In this exclusive extended interview with short-form master George Saunders, he dishes on inventive structure, reveals why he’s wary of outlines, and talks novel-length success with Lincoln in the Bardo.
George Saunders is used to those.
A 2013 profile in The New York Times Magazine called him “the writer of our time.” The late David Foster Wallace once dubbed him “the most exciting writer in America,” and Saunders’ fellow novelist and teaching peer Mary Karr named him “the best short story writer in English—not ‘one of,’ not ‘arguably,’ but the Best.” Zadie Smith deemed his latest work “a masterpiece,” and he’s been hailed as the heir to Pynchon and Vonnegut.
A former MacArthur Genius Fellow, Saunders has written nearly two dozen pieces—both fiction and nonfiction—for The New Yorker, demonstrating his talent across category. His 2013 New York Times bestselling short story collection, Tenth of December, was a National Book Award Finalist and was named one of the best books of the year by such venues as NPR, Entertainment Weekly and New York magazine.
Unwilling to be defined by his concision alone, Saunders’ first foray into full-length fiction—2017’s Man Booker Prize-winning Lincoln in the Bardo—is an existential exercise in human suffering, sentimentality, and historical re-examination, with a dash of his trademark humor. The novel follows young Willie Lincoln who, after perishing from typhoid at age 11, awakens in the “bardo” (a liminal state after death pulled from Buddhist tradition), bringing readers along as he meets other ghosts still struggling to sort out their previous life’s baggage. Honest Abe himself makes an appearance, grief and guilt drawing him to his son’s crypt. Defying the conventions of genre and format, the book is simply the latest trophy in Saunders’ crowded case.
Yet despite all the accolades, the 59-year-old is remarkably humble. It’s a modesty hewn from early years of struggle in developing his own voice, with his acclaimed first collection, 1996’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, written in his off-hours while he worked full time as a technical writer in Rochester, N.Y. That humility translates into an abundant generosity of spirit. Saunders teaches at Syracuse University’s Master of Fine Arts program—the same program through which the distinguished writers Tobias Wolff and Douglas Unger mentored him in the late 1980s.
His sense of altruism—an openness to share from his well of wisdom—manifests itself in a craft-based conversation with WD that runs nearly 10,000 words. Read a condensed version of that in the July/August 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest, or read the uncut version below.
Lincoln in the Bardo has such an innovative structure: excerpts from history books, sections that read like a stage play, character monologues that are self-contained vignettes. How did you land on that format?
This book took me, in total, about 20-something years to write. During the first 16 of that, I was mostly just thinking about it and a little terrified of it, and also trying to avoid it. I would think, I’ll do that Lincoln book, then I’d think, I don’t know how to start. I guess the short answer to your question is: Structure is a way that allows you to do the things you’re good at, and avoid the things you’re not so good at. In this case, I was really afraid that the Lincoln subject would necessitate or cause the book to be a little stiff and 19th-century. For example, I thought of writing it in Lincoln’s voice, [but] that seemed really boring. I couldn’t think of any way to make that enjoyable.
I thought about telling it in a distant third-person, [but] that didn’t excite me at all. I stalled out for many years because I couldn’t think of any structure that would let me have fun, basically. I had tried to write a book in this theatrical format before and had put it aside, but when I crossed that idea with the Lincoln idea, I got excited all of the sudden. The one piece of advice I would give: If it’s not exciting to you, it probably won’t work out. In this case, it was just waiting for a structure that would get me excited.
I just read a great quote by Grace Paley, who said something like: It’s not that you should write what you know, you should write what you don’t know about what you know. I trust a lot in that feeling of an intrigued confusion.
What was your process like piecing it all together?
As I remember it, I started with the ghosts talking back and forth theatrically. There were two doubts I had about that: One was that I knew the reason I was excited about this book had a lot to do with the moment in history when the whole thing happened, this event where Lincoln went into his son’s crypt. It happened in the middle of the Civil War. The circumstances around his son’s death were very tragic and sad and specific. I knew I had to get the history in. Then, at the same time, after some number of weeks of writing the ghosts, I started to get that drifty feeling like, Well, since they’re ghosts, you can do anything.
That’s actually the enemy of good writing, I think. Good writing thrives on some kind of constraint. When you’re saying, “OK, they’re ghosts from any historical period and they can do any physical thing,” that’s really hard. Also, I felt as if my imagined or projected reader would be getting a little impatient with the absence of constraint. If anything goes, nothing happens, basically. Those two ideas arrived at the same time, and I thought, I’ve got to put some history in there, just for grounding. Just so the ghosts will suddenly actually seem more believable. If you have a ghost and a fact, the ghost seems more factual somehow.
One day I had one of these neurotic conversations with myself, which is like me talking back and forth to me. I said, “OK, do you think this history stuff has to go in there?”
