An Interview with George Saunders, Part 1

Photo of George Saunders in b&w looking at the camera. He has a gentle expression on his face, but his eye contact is direct. His hair is balding a bit with a tuft on top of his head. He's wearing dark, thick rimmed rectangular glasses, a dark jacket, and a pattern shirt underneath.Beloved fiction writer George Saunders has long been known for his daring short stories, collected most recently in 2013’s Story Prize-winning Tenth of December, and his keen interest in moral introspection, highlighted by his much-shared commencement speech for 2013 Syracuse University graduates about the importance of kindness.

Saunders just published his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, an unconventional work of historical fiction about the moment when Abraham Lincoln was embroiled in the Civil War and lost his son Willie to typhoid fever.

I recently spoke to George Saunders on the phone from his home in California about his novel of voices, the Tibetan concept of the Bardo, and how he drew on classic ghost story tropes to create his distinctive spirit characters.

Jenny Shank: You create a chorus of voices in the commentaries about Lincoln that are taken from historical sources. Did the feeling of these contrary voices inspire the fictional characters you created, or was it the other way around?

George Saunders: It was both. It was like a feedback loop. You’d write a ghost section in which there was a certain rhythm in those exchanges, and that rhythm would be in your head the next time you went to arrange the real sources. And vice versa. You’d get a certain kind of velocity in those factual sections that would make a high bar for the ghost sections.

There was a big breakthrough one day where I was trying to figure out where to put the attributions—because you could put them at the beginning or the end. If you put them at the end, then the ghost speeches are at first glance indistinguishable from the factual ones. I liked that there would be one rule for all of them.

This book isn’t actually that long, so you could always be rewriting all of it. If at the end of the book I had a certain tone, I might find myself revising an earlier section in that spirit.

J.S.: Did you consider it a risk to make a good portion of your book out of other people’s words?

G.S.: Yes. I remember thinking, this isn’t writing, this is typing! But I really wanted to communicate some of that emotion of that image of Lincoln holding Willie’s body. [Read more…]

Epiphany in the Memory Unit

Image of a profile of a person's face with light illuminating the cheeks and forehead, the face is shrouded by a round blurry object in the foreground.The priest’s wife handed me her half full can of beer. It was Christmastime, and the beer she was offering was a Texas IPA, sweating seductively on the table between us. I brought the can to my lips and the slightly bitter taste of the half-warm beer filled me with relief.

I needed a drink. It was 7 p.m., and I’d arrived late. We would be heading out to sing carols at the Alzheimer’s unit of a local nursing home, a well-appointed facility near the neighborhood in Houston where I am a music minister and where the priest’s wife’s husband is rector.

The nursing home smelled faintly of Clorox and overcooked vegetables—as I suppose all nursing homes do—but I had been unprepared for the regret that hit me with that smell. [Read more…]

Literacy Class: Learning the Language of Love

vintage photo looking down on woman lounging on floor reading. This past week, I taught my last English class for quite some time. Three years ago, I moved to my new city in the Midwest. Almost right away, I started teaching literacy to people (mostly women, mostly older, all East African refugees) who have been denied access to education.

The levels of trauma, displacement, oppression, and prejudice contained in that single educational qualifier “non-literate” are hard to explain.

I taught in the corners of crowded libraries, classrooms, computer labs. I taught inside of makeshift police offices and elder housing complexes. I learned about the housing crisis in Minneapolis, I met large families who lived in homeless shelters, I learned of the cracks in the system, how gaping and wide open they turned out to be.

I helped people fill out forms and connect with resources and each other, I learned Somali songs and went to weddings, I ate delicious food and learned how to put the proper amount of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and cardamom in the tea I made for us all.

I scolded people for driving without a license and visited women in their apartments after they gave birth. I delivered cheese and pineapple pizza to people, baked hundreds of Funfetti cupcakes, which were much too sweet for any of us. And in the end, I saw maybe one person learn to read. [Read more…]

The Casserole Dish Manifesto

casserole-pots-by-atravelingmom-via-flickrI possessed a consummate ideology before I had children. It was a perfectly distilled comprehension of man, God, and government. I knew with certainty that if everyone would just turn off the television and read Important Books, we could live alongside one another the way the Almighty intended when he crafted laws of the universe that so clearly comported with my belief system.

It was all so obvious to me, which made the fact that some people disagreed with my worldview both infuriating and validating. How do you not see the truth? How can you ignore these facts staring you in the face? How awesome am I that I have not fallen prey to the deceptions entangling you?

I was enlightened. I was chosen. Only the ignorance and avarice of my ideological enemies stood in the way. Surely God would not have gifted me with words if he didn’t want me firing them from both barrels at the enemies of peace, freedom, and progress.

Then my children arrived. [Read more…]

To Run and Not Grow Weary, Part 2

eric-liddell-public-domain-via-wikimediaGuest Post

Maybe it was instinct that sent me back to relive the 1924 Olympic Games.

Yesterday you found me despairing, feeling a sudden collapse of my lifelong will to write. Slumped on the couch, I was watching, of all things, Chariots of Fire.

As a child, I loved this movie. But it wasn’t until college that I saw how it stands in stark contrast to so much evangelical entertainment, how it avoids a faith will make your dreams come true pep talk.

In fact, its most fervent evangelical figure, Eric Liddell’s sister, Jenny, is frustrated when her athletic brother postpones his missionary work in China in order to become an Olympic runner. Straightforward evangelism, Jenny believes, is the real work. If people are dying without hearing about Jesus, what is running but self-indulgence?

The tract-peddling, altar-calling culture in which I grew up would have loved Jenny.

And yet, Eric argues with her: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

His father supports him: “Eric, you can glorify God by peeling a potato if you peel it to perfection.”

And we still hear about Liddell’s faith today. Why? Because he ran. He ran like a holy fool. [Read more…]