‘I’m Gonna Give Up My Best Gift’: George Saunders Discusses the Writing of His Offbeat Debut Novel Lincoln in the Bardo

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George Saunders. Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images

The 2013 publication of Tenth of December, George Saunders’s fourth collection of loopy satirical stories about consumerism, compassion, dystopian theme parks, and American failures, was hailed as the apotheosis of his art. The best-selling collection (not an oxymoron) was called “the best book you’ll read all year” on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. But Tenth turns out to have been a warm-up for Saunders, a bridge to something completely new.

Lincoln in the Bardo, out today, shows us Abraham Lincoln in Civil War-torn 1862, mourning the death of his 11-year-old son Willie. It’s the 58-year-old Saunders’s first novel and first work of historical fiction, but it’s also, perhaps unsurprisingly, very, very weird. In a graveyard in Georgetown, the president cradles his son’s body while Willie’s soul and many others look on. This cacophony of Gorey-esque ghosts inhabits a realm based loosely on the Buddhist concept of the Bardo, a transitional state between lives. They are prevented from going to the next place by their attachment to people or things left behind, but now they have a mission: find a way to help Willie — and his father — move on. Saunders talked to Vulture about his game change, the challenges of earnestness and empathy, the writer as (horrified) citizen, and what it was like to go from Lincoln to his next assignment, last year’s ASME-finalist article about Trump rallies.

Your books have always been skeptical about pop culture and technology, but your last story was released only as an e-book. Now Lincoln in the Bardo has an audiobook with a giant, starry cast, a virtual-reality excerpt in the Times, and a movie option. How do you like all these mediated versions of your work?
I watched an early draft of the VR story that was really wonderful. I was in a hotel room in New York and it got me tearing up, which is weird with your own book. It was really something. Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, and I are going to try to develop it for movies. I find that stuff a nice way to kind of kick the can of my creativity. If I get done with a fiction project, I’m always waiting for the next idea, and sometimes working in different forms helps destabilize that part of myself that maybe settled into a groove.

This book has already gone through many iterations on the page. What phases did it move through over the years?
The first phase was going, “Get the fuck away from that idea because it’s too hard for you!” It’s too emotionally on the nose and too earnest. This was back in the Pastoralia days and I knew I didn’t have the guns for it. The next phase was, “Maybe I can write it in fiction.” I still have, somewhere, two pages of the first thing. It was almost like a Gore Vidal knockoff, just Lincoln pacing in the dark graveyard, and that was no good. So then the next phase was to try it as a play. And I really tried it. I had hundreds of drafts. But at the end of the year sometimes I’ll just look at projects in progress, and I wrote a note on that play: “Leave this shit alone, don’t do this, it’s not good.” I just gave up on it, and about 2012, that’s when I turned back to this.

Why?
Two things: increasing confidence that I could honor the emotional core of the story, and an increasing sense of time passing. Like if I didn’t jump over that artistic river now, I might keep deferring it forever. It’s comfortable to stay in the space you make for yourself. But as the years passed I thought of it more and more as a crossroads. If I tried it I might jar open some parts of my artistic sensibility. If I didn’t, I might deaden them. So I started it right before Tenth of December came out. I gave myself a four-month contract to goof around, and see if I could make any heat off this thing.

How did it stretch into a novel?
This form appeared — the monologues with the attributions afterward. [Historical chapters feature quotes from real and invented biographies.] And then there was one place where I thought, “Oh yeah, the form of the ghost speeches could be the same. And that in turn gives you a stride.” But I really tried to say, “Please don’t be a novel if you can possibly help it.” If I find myself at all stretching, it’s not the best for me. So I kept it on a short leash from the beginning and had it come out of the same aesthetic as a short story. Which is, you know, don’t linger. Be thinking about cause and effect really closely.

