Getting Out of Our Normal Crap: George Saunders on Writing and Transcendence




BY NOW, EACH NEW BOOK by the short story maestro George Saunders is a literary event. In short story collections like Pastoralia and Tenth of December, his blend of satire, moral seriousness, and sheer inventiveness stretched the boundaries of what a story could do. His new book, Lincoln in the Bardo, has generated even more anticipation than usual. It’s his first novel, so admirers were eager to see how he’d sustain a narrative over the book’s 340 pages. Then there was the buzz about the accompanying audiobook with 166 readers, including Hollywood stars Julianne Moore, Ben Stiller, Lena Dunham, and Don Cheadle.

Well, Lincoln in the Bardo is a revelation. Formally daring, it’s written as a series of oral testimonies by (mostly) a chorus of loquacious and bickering ghosts. But this is more than just a parlor trick. Saunders also reflects on life and death, good and evil, and the national trauma of the Civil War. The novel grew out of accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s devastation at the death of his 11-year-old son Willie. According to news reports, Lincoln made several trips to visit his son’s body in the graveyard. The premise of Saunders’s novel is that Willie is stuck in a transitional state of the afterlife — the Tibetan bardo of the title — because the ghost of the dead boy doesn’t want to let go of his traumatized father.

Of course Lincoln has inspired countless books over the years, but this novel tells the story in an entirely original way. Saunders told me that once he’d figured out the book’s basic structure, it pulled him along and almost seemed to write itself.

In conversation, Saunders is, for an author of his stature, remarkably down to earth. We talked about his creative process, his fledgling Buddhist practice, and the enduring fascination with Lincoln and the Civil War.

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STEVE PAULSON: What drew you to the story of Lincoln going to the crypt to hold his son’s dead body?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: It’s one of those funny things about art. I don’t really know why. I heard the story back in the 1990s and kind of thought, “Oh yeah, that’s weird and cool. But it’s not for me to write. It’s not really in my wheelhouse.” I kept trying to put it aside over the next 20 years and it just kept coming back as an interesting and beautiful moment. Finally, I thought that if something is that insistent, and if your reaction is always a kind of terrified revulsion — like, “Oh my God, I could not write that book” — then that might be a way to lead yourself to higher artistic ground, to finally man up and take a run at it.

What was it about Lincoln visiting his dead son that got to you?

On one level, it was just the idea that he could actually do that. He could leave the White House alone and make his way across DC. I presume it was on a horse, because every so often he’d go to a soldier’s home on a horse and nobody would know about it. But then, at a deeper level, I think it was being a father with little kids at that time. You know, if you had an unimaginable loss, what options would be available to you? I could understand why one would go back to the physical body, just to be reminded of who that person was. But why would he stop going there? The newspapers said he had been there on several occasions. So what happens on the night when he says, “Okay, this is not helpful.” And what really intrigued me was just the image. When I first heard that story, I had this image of a combo of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà — this idea of Lincoln with the body across his lap. Now, after the fact, I can make these kinds of intellectual rationalizations, but really just that image kept coming into my mind over those intervening years.

This happened in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War. So Lincoln has this devastating personal loss when the whole nation is traumatized by death.

And at that time he’s perceived as this dopey outsider who’s screwing up the job. There’s a lot of talk in the press about the corruption of the war machine, and it’s too bad we elected such a hick. So in addition to this incredible personal loss, he’s probably feeling he took the job at exactly the wrong moment and might well be leading the whole thing into the ditch.

Do we know how Lincoln responded to his son’s death? Did it change the way he thought about the Civil War?

I don’t know, but I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t. That’s the question behind the book. One of the last conversations he had with his wife before his assassination was a pledge that they should get their love back on track. They hadn’t really been right since Willie’s death. They were both so devastated that they hadn’t been there for each other. I think it was a really deep wound. Many people said Willie was his favorite kid — the kid most like him. So before I started the book, I certainly thought this wouldn’t be separate from what happens in the rest of his life. Lincoln would be extremely tenderized by this loss and maybe wide open to other losses — the losses caused by the war — but maybe also tenderized to the suffering of people in slavery.

So I felt this grief would knock aside all your nonsense and all your habitual constructs about life being a manageable affair. Although it’s a little terrifying, it puts you directly in touch with the real terror of this whole thing. That terrifying reality that we spend so much energy trying to suppress would have been wide open for Lincoln in that moment. And I feel like it had to inform what he did later.

You’ve taken this fascinating historical anecdote and turned it into a ghost story. You’ve imagined Willie Lincoln suspended in the afterlife, in some sort of purgatory, with lots of ghosts arguing over the fate of his soul. It’s a wild premise.

Yes. One of the reasons I love writing is that you start with a simple idea — like Lincoln goes into the graveyard one night. Then as you struggle to narrate that in a way that isn’t banal or doesn’t undercut the real emotion, you find yourself going off into strange areas. For example, when I first thought of the idea, I was looking at 300 pages of internal monologue from Lincoln, which was daunting. So then you think, “Okay, how else can I do this?” And just in your attempt not to be sucky, you start getting innovative. It sounds kind of comical, but I ask myself, “Who else would be in a graveyard at night? Hmm, it could be a grave digger working overtime or it could be these supernatural beings.” So trying to do justice to this emotional moment sent me out in a lot of really interesting technical areas that I wouldn’t have anticipated.

