It’s hard enough to summarize a short story by George Saunders, whose strange and empathetic tales could constitute their own genre (comic dystopian realism, maybe). He’s been understandably tight-lipped, then, about his first full-length novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, the cover of which you can see here. Per Random House’s tantalizing catalogue copy, the book, which will come out early in 2017, sees Abraham Lincoln’s preteen son Willie die in 1862, at the height of the Civil War, and the president sneaking out to the crypt to cradle Willie’s body; journeys into a Buddhist netherworld ensue. We reached Saunders to find out a little bit more, and he graciously called in from a rest stop in Wyoming.
How did you decide on the look of the cover?
I got a few designs, and this one just leapt out at me as being so weirdly in the spirit of the book. It wasn’t just a picture of Lincoln. I see it as being at dusk, and I thought it picked up the feeling of America in the mid-19th century — half pastoral, half burgeoning industrial. And it just had a feeling of mystery that I really liked.
It’s hard to believe this is your first novel. Have you tried before?
Two or three times, and they just always shrunk. But this material has been on my mind for years, and I thought, I’m just gonna discharge it, and whatever length it is, that’s what I’ll take.
Where did the idea come from?
A really long time ago, in the Bill Clinton era, my wife and I and my wife’s cousin were driving by Oak Hill Cemetery in D.C., and she just said casually, “Did you know that when Lincoln was president, his son died and he was buried right out there?” And she pointed up to the exact crypt where Willie Lincoln was. Several of the newspaper accounts said that Lincoln had been back to visit the crypt. And wow, this image came to mind of the Lincoln Memorial plus the Pietà. It just stuck with me for many, many years. I knew I couldn’t possibly do it justice, but after a while I thought, if it’s this insistent, it would be kind of dishonorable to not try.
Did you find out if it actually happened — that he had cradled the body?
You couldn’t prove it but it was mentioned in more than one newspaper at the time. I don’t think people treated it like a big deal or a scandal. The relation to death was different. To be physical with a loved one’s body wasn’t a freaky thing.
The Bardo is a Buddhist state of purgatory?
If you read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, there is a period of consciousness after death and things happen there — but it’s not really a purgatory because you’re there briefly before you go on to your next destiny.
Do you personally believe in this place?
My wife and I are Buddhists, and yeah, I believe in them as literal experiences. The question is what that is. I don’t know if you read this book by Patricia Pearson called Opening Heaven’s Door. Western scientists have compiled all this data from people who were in a vegetative state for many years, and there were a number of cases where the low brain function they’d had dropped to zero at the time of death, and then it spiked up to an above-normal level for periods ranging from three to 20 minutes. What is that about? I have no idea. There was this early period in the writing where I tried to be faithful with the after-death experiences in different traditions, but that’s not what my story is.
It’s still a George Saunders story, then. What’s new about doing it at the length of a novel?
Well, how do you keep suspense, how do you generate problems and then solve them? That was something that every day I was trying to figure out. It’s like if you were building custom yurts and then somebody commissioned a mansion, I’d say, I can’t do that. Well actually you could, if you can conceptualize a mansion as a series of interconnected yurts. But the big difference is that you’re concentrating on the same problem for four years, so it gets really deep. At this stage of your career and your life what you’re really hoping for is something that will make you feel vital every day you’re working on it. It’s like when you’re writing your first book, and you’re trying to figure out what kind of writer you are. This was like that.