“OK. How do you think it can go in there?”
“I don’t know, I tried everything I can do.”
“OK, how do you know that history?”
“Well, I read it in all those history books.”
“Well, why not just put it in there verbatim?”
Then there was an awkward silence and I’m like, “Can I do that?” And the other me said, “Well, it’s your stupid book, you can do whatever you like.”
That was another moment of excitement and a little bit of transgression—to say a part of my “writing” process was going to be typing up other people’s words, editing them, rearranging them, and injecting them into my book. Again, something about the almost suspect nature of that got me excited. The idea of using other sources suddenly seemed like sampling in music or something like that. I’ve learned to trust that feeling. If I’m being a little dangerous or a little naughty or a little transgressive, and not just for the sake of it, then I know to go in that direction.
It seems like death is a common theme in much of your work. The narrator in “The Semplica Girl Diaries” has his mind drift toward these existential questions, and the ghosts themselves in Lincoln in the Bardo come to terms with their own passing. Why do you find this to be such fertile ground for storytelling?
Well, the one honest answer is, I'm not sure. There's that great Flannery O'Connor quote about a person can choose what he writes, but he can't choose who he makes live. For me, so much of the apprenticeship process with writing was to figure out what could I make come alive and what should I just leave alone because I can't get it to get any life on the page. I think we all start out thinking, I'm going to be a writer like so-and-so, or, I'm going to be a writer in this lineage. That's good. I think that's a holy thing to do. But then at some point, if that approach is producing dull, tepid prose, you have to change your approach.
For me, I don't think I ever thought, I'll write a lot about death. It's just when I put that in a story, it livens everything somehow. Now, tracing back, I think it's just because I've had a big mortality dread since I was a little kid. I thought about death when I was little, and I channeled that into a fascination with horror movies, but that's all true and I'm sure that has something to do with the fact that the stories come alive when I write about death. [Laughs.] Really, in some ways, I think the question of why we're drawn to certain things is mysterious. For me, it wasn't that I decided to write about death and then did, it was more that whenever I put death in a story, the story takes on a certain amount of extra energy.
Now, philosophically, I think it's just because that's the truth of this whole game, is that we're here and we feel pretty solid and pretty central to all the proceedings. We feel like we'll be around here forever, but we know intellectually that's not true. I think for me to put a death in a story is a way of turning my own head so that my eyes face the actual truth of my eventual death. In essence, it's I guess, a little bit of a self-caution to say, "Look, this day, I just got up, it's snowing in New York City. Just like every other day, I'm here and I feel pretty good. Therefore, life’s going to go on," but we know that isn't the case. In the same way, I think a spiritual life can help you just slightly undilute yourself. I think writing can do the same. Having said that, if suddenly, the only thing that made my writing come alive was cruise ships, I would write a book about cruise ships. Or maybe there'd be a death on a cruise ship, I don't know.
Speaking of humor, even in a story as melancholy as Lincoln in the Bardo, humor is a constant—especially among the talking ghosts. In fact, that seems to be the case in almost all your stories, even the bleakest ones. I'm wondering if you could elaborate a little bit more on why you employ humor in tales that are otherwise so somber?
I think it’s fair to say nobody gets into art to be “acceptable,” to be “pretty good” or “fine.” We all get into it for that very grandiose reason of wanting to break somebody's heart or do some really beautiful thing. Those actually require some radical decision-making at certain points in the process. I think those decisions tend to come in response to the way certain kinds of writing feel to you. I wrote a bunch of slavishly imitative Hemingway knockoffs when I was young. If I'd been honest with myself—which wasn't one of my gifts at that age—I would have said, "You're not having any fun with this." I didn't even know where the most beautiful moment in the story was. When I went to revise it, I didn't really have any basis, except “what would be more Hemingway-esque,” which was a drag to be imitating somebody else. Then when I switched to writing funnier stuff, suddenly I was full of opinions and full of happiness. I was having fun doing it. I didn't know if it was good, but I had a sense of reckless abandon.
At any given moment, I can pull down a bunch of different feelings about this life. Some of which are morbid and happy and sad and shameful and exuberant. Life is everything at once. Is life happy or sad? You bet. That's the honest human answer. I think life is pretty complicated, and humor is a good way to get through it because humor essentially is humility. It's saying, "I don't feel confident enough in my view to be one-pointed about it." I think that's correct. We shouldn't be so confident in our view that we are humorless, but on the technical level, it's the same idea but a little more complicated.
Basically, from as early as I can remember, as a little kid, I had two speeds. One was very serious and sentimental and control freak-y. I had a very earnest person within me. I was a very strong Catholic as a little kid. I've always been very hard on myself and in some ways, hard on other people. I have a judgmental binary morality going all the time. I didn't drink until I was a lot older because I thought it was wrong, and I was at one point a big Ayn Rand fan because I thought she was so right, and kind of a boar in that way. Then on the other side, I've always been really a joke guy. Pretty irreverent, pretty funny, pretty satirical. That came from my family and from being in Chicago. Really, even as a little kid, those two things would flicker on and off. I'd be very earnest and I'd be really edgy.