I’ve never read a novel like this. You have a whole chorus of ghosts who gossip and bicker with each other. Some are very eloquent, while others are bawdy and practically lurking in the gutter. You keep cutting back and forth between what your various characters are saying. It reads like a play, except this is a novel.

That’s right. It was a great five-year adventure, because the book seemed to have a mind of its own. It had a kind of underlying design that my own mediocrity kept trying to suppress. But the book was very willful and would say this is just what we’re going to do. I’ve heard writers talk about this, but it’s never happened to me before. The book was literally leading me, and I found myself reporting to the writing desk with a bit of trepidation, but also real anticipation. What are you going to make me do today that I wouldn’t normally do? It was really the kind of book you hope will find you someday — one that yanks you out of your usual way of thinking and challenges you to go in new directions.

It’s worth mentioning that the audiobook of your novel has a lot of different voices. Don’t you have a different actor for every character in the book?

It has 166 separate voices. I think Random House is actually applying for a Guinness Book of World Records spot. We used amazing Hollywood A-listers. We also used a bunch of people from Random House, and we used my mom, my dad, my friends. It was really a stretch to get that many people. As I was writing and researching, I read these letters and editorials from the 19th century and I just saw the United States singing. It’s a beautiful thing. There are highly articulate, reasoned arguments, all the way down to almost illiterate letters to Lincoln. Every region is piping up, so the goal was to get that in the audiobook — to have people from every walk of life reading and talking past each other, to get this kind of chorale effect.

You’ve written about the Civil War before — or at least about Civil War reenactments. Are you a Civil War buff?

Not really. There’s just something about that era that interests me. I’ve often found myself thinking about good and evil, as writers tend to do. And as somebody who was born in the late ’50s, I’d say my life has played out in a relatively benign period of history. So I’m always looking back to see what evil actually looked like on its feet. The Civil War isn’t actually that long ago, and it’s one of those times when you can really find evil on its feet in America. So I go back there a lot, just because it’s so close in history and yet so far away. If we’re going to see what American evil looks like, that’s a pretty good place to start.

When you talk about evil, are you referring specifically to slavery?

I’m talking about slavery. When you read these historical accounts, there are very few people who had it right about slavery. Even on the abolitionist side, a lot of people would be partly right or compromising in certain ways. So what now looks to us like an obvious evil was rationalized and gummed up and hidden in a lot of eloquent arguments. I’m really interested in the way a culture would have evil sitting right in the middle of it and not be able to call it that. Even really smart people. Edmund Wilson wrote a wonderful book called Patriotic Gore, about the literary people of that time, and it’s incredible how almost nobody gets it right. But the one voice that pipes up and is so beautiful is Lincoln. He’s very inquisitive, and his thinking about slavery is not selfish. To me, he’s kind of saintly, because he’s really not interested in propagating an agenda or being correct or clever or safe. In all of his public utterances, he’s always trying to reason his way toward the highest possible ground.

What I find so amazing is how Lincoln changed from being a virulent racist earlier in his life. In a relatively short period — and while he was in the public eye — he went through a dramatic transformation in his core values.

Yes, in five years. You could argue that no human being has made such amazing progress in such a short time under so much pressure. Somehow, his mind expanded into an area where he really was interested in benefiting others, and his self diminished in those last three or four years. I’d say he got out ahead of not only his culture but ours in his understanding of what democracy might actually look like. Pretty amazing guy.

There’s a systemic metaphysics to your novel. The bardo is part of the Tibetan Buddhist version of the afterlife.

In Tibetan, “bardo” means transitional state. So there are several bardos. We’re in one right now. We’re in the transitional state between birth and death. And the bardo of the book goes from the instant of your death to the instant of your next birth. It’s maybe analogous to Purgatory, although it’s driven more by the user. I mean, the person who goes to the bardo can get out if he or she is just willing to face the music, particularly the thing they brought forward from life that’s not allowing them to go on to the next step.

So there’s a danger of getting stuck in the bardo. You could be trapped there for eternity.

That’s probably more true of my bardo than the actual Tibetan bardo, but at some point I had to break from the Tibetan model and make a whole new concept of what might happen when we die. My guess is that whatever happens is going to be a real shocker. Part of the writing challenge was to make a bardo that had some resemblance to what we think the afterlife might be, but different enough so we could share in the orientation of what a dead person would feel.

Does the bardo resonate for you personally — not just as a literary device but as a Buddhist concept?

Oh yeah. My wife and I have been students of Buddhism for a while, though I’m just a total beginner. From what I know, it’s a really beautiful way of inflecting this life. The idea is that, when you die, your mind is like a wild horse that gets let off the tether because it’s not dampened by your physical body anymore. They say the mind in that state can do anything. It can travel; it can be omniscient; it can experience horrible visions or beautiful visions — much like our idea of heaven. If that’s the case, the way we cultivate and train our minds right now is really key. So you could see it as a literal afterlife or as a metaphor for the fact that we’re making heaven and hell this instant by our habits of mind. And the hopeful thing is that you could cultivate a state of mind that’s more patient and loving and sane than the one you happen to be in at the moment. For me, that’s the big takeaway. Heaven and hell are right now, and they’re not beyond our ability to influence.

