George Saunders is the author of numerous short story collections, including “Tenth of December,” “In Persuasion Nation,” and “Pastoralia.” His novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” was a New York Times bestseller, and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Saunders has won a Guggenheim, a McArthur, and many other awards. We spoke to him in 2017 in front of an audience at Literary Arts.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller. We are coming to you today in front of an audience at the Literary Arts Space in downtown Portland. It is an hour with the one and the only, George Saunders. Some things are worth waiting for. After six books of short stories and novellas, along with the book of essays, George Saunders published his first novel earlier this year and it is an astonishment. Lincoln in the Bardo is also relatively hard to describe. All the action takes place in one night in a graveyard full of the spirits of people who don’t realize they’re dead. They’re stuck in a kind of transition state. Not alive, but not yet in an afterlife. They are desperately hoping to return to what they call the previous place into this heartbroken, odd and sometimes funny world. Saunders throws in some history. Abraham Lincoln’s 11 year old son, Willie, died in 1862 just as the Civil War was escalating, and there had been reports that the grief stricken President went into the crypt to hold his son’s body. Saunders blended all of this together. The actual President-in-mourning excerpts from historical texts, some of them made up, and his imagined and very talkative soul. Saunders has won Macarthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, has been a finalist for the National Book Award. He teaches Creative Writing at Syracuse University, and I am thrilled to have him back on the show. It’s good to see you again.
George Saunders: Good to be here again.
Miller: Can you explain what a Bardo is in the title, in the Tibetan tradition?
Saunders: Yeah, it just means transitional state. So, we’re in one now, the bardo between birth and death. Then there’s another one, which starts at the moment of your death and goes to whatever is next, whether it’s reincarnation or heaven or hell. So, any transitional time during life is a bardo.
Miller: What keeps people in the bardo of your imagining here? Why is it that they’re there?
Saunders: Because my bardo… at the beginning, I thought I’ll just be totally faithful to Tibetan text and that didn’t work out. So, my bardo is sort of an invention.
Miller: So at first you tried to have it be more strictly Buddhist?
Saunders: Yeah, I was reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead and I thought, okay, this would be a great little constraint to say I’m going to honor that. But it’s beyond me. It’s very confusing and complicated and there’re nuances I couldn’t pick up. At some point early on, you’re like, I’m not writing that book. I’m not. This is a novel. So suddenly you think, okay, so I have to do whatever I have to do to make this thing come alive dramatically. Then you start altering both history and the religion, but in this case, this bardo is kind of like purgatory, but a little more user friendly. I was raised Catholic and purgatory is like you go sit in the DMV until the end of days. You know you’re just on the .... But this bardo is a little more Buddhist in the sense that you make the heaven or hell yourself with your habits of thought. In the Tibetan tradition there’s this idea that as neurotic as we can be in this life, the energy of our mind is tamped by its location in the physical body. So when the physical body is gone, these teachings say, the mind gets supersized. So if you’re a slightly greedy person now who always feels a little short changed, when you die that gets amplified by 10 million. That’s like hell, say. So these people are basically people who’ve had some kind of regret or something that at the moment of their death they just couldn’t consent to it, exactly. There’s almost like a dog that freezes in a doorway or something.
Miller: Can you describe what happens to them physically? Because even though their physical bodies are gone, they do have manifestations that are weird and fascinating.
Saunders: Right. So really what it is, is whatever your thing is, whatever your issue is (kind of like in the Inferno, actually) there’s a physical corollary. So one guy had an arranged marriage with a young woman who wasn’t really that into him, and so being a gentleman, he decided not to consummate the marriage. Several months later she decided that maybe it was time, and the next day he died. So he has a tremendous erection for eternity. You think that’s a dream, but for him, that’s a nightmare.
Miller: It literally gets in the way of him doing physical things later.
Saunders: Yeah. And you know, other people... some people have none. Some people have speech patterns that they are enacting that are strange. So in a certain level, it’s just a way to liven up the book and put some comedy in there. But that’s kind of in the Buddhist tradition, too. There’s a thing where you’ll see people in exaggerated conditions, mostly based on your mind. But in this one, I took some liberties.
Miller: Did you think about what your manifestation would be if you were to end up in your own bardo?
Saunders: Big old angel wings.
Miller: That would just be a wonderful creature.
Saunders: Yeah, no. I didn’t think of that actually. Thanks for bringing that up at all. But I’ll see you in my dreams.
