The Emotional Realist Talks to Ghosts: A Q&A With George Saunders

Kevin Larimer
From the March/April 2017 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In the late spring of 2000, on my first feature assignment as a twenty-seven-year-old editorial assistant for this magazine, I took the five-and-a-half-hour train ride from New York City to Syracuse, New York, to interview the author of one of that summer’s most highly anticipated books, the story collection Pastoralia (Riverhead Books). George Saunders had not yet received the kind of popular acclaim and critical recognition that followed him in the years to come, in the form of a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called Genius Grant; the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story; an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; the Story Prize; and so many other honors. He had not yet appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert or This Week With George Stephanopoulos, or been named by Time magazine as one of the hundred most influential people in the world. He had not yet delivered the convocation address at Syracuse University that was posted on the website of the New York Times and then, within days, shared more than a million times on social media.

Back in 2000, when the author had published just one collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (Random House, 1996), and his second was just starting to gain momentum, the name George Saunders was already on every critic’s tongue, but the literary world had yet to discover the true depth of the author’s talent. Seventeen years later, we still haven’t touched bedrock, though his subsequent books—two more story collections, In Persuasion Nation (Riverhead Books, 2006) and Tenth of December (Random House, 2013); a novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (Riverhead Books, 2005); a children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (Villard, 2000); and a collection of essays, The Braindead Megaphone (Riverhead Books, 2007)—have added to the already overwhelming evidence that we are in the presence of a writer whose boundless imagination, laugh-out-loud humor, moral acuity, and, though he would protest the characterization, generosity of spirit truly set him apart.

Saunders’s soaring talents are once again on display in his long-awaited debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, published in February by Random House. Presenting a kaleidoscopic panorama of voices (the audiobook employs a cast of 166 narrators), Lincoln in the Bardo is set in a graveyard, over the course of a single night in 1862, where President Abraham Lincoln grieves the death of his eleven-year-old son, Willie, while the boy’s ghost confronts a congregation of other spirits in a strange purgatory—called the bardo, in Tibetan tradition. It is a wonderfully bizarre and hilariously terrifying examination of the ability to live and love with the knowledge that everything we hold dear will come to an end.

Seventeen years ago, Saunders offered to spend more of his time with me than any professional obligation or friendly courtesy required of him. It was my first, and fortunately not my last, opportunity to get to know this bighearted, wholly original writer. In December we met again, at a hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where we spoke for several hours about emotional realism, humor as a form of honesty, the flexibility of form, and, because this is George Saunders, poop jokes.

In 2000, I asked you if you’d ever tried to write a novel, and you replied, “Most of those stories in Pastoralia started out as novels. I’ve tried and I just recently got to the point where I’m not going to try anymore. If it happens, it’ll happen organically.” Here you are with your debut novel—so, did it happen organically?
The idea for Lincoln in the Bardo had been around for a long time, and I found myself saying, “Well, I’ll do it, but I’m not sure it’s going to be a novel. I’m hoping it isn’t. I’m going to push against it whenever it starts to bloat.” And that principle seemed to be a good compositional principle, you know? If something tries to push its way into the book, you give it a stern look and say, “Are you just here because you think this is a novel? Because that’s next door.” So that meant, too, that all the moves I developed [writing stories] over the years were of course the ones that I used. How could it be otherwise, you know? But about halfway through, I said, “Oh, this is a novel only because it’s on a bigger stretcher-frame.” But each of the individual sections was being executed by the same principles as a story would be. So that was a relief.

You just treated it like pieces of a story.
Yes. And I don’t know if other writers do this, but there’s that moment where you go, “Oh my God, I’m writing a novel. Anything goes!” And a couple of times I got in trouble because that mind-set took over. And then I would get that back in the box and say, “No, it’s by the same principles as all these stories: efficiency, one section producing and then leading to another. That’s it.” And then I would get back on track. So it was like the more I said, “The principles don’t change, but maybe the scale changes,” then I could do it. It was really a comfort to know that, in art, form is a way of accommodating one’s natural inclinations. If your natural inclination is to make small, concise structures, then form shows up and says, “Would you like me to help you link your small, concise structures?” And then form seems organic; it doesn’t seem whimsical. It doesn’t seem arbitrary. It seems organic, because it’s what allows you to accommodate your strengths.

Actually, at one point, a long time ago, I tried to do sort of a third-person version of this. And it was just dull, you know? “Lincoln walked into the graveyard. It was a dark and stormy night.” And sometimes you get into a zone like that, and you recoil. Like, no, no, no, I’m not using that voice. I can’t do it.

