Man Booker Prize winner George Saunders talks about writing

  • Books
  • Thursday, 11 Jan 2018

Saunders remember's 'the warmth and generosity of the people' from his visits to Malaysia when he was younger. Photo: CHLOE AFTEL

I was so taken with Lincoln In The Bardo when I reviewed it that I jumped at the chance to interview George Saunders about his writing. That was months ago, though, long before the American author’s Man Booker Prize win last year, and before the world began clamouring for his attention. (See the 10/10 review online here.)

He remembered us in the end, though, and kindly sat down at an electronic device somewhere in the midst of his whirlwind travels to reply to our e-mailed questions.

What changes, if any, do you envisage that winning this year’s Man Booker prize will make to you and your work?

I always try to take anything that happens to me in my writing career, positive or negative, and sort of “dedicate” it to the next project. This very positive response to Lincoln In The Bardo will serve, I hope, to make me even bolder in the next book.

With its disparate voices, the novel could almost be serialised on Twitter. Did you think “social media” when writing in disjointed fragments?

Actually, yes. The book’s form came from a discarded novel I tried to write in the 1990s, when IM (Instant Messaging) was first starting, and you are right – I loved the disjointed, almost dissociative way that (and other, newer social media) looks on the page. It’s sort of like a lot of minds cross-firing narcissistically – a pretty good definition of any human gathering.

George Saunders on writing Lincoln In The BardoIs it fair to say that Lincoln In The Bardo is as much a poem, or at least a work of poetry, as it is a novel?

I love that idea, yes. Gogol called “Dead Souls” a poem and he is a great hero of mine. A book speaks to us in many ways, and sound and form are two very important ones, that work outside of mere plot....

In the audio book version of your novel you read the part of the Reverend Everly Thomas. Do you feel a particular affinity for this character? Extrapolating forwards, did the reverend’s actions vis-à-vis Willie guarantee a better outcome than the daunting visions he initially faced?

I think so, yes. The book sort of “revealed” this truth to me as I wrote it: we can’t know for sure what is going to happen to us after this life, and we often struggle to know what the right thing to do is even moment-to-moment, but one thing we can do is try to cultivate positive intentions.

This is essentially what the reverend does toward then end of the book, when he intervenes on Willie’s behalf – he feels, “Well, I don’t understand much, but I can do, in this one moment, what I feel is the most loving thing to do, and hope and trust that God will find favour with me for that.”

Between you and me, I feel pretty good about his chances when he goes back for his second judgment.

(The reverend, who is more or less a ghost, decides to run off with Lincoln’s son’s body with the intention of allowing him a more peaceful afterlife. See synopsis in the bio, right.)

George Saunders on writing Lincoln In The Bardo
Saunders speaking after being announced as the winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction in October 2017. Judges praised as 'utterly original' the book that chronicles the death of Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son Willie using the accounts of hundreds of narrators. Photo: AFP

Do you think consciousness can continue to exist beyond the lifespan of the physical body?

I do think so. It would seem odd to me if all that was, was what was readily seen. Every spiritual tradition argues for continuing consciousness. Of course, we can’t know – but assuming this is the case also makes, one could argue, for a richer life while we’re still here and living.

What role does meditation play in your writing life?

I’m starting to think they are the same thing. When I write, the main job is to try to look at what I’ve already written with a certain kind of hopeful detachment – just really trying to assess the actual energy of that fictive moment.

And I think that’s the “meditative” goal in every moment of living – to try to train ourselves to ask, “What is this?” rather than automatically saying, with our concepts and our thoughts and our habits, “Oh, I know what this is” and thereby overwriting the actual experience unfolding in front of us.

So you might think you know what your story is, but if reading it indicates otherwise, you have to accept that.

There’s a certain irony that many of the attitudes and positions cleaving American society that led to the Civil War in the 19th century are rearing their ugly heads again today. Is this cyclical, or symptomatic of something unresolved? Can America/humanity ever move on and lay these ghosts to rest?

The civil war never really ended. The slaves were set free but with no resources, no payments for all of their work – and this constituted, essentially, a billions-of-dollars robbery. And our national habit of white privilege continues until this day. So an honest and radical reckoning is needed in the collective minds of white Americans.

You went from writing a novel about Abraham Lincoln to writing piece for The New Yorker about the Trump road show, two presidents with very different styles of statesmanship. Did delving into history give you insights into the present day?

Well, yes. One thing it indicated was that America has always been a pretty crazy and out-of-control place. But it also reminded me that the most important virtues in a leader – according to me, anyway – are generosity of spirit and true curiosity. Lincoln had these.

You trained as a geophysicist. Does this inform your writing in any way?

I think the main benefit was rigor. In geophysics you get (as our professors used to tell us) “no partial credit”. Likewise in writing. If draft 300 is no good – it’s no good, and you have to keep going.

Working in that field also gave me a chance to travel to Asia, when I had never been out of my own country. This is very important, I think – it helps a young person become less provincial.

It is such an important lesson (and maybe even more so in times like ours, when social media can tend to emphasise agitation and opposition) to remember that the vast majority of people in the world are loving-hearted and just want to be happy and good. I had a lot of naive moral-ethical and political ideas when I was young and travelling corrected these.

During the time you worked in Indonesia did you happen to visit Malaysia?

Yes, I took several visits through your beautiful country, on trains, and what I remember most is just the warmth and generosity of the people.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m going to interview former Vice President Joe Biden in Florida this week, so I’m reading his new memoir, Promise Me, Dad. And I’ve just finished a wonderful book called Stamped From The Beginning: A Definitive History Of Racist Ideas In America by Ibram X. Fendi (Nation Books, 2016).

(Saunders interviewed Biden on Monday.)

You are an executive producer on Amazon’s adaptation of your short story “Sea Oak”. Can you tell us a little about that?

Yes, the first episode just became available on Amazon, for the next month. I really loved the process, especially the collaborative aspect. We had to sort of say, “OK, that story is done, it’s been around a long time – what else can we do with it?” That is: allow ourselves to find a new artistic product, responsive to the new media in which it was going to be made.

I love the idea of trying to keep myself fresh as an artist, as I move into my 700th year of life – trying new forms seems like one way to do it. And my hope is that I can then bring whatever I learn into my fiction.

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