Miller: At one point, one of the characters who’s in this place, this bardo, this cemetery full of souls, in a self aggrandizing way disparages the people who have made the decision to go to the next place. He says this, ‘These were the chirpy, tepid desireless sorts, generally, and had lingered if at all for only the briefest of moments, so completely satisfactory had they found their tenure in that previous place.’ Do you share that sense, that there’s some desire or good energy that’s lacking in the people that went to the next place?
Saunders: No, I don’t. I’m very jealous of them. But I have a suspicion that I’m one of the ones he’s going to be in. In other words, I, my whole life I’ve looked at people who are happier, more highly functioning, less neurotic than me, and been very admiring, actually. One part of me wishes I was more like that. But if you’re not, you have to try to make the best of your things. So, I think actually, in some ways as a fiction writer you’re always kind of covering your tracks a little bit and gaming yourself. I found out a long time ago that my prose is livelier when I’m describing misfits or people who are having trouble or even, actually, when things get a little cruel, my prose comes alive. So in this book, there was a nice chance to game that by saying, okay, George, why do you always write such unhappy people? I’m like, ‘I don’t. But I’m in the bardo, those are the only people here. The high functioning people went on.’ So in a certain way, you set the book up to allow you to play into your strength a little bit.
Miller: You said that you always wished you were a more high functioning person. What would a high functioning George Saunders put out?
Saunders: Well, I guess I mean I always felt a little bit strange, because my mind is pretty strange. It’s fast and it’s weird and it’s hyper nostalgic and I can remember a lot. I think as a young kid I did a lot of novelizing of situations I was in. So I just felt a little off step and pretty anxious, you know?
Miller: You felt strange, yourself, because it’s one thing to have other people say, ‘that boy is strange, he’s always doing strange things’. It’s another to feel inside yourself that you recognize that you feel different than other people...
Saunders: Outwardly, I was very… fine. I was prom king, actually, which is maybe the highest indication of serious dysfunction. But I was.
Miller: But also the highest indication, clearly, of fitting in.
Saunders: Well, yeah. You’re sucking up to somebody. So I was aware of that, but inside I could tell. It’s funny. I only became aware of this the last few years actually. 10 years. There would be moments when my understanding of things was not quite the groups’. I was sort of aware of that and so it’s not a big deal. But I know. What I wish is that I was much more naturally generous, much more naturally happy, much more naturally empathetic. Now, what I’ve done is, I’m learning. I’m trying to force myself to be those things. But I’m aware as I get older of how much effort it takes for me to stay in the moment to be genuinely happy for someone else’s good fortune, for example. To be a really good friend without effort. I’m aware of the effort and I wish that I didn’t. I was one of those people who seem to have been born with a very natural facility for generosity and happiness. But the next best thing is to try to become that person.
Miller: I wonder, though, if you’re holding yourself up to a higher standard then, assuming that there’s a higher standard that exists regularly in other people, that simply doesn’t exist?
Saunders: Maybe that’s part of my neurosis. Checkmate. But I did find early in life that I was very fond of life. I liked it very much. One of my earliest feelings was a slight sense that, and I love people very much. But I remember even [as] a little kid feeling, okay, if you could only do something that was good, then you could be at the table. You know just as… again I’m not... it’s just a slight sense that people are so nice. I wish I was a little more up to their speed and so that was actually where the accomplishment energy came from. Then part of that is at some point going yeah, that’s weird. But okay, well, I can use that.
Miller: When I was reading the book, for a big chunk of it one part of my brain was thinking, ‘come on all you dead people. This is so pathetic. How can you not realize you’re dead’? Every morning they have to go back into their coffins, which they call sick boxes, and come face to face with their decomposing bodies. Then there was a thought that came right after that, which was, ‘Oh my Lord, what are all of us closing our eyes to which should be staring us in the face.’ What do you think we are closing our eyes to? It’s something as obvious as the fact that these souls are dead, that we currently living people, are pretending not to notice...
