That which is within you
A conversation with George Saunders
Last year, writer George Saunders won Britain’s Man Booker Prize—only the second American to do so—with “Lincoln in the Bardo.” His debut novel is a ghost story based on the night President Lincoln buried his favorite son, and like Saunders’ career, it goes in many directions. Written as a series of haunting monologues and historical snippets, the book might put off those who enjoy traditional narratives, but it’s worth the investment. Sad, hilarious, and impossibly moving, the book gets at all the icky parts of death we’d rather not talk about, but probably should.
George Saunders will be at the Philbrook Museum of Art at 6 pm on February 16. We spoke by phone.
Zack Reeves: Tell us about yourself.
George Saunders: I grew up in Chicago on the South Side, and wasn’t going to go to college, but then a couple of high school teachers intervened on my behalf and basically strong-armed me into the Colorado School of Mines. So I went out there, got a degree in geophysics, went over to Asia and worked over there for a little under two years, got sick, and in that sort of crisis moment in my life I realized that I’d always wanted to be a writer, and so I slowly turned the ship in that direction, and I’ve been writing ever since.
Reeves: It was in Asia when you discovered Vonnegut, is that correct?
Saunders: Yeah. At that time, I didn’t even like him that much. I didn’t understand what he was doing, and I was more of a straight-minded Hemingway type of a guy. But [Vonnegut] certainly got under my skin. And then later, when I read him after living a little more, I grew to love what he was doing.
Reeves: You’ve said that before you went to Asia you’d read almost nothing. Other than Hemingway, what was the ‘almost nothing’ you had read up to that point?
Saunders: I’d read very scattershot. I remember I spent a summer in Carlsbad, New Mexico, working in the oil fields, and I read Dostoyevsky, The Odyssey, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Kahlil Gibran, and thrillers. I wasn’t reading in a lineage; I would just find a book and read it. I certainly hadn’t read much contemporary fiction, which was kind of a drawback.
Reeves: For a lot of people, scattershot means something much different than Dostoyevsky and Homer. What got you into this kind of literature?
Saunders: I had two good English teachers in Chicago and a good history teacher, and I think these names were just in my mind. I knew Goethe, and I knew Kant, and I knew Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. I wasn’t reading them, but I had heard the names. And I think I kind of had an idea of high versus low: high fiction was stuff that took on the big questions of life and used difficult language and so on.
When I went to college, it was a technical school; I think I took two or three English classes the whole time. So every time something came to me, it was coming to me without a context. Say you read Norman Mailer and then you read a spy thriller; it was really up to me to determine what quality was. What were the powerful things about this one? What were the bullshit things about that one? So it was good for a while, but then at some point, you need a little help. That’s what going to grad school at Syracuse was for me.
But I had a long early phase where I was making a lot of judgments about literature. I was comparing what I was reading to the way I was living and trying to see, well, where’s the truth? In this piece of writing, am I finding anything of my own experience reflected? If so, what? And that was really valuable. I remember living in Amarillo, which isn’t too far from you guys in Tulsa, one summer, and working in the oil fields and reading The Grapes of Wrath. And I went, ah! There’s a connection between the fictive reality and the one I’m living. And that book seems truthful to what I’m experiencing.
Reeves: You were born in Amarillo.
Saunders: Yeah, my dad was in the Air Force there and my mom was from Bartlesville. My great-grandfather was with Phillips Oil; he had a place out there somewhere. I can’t quite remember how [my mom] ended up in Amarillo… she took me around recently and showed me some of the places they lived in those early days and it was really hardscrabble. Her dad was a great guy and worked at one time four different jobs, including being the ice man, who carried ice up to people even though he had a bad back. There were, on both sides of the family, a lot of working-class roots. That informs a lot of what I do.
Reeves: How so?
Saunders: I always felt that fiction should do something. It should change the way you feel about life, it should have a positive effect on the way you live, and it should give you some way of understanding the world that makes life easier for you. At some point, there was a big moment of revelation for me, maybe when I was thirty. It finally clicked that me, and everyone I knew my whole life, had one primary worry in our minds: money. Or, more correctly, the lack of money, the shortage of it. Therefore, that should probably have a place in fiction.
I was a big Hemingway fan, so originally I thought fiction was about trout fishing, you know? Or going to the running of the bulls. But that was never my life. I recently found an old notebook I kept when I was in my twenties. I remember that time as being free and romantic and beatnik, but when I was reading it, every page had something about money. If I can only get 30 dollars we can do this; the car broke; stuff like that. For me it was a big moment to realize, well, that which concerns you in your actual life has to be present in literature, if that literature is going to be lively and meaningful to other people.
Reeves: When you started writing, how did you strike a balance between needing to make money and wanting to be an artist?
Saunders: To be honest, there was no balance to be struck. When I was in my twenties, I just didn’t make any money. And I didn’t care; I lived low and had a good time. But when I got married and we had our daughters right away, I knew I couldn’t be a starving artist with kids in the house. I couldn’t bear to inflict that on them. So I started doing tech writing, which was a semi-decent living. But I insisted that I was going to be a writer. I have a high metabolism, so I was able to have a full working life and a full family life and then squeeze some time out here and there: stay up late; get up early.
Writing is a long apprenticeship. If I had decided not to work and only write—and I’m talking here about writing fiction, which wasn’t paying anything—I would’ve burned out, because I didn’t hit my stride and find a voice for many years. It’s different for everybody, but I’m really glad that I came up the way I did. because along the way I learned a lot about American culture. When I was younger, the idea of working in a cubicle for five or six years made me want to jump off a bridge. But when I was forced to do it by my situation, I found a lot of wonderful moments and sad moments—in other words, the stuff that literature is made of—in this world I would never have voluntarily entered.
Reeves: Speaking of your long apprenticeship, in your article “My Writing Education” in The New Yorker, you say that Tobias Wolff told you once: “Just don’t lose the magic.” You then proceed to lose the magic for many years. What got you to a place where you weren’t always losing the magic?
Saunders: Desperation. In retrospect, the fact that I got into grad school at Syracuse puffed me up a little bit, where I felt like fiction was “under my control.” I started writing a little above my natural register, doing a lot of research, having big theoretical plans. That inactivated anything good that had been in my work beforehand. And then, over the years of working the office job and having kids and struggling with money, slowly those senses of leisure and entitlement and control started to get taken away from me. I got into a desperate state, where I just wanted to get some power into my work again. I realized that I had turned my back on certain fundamental things that I do as a person, namely: velocity, pop culture references, humor, and a little sci-fi.
I’ve often compared it to getting beat up in an alley. You can’t believe it; these guys that are beating you up don’t seem that tough. But then you notice that one of your hands is behind your back. So it wasn’t an intellectual decision; it was a visceral thing where I said, “God, I’ve got to stand up for myself.” One day I was at work, and I wrote one story that was kind of minimal and strange and funny, and I could feel that there was more power in that than anything I’d written in the previous five or six years, which is a heartbreaker. It was sort of a trauma of desperation, of going too long without feeling any kind of power in the writing.
Reeves: Let’s talk about the book. Where did the form for Lincoln in the Bardo come from?
Saunders: Here’s how form happens for me: you’ve got some voice, or voices, that want to come out, some modality of expression that is current to you. Then you look for containers for that to fall into. With [Lincoln in the Bardo], it wasn’t a decision. It was a long time of trying to think: how would I do this?
I had a play that I wrote with this material a long time ago, but when I’m writing a play, I get kind of pompous. I had hundreds of pages, and I said to Deborah Treisman at the New Yorker, “I’ve got this play that’s so terrible, but the material is interesting,” and she said, “Why don’t you write it as a work of fiction?” That set off a little switch in my head, and I thought maybe I could write a work of fiction that looked like a play. And along the way, [Faulker’s] “As I Lay Dying” was in my mind, that David Shields book “Reality Hunger”—but not so much the format of that, more the idea that contemporary fiction lacks grounding in the real—maybe “Our Town,” although I don’t think I’d read it at that point, but I knew what it was.
The form is just that which allows you to go about your business un-hobbled. If you had a song you were writing with an incredible verse and a stupid chorus, well, you’d want to have a bunch of verses. And maybe no chorus at all. So that’s a weird formal malformation, to have a song that’s all verse, but if that’s what doesn’t suck, then that’s the piece talking to you, saying, “here’s the form you should use for me.”
So it’s much more iterative and evolving, rather than being decided from some theorization at the outset. So often, people think you decide such and such. That period I mentioned, that five or six years in the office, I was doing a lot of deciding, a lot of prognosticating, a lot of placing myself in a lineage. For me, that doesn’t work. It stalls me out and makes me predictable and tame. Whereas, if I can put those thoughts aside, and just try to see what works on the page, the form will find me.
And it turns out that it’s perfect. It turns out that it’s just the form that I need. So that’s a really magical thing, and it’s hard to talk about, because it’s mysterious. But it’s really all there is, and that was a big revelation: that art is actually beyond my control. I can do a little dance that summons it to come out of the woods, but I can’t go in the woods and pull it out. So it indicates that there’s a part of our minds that’s really powerful, of us, but not us. If you’re me, that’s exciting, because I’d like to spend as little time being me as I can.