But you always had the idea of putting Lincoln’s son in this Buddhist-inspired limbo?
Yes, and the title was always the same. The thing that was missing from the play was that there was no way to get the historical backstory in. So in the play, you’d have a gravedigger filling you in, but that was kind of gross. And also, writing in a play format, I didn’t feel quite as permitted to make the prose substantial.

The style is quite a departure for you. In a preface for the reissue for your first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, you wrote about yourself: “He sent the trained dog that is his talent off in search of a fat glorious pheasant, and it brought back the lower half of a Barbie doll.” Which is a great way to describe your pop style. But now you’re, what, writing a pastiche of pheasants?
That was what scared me in the first place. You don’t get to do the voice of those collections, a contemporary voice. But as I wrote more — especially some of the stories in Tenth of December — I got more of a feeling that even if I denied myself the gift of contemporary language, I might be able to do something interesting. A work of art is always a big system of compromises. So in this one I was saying, “All right, I’m gonna give up my best gift, which is the contemporary verbal thing, and I’m gonna hope and trust that some other benefit is going to be gleaned from that constraint.” So, if you’ve been in a certain band all your life and done okay with it, and somebody took those guys out and brought three more in on different instruments, you say, “Well, okay, I’m counting on my ultimate musicality in this new instrumentation.” I know I have a very tiny little box of talent that I’ve worked all these years. To deny yourself one of your gifts is kind of a nice way to see what else there is in the box.

Was part of that just getting older?
Yes, and I started to be a little bit embarrassed about it. Why is it that there is this beautiful fundamental story that sits right on my experience as a human being and a father and a husband, and why can’t I do something with that? I would conceptualize one’s artistic trajectory as being kind of a line. You’re pulling along a line and then you come to a halt sometimes — the limitation of your talent — and you have to go sideways for the line to pick up again. When I started this I understood it as a kind of necessary digression. I wanted to step off the path of that contemporary voice, dystopian or whatever you want to call it.

And now you’ll go right back to contemporary satire?
Honestly, I don’t know. I hope the answer is no, because that would be almost too simple. I never had any idea that I would write another book in a historical voice — that doesn’t interest me. But I have a visceral feeling that I’ve learned a lot about form, and the juxtaposition of different voices. I got a little more confident in my ability to reside in an emotional moment without panicking.

Will you be writing novels now, having tried it and enjoyed it?
It was definitely more fun than I thought it would be. My thing is to try to have zero preconception of what the next thing is. And I literally have nothing going on right now. I’m working on a TV pilot — “Sea Oak,” a story from Pastoralia, for Amazon. But I don’t have any fiction started. My inclination would be to say, “No more novels!” And if one shows up and it’s insistent, that’s fine. But not to change anything in the process, because for me, there’s been a continuity in the process since forever. I’ll just trust my instincts and see what happens next. And if nothing else happens, we’ll all live.

Speaking of other media, I know you’ve described your first piece of funny fiction as Seussian; it even had illustrations. Can I ask if you’ve been influenced by cartoons without insulting you?
Oh, yeah, I always think of my work as being cartoonish, if that word could be shorn of the pejorative. I like things that are kind of sketched — a line figure that suggests a three-dimensional person. There’s a beautiful Picasso lithograph of a bull, and it starts off as this beautifully rendered, three-dimensional bull and he just takes stuff away from it. There’s several in the series, but by the end of it, it’s just four or five lines that really evokes “BULL.” There’s something artistically sophisticated about it that also suits me as a person. I had such an early love for the Charles Schultz comics, and those TV specials. It sounds kind of embarrassing to say, but those Halloween and Christmas specials were really important in terms of giving me the artistic bug. There was an under-indication on the surface but then a quite capacious moral world behind it that really intrigued me.

You have entire chapters that are just patched-together quotes from biographies about Lincoln, some invented but most real. Reviewers have cited David Shields’s anti-fiction manifesto, Reality Hunger, as an influence. Was it?
I read David’s book when it first came out twice in a row. I thought that was really interesting and I had quibbles with some of the implications of it, for fiction.