Saunders: Well, as you were talking, I thought if you replace the word dead with dying. They don’t know they’re dead. We don’t know we’re dying. Now, of course we do. But I prefer not to think about it. It’s that funny human thing where you can come from a funeral and your feeling is ‘what a dummy. Okay, poor sucker.’ That may be just me, but that slight sense of superiority to the dead person. That’s so insane. You know you’re going to be there. So to me that was also the idea in the book. These spirits do a thing where they, in order to stay in that realm, which is very conditional, it’s not easy to stay there, they just tell the same stories about themselves over and over again. Stories in which they are the hero, of course. I certainly do what I’m doing now, I suppose in a certain sense. But I realized about a month ago, I had done a story for GQ about six years ago where I lived in a homeless camp in Fresno incognito for a week and it was terrifying and a really deep experience. That came right into the book, because there what you would see is that I think that people living there could recognize, despite my efforts of concealment, that I didn’t really belong there. So they would gravitate to me and tell me why they were there. The story also always had the subtext of why they were the only sane person in the place. Very touching. Then they would come back the next day and tell you the same story, and again and again. So, a lot of that made its way into the book. But I think all of us are in that situation. You construct an identity for yourself, which you have to do to get through the day. In order to bolster up that identity, you’re telling yourself this internal narrative all the time, which by definition is only partly true. And every so often the world comes in and punctures that story about yourself and then that’s kind of the situation there. They don’t really want that puncture. They want to stay there as long as they can.
Miller: I wonder if you could read us a passage. Would you like to set it up?
Saunders: One thing we should say is that the book is, for complicated reasons, written in a series of monologues. I think the number of people in the book is 166, which we found out when we did the audiobook. The way it’s set up on the pages, there’s a block of text and you don’t actually know who’s speaking until you get to the end, and then there’s a little identifier. So I’ll try to enact that. There’s actually going to be three speakers, three speakers but one main one.
Miller: I feel like people maybe should know what happened just before, which is that Willie Lincoln, the President’s son, has been taken to the cemetery. His body. Then the president goes into the crypt and actually holds his body and all the souls who are there are so excited by this and that’s what they’re talking about.
Saunders: Please do not misunderstand. We had been mothers, fathers. Had been husbands of many years, men of import, who had come here, that first day, accompanied by crowds so vast and sorrowful that, surging forward to hear the oration, they had damaged fences beyond repair. Had been young wives, diverted here during childbirth, our gentle qualities stripped from us by the naked pain of that circumstance, who left behind husbands so enamored of us, so tormented by the horror of those last moments (the notion that we had gone down that awful black hole pain-sundered from ourselves) that they had never loved again. Had been bulky men, quietly content, who, in our first youth, had come to grasp our own unremarkableness and had, cheerfully (as if bemusedly accepting a heavy burden), shifted our life’s focus; if we would not be great, we would be useful; would be rich, and kind, and thereby able to effect good: smiling, hands in pockets, watching the world we had subtly improved walking past (this empty dowry filled; that education secretly funded). Had been affable, joking servants, of whom our masters had grown fond for the cheering words we managed as they launched forth on days full of import. Had been grandmothers, tolerant and frank, recipients of certain dark secrets, who, by the quality of their unjudging listening, granted tacit forgiveness, and thus let in the sun. What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.
The Reverend Everly Thomas. And yet.
Roger Bevins III. And yet no one had ever come here to hold one of us, while speaking so tenderly.
Hans Vollman. Ever.
Roger Bevins III
Miller: What is it about being touched, being held, that so delighted, and only saddened the people that you’re writing about?
Saunders: Well, I’ve done all this erratic research and one of things I did was read about ghosts. One of the things that I found was that ghosts actually love it when you have their pictures in the house, and they resent it when you take their pictures down. Some haunted houses have been caused by the fact that the houses were built on foundations of old gravestones. In my sister’s house, there’s a ghost and I’m pretty convinced, a priest, because she has a stained glass window from an old church and it says, ‘In my memory of Father so and so.’ So I love that idea, that if you left this place and you had the ability to look back, it would be kind of like getting demoted to the minor leagues. You’d always be watching the Yankees like, ‘Oh God, why am I not up there’? So to me, that was intriguing. When you’re writing a story in a certain way, I think the whole art of storytelling is to have something happen for a specific reason. Then that engenders a specific reaction that has some emotional familiarity. So, in this part of the book, Lincoln had come in and held the body, and what you’re hoping for is an authentic reaction from the ghost. For a long time I couldn’t figure it out, and one day I was just sitting around and I thought, oh yeah, of course he’s like, Lincoln’s like a celebrity, he’s still embodied. So for him to show…
Miller: Oh, a celebrity, not because he’s the President, …
Saunders: ...you know, they don’t know,...
Miller: ...because he has a body and he’s paying attention to them...
Saunders: Well first, that he has a body. Then the cherry on top of the thing was that not only did he come in there at night, which they shouldn’t do, but he actually paid attention to one of their own and he made physical contact with this thing. So that was just one of those moments where you think, yeah, that’s right. That’s what the ghosts would do.
Miller: Do you believe in ghosts?
