George Saunders won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his bestselling novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. He is also the recipient of four National Magazine Awards for fiction, a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the PEN/Malamud Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award and is Professor of English at Syracuse University.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was honored to visit with him at his home in the Catskills for these Five Questions about his award-winning first novel.

STAY THIRSTY: In your book, Lincoln in the Bardo, you tell an intense, emotional story about Abraham Lincoln and the passing of his son Willie at the age of eleven. What drew you to write your first novel about this very personal, family tragedy that occurred less than a year after Lincoln became President? What gave you the confidence that you could successfully get inside Lincoln’s head in a credible way?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: It was just that I couldn’t stop thinking (for a period of over 20 years) of the core anecdote – contemporaneous newspaper accounts that said Lincoln had been so heartbroken by the loss of his son that he went into the crypt to view, and possibly hold, the boy’s body. And it became a novel against my wishes, really – I kept trying to make it shorter until it finally convinced me. As far as having confidence that I could get inside Lincoln’s head – I never had it. I just had the fear of doing it badly. And that can be a really powerful artistic driver, you know? The fear of fucking it up. Because, through that fear, you’ll find all kinds of ways to know if and when you’ve fucked it up, and then the main artistic mantra becomes, “Well, don’t DO that.” I’ve found that a book or story that doesn’t have some really possible fiasco lurking around behind it tends to be facile. Or, another way of putting it – a problem is the thing that permits, or demands, originality, and even blueprints what it’s going to have to look like. Originality is what converts a problem into an asset. There can be a sort of MacGyver quality to art – the book says “Disarm this nuclear weapon with a can of shaving cream or the world blows up.” So that’s “a problem.” But if you do it, that’s “originality.” Whereas if the book says, “Here’s a button that says Disarm. Just press it, and all will be well” – that means your book is going to be too simple, and small. (Houdini says, “I am entrapped by this very thin rubber band around my wrists. Watch me escape!” Crowd drifts away…)

STAY THIRSTY: What is the genesis of the style and format you used for Lincoln in the Bardo and how did you think it would be received?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: At this point I have trouble remembering. I know I started a book back in the late 1990s that was set in a graveyard and looked something like this book, except that the identifiers were at the top of the speech, rather than at the bottom. And then I also wrote the Lincoln story as a play for a number of years. In a sense it was an elaborate avoidance of the more conventional way of telling it (“Lincoln entered the frigid graveyard in an unhappy state of mind,”) and, like a lot of smart avoidances, it opened the door to lots of new and (to me) interesting opportunities. People could crosstalk more easily, the physical spaces were negotiable (and didn’t have to be constantly drawn) and so on. Often, when I look back at some artistic decision, it seems to have taken place, gradually, on several parallel tracks – that was the case here. 

I was worried about how it would be received but, again, that just means you have to be very vigilant in eradicating the “easy” ways it could be rejected by your reader. If you’re using a strange form you have to be extra-consistent and really make sure it’s fair and efficient and will reward a good reader. It makes it even more important not to go on autopilot. I knew I would lose some people but engineered the book (I thought and hoped) so that most vigilant readers would struggle, and then the book would teach them to read it, and would then copiously reward them at the end, when the book’s strange form would be able to deliver more than it would have been able to do if written more conventionally.

George Saunders

STAY THIRSTY: What role does love play in Lincoln in the Bardo? How does love prosper in a world where everything eventually dies? Does love exist in the graveyard?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: I think it does, for sure, between Abe and Willie. And I think it gradually comes back into the hearts of the other spirits, as they watch this interaction between father and son unfold. In the book, these spirits are like stand-up comics who’ve been doing too many open mic nights – a little tired, jaded, distrustful – of each other and of their earlier selves. Willie’s presence wakes them up a little and makes them remember who they used to be and who they used to love. But also – most of them are stuck in this bardo zone because of love – unrequited love, love of self, of property etc. So I guess the book is partly about loving appropriately – when to let go and so on; how not to mistake something temporary (i.e., most things we love) for something that will last forever, unchanged.

STAY THIRSTY: Having written about and essentially lived with ghosts while writing this book, are you haunted by them, afraid of them or comfortable with maneuvering through the spirit world? How did the historical background of Lincoln’s presidency impact the spirit world in your story?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Well, the thing about a book is that you’re never really working with the things themselves, but with linguistic constructions meant to represent them. So I don’t know how I feel about real ghosts – and I was careful, while writing, not to think of these beings as “ghosts,” exactly, because I wanted them to be whatever they wanted to be and behave as they saw fit. The main job was watching them closely (by revising the language out of which they were being made) so I could learn their rules and inclinations. In real life, I guess I do believe in ghosts, and have no affinity for seeing them, for which I’m glad. 

As far as the historical world – mostly it was a kind of bookkeeping, really. Who lived when? What would they have known, seen, believed? Would this spirit’s life have overlapped with that one’s life? And then, of course, the main thing was to ask the book to answer this question, through the writing: How do the two stories (the death of Willie and Lincoln fighting the Civil War) intersect? If the answer turned out to be: “They don’t” – then that’s a lesser book, or maybe not a book at all. Another way of asking it: Did this night in the graveyard change Lincoln as he went back out to fight the war? The book, anyway, says that yes, it did: it made him sadder. And sadness – the kind of grief-induced, bottoming out that I show Lincoln experiencing in the book – can be a real wisdom- and clarity-inducer, and a bullshit-eradicator.

Abraham Lincoln (Sculptor: Augustus Saint-Gaudens)
Dedicated 1887 - Lincoln Park (Chicago, IL)

STAY THIRSTY: Do you believe that the “bardo” really exists and if so, how do you think you will fare after your death?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: I do think so. I think that mind is continuous. I think our mental activity extends beyond the physical death of the body and that time in that realm would be very flexible (i.e., a short time could be experienced as infinite) and that it might be possible, though terrifying, that what we bring into that realm is the same thing we have operative in us right now – the same brain, the same fears, the same arrogance, the same habits, etc. As to how I’ll fare: all I can say is, I’m working on it, I’m working on it.


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.