Do you have a contemplative practice? Do you meditate?

Yes, though not as regularly as I should. I consider writing to be a kind of farm team for that. You’re meditating on your own text that you wrote on Wednesday. You look at it on Thursday and the trick is to get free of whatever you used to think about it and see what it actually is. So in some small secular way, I think that’s a form of meditation — to be open to whatever energy your text is actually presenting as opposed to what you think it’s presenting. It’s a way of being more awake to things.

Spiritual practice is often about shedding your ego, and you’re suggesting writing is also like that. Yet writing often seems like the essence of ego, because it’s all about channeling you.

You know, what’s fun is you flip on that switch and say, “Let me write a book that’s going to get attention and be moving.” And that’s a totally holy impulse. But when you go to read it the next time, you’d better turn that off and say, “Okay, that’s wonderful, but how did I actually do?” Then you revise as you’re working with the energy of it. So one notion I really like is that any one of us possesses multiple energies, maybe thousands of different individuals at any given moment. None of those really predominates. They’re all present, and you can be both for something and against it at the same moment. We can actually let all that cacophony inside of ourselves sound off before we have to make a decision. Maybe one day I’m in a really bad mood, so I edit — you know, I let my inner nun out and cut the text to ribbons. Then maybe the next day I’m feeling happy and I’ll put some stuff back in. For me, the powerful thing is to know that whoever I happen to be at this moment isn’t any kind of emperor. It’s just one manifestation, and different manifestations can appear. Hopefully, we can train ourselves to be the best possible manifestation.

It sounds like you’re saying the process of writing takes you into an altered state of consciousness, just as you might experience from meditation or prayer. Is there an element of transcendence while you’re writing?

Absolutely. But it’s actually a messy kind of transcendence. It’s not like I start floating up off the chair. In my case, it’s coming back to a text again and again with as open a mind as I can get. Weirdly, that actually does produce a result that’s much better than I, George, am on any given day. For me, that’s very addictive. You know, I’m 58. I make the same stupid mistakes and say the same dumb stuff. My ego and selfishness present in the same way. And they’re pretty stubborn. I’ve tried all my life to get better, but it’s like rolling a stone uphill. But for those few moments a day when I’m revising and rigorously trying to enact truth and specificity, the text will flare up and be a better version of me. And that’s a really wonderful thing, if only because it says that we’re not fixed in these mediocre daily selves and can actually get out of them from moment to moment.

Have you had what you would call “transcendent” experiences — not just in writing, but in a more religious sense?

My sense is that transcendence might want to be a little more muscular and regular than we make it out to be. When I was young, I was a pretty rabid Catholic, and I had a couple of really beautiful transcendent experiences. But the ones that I trust now are not so mystical. Transcendence really means getting out of our normal crap that we inhabit habitually. So when I think about something sacred, it’s just anything that will remind me to question my own perceptions. And writing for me is transcendent in a very real-world way.

When I was younger, I had that idea that something would just suddenly float up out of the chair and this beauty would flood into your head. But that isn’t it. You sit and work really hard through thousands of micro decisions that are all pretty sensible. Some of them are intuitive and kind of surprising. But through those micro decisions, that transcendence happens a line at a time — and then, of course, it collapses. I had so many beautiful days writing this book, and at the end of the beautiful day my self would reassert itself, and I was just a dope again. But that’s good enough, I think. Likewise, as a reader, you might be trapped in your workaday self. You read a beautiful book and suddenly your mind flares up. That’s really wonderful. One way to think of it is that God just sort of dropped in and said, “Don’t forget. Your small vision of things is actually not it.” So art can do that — and of course any religious practice can do that, too.

It makes me wonder if there’s another analogy between literature and religion since they’re both exercises in world-building. To some degree, they’re both imaginative exercises.

Yes, they are. And in world-building, especially in a book like this, you get to decide what the rules of ghosts are. I didn’t start off with a bunch of rules. I just started out trying to make interesting lines and fun dialogue and vivid images. And when you take this kind of iterative approach with thousands of drafts, the world starts being very consistent. You can see which rules have to apply. Speaking of transcendence, the really magical thing is that in about year three, the rules in place started producing weird fruit. There were turns in the plot I hadn’t anticipated, which were really meaningful and moving, that weren’t really me doing it. It was the rules of the world saying, “If A, therefore B.” It’s kind of a cliché, but I’ve heard writers say it’s like you’re a midwife. The book is there. It’s a perfect being, or has a strong sense of what it is, and your job is to manage your daily activities so as not to thwart the thing’s individuality. I had that feeling really strongly in the last third of the book. It was just deeply enjoyable. I really kind of miss it.

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You can listen to the TTBOOK podcast here.

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Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s nationally syndicated show To the Best of Our Knowledge. He’s the author of Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science.


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