Saunders: Yeah, but they don’t believe in me. I never see them. I saw one in my life, actually. I saw my Grandfather. Because I’ve never seen one before or since, I kind of believe in this. I was in bed a few days after his funeral and there was just this form, and this force that showed up at the end of the bed and I knew it was him. I couldn’t but I knew it was him and it was just like it’s all right. It’s totally fine. Like that. And I was like, okay, go out. But it really wasn’t scary because I think my sense was he didn’t want to be scary. He wanted to be reassuring. And it totally was and that was that.
Miller: What do you mean when you say ‘they don’t believe in me?’
Saunders: Well, I think people, I mean this is where you get into wacky hour, but…
Miller: Let’s just do it…
Saunders: I think people are sometimes receptive and they can get it. I just I would love to, but I can go into the most reputedly haunted place in the world and nothing happens, you know? So...
Miller: Even though you want it to happen.
Saunders: Maybe it’s because I want it to happen. But yeah, it’s like cats who seek out people who don’t want a cat on their lap, right?
Miller: Right. Or like dating. You mentioned briefly the form of the novel, which is sort of startling. And it’s like any great book. Most great books teach you how to read them. This one takes longer than the normal. [It] took me longer to learn how to read this because of the form. As you mentioned briefly, you have both the short, sometimes slightly longer, monologues from these ghosts or spirits. Then you have excerpts from a number of real historical books and some made up memoirs, some made up books. Those two are split up a sentence here or a paragraph there. Why did you choose that form?
Saunders: It was not really a choice, except it was a choice made over many months by iteration. When I was a younger writer, I had this idea that you had to control the material, know what you’re doing, and export. That never worked for me. So the model that evolved was to really just rewrite a lot and always try to be super honest about how the book is affecting you as you’re imagining yourself as the first time reader. So that’s complicated, but really it just means picking up and reading at the beginning of the day as if you had no allegiance to it and trying to see what it’s doing to you. And then being real honest when it’s disappointing you. That’s it. And then recognizing that the way to fix that is not to have a big conceptual conversation with yourself, but to just move some stuff around. Rewrite. Now there’s not much to talk about in that process, but if you give it enough time, it’s amazing. It’s almost like, if I gave you an apartment that I had decorated for you, it would be a nice gesture. But it would always feel like a bit of a hotel. Now, if I said to you every day you can take out one thing that I chose for you and replace it with something you like better, and you can do that for seven years, at the end of that time, that place would just be exuding you-ness. So that’s the process. So in this one, specifically, I had an old book that I had abandoned that was set in a graveyard, and it was kind of inspired by chat lines in the way, or comments pages, the way they look. it never really cohered. So I discarded it, but I remember the notion and then at some point I had the historical things in. [It was] just one of those moments where you go, oh, wait a minute. Those are actually the same thing. If I move the attributions to the bottom, they look exactly the same way. That was pleasing and then suddenly… it’s sort of hard to explain. It’s very intuitive and gradual.
Miller: But one of the things that’s embedded in that is that I think a lot of writers don’t necessarily think this way. I mean, I’ve heard writers in the past say I had this character or this plot idea of this story and I returned to it 20 years later, which I think on some level is also what you’ve done here. I think it’s more rare to have a writer say I had this form, this formal idea of how to structure a book or a short story, and I returned to that. But that’s part of your interest, I think. It shows your interest in form.
Saunders: But the other thing is, it always sounds more organized than it actually is. It’s more like a trash collector. Because I had that form, threw it away, went, ‘Oh, well,’ too bad, you know, that’s a nice form, but it’s impossible. And then I was doing this Lincoln thing and trying to figure out how I could narrate it and, you think maybe Lincoln could narrate it. That’s a nonstarter for a lot of reasons. Then you just look over in the discard pile and you go, oh yeah. Now, in retrospect, it looks obvious that that would be a great way to tell the story. But at the time it was just like, I wonder, oh yeah, that’s kind of interesting. For me, not so much conceptual or decisive. But when I was in the oil business, there used to be a certain level of mechanic that was disdained and this person was called a part swapper. So if he was working for a corporation… There was this oil company. You bring the truck and you go, it’s not starting. He goes, ‘Okay.’ And he’d replace the carburettor. Just because it wasn’t his carburettor and it wouldn’t work. Okay. So what to replace something else? And they could go through several $100 worth of parts before they stumbled on the answer. That guy was not considered a good mechanic. In a sense though, that’s kind of what my writing process is like... throwing something in just to see and then watching if the thing responds to it and then going ahead.
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