Photo by Jennifer Simonson
Rain Taxi, the Twin Cities’ august-ish (as august as we get around here!) literary journal, brought one of the most admired authors in letters to the Parkway Theater on Wednesday night. George Saunders came to talk about his new book (and his first novel, after nine previous shorter story collections) Lincoln in the Bardo. The novel is a Tibetan-style ghost story set in Washington D.C.’s Oak Hill Cemetery, specifically within the crypt where Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie was interred after dying from typhoid in 1862. The audiobook of Bardo is one of the most elaborate ever recorded, with 166 characters cast, ranging from Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman to Saunders’ own wife. A reading in this style was staged with MPR’s John Moe, local author John Cook, and singer Har Mar Superstar playing various roles, with Saunders himself reading the part of Lincoln père. Saunders was then interviewed by Rain Taxi’s editor Eric Lorberer about his process writing the book and about reading as “empathy training” in the age of Trump. Mpls.St.Paul Magazine was given a short window before the proceedings to meet with Saunders one-on-one. Actually, one-on-two—Doomtree producer and born-again book fanatic Lazerbeak came along as my plus one.
Steve Marsh: When did you get in?
George Saunders: Noon. I’m on a tour doing 22 cities in 24 days. We’re a little more than halfway through.
SM: My friend Beak here tours all the time—he’s in a rap group called Doomtree.
Lazerbeak: I do music tours. But on a bus. Not flying.
GS: It’s coach, it’s kinda fun. For a person of a certain age, it’s a challenge in energy management. As in, “When do I take a shit?”
Beak: That’s a big part of it actually.
SM: Where was the library where you absorbed all of this Lincoln material? It seems like you didn’t just read Doris Kearns Goodwin. It read like you went deep.
GS: Pretty deep.
SM: So like primary sources deep? Microfiche?
GS: You know, I didn’t. I had about 300 books. And then from those, you’d see that those six are all quoting the same primary sources. It was kind of hobbyist research, but passionate hobbyist research. But then at Syracuse, William Safire has a collection of thousands of books on mostly Civil War and Lincoln. So you’d wander around in there and find some really off-the-wall shit. But I always knew what I needed. I knew I needed a party scene—so anywhere I went I would grab a Lincoln book and see if they have something like a party scene. And after awhile I knew I wanted to do something about his physicality, so I was kind of on the lookout for that. It was really directed.
SM: And you faked some of your sources in the book.
GS: Alt-facts, yeah. (Smiles.)
SM: So with your anxiety of influence, were you worried more about authenticity or originality?
GS: That’s a great question. Early on, I was worried about being authentic. Not only about Lincoln in history, but about the Bardo and the Tibetan stuff. And then at some point, you’re on the hunt, and you’re like, wait a minute, this is much cooler if I’m over here. So then you’re sacrificing truth on a small level to get to whatever that output is that a novel does, where the small mistruths add up to some greater truth by any means necessary. I felt like I turned a corner when I stopped giving a shit about what the graveyard actually looked like. The graveyard looked the way I needed it to look. How is Lincoln? The way I need him to be. So if you see it as a dramatic machine then all the questions are going to get simplified. If you think your job is to catalog, then you’re going to be a little lame ass because you’re always going to err on the side of that, as opposed to where the actual heat is.
Beak: How long was that process when you first decided you were going to do this? Did you template it out, thinking I’m going to need this and this from Lincoln?
GS: No. My whole thing is, I tried to be like that when I was younger, I was an engineer so I thought if I can just figure out how to do it, I’ll do it. And I found out that for me, I gotta totally do improv all the time, on every level. Structural improv, line-to-line improv, intentional improv. There’s improv and there’s also iteration where I go through it many, many times micro-adjusting. So really, there wasn’t much deciding. Because I figure if we sat down and mapped out a book, the three of us, it would make sense—that’s not so good. Sense is not that good. But if you mapped it out on the fly, and everyday for 400 days, you’re making micro decisions, then that structure is going to be much more mind-blowing than the one you can think of in a day. It’s kind of like if you planned out your marriage and then actually had one.
SM: So you had to live it.
GS: You had to live it. And they had to talk back, not only the way you wanted them to, but sometimes you would make a little mistake and you think “Oh, why did he say that?” Or you figured out something about the diction and you honored it, then the characters moved in a different direction. So my stories all work like that. The more I control them, the more they’re dead. Maybe like playing music, if you’re improv-ing, you don’t say, “I’m going to play this, you listen.” Which is cool, but it takes a lot of faith.
SM: I was going to ask about diction. Your language in your other books always seems to be set in a not-too-different future, like three years from now, or 10 years from now.
GS: Or in the current climate, 15 minutes.
(Everybody laughs nervously)
SM: Right! The voices in this book are in the past, but they’re just as colloquial—in some cases just as proletarian—and just as weird. There is a massive diversity of voices in this one. So how many voices did you hear in your own head?