That it’s obsolete?
You read Dead Souls by Gogol and that argument seems to not necessarily hold up. But you can’t read David without having your laziness challenged. And when I got to the point in Bardo, the historical material, the montage form that he uses in Reality Hunger really spoke to me — along with Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s book about Edie Sedgwick. Which had the same kind of thing — just a bunch of quotes about Edie from different people. They were contradictory and sometimes seemed to be talking about completely different people. And something I saw in the historical text was that even though memories of Lincoln didn’t agree, they seemed to evolve in response to the growing mythology about him. To me, it was this beautiful idea of total instability in the universe.

But you made the bold move of actually entering Lincoln’s consciousness (albeit mediated by the ghosts possessing him). How did you talk yourself into that?
I had this idea that if I just filled my head up with enough of his voice and his actions, that when the time for writing him came, it would be like a really highly informed improv. When you’re making a monologue of somebody you’ve got him three ways — in the abstract; in particular, sitting or standing somewhere; and then you’ve got you. It’s like three rivers coming together and you’re kind of the sluice manager. If too much of me got in there I’d go, “Well, that’s kind of bullshit.” The big danger is that suddenly he’s speaking in the language of his written speeches, and that’s false. “Fourscore and fifteen minutes ago I did enter this graveyard.” But the main thing I picked up from his speeches was that he was a very logical thinker, which I imagine was also present in his thoughts. So you could back down the formality a little bit. It’s more like that commercial, “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV.” I’m not Lincoln, but I want to make you not throw up when you see me try to imitate Lincoln.

You’re not only inventing Lincoln’s but also your own interpretation of a sacred Buddhist concept. As a practicing adherent, are you a religious writer?
I hope I’m a spiritual writer, but I think all writers hope that. You hope that the stuff that you’re writing now when you’re relatively healthy won’t seem like a total irrelevance as life goes down the shitter, or even that in the moment of your death it wouldn’t seem completely trivial. I think probably everything seems pretty trivial at the moment of your death. But the writers that I really love are spiritual in that they’re looking at the big questions, death and life and vulnerability and loss and all that stuff. So Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Chekhov — they don’t flinch from those things. You don’t have to have the answers, but just that the fact that we’re all dying seems like a big deal, and the fact that we’re all inclined to love seems like a big deal.

How much of your Bardo is true to Buddhism?
Originally I thought, I’m gonna read the Tibetan Book of the Dead and put that into the book. But it’s really complex, and I had a feeling that maybe that’s not what a novel does. It’s going to be more fun to just make something up. And whatever death is, it’s probably gonna be fucking surprising. It would be really strange if we died and thought, “Oh, just like I thought!”

You have said you wrote your last story collection hoping to welcome more readers into your world. Were you thinking that with this book?
I thought, well, if I can get it right, it shouldn’t exclude anybody. We’ve all loved someone who died. One of the reasons it appealed to me was that trying to make a book accessible to any good reader would be a check on my habitual tics — which might be keeping those people out.

For all the fart jokes, this is as earnest as you’ve probably ever been. Did that make you nervous?
Yeah, for sure. But the things that make you nervous are actually what you work out of. Because if I thought at the beginning — which I did — God, this is earnest, then you start to break that concept of earnestness into its composite parts. Okay, let’s avoid cheesy, if you can. Let’s avoid sentimental, to the extent that we can. What’s the problem with earnest? Well, maybe the prose goes flat. That’s actually where the writing starts. So for example, if you have a story where, oh, the hero is a talking eraser on a desk, so the first thing you probably just felt is, that’s gimmicky. The writer’s response would be, Yeah, it is. Now let me work with that. It’s not to say, “You’re right, I won’t do it.” So this one for sure, there were so many problems. Writing Lincoln was scary, writing historical novels was scary. The emotional earnestness was scary. But where you don’t have any fear at the beginning is the one that’s gonna get you into trouble.