When I was writing in that Hemingway phase, the earnest guy was running the show. Everything was about, I don't know, like virtue, honor, courage, strength. Those were the things that were on my mind. In the story, that was all there and it was boring because the other guy was being kept out of the room. Then later, when I finally wrote the story that would become my first book, I started to let the sarcastic guy in as well, but I didn't kick the other guy out. In a sense, you could see in any of my stories [there] is a dual between those two very real people within me. It's a little bit like those old movies where the two prisoners run away from prison, but they're shackled at the ankle, so they have to cooperate. For me, the earnest, dark, sad person has to cooperate with the funny, lively, joyful person. You can see that in my stories, even paragraph to paragraph. There'll be an earnest section, which I try to revise out of simple earnestness—to make it really truthful, but somber. Then when that gets to be too much, the other guy will come in and make a fart joke.
This, I think, is a general principle of writing, is that we're always trying to keep the reader on the hook by any means necessary. I know a lot of writers who bring the two or three people they are to the page sequentially like that, just to keep the reader interested. Now, I didn't arrive at that intellectually, but I arrived at it in practice. I'll do the same thing at a reading. I'll be talking about … somebody will ask about that, and I'll talk very seriously about how weird it is that we're going to all die. Everybody in this room is basically a walking corpse. You carry on in that vein for a while, and it gets a little somber. Then if you can turn it around and make a joke, you've got all the benefit of the somberness, and now everybody's re-engaged for the next bit because you've relieved the tension with the joke. I think any piece of prose can be understood as a system of checks and balances.
For the individual writer, the thing is, she has to find out what's the two or three things she can put into a check and balance relationship with the ultimate purpose of keeping the reader engaged. In the process, the beautiful payoff is that you then are being most fully yourself. I'm allowing both of those people to the table every day as a writer, and they like that. Both parts of me … there's more than two, but those various parts of me like the fact that I'm not denying them or squashing them. It feels like a form of mental health almost.
How much of a story’s arc do you know before you begin?
My normal idea on stories is to try to know as little as possible at every step, because then you’re open to the actual energy that’s coming off the page. If you want the story to go left, but it really wants to go right, you’d better let it go right. If I don’t have a whole lot of preconceptions about it, it’s easier for me to make that swerve. Having said that, it always varies. Some stories, like one called “The End of Firpo in the World,” I knew the whole arc, just in an instant. This Lincoln book … here’s what my outline was: On one level, Lincoln comes into the crypt, holds the body, and eventually leaves the graveyard. That would either happen in one night, or three times in three successive nights. The second arc was: Willie dies, is for some reason stuck in this bardo zone, and either is liberated from it in a positive way—or isn’t. That was my whole outline. It was like a vague hallway I could walk down and try to find the particulars.
My sense of most younger writers that I meet is they put too much stock in knowing the whole thing before they start, which takes a lot of different forms. Sometimes it’s outlines, sometimes it’s a lot of discursive thought about thematics: My book is going to be about this, and it’s going to show this. Speaking anecdotally, in most cases, that’s too much. It actually is an elaborate ruse by the subconscious to keep you from finding the thing you should write about. It’s almost like somebody walking through Paris with a map right in front of their face. They’re concentrating on the map, but they’re not really seeing the actual Paris.
I think for all of us writers, the trick is to get in touch with the energy of the actual thing you've written, so you can revise it and cause it to produce more energy. To do that, you have to be really looking closely at the line-to-line progress of the thing. That process is sometimes inhibited by our clinging to the plan we made three months ago, I think. Having said that, there's many rooms in a mansion. I have one friend who sat down one weekend and he wrote 25 chapter headings as in Dickens, you know, in which Jane meets Robert, or whatever. Then he said for him, the fun was to just figure out the details of the meeting between Jane and Robert—but since he had those 15 headings that made a simple [overarching] story, he knew that when he was done he'd have a novel.
I think for me, it seems like most of what we're doing is trying to trick our conscious, plotting day-to-day minds into stepping aside so the surprise can come out. People have a million different ways to do it. For me, the way to do it is to say, "Well, I'm going to know nothing." That's the shtick I tell myself. I think I would say every writer I've met who is good had a way of somehow setting themselves up so that at some critical moment during the day, this magical thing from beyond, maybe the subconscious or whatever you want to call it, would lurch forward and give them a little gift that they hadn't been expecting. That might be the whole craft.
You’ve called prose, when done right, “empathy training wheels.” What are those “right” elements that need to be in place for the story to truly elicit empathy?