Reeves: This inability to make art do what you want, how does it make you feel when you go to write?
Saunders: It makes me feel good, actually. Because it means I don’t have to bring much with me, except a little bit of taste and preference. My method is to do a whole lot of revision. And each time I change it a little to taste, or a lot to taste, whatever; I just mark it up. Over time, it’s like a cruise ship that starts moving in a very certain direction. You didn’t decide it; it decided for you.
It’s so different from the usual Western way of thinking about credentials and mastery. I remember around that time I was reading Thomas Merton. He had this idea that, in spiritual matters, there are people who can talk for hours about different religious traditions, but the real game is to inhabit it. To have a spiritual knowledge that’s present in your heart. Some people can do that and not talk about it at all. And some people can talk about religion endlessly and have no actual presence in the world. So it’s really thrilling, and kind of terrifying.
Reeves: Speaking of that, how does your practice of Buddhism impact your writing? Is it literal? Do your characters follow the eightfold path or practice the five precepts?
Saunders: Oh, no. No one does. [Laughs] Any human being in a story, or in the world. The only relation I can think of is that I was practicing Buddhism before I even knew what it was. When you look at a page of prose that you’ve written, you’re trying your best to react to it the way a first time reader would. That’s a form of meditation. Because you’re going to put aside all the quote-unquote attachments to what you’ve done and see what it actually is. See what energy is actually coming off of it.
In a small way, I think that’s what a meditative lifestyle is. You go to the store, and your monkey mind’s going crazy telling you all kinds of stories about the people you meet… but better you should have a quiet mind that’s actually seeing what’s there, not putting a bunch of constructs on it. Writing is sort of a scale model, or kind of a practice set that mimics that way of being in the world. So I think I was doing that years ago.
Other than that, I think anything can happen in a work of fiction, and it doesn’t have to be nice. In the best stories, there’s a kind of multivalent morality going on where, instead of saying, “oh, that character’s right and that character’s wrong,” you kind of feel like going, “yeah, that’s how it is.” I get that feeling from Chekov a lot. You don’t know where his loyalties are, except that they’re everywhere. When something happens in the story, even if it’s very sad or dark, you’re like, “yeah, that’s right.” So I think the biggest thing fiction can do is put you in that position of genuine confusion and ambiguity, which generally has a humbling effect. It has the effect of slowing us down on our path of certainty, which I think is always a good thing for anybody.
Reeves: There’s a lot of that in the book. As little dialogue as some of these characters are allowed, they espouse tremendous failures and successes.
Saunders: Even if somebody has only a couple lines, you want to have imagined their whole trajectory. This is where it gets tricky, because I think what you want to do is feel sympathy for everybody in the book, but with sympathy defined as just pulling up a chair and saying, “tell me.” You know? When I was a kid in Chicago, my dad had a restaurant and I was a delivery boy for him. And one of the less coveted stops was this place called the Oak Forest Hospital. There was one ward that we’d get orders from, because the nurse liked us, and of course the patients wanted to talk. I wanted to get out of there, because I had to go back to work, but every so often, somebody would start telling me a story and I’d just feel my judgment suspend itself. I’d just pull a chair up and say, go ahead. Tell me.
And it’s amazing. Your mind is always making judgments along the way, and for me those judgments tend to make me a little deaf. You start taking to a Trump supporter, if you’re a progressive like me, and by line two or three, you’re already making your counter-argument. Whereas, if you could train yourself—which I can’t—to just go, “alright, I disagree, but I’m going to going to give you all my attention and hear you out, so that if I try to refute you, I’m refuting what you actually said, and I’m refuting the most positive representative version of what you’re saying, as opposed to taking the early out so that I can destroy you earlier.”
So that’s what we’re trying to train ourselves to do when we’re writing fiction. We’re inviting a character, into our book, and if we’re smart, we get attentive to that person with a kind of loving heart. So, say it’s a ghost who was a murderer. Okay. That’s bad for you. But, tell me: I’ll pull my chair up and you tell me your story, and if you want to make the case for it, go ahead, and I’ll report it. That kind of mindset.
Reeves: In a novel about this celebrated figure in history and his son, this could have easily been Lincoln screaming at the sky, or the ghost of his son Willie being sad that he’s dead. Instead, you have this great cast of characters. Where did they come from?