Are you worried some people would be put off by the concept of the dead child, or Lincoln, before they even start?
For me the fictive contract has to do with a moment at the beginning where the writer says: Once upon a time, x, and the reader tends to go, “Oh, bullshit.” But maybe they say, “Okay, I’ll give you that one.” So I say I’m gonna write a story about a dead kid, and maybe someone says, “That’s no good, but I’ll give it to you. Now will you do enough with it to justify me overcoming my resistance?”

You’ve had mostly great reviews, but among the dissenters there seems to be a tone of “I liked his early stuff.”
I could totally see that viewpoint, but from my standpoint artistically, that isn’t helpful. It’s funny because you sometimes hear artists criticized for repeating themselves, and sometimes be criticized for not. Well, I try to just make it from the spirit of play. I can’t really adjust my approach based on anything I think or anyone else thinks. It has a will of its own in a way.

Colson Whitehead’s review of Bardo in the Times Book Review made me think about the career trajectories you share, along with other mid-career writers. First, you nailed down your voices, then you played with genres, and now you’re bringing those skills to more grounded work (which for both of you happens to be parallel-universe 19th-century historical fiction).
When you’re young, you find one way into that house called What I Do, but then your artistic prerogative is to keep asking that question. There’s a real tension between finally finding something you can do and then almost consciously moving away from that as fast as you can so it doesn’t subsume you. Which isn’t always comfortable for you or the audience, but otherwise you end up in this kind of death spiral where it’s just you doing you.

Did you also grow a little weary of critiquing late capitalism, especially since we’ve got some other problems now?
I’m a little uncomfortable with the description of them being only critiques of capitalism. The social critique was kind of the fabric, but for me, they were much more about individual human beings and I don’t know, power, and sadness — the same old classic things. For me, the trajectory has been in the tone of the stories, moving from almost ridiculously dark to, as I’m getting older and more skillful I think, being able to get more of the positive valences in there. And the goal ultimately would be to have both correctly represented. Because we know that there’s good and evil in the world, and the artists I love seem to be comfortable putting manifestations of good and evil right next to each other without a whole lot of spin.

But given your reputation for addressing social problems head-on — and your New Yorker story on Trump supporters — is there a part of you that feels it’s a weird time to veer off into historical fiction?
You can’t think about timing. Fiction is a really slow machine. I finished this book in substance, then I finished one story, and then I went on the Trump campaign. So there really isn’t any relation between the two, except that I do feel like the book makes the case for a vision of America that I can live with — a country that’s based on the idea that everyone is suffering and vulnerable, and that citizenship actually is not some kind of musty concept but actually means 100 percent joyful inclusiveness. I feel like it’s a very timely book, not by design, but hopefully by virtue of its qualities. I’m happy to be a satirist and come back in whatever way I do, but with the novel, you’re trying to make a beautiful thing that exists somewhat separate from the time in which it’s read.

What is the intersection between your duty as a citizen and as a novelist?
As an artist, you have to have no responsibilities. Art has to radically have the right to be useless, and that way it discovers its true use. I don’t do a lot of thinking about these different roles. It’s just trusting that whatever you’ve got in your thought cloud is going to find its way in organically.

So what did it feel like going from Lincoln to Trump?
The four-year novel-immersion mode was really pleasurable, all about ambiguity and confusion and opening yourself up to whatever artistic moment there was on the page. I felt like I was a better person. So then to tumble out of that into the political sphere, where because of the story I had to watch a lot of cable and social media and roll up my pants and wade in there, I just noticed a different mind that got engaged. It was really snappish, and anxious, and also wanted a quick answer. It wanted to make sure that it was right at every moment. The first mind, the novel mind — I just found it so much more kindhearted and humorous and open and accepting. And the second one is really brittle.

You were about as sympathetic to Trump voters as a lefty writer could be. Was it hard to come to a conclusion about them?
I don’t like to judge people. I’m always afraid that I’ll hurt somebody’s feelings or get it wrong. So for a long time I was way out of the piece, just trying to present a bunch of anecdotes without doing the hard work of analyzing them. Finally I was able to do two months of solid revisions and then the analysis started to come in. But I liked the people I met, and I didn’t want to be snarky and throw anybody under the bus.