One of the symptoms of good writing—and also one of the causes of good writing—is that it takes the reader and the writer and puts them on the same footing. For example, a bad story is usually one where the writer is talking down to the reader. Leading him around by the nose, manipulating. The reader feels that, and just like if you were in a relationship with somebody who was constantly talking down to you, you would resist. It really is just the old-fashioned stuff of being clear, residing in your text long enough to know if you’re defying logic in some way or if you’re finding the optimal path through the material.
Sometimes there’s a tendency to overdo this idea of empathy, as if you have to make every story a demonstration of selfless compassion or something. But I think the empathy, so called, is mostly in your relation to the reader. You’re trying to imagine that person as being every bit as smart and worldly and talented and curious as you are. If you do that, the level of your discourse will come up, and that person will feel honored by your attention.
When I read Dickens, I feel him as an empathetic writer. I just feel that he thinks well of me. He thinks that I’m as smart as he is, so he’s telling the story very honestly and very frankly. Dickens resided long enough in that story to really find out why Scrooge was so stingy, then to supply exactly the right medicine in the form of those three ghosts to bring Scrooge up. He was loving Scrooge all along, even when Scrooge was a stinker. Dickens had that beautiful attitude of saying, “I know there’s more to you than that, Ebenezer. Let me just keep looking at you.”
You’ve said that you like to “take a human situation and make it come to a boil.” How do you go about planting the seeds for conflict?
The truth is, it has to do with line-to-line revision. It has to do with … it’s hard for me to explain this, but it’s basically revising enough that the situation you’re describing seems to you 100 percent real. You know how sometimes when you’re in an early draft, it feels like typing—it doesn’t become a human event yet? I feel like my job is to revise it until it feels like something that really happened. That has to do sometimes with the way the prose sounds, that compulsion we talked about earlier. If you power through a section of prose and have no doubts, then it seems like it happened.
Within that, there’s another thing, which has to do with what I would call “narrative logic.” It’s like, OK, if you’re reading a story of mine, you’re doing that complicated work of projecting yourself into my main character. In other words, you’re becoming my main character, and so am I. We’re walking along together with this, and then in person, and we’re both being that person. I have a little more control than you, so I say, “Jim came to the mud puddle,” and you say, “OK, we’re standing in front of a mud puddle.” And then I say, “He took off all his clothes and rolled around in the mud on his way to work.”
Now, part of your mind is going, “No, he didn’t.” The reason you’re saying that is because you wouldn’t do that. We can tolerate some of that [separation], and that’s how we make a character distinct from ourselves—but I think if there are hundreds of moments like that in a story where I’m looking at you and saying, “Would you accept that the character would do Action A?” If you say yes, then we’re still right next to each other and we’re experiencing the story together. If you say, “I don’t know,” we’ve separated a bit. Some of that separation is necessary, because our characters aren’t identical to us, but in a badly told story, the writer is asking the reader to accept things that a human being wouldn’t do. That affects the reader’s belief in the story, so that when you get to the climatic moment, the reader isn’t fully invested because the writer has given her so many off-ramps.
In other words, when you read a description of a mental state in a story, and the reader goes, “Yeah, I’ve had that feeling,” that’s a good bonding agent. When you describe a physical sensation or item really well, the reader goes, “Oh yeah, I know that.” Every time you can do that, you pull the reader in a little closer to you. I think the idea is to get to the very end of the story and have the reader still standing foot-to-foot with you. You haven’t given her any reasons to disavow the truth of the story. That’s what we talk about when we say climactic moments. The climactic moments feel powerful as long as we’re still standing close together. In fact, even a fairly small climax can feel huge if the reader and writer are close.
I take a lot of consolation in that. If a story isn’t working, we sometimes think we have to make it bigger, make a bigger escalation—an explosion, an alien invasion. Often, that impulse just means that we sense that we’ve lost the reader early. It’s almost like if you had a really terrible date with somebody and it wasn’t going well, so you thought, “OK, I’ll rent a string quartet at the very end.”
The dialogue in your stories is so natural that it quickly becomes immersive. What strategies do you employ to effectively mimic the way people really speak when you're writing dialogue?
Well, I think one thing is, I got a lesson early from a teacher by the name of Doug Unger. Doug said basically that it isn't actually the way they speak. If you listen to the way people talk, it's quite inefficient, and often absent of physical cues it's almost unintelligible. When I was a young writer, I had this idea that I wanted to learn how people really talk, so I took a tape recorder, and I hid it under our kitchen table. I recorded my mom and grandmother on just a typical morning, then I transcribed it. You couldn't make a bit a sense of it. It was all sentence fragments and, "Did you get the thing under the …" "Yeah, no, no, I won't.” “Yeah, you can, sure.” “Later, but he's gonna …” “Yeah, he is."
In a story, you transcