You’ve got to love a writer who gets something stuck in his creative craw. For bestselling novelist George Saunders – he’ll speak twice at CPCC’s Sensoria on April 5 – it was a day in D.C., driving by Oakhill Cemetery, when his wife’s cousin pointed to a crypt and said, “Lincoln’s son was buried up there.”
She went on to tell how Lincoln had sneaked out of the White House late one night to visit the crypt to hold little Willie’s body.
The result is Saunders’ bizarre and wondrous debut novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which lit up a neon sign inside me: “Genius at work.” It’s set in that cemetery during one night in 1862, as the Civil War is gaining momentum and thousands of men are dying in battle.
But for years Saunders resisted turning that idea into fiction. Such material, he felt, might call him into new artistic arenas, opening up parts of himself he’d never explored. He feared a trap.
He started writing, but as he told Poets & Writers, he hoped it wouldn’t be a novel. “I’m hoping it isn’t. I’m going to push against it whenever it starts to bloat,” he said.
Halfway through, it hit him that it was only a novel because “it’s on a bigger stretcher-frame.” He relaxed.
Saunders is the author of several short story collections, including “The Tenth of December,” as well as a novella, a collection of essays and a children’s book.
Awards include a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
He grew up in Chicago and worked as a geophysicist before completing an MFA at Syracuse University, where he now teaches in the creative writing program.
Q. I found “Lincoln in the Bardo” to be absolutely exquisite in every detail. But what do you think pushed it so quicly to the top of the New York Times bestseller list?
Thank you! I’m not sure, honestly, but I can say that, along the way, I was trying to err on the side of opening my work up as much as I could – to try to write frankly and movingly about the big things: love, loss, war, etc. So I had it in mind to try to attract a bigger audience, by writing a larger and more accessible story.
Q. Does the notion that Lincoln visited his son in the crypt make him a more appealing character for you?
Yes. Well, it made the book more interesting to me, to think that he might have done that. In a sense, whether he did it or not, we might say that he should have done it. It is a charged and gorgeous thing to have done. I think that is how fiction works – we contemplate a particularly charged event. It doesn’t necessarily have to have occurred – but it feels meaningful and somehow overloaded with beauty.
Q. You told one interviewer that you have a tiny box of talent that you’ve worked all these years. That’s hard to believe. Please expound.
It took me a long time to get my first book done, and that taught me that I am not a writer with a vast field in which to work. I’ve got a modest little talent-garden, so that means I have to be very smart about how I work it to try to get the most out of it and sort of “trick” it, if you will. I can only get certain material to come alive. So that requires me being very … crafty.
Q. Describe your ideal writing day.
Get started first thing in the morning, pre-distraction, and work until my mind gets fuzzy.
Q. You did a huge amount of research for this novel. Did you particularly enjoy combining the factual with the imaginary?
Yes. I saw myself as using the factual to brace up the imaginary. If the reader started to disbelieve the ghost world, the facts might get her reinvested.
Q. The Buddhist Bardo is the place where those souls abide who have yet to come to terms with their death. Did you also see the Bardo as a metaphor for the way the living are often trapped between who we believe we are and who we are becoming? Or how we cling to people and things in the past, keeping us from a more abundant life?
Well, I think you’re right. But when I’m working I try to be a bit leery of the metaphorical meaning of the story. Mostly I am trying to make it more dramatic and make the reader believe in it as something that is actually happening. I see that as the writer’s real job. If he can do that, the thematics will take care of themselves.
Q. I was intrigued by the chapter of the eyewitness accounts of the state reception the Lincolns gave the night son Willie was so ill. Many guests commented on the moon, while a couple said there was no moon that night. Were you showing how difficult it is to decipher the truth of eyewitness accounts to history?
Well, again — I was really just trying to make a beautiful and mysterious chapter. I think that is so much of the writing process – trying to stumble onto a tone of beauty that you couldn’t previously have imagined, and then refining that tone. One of the reasons I found that chapter beautiful was because, as you suggest, it alludes to the fact that even our memories are (like us) unstable and ephemeral and subject to interpretation: nothing in this world solid or fixed.
Q. Did your opinion of Lincoln change during the writing of the novel?
I fell in love with him, honestly, with the way he stayed brave and tried to do what was right, even in the face of such hardship. And I admired the way his mind and his compassion seemed to enlarge, even during those hard times. He seemed to be a pretty courageous person, who was able to keep working and growing through incredible grief.
Q. What parallels do you see between those of us trapped in a metaphorical Bardo and our country trapped between warring political factions?
I found myself thinking of the idea, from the Gnostic Gospels, that “to be saved” means to bring forth what is within you – to really look at it. I think we have that deficiency in common with the bardo-beings: we tend to be in denial. Politically, I don’t know – it seems we are all trapped by our conceptions of ourselves, and also by the constantly braying partisan media. So many of our political beliefs seem to come right off of the TV.
Q. The fleeting nature of life I found to be one of the major themes of this book. Do you find yourself, at age 58, thinking more about the brevity of life? And how we sometimes fail to cherish those we love while we have them?
Definitely. It is a very beautiful and scary and meaningful thing to try to keep in mind – very clarifying. It is sort of amazing that death is really coming for us, when all of this feels so permanent, including ourselves. The question for me is: Can I find a way to live more happily in spite of (or maybe even because of) that fact.