GS: You know what I figured out early on from reading Tolstoy? It’s almost like math: If you want to do voices in extremity, you can do fewer. On the page, if you want two really extreme voices, I can maybe make two that are different, and three if I’m tricky. In other words, I have a story called “Victory Lap,” and they’re pretty distinct voices, but three is the limit—I can’t do four. Usually, I literally hear it, and I could do it out loud. So in this book, I have 166, so actually I’m not [varying] voices as much. Sometimes it was like, OK, this guy misspells these words. Or this guy uses an ampersand at this frequency. I imagined them almost like you would have 15 voices in a room, and you just carefully place one here, just a little bit over here… To me, it’s not that voicey of a book, but the job was always to make the reader feel like it was.
SM: And you’re right, it’s not even about voice. It’s about voice through letters arranged on a page. It’s written.
GS: That’s right.
SM: So like the roman numerals and the scholarly citations, but the characters in this book, it’s more like they’re writing to each other than talking to each other.
GS: I kind of stumbled on that, and like, “That’s cool.” Especially when you’re looking at all those old letters. You see that they really did that. So it’s a little bit of a trick: they’re going to appear to speak to you in the way in which they would’ve written to you. Like that. So that gives you a lot of room. Even with Willie Lincoln—he has that trope of leaving five spaces. Why? I don’t know, but you see that and you go, “Willie.”
SM: At times it reads like a Civil War era comment section.
GS: Exactly. You’re tracing it backwards. Because this book started with a novel, way back in the day when chatlines first started. And I saw ‘em and I’m like, that is so cool looking. They’re full of very special misspellings, and you ask me something and my answer only comes in three exchanges below. So that book was set in a graveyard, and had that set up, but that book didn’t work. I always thought that you see something on the page, and it looks cool and it just has energy. So that chatline thing, there were a couple moments in that book that were similar to that, and I thought OK, someday I’ll come back to that technique.
SM: So how would Facebook have affected the Civil War?
GS: Probably sped it up. Because back then, you would have to sit down and write an editorial or a long letter, and the letters were so articulate. There’s a great book called Patriotic Gore by Edmund Wilson. It’s kind of hard to find, and it’s very expensive, but it’s a book of his essays on literary culture in the Civil War. And the people who could write? They fucking wrote. But even the wrongheaded people wrote beautifully and persuasively. And then down, down, there were a lot of letters going back and forth with bad spelling. But my guess is it would’ve just sped things up, I guess, maybe? Or maybe the other thing was, back then, there weren’t really northerners talking to southerners that much. Well, just like right now there’s not either.
SM: My dad is a truck driver or whatever, and I work for a magazine downtown, so I regularly hear from both sides. There are a lot of voices in your books, a lot of characters in your books, that are from this overlooked working class—that people in the urban liberal bubble don’t really get to listen to or read about.
GS: That’s right.
SM: So where do they come from in your life?
GS: Well, I mean, I grew up on the South Side, and my dad owned restaurants and he worked for a coal company. And you know, I worked in a slaughterhouse. So, yeah, that’s why this Trump thing fucks me up. Probably you, too. Because historically, my loyalties have been with the working middle class and the way they’ve been shit on, but then all of a sudden they’re willing to shit on other people, so it gets really complicated. But I think, and what I’ve been saying is, basically if you look at it, I think Bernie had it right. All the money went up. In maybe the ‘80s, it all started going up. So if America is a community living on a mountainside, all the air went up to the peak at some point. And now in the middle- and lower-middle and lower-lower classes, it’s an anaerobic environment. So people are going to start getting nuts.
SM: And it’s not just happening here. There was a New York Times story about France, and about how the countryside sucks in France, too.
GS: Or go to Nepal, they’re permanently in the anaerobic strata. So it’s sad, because the real story is so interesting and so misunderstood. I think there’s some kind of materialist, corporatist pogrom going on. I don’t know what you’d call it, but it’s very quiet—it’s not intentional. It’s just what capitalism does. I went out to Amarillo, Texas, where I had lived, and drove though and I was like, “Wow, this place it looks the same, but it’s gutted.” The only things making money are these corporate franchises on the fringe of the highway. So that’s true, and that’s really interesting. I think the progressive movement was just about to get there, and this movement kind of swept in and did this. So people like us are in a tricky spot. It means you don’t get to think simple. You don’t get to have simple allegiances. That’s the pisser.
SM: So can reading help us?
GS: I know it can.
SM: It can help with radical kindness, because you can get into somebody else’s head. Just like ghosts jumping into Lincoln’s body in your book, you can find empathy by inhabiting somebody else.
GS: That’s how you did it, I bet. That’s how I did it. And actually it’s only recently that the working class didn’t know that. I mean you read Steinbeck, and that was the whole thing—let’s read ourselves out of our situation and into more kindness. Kindness, not defined in that kind of wimpy way, but muscular kindness, like Dos Passos and Steinbeck. They’re like, “Fuck the man, because the man is fucking us, so we’re not going to allow it.”
SM: Thank you so much for your time.
GS: Oh thanks, sorry it’s so rushed, I could talk to you guys for hours.
SM: No, no, could you just sign our books while we have you?
GS: Oh of course, I’m a signing machine. What’s your name again?
Beak: Could you make it out to Beak. B-E-A-K.
GS: Like “Beak”?
Beak: That’s my rap name. So we’ll just stick with our professions here.
GS: I have a rap name but it’s just “George.” (Awkward laughter.) No. But after a certain age they don’t give you a rap name.