In this episode of The Write Up, host Owen Egerton talks to George Saunders about craft, ecstatic empathy and the afterlife in his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo.
Saunders is an award-winning and New York Times-bestselling author of essays, short stories, novellas and children’s books. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, GQ, Harper’s and McSweeny’s. His vast literary achievements include multiple National Magazine Awards, a McArthur and a Guggenheim fellowship, a Bram Stoker Award and a National Book Award.
In this interview during the Texas leg of his book tour, Saunders talks about the ever-present mental editor that drives him to refine his work. When referring to his recent essay on process, he talks about the connection he has to his readers.
In his constant drive to sound “less lame,” he builds a faith-based relationship with his imagined readers. He promises them his best work and trusts that they will unfold themselves, tap into their empathy, and join him in his story.
The idea for this novel came some 20 years ago when he heard a story about Lincoln’s grief over losing his son. During his presidency, it was said that Lincoln would frequently venture into the graveyard and into the crypt where his son's body was to hold him. From this anecdote he could see the outline of a story that would, eventually, become Lincoln in The Bardo.
Saunders was well known as a short-story writer for some time before this new novel. When speaking about writing a longer work, he says he was at first unsure. But his skills in crafting short fiction translated into novel writing more easily than he originally imagined. Saunders described it as if he had spent years building small tents and then a large tent arrived. The material was greater and more complex but it was all based on the same principles.
In writing a larger story he found that not only could he combine several small structures to make a large one, but that there was room for new beauty and complexity in the places where the smaller pieces came together.
Saunders is well known for his essays, often going out of his way to put himself into situations with people he might not run across otherwise. He’s covered Trump rallies and once lived in a homeless encampment, which might have directly affected his most recent novel.
Saunders noticed that all the people living there had a very specific story. Always some variation on the theme of "I’m not supposed to be here." Seeing how circumstance and tragedy could reduce personal narratives to a narrow monologue directly influenced the characters in his novel. The residents of the graveyard are ghosts stuck in an in-between place who tell their stories. Their voices illuminate pockets of experience and lives lived that weave around the main story.
Saunders speaks simply and elegantly, both in this interview, and in his work. It’s impossible to not be inspired as he talks about topics ranging from ethics and spirituality to one of his characters’ supernaturally persistent erection.
Lincoln in The Bardo is Saunders’ first novel and, according to Owen, is “the best text about ethics and empathy, ever, including all religious texts and all the classics.”