How far did you go using that voice?
A page. Maybe two pages. It just felt creepy. And it was funny, because I loved that idea, but the prose was doing nothing to get me into a happy zone vis-à-vis that idea. It was just, like, typing about Lincoln. So that was no good. But I did try, over the years, to write a play. Kind of the same thing: It made me more convinced that there was definitely a story there, but that wasn’t it. The play wasn’t it, for sure.

That wasn’t the form that was going to allow you to tell the story.
No. And strangely enough, the book is kind of playlike. But it was just, you know, sometimes you think—for me, for example, when I think, “I’m going to write a poem today,” it’s a guarantee that bullshit will come out of my head, because I’ve said I’m going to be a poet, and I just don’t have that gift. So my “poems,” in quotes, sound like poems in quotes. They’re just not good. The play was like that. It had a certain kind of faux-dramatic quality that just wasn’t interesting.

And how far did you get into the play?
I finished it. I did twenty or thirty drafts. I kept thinking, “I’m going to figure out something here that makes this work.” At one point I put a big sign across it: Don’t Touch It! Just stay away.

That makes me think of something Colson Whitehead said when we talked for a recent episode of our podcast, Ampersand, about The Underground Railroad and how the idea for that was something he’d had fifteen years ago. And he just put it aside. He said he wanted to wait because he didn’t feel like he could do the idea justice. He wanted to become a better writer before he tackled that subject matter.
That’s exactly the feeling I had about this…. I feel like my whole trajectory has been as a person of quite limited talent who’s a little strange and learns to harness that strangeness to accent the talent. So then you’re walking on a pretty thin ledge for the first two or three books. I think the thing has been trying to make my work—I’ve said as “happy” as I am, but I’m not sure I’m really that happy—I’m trying to make my work more like me. And so, over the past twenty years, the process has been trying to expand my toolbox to allow access to these different emotional valences that I didn’t really have access to early on. Or, I had access to them but only through a really dark route. I don’t think those early stories are particularly not hopeful. I think they’re kind of hopeful, but you’ve got to go a long way to get there, you know?

I suppose it’s like one’s personality: When you’re young, you’re a little insecure, you’re a little stealthy, and you try to find your way in the world, so you start embracing certain approaches and eschewing other ones. Then maybe at some midlife point, you go, “Wait now, I wonder if there’s more to me than this,” and you start to try to become more expansive, or maybe just get a little more comfortable in your skin, and you go, “Okay, I’m going to reconsider.” So for me it was an artistic enactment of that, which happened when I started writing essays. Especially the travel essays. Andy Ward, whom I worked with at GQ, had a really nice way of encouraging me when I would get into a place where I wasn’t relying on humor quite so much. And that in turn led to the Tenth of December and a couple of stories where suddenly I was drawing more directly on my real life…and finding that you could actually do that and still have a good prose style. Those kinds of things were the ladder that led me to be able to try this book.

What was the initial germ of the idea for this novel?
We were in D.C. and driving by Oakhill Cemetery, and my wife’s cousin just casually pointed up and said, “That crypt up there…” I don’t know if we could actually see the crypt, or if we could just see the graveyard, but he said, “Lincoln’s son was buried up there.” And at that point, I didn’t even know Lincoln had a son. I’m not exactly a history major. And then she said, “Yeah, you know, he died while Lincoln was in office, a very low moment in the presidency, and Lincoln was so bereft that he apparently snuck out of the White House, crossed the city at night, and then newspapers at the time”—I’ve verified this since—“said that he had touched or held the body several times.” So that's just one of those weird historical things. One, that a president at that point in history could leave the White House. This was during the Bill Clinton years, so you thought, “Bill Clinton’s not coming out at night.” And then also, as a father, just this sense of loss, and also the idea that, at that time, to touch and hold a body wouldn’t have been considered quite as morbid as we consider it. And this doesn’t happen to me, I’m not a real visual person, but there was just a pop of that image of Lincoln with the body across his lap—the Pietà,  a monument or memorial or whatever. And then your mind goes, “Oh, that’d be a good story,” and I just had a feeling like, “Yeah, not for you.” Because maybe at that point…what year did we see each other?

That was 2000.
So it would be around that time. A little earlier than that, because Clinton was president. At that point I had just gotten up on my feet a little bit with a certain voice and a certain approach to material that for me was very new. So when I just did the mental transposition of that material with what I thought was my voice at that point, it’s almost like sparks: “Nah, that isn’t right.” So I put it aside. I’m not sure I was so confident I ever would write about it. But I remember kind of thinking, “Yeah, there are people who could do that, but in this life, maybe it’s just not me.” And there are lots of stories in the world; I just happened to hear that one. No problem. But it definitely persisted. And the way I knew it was, I have a range of, like anybody, happiness and not-happiness, and whenever I’d be happy, that idea would almost come stand behind me and go, “Would you please?”

But every time I thought of it, I got that uncomfortable feeling like it was more than I could do. I’m not sure I was quite as confident as Colson that I would get there, but I just wasn’t able to get over it. So that’s interesting: an idea that just refuses to be boxed. That’s kind of weird. And I hadn’t actually ever had that feeling before. I normally don’t even think in ideas. So I felt a trap was being set, because when I was a younger writer, I would have those kinds of ideas: A novel in which…

The grand elevator pitch.
Right. And then nothing would happen. So I was really resisting it. But when I have an idea like that, it’s trying to summon me into some new artistic ground. I was permitting parts of myself into the book that I had been keeping out all these years—genuine parts, and parts that I wanted to have in there. And somehow the idea went, “Come here, come here, come here. Trust me, trust me.” And I’m like, “I don’t know, I think it’s a trap.” And the idea said, “It is! It’s a good trap!”

And suddenly, you find yourself in really interesting, dramatic situations where the only way out is to summon up those previously suppressed or denied parts of your psyche that can finish it. And for me, those tended to be the more hopeful parts, actually. Or, hopeful and narratively straight, being comfortable with drama, no need to turn around and make jokes, just stay in that zone a little longer than I would normally be comfortable with. And then turn around and make the joke. It was a great experience.

I listened to an interview you gave around the time Tenth of December came out. And you were talking about how you were a little nervous about the reception of it, because you felt like it had more realism in it than your earlier work. Do you see this as a kind of trajectory, that you’re kind of pushing toward more realism?
It’s funny, in talking about writing, I think people tend to make binaries. I don’t know why, but a student will come in and say, “I don’t know if I want to be funny or serious.” Or sometimes they’ll link it to people: “I either want to be Kerouac or Flannery O’Connor.” I don’t know why these writing problems present as binaries, but they seem to be neurological. So then of course one of the things you can do is, you can destabilize the binary. If you like O’Connor and Kerouac, put them on one side of the binary, and who’s on the other side? In this new novel, it’s a kind of realism, but when I think about writing a truly realistic book, I don’t have any interest in it. So I would say it’s emotional realism. And the goal has always been—that’s actually what it is, that’s the first time I’ve realized that: It’s just to have the fiction somehow simpatico with my actual emotional life, or let’s say with our actual emotional lives. I think that was always the goal. In CivilWarLand, that’s what I was trying to do. I was in a pretty rough patch. But I think the idea would be to say, “Okay, I’m going to try to remember every emotional state I’ve ever been in, and then assume that there are a bunch I haven’t been in, and that out in the world, all the ones I’ve ever experienced are still going on. It’s not like being a depressed eighteen-year-old went away because I turned nineteen.” So then you try to experiment, to imagine all those coexisting [states]; develop a style that would allow you to talk about that. I don’t really care much about realism, except in that sense. What does the human mind actually produce for us? What experiences and prejudices and impulses and desires? How do those desires actually play out in the real world? To get to the point where you could actually accommodate that would be the goal. And that makes sense for my work, because this novel isn’t—there are only three living people in the book, so I don’t know if we could really call it realism, but I think it certainly felt like I had more room to be emotionally realistic. In other words, to be able to write about grief not glancingly but rather directly. There’s some of that in the early books, but it’s always just a quick hit and move on, almost like a marker of grief. To be able to turn directly to it for three hundred pages feels to me like a step in the direction of emotional capaciousness, let’s say. So the goal would be, when I’m three hundred years old and I’m finishing my last book, that to anybody who walked in I’d be able to say, “Oh yeah, I get that. I love you, I understand you. Let’s have a book about you.” Whereas even now, there are some areas of human experience where I’m just like, “Yeah, I don’t know enough.” Or maybe I don’t have enough generosity of spirit.

In the interview you did with Random House—the one that appears in the back of the ARC—you talking about this book being a sort of chorus of voices. And you say, “These are people who did not in life manage to bring forth what was within them.” Where did that come from? It’s a psalm, I think.
It’s the Gnostic Gospels, yeah. In some ways it’s just traditional ghost theory, which is, “Why are you here?” “I want my liver back!”

