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…]