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…]

To Run and Not Grow Weary, Part 1

Three men running in a track covered with water puddles in the 1948 Olympic Games in LondonBy Jeffrey Overstreet.

So, why Chariots of Fire?

Why is that what I chose for tonight’s movie? Netflix is recommending all kinds of recent, highly rated titles. Why revisit this old DVD?

It happened like this:

Two hours earlier, I’d taken the car, planning to drive north to a waterfront park to work on my novel. I planned to walk along the beach and watch the sun’s long surrender while ideas filled my head. Then I’d veer into the nearest café or pub to scribble down scenes while they were fresh.

A strange way to spend a Sunday afternoon? Perhaps.

For me, it’s as automatic as it was for my father and grandfather to watch Sunday afternoon football, as it is for you to do what comes most naturally, and be what feels most like yourself. Filling pages with story—it’s what I’ve done every weekend since I was seven. When I don’t, I feel like I’m holding my breath.

What is that for you? Maybe running, parenting, or knitting. Maybe you read, hike, fish, or cook.

Just a mile from home, a tremendous fatigue settled over me. I slowed to a stop at a traffic light, turned off the radio. Silence. The light turned green, the road was open, and I may as well have been staring at a brick wall. I couldn’t bear the thought of going forward. The weariness I usually felt after four hours of filling pages with prose—I felt before.

A few minutes later, I was home. And my wife Anne was surprised.

“I couldn’t do it,” I heard myself say. “I got almost halfway there and then…” I fumbled for words. [Read more…]

Stopping the Press

Image Journal

By Mary Kenagy Mitchell

This is the time of year when we work on Image’s annual budget. Here in the excruciatingly lean nonprofit sector, there’s a sort of elegant efficiency to having very little to spend—but it also means that when we need to make cuts, we cut close to the bone.

I’m a practical person, and so I sometimes think about the money we’d save if we stopped printing Image. That is, if we went to digital only, like Paste did in 2010 (though I recently learned they’re making a push to return to print). We’d still publish the same wonderful content—the poems and stories and essays and interviews. You’d be able to see all the same visual art. Actually you’d see more of it, because we wouldn’t be constrained by the expense of printing in color.

All pixels cost the same. [Read more…]

The Gift of Interdependence

Glen Workshop Aubrey Allison poetry classBy Camellia Freeman

This story has many beginnings.

It begins with the great state of Ohio where I’d made my home for eight years. We lived in Columbus, and on late nights my husband and I would walk its city streets during summers so thick you could wade through them, cicada choruses surging like electric currents through the air, and we would talk at length about how I both dreaded and longed for the day we might leave.

It begins with the persistent loneliness that can make up the writing life, often paired with persistent doubt.

It begins with what I had dubbed the Season of Closed Doors, a season that seemed to go on and on, almost laughably—a sobering reminder that when you choose something, you are choosing it at the exclusion of all else and that the possibilities were never as endless as they seemed. Or with my fantasies about a writing mentor, or the feeling that I was finally in the right project, one that might someday, actually, concretely, become a real first “book.”

Or perhaps it best begins with Greg Wolfe’s phone call one April afternoon when he extended the offer of the pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming Milton Fellowship, and I took it.

This is a story about being welcomed into the Image community, which means that it is a story about true gifts. [Read more…]

Of Cookbooks and Lynchings

by Jessie.yang on flickr“Men and women in automobiles stood up to watch him die.” That’s the sentence one student recalled when I asked the class what was memorable in Eula Biss’s essay “Time and Distance Overcome.” The man who died was a black man “accused of attacking a white woman.” For his alleged behavior, he was “tied to a telephone pole and burned.”

After we discussed the short essay for about forty-five minutes—its structure, its late revelation of her personal connection to the subject—her grandfather was a lineman who broke his back when a telephone pole on which he had been working fell—I directed the students to the last section of Biss’s powerful Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, which offers additional information and reflections on the writing of each of the essays.

“I began my research for this essay,” writes Biss, “by searching for every instance of the phrase ‘telephone pole’ in the New York Times from 1880 to 1920, which resulted in 370 articles.”

This alone, I thought, is useful information for a first year college student: how one conducts research for this kind of essay. [Read more…]