He’s one of the most beloved and decorated American writers. A MacArthur “genius”—and a regular genius. And the short-story master has just published his first novel. Here, George Saunders shares insights into his creative process and shows off the unlikely objects that feed his singular imagination.
Lincoln in the Bardo is George Saunders’s first novel, but Saunders being Saunders, that designation is sort of useless—nothing in this book resembles any novel you’ve ever read before. It’ll be a fun parlor game to watch critics attempt to outdo themselves describing what this thing is. Here’s a shot: Lincoln in the Bardo is a fictitious (mostly) oral history of the night President Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, was interred. The oral history in this case comprises the voices of over a hundred ghosts living in a liminal sort of purgatory, a pre-Judgment in-between the Buddhist tradition calls the bardo. The Lincoln in this bardo, then, is the newly departed Willie—but also Abe, who leaves the White House to visit his son’s body during the night. It is a sustained chorus on life, death, and Lincoln father and son. It is also stupidly funny and philosophically transcendent. (Think about the toys in Toy Story when Andy leaves the room—that’s sort of what you’re getting, only with talk ranging from the bitching of winos to metaphysical inquiry.) Overall, it is one of the strangest books of mainstream fiction around, competing only with some of Saunders’s own story collection for unbridled inventiveness. Call it a novel, call it whatever. We’ll call it a thing you should read this spring. On the pages that follow, Saunders describes how he gets his writing done and shows us the relics and totems he surrounded himself with while making this book.—Daniel Riley
Are there things you have to have with you when you write?
George Saunders: Not really. I take that Raymond Pettibon postcard [below] with me wherever I’m writing. That’s my one real good-luck thing I’m a little attached to.
Do you have spots where you must write? Or are you able to pop open a laptop wherever?
It’s the latter. This Lincoln book was written in probably five different locations, and I’d always make a move and go, “Oh no! I’m doomed!” But then I’d go: “Fuck that. Being doomed is for amateurs.” I wrote my first book at work, and it was a job—tech writing—that just didn’t permit any kind of superstition. You would be in the middle of something, and 12 or 15 minutes would present themselves to you, and you’d write. It’s a mind state that you get into, and you can get into it anywhere. That’s the story I tell myself, anyway. I talk about this a lot with my students. So much of what we do is a formal self-blessing, like you give yourself permission to succeed. You kind of do ritual exorcisms of your neuroses and your ideas about your needs in order to write well, and I always tell my students the best thing you can do for yourself is to be very generous on that score. Because you can’t predict what the world is gonna give you, and if you say, “Oh, I can only write in five-hour sittings,” well, all right, you’ve just kind of given yourself an assisted death sentence. Say: “Look, I’m in cahoots with you, self, and I’m gonna really try to make whatever situation you get in propitious for your output.”
‘I’m kind of a believer in sacred relics, you know? It makes me really happy to have that Vonnegut piece on my desk, to look at it and feel the energy he invested in it.
Those constraints can be beneficial, right?
Exactly. Somebody who wasn’t me was setting the schedule. It was actually relieving, because you had to just assume that whatever mind state you were in was gonna be fine. Actually, I heard Philip Seymour Hoffman say that one time about acting. Somebody was asking him how he does those massively long Eugene O’Neill plays. And he said when he was younger, he would really be trying before every performance to psych himself into the right mind state and would feel like a failure if he couldn’t. Then, as he got more experience, he just said, “How I show up, that’s who the character is today. If I’m optimistic, if I’m euphoric, if I’m grouchy, if I’m constipated…I’m gonna start off totally allowing that.” And he said doing that, you would quickly find the heart of the play, because you weren’t resisting anything. You were just saying, “Here I am.”
Do you get stuck in many projects that get shelved? Are there orphans?
When I was younger, there were, and then the older I get, the fewer orphans there are. Now I feel confident enough that if something is giving me trouble, it’s my problem, and I’m gonna figure it out. If something freezes up at a certain point, it’s because I’m thinking of it wrong, and all I gotta do is be patient and wait, and it will give itself up. But this one I tried as a play and had such a bad time, I was really leery of it. I was so suspicious that I was really trying to move fast. It’s almost like you start dating a crazy person and you go, “I’m gonna burn through this pretty quickly because I don’t want to spend too much time…” So I wasn’t lingering, and I wasn’t indulging myself. I was like, “Okay, if that section isn’t working, we’re cutting it.” With stories, I’ll sometimes get locked up for years, and this one, I wasn’t gonna allow that. I said: All the solutions have to be fairly simple, or they’re stupid.
In that sense, was this a story that just ran a little longer, or was it a novel all along? In the past, I’ve fallen into this trap of going, “Oh, this is a novel!” And at that moment, with the blessing of it being a novel, I would turn off a lot of aesthetic restrictions that I normally would have on myself about brevity and efficiency. And so I would get these books where there’s just no forward momentum. I think the way my prose works is a combination of being whatever it is, funny or whatever, but also with pretty brutal forward motion. And those two things are co-enabling. So with this one, what I said was there’s no way that I’m ever gonna ease the restriction on myself of “Thou must move forward quickly.” That’s gotta be a given, so if it turns out to be 40 pages, great. If it turns out to be 12, great. Whatever it is, I’m not gonna turn off the little display that says “Hurry up!” Now that people are reading it, it’s funny—somebody said to me the other day, “I’m not sure this is a novel.” I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t know, either.” It’s over 300 pages with some help from the formatting and structure. But this book is definitely doing something weird. And I’m real comfortable with that. I love the idea of writing something that people are like, “What is that?”
The George Saunders Soundtrack
“I never, ever listen to music while I’m writing. But often, on this one, I’d start to feel my energy flagging a little bit, and I could feel myself becoming a bit of a conventional editor and writer. So I’d go have lunch and crank up something from this list here to put extra energy into my body. You just feel your artistic aspirations go up, especially that kinda music, like these really energetic genius people. It just makes me want to impress them. I feel like, ‘Okay, I wanna live up to the level of Sleater-Kinney or Wilco.’ Or driving around to Aaron Copland, kinda more pastoral, almost cornily pastoral. To me, it’s all trickery. You try to get your mind and body into a place where they can be original, and for me to go away from the writing room and crank something up—like, I would sometimes listen to the same piece four or five times, and then get on to the next thing.”