Unfinished business.
That kind of thing. And that kind of melded with the Tibetan bardo idea, which is to me the more interesting and scarier idea: whatever way that your mind works in real time, right this minute, right this second. The body’s going to drop away, and that’s going to continue, but exaggerated. So with Heaven and Hell, it becomes a little complicated. It’s not: “Turn left, you’re in Heaven; turn right, you’re in Hell.” It’s: “Where are you right now?”

There’s that binary you were talking about again.
Exactly. There’s something that’s Heaven-esque maybe. So if a person had gotten into a relationship with their thoughts in this life in a way that made them mostly pretty loving and happy, then I guess the idea would be that when you kicked off, that would continue. Or if you were an intensely self-flagellating, suspicious, greedy person whose every thought was sort of infused with that, then when you die, that could continue. That’s the theory. But the fun thing about this book was, your temptation was to say, “Well, let’s figure out what the afterlife is, and I’ll put it in a novel.” Well, I’m pretty sure that whatever it is, it’s not what you think it is. So part of it was fun. To make the afterlife surprising was a pretty natural thing for a comic writer to do. You know how to make things weird and surprising, so to take the afterlife and just make it a little bit strange. I didn’t want it to look like the Christian Heaven, I didn’t want it to look like the Buddhist Heaven. I wanted it to look like nothing you’d seen before, to simulate the idea that if you went there, you’d be like, “Oh my God, what is this?”

You’re referencing Heaven a lot.
They’re not in Heaven.

I read this novel as much darker. It inhabits a much darker space.
Yes, that’s true.

Back when we first talked sixteen years ago, you said that you could only write comic fiction. You said, “Humor, I don’t know, but comic.” So, is this a comic novel?
Yes. I think so. But…I got to certain places where, in early rounds, the material was so straight. Sort of slavishly straight. It just had a History Channel vibe in the early drafts. And that panicked me a little bit, because that’s where it looked like it wasn’t emotionally honest. It was something else. So I kind of panicked and dropped in a couple funny things. And they just didn’t belong in that book. They were kind of funny, but they also were…it’s like somebody in the middle of a marriage proposal who senses he’s going to get a “no,” so he does a fart joke. You know? You think, “Well, that’s a desperate move.” So then I had a few days of just saying, “Okay, wait a minute now.” Again, in the binaries: I was saying funny versus not-funny. Then I thought to myself, “Is there a way to turn that? And whatever it is that I have always thought of in my work as funny, or people have thought of as funny, can we rename that a little bit?” Just to give myself a little bit of room. And I thought, “Well, all right: How does a joke work in fiction?” I think the way it works is, you and I are walking through the story together, reader and writer, writer and reader, and there’s something I’ve said behind us, and I suddenly remember it. As we’re going into the apartment building, I eat a banana, I drop the peel. And then we’re coming out of the building, and I remember that, you know? And you have just said something really arrogant to me, and then you step on the peel and you fall. That’s comedy. But really, at its essence, it’s the writer remembering what he said. In other words, it’s a form of narrative alertness. So then I thought, “Okay, since this draft is a little straight, is there a way that I’m not being narratively alert enough?” And I could show you, there’s one particular moment where I had the three ghosts arriving, and I’d forgotten that they all had these crazy features, these physical manifestations. Just by the act of putting those descriptions in, the text came alive, and the text coming alive made me hear them better. And I gave them a couple funny lines. So the whole thing came alive, but with, I would say, narrative alertness. So then suddenly it gives you a little more freedom to do things that don’t break the tone of the scene. From then on, I’m like, “Oh yeah, you don’t have to be funny.” People like it when narrative alertness becomes funny, but there’s a lot of forms of narrative alertness. Cormac McCarthy is the most narratively alert person you could ever ask for. Not particularly funny, but when he’s moving through a landscape, he doesn’t forget anything that he’s made. It all comes home in that beautiful language.

The Orchard Keeper.
Unbelievable. And he sometimes can be very funny actually. But you can see that he’s not addicted to or looking for that. He’s just 100 percent alive in his fictive reality. Actually, Toni Morrison—I taught Sula this year: same. She can be very funny. But the main thing I feel with her is that the fictional world is just crackling with life, and the author is just generously looking around, blessing it all, and asking, “What do I need?” And that question means: What will make the most beautiful sentence I can put in front of you to make you feel as alive in the fictive reality as I am? So whether it’s humor or not is maybe a low-level understanding of that kind of interaction between reader and writer.