Man Booker winner George Saunders on the afterlife and swimming in monkey poo

  • Books
  • Sunday, 26 Nov 2017

I was so taken with Lincoln In The Bardo when I reviewed it that I jumped at the chance to interview George Saunders. That was months ago, though, long before the American author’s Man Booker Prize win last month, and before the world began clamouring for his attention. (See the 10/10 review 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 Booker Prize-Winning Novel Lincoln In The Bardo
Saunders remember's 'the warmth and generosity of the people' from his visits to Malaysia when he was younger. Photo: CHLOE AFTEL

Is 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.”

George Saunders on Booker Prize-Winning Novel Lincoln In The Bardo 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 'Brief Bio', below.)

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 Nov 20.)

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.

Brief Bio

Saunders is a former geophysicist and technical writer who attended Syracuse University in New York as a mature student and has taught there as an English professor since 1996.

He has been a highly acclaimed short-story writer since the 1990s; Lincoln In The Bardo is his first full-length novel.

Saunders is a Buddhist; the “bardo” in the book’s title is the Tibetan Buddhist word for a transitional period between death and rebirth. It is President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, who is trapped in the bardo, having died from typhoid fever in 1862.

It is a historical fact that the president visited his son’s crypt at least once at night when he reportedly held the body in his arms. From this, Saunders has spun an extraordinary story juxtaposing events from Lincoln’s life and the American Civil War (1861-1865) with a chorus of otherworldly characters who are dead but unwilling or unable to let go of life.

On his website, Texas-born Saunders says he grew up in Chicago and “(barely) graduated from the Colorado School of Mines with a degree in exploration geophysics”.

His interest in writing blossomed while he was a geophysicist in Sumatra and worked “four weeks on and two weeks off, in a jungle camp that was a 40-minute helicopter ride to the nearest town”. The situation prompted a lot of reading.

A year and half later, Saunders became ill after swimming in a river polluted with monkey faeces – “I remember looking up at about 200 of them, sitting on our oil pipeline, crapping away, and thinking: ‘I wonder if swimming here is OK?’” – and returned to the United States.

While attempting to “try and be Kerouac II”, Saunders held down a variety of jobs and also began studying for his MFA at Syracuse University in the late 1980s; he met his wife, Paula, there.

They had no money, Saunders says, so he worked as a technical writer. But he was also writing fiction – “three abortive first books and then an actual one, CivilWarLand In Bad Decline” (1996).

One of the stories from this book, “Offloading For Mrs Schwartz”, ran in The New Yorker in 1992, marking “the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship” with the magazine for which he still writes.

Apart from CivilWarLand (which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award), his other short story collections include Pastoralia (2000), In Persuasion Nation (2006), and Tenth Of December (2013); The Braindead Megaphone (2007) is a collection of his many essays that have appeared in various publications.

Saunders also wrote a novella-length New York Times bestselling children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers Of Frip, that was illustrated by Lane Smith and that has won major children’s literature prizes in Italy and the Netherlands, and the illustrated fable, The Brief And Frightening Reign Of Phil (2005).

The author is probably best known outside literary circles for a commencement speech he gave in 2013 at his university about kindness. It went viral on the Internet  and was published as a book in 2014 titled Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts On Kindness.

Saunders and his wife have two daughters, and they live in the Catskills in south-eastern New York State. – dpa/AP/



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