Saunders: It’s always hard for me to say after the fact. The real answer is that they arise in response to a necessity. In this case, I had the same thought you did: it would be all Lincoln, all the time. And that just made my heart sink. I couldn’t do that. I don’t know enough about him; I don’t want to know enough about him; I don’t think that’s sustainable. So then I started looking for ways to get out of that, to minimize [Lincoln’s] stage time. In this case there was a practical thing: if you’re going to tell a story about this night, he’s the only living person there—as far as we know, at least as I imagine it. So then we need a few more people to tell the story. Who’s in a graveyard at night? Ghosts.
It’s not deciding anything. It’s more like improv. It’s like, “okay, I know I have to make a guy for this character to talk to, what do I have?” Which for me is fun. You can do a first round of improv without really having to worry about why that particular character showed up that day. But you improv it, and then you polish it and polish it and polish it, and the next thing you know, it’s a person.
I promise you, this would be a much less interesting book if I’d planned it out. Because the book, when you think of it, is really just an object that continues to respond to itself. It’s like a tree looking around at itself going “oh, lots of roots here.” So that’s why a book that’s really good is a very intelligent object, because it’s self-regarding. And [the reader] is basically the brain of the book doing the self-regarding.
The writer is several people. One is sitting at the table, and another is a liaison with the reader; occasionally that person will come over and say, “I don’t mean to bother you, but dogs don’t actually fly.” And the writer goes, “ah, good point.” In that case, you might put in the story a guy who says “excuse me, but, I don’t believe that dogs fly.” Well, problem solved. Somebody then has to respond to that guy. Part of the process is just to incorporate the readerly resistance in the program of seducing the reader. I think of writing as a high-level salesmanship where I’m looking at you, I see that you have a doubt, I’m anxious to assuage that doubt, I do it, you newly are won over into the fold, and we can continue.
Reeves: How do you sell a book inside a book? Do you ever have doubts that this is the right book for this reader at this time?
Reeves: You could easily fall into the trap of saying, this book is a piece of crap, don’t read it.
Saunders: One of the things you [need to do] is ask how it’s crap. And then you ask, “is there any way I can make it not crap?” To me, that’s what revision is. You make a first pass; that has defects. And as you’re reading it again, you’re disheartened. Then you ask yourself how you can get rid of those defects. Sometimes you can convert them into assets.
Reeves: Tell me about that.
Saunders: Say you had a chatty first-person narrator, really self-indulgent. When you wrote it, you thought it was charming, but when you read it, you realize that this guy’s just going on and on. One thing you can do is put that [narrator] in quotes and have someone interrupt him and say, “Norbert. Will you give somebody else a chance to talk?” And then let him go on. Now that’s a small adjustment, but what you’ve done is told the reader, “I know, I know what you’re thinking.” Pat the reader on the hand. And I think you somehow win the reader’s trust a little bit.
It’s the same thing with plot. Let’s say a bunch of people are having dinner at a British country manor, and you write that Sir Edward’s head flies off, hits the ceiling, and lands in the soup. Well, that’s impossible. The reader knows that’s impossible. Now what you have to do is wrestle with the fact that the reader is in a hostile relation to you. If the next line is someone saying, “Oh Edward, not again,” suddenly you’re back in the game. So you know that that’s impossible. You acknowledge it to the reader, the reader laughs, you’re good to go.
If a story of yours is sucking or in unworkable condition, it’s often because you haven’t made allowances for the reader’s feelings. As soon as you turn to that concern, the book will give you a way to make what looks like a defect a design characteristic.
Reeves: The ghosts in this book have to accept something they desperately would rather not. What do you want readers to take away from that?
Saunders: There’s a bit in the Gnostic Gospels where Jesus says something like, “If you bring forth that which is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you fail to bring forth that which is within you, that which you fail to bring forth will destroy you.” There’s some truth to that. As a person, as a human being, there’s nothing that’s really wrong with you. You know? You didn’t ask for it. Whoever you are, whatever foibles you have, you didn’t fill out a form in Heaven and ask to be this and that. So then, a certain step on the way to functionality is to say, “yeah, I do have that tendency. I don’t like it, but I do have that tendency, I accept it.”
The worst thing you can do is deny it. It takes a lot of energy to push that feeling down. Whereas if you can release it, it loses some of its power. So that I think was the main thing. All those people who were dead, they’re dead. And there’s an immediate relief for them when they admit it.
Likewise, in a given moment of human life, there’s a certain energy, there are certain things occurring, and there’s us, in our consciousness, often trying to either ignore what’s going on, trying to suppress what’s going on, or just ignorantly not noticing. Those are all—I would say—a form of sin. In Buddhism, you’d say that’s how you get bad karma going, by not being in relation to what actually is. That felt to me like the underbelly of the book. But again, I didn’t decide that; the book was sort of telling me that.