You haven’t always been nice about the media. In The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, an allegory of dictatorship, you portrayed the media as sycophants with built-in megaphones. You titled your essay collection The Braindead Megaphone; the title piece was about the press. But now we’re supposed to be the last bulwark against autocracy. Are both things true?
The one thing I’m thinking now is that speed is our big enemy. Social media has created an opportunity for speed and a superficial approach that is really damaging. I have a feeling that four or five years from now that is going to be the big story of the last year or so. The tone and speed of our communications is damaging the social contract.

But we couldn’t slow the news cycle even if we tried, and Trump seems to want to speed it up.
There’s no answer actually. In this world right now, the stakes are so high and the cruelty so rampant, and this weird demon has gotten out of the box. So I’m not sure that anybody knows the answer to that question. I’m encouraged by everything that’s happened since the Women’s March. It seems the progressive movement is doing what it has to do, which is to say: “We count just as much as the other side. We have these gifts. The culture needs art; it needs facts; it needs analysis; it needs reporting.” That first period of liberal flinching after Trump won is finished, and we’re moving into a phase of really disciplined, peaceful, emphatic resistance. Everything hangs on that question of whether the resistance can keep its discipline — not panic, not get apologetic or shrill, but just really stand our ground.

There is one timely thing about Bardo: Lincoln needs to get over his grief in order to save a fragile exemplar of the democratic experiment. That experiment feels pretty fragile right now.
It felt fragile when I finished this book, too. America is this really cool idea that has never gotten its shit together 100 percent. Going right into the Trump rallies, it was like, “Oh, yeah, this is in some ways the same old story.” Two sides that don’t seem to be speaking the same language and don’t actually want to be reconciled to one another. Somebody described it to me as that Freudian death drive. At a certain point in a confrontation, people just want to fuck shit up. It’s made me try to be a little more circumspect in my speech, in my way of thinking about this political divide, because it’s a pretty fraught moment, and it’s gonna demand good behavior from everybody. I don’t mean compliance or enabling. I mean firm, reasonable, loving expression of the strongest beliefs.

Lincoln had to take on that burden as a leader. But the resistance, or whatever you want to call it, feels leaderless.
But that’s what the early democracy was. It was everybody being a leader. I’ve been writing this silly Seussian poem about Trump and one of the lines is that we have to become our own alt-presidents. I don’t think we should underestimate the power of millions of people being their own moral arbiters and energetically trying to protect the people that are being threatened by this administration. You could say that that’s how we make leaders. It’s this really interesting formative stage where you see so many people becoming aware of the fragility of democracy, maybe for the first time in many years. The days when you could kind of phone in a slothful indifference to politics, they’re kind of over. And I feel more and more like, okay, my main identity as an artist, that right now feels totally at one with my role as a citizen.

Because fiction makes us empathize?
It’s that, but I also think it’s about something else. If we look at the way that public rhetoric is taking place now, the guttersniping and the denial of factuality, this feeling that if you say something over and over again it makes it true, that is anti-artistic thought. Because it’s not detailed enough. It’s just conceptual and projective and vague. When you hear these crazy Orwellian things coming out of the Trump administration, that’s because the rhetoric has degraded, and I don’t think it’s an accident that a culture that marginalizes art ends up with a degraded rhetoric.

Could you ever apply your fictional empathy to Trump himself?
Of course. Otherwise it’s my failing. I think a lot of people feel a little bit of tenderness for him at times. He’s got a blundering vulnerability that he tries to hide with this sort of aggression. Fiction can find its way into anybody, because everybody happens for a reason. There’s a beautiful direct causality that produced Donald Trump, and from inside his head it all makes sense. If Shakespeare were here, he could make Trump.

Saunders On His Offbeat Debut Novel Lincoln in the Bardo