosts, a sort of Greek chorus of the dead who bicker and squabble, by turns hilarious and heart-breaking, as they reveal their stories.

The bardo, a transitional state between life and death, is a key concept in Tibetan Buddhism, although Saunders’ bardo is all his own: “I felt like the main thing a reader should feel is disorientated by what they find in that death realm. If we do have any experience after life it would be really surprising if it was just like what we had read about.”

Chief among the ghosts are Roger Bevins III, who slashed his wrists after being spurned by a lover, and Hans Vollman, who died after being struck on the head by a falling beam. But within the novel is a vast cast, with characters we meet only for the line or two they speak. In Lincoln in the Bardo Saunders has reinvented the form: so many individual voices speak, argue and complain, but together they form a complete narrative.

Interwoven throughout the novel, too, are snippets of real-life historical accounts with credited sources, from Lincoln’s contemporaries and historians. These provide the novel with heft and context. As well as grieving for his son, Lincoln was also facing a political crisis: 1862 was the height of the American Civil War and the union was in danger of collapse. Although Saunders read widely for research, he found six or so books particularly good and eventually decided to put them in to the novel directly—“almost like sampling”—so he became a curator as well as a novelist. But for all his inventiveness and sheer technical ability, Saunders says he really wanted “to do justice to that moment in the crypt, whether it happened or not - and I think it did. My goal is not to be smart, not to show off, but to move my reader as deeply as I am moved by that idea.”

Lincoln in the Bardo is a novel about grief in all its forms; the grief Lincoln has for his son Willie, and the grief of the ghosts for their lives and the people they left behind. Saunders says there was another, larger grief: “As I was writing it I could feel my own potential grief - you know, I think I’m so smart writing about these dead people, but no one is going to get out of the net. I’m at the age now when some people who are very dear to me have gone over the cliff. I really loved that person and I won’t see him again. That’s it, that’s the way life is. It’s obvious, but it was amazing to dwell on that.”

Balancing act

But what the novel ultimately came to be about, for Saunders, was a conundrum: “We seem to be born to love, that’s what we want to do. If we’re lucky we figure out how to do it. It becomes the cornerstone of our lives. But whispering behind that is the other truth which is that all of it - you, the object of your love, the physical framework in which we love - all of that is conditional. So to try to live between those truths is, I think, pretty interesting. The book became about that because Lincoln has all these pressing obligations which are not trivial and that affect millions of people, and he’s heartsick. How do you come to some accommodation with death so that you can not only continue to live, but also continue to be a loving person?

“I really loved writing [the novel], and I miss it,” he says. After delivering the manuscript he had a two-month period when he experienced “not quite depression, but disorientation because I was so used to thinking about that time and that place that the modern world was less interesting to me. And that’s a first for me.” He pauses for a moment. “Then I come back to the modern world - and what’s going on? Haha! I leave it alone for four years and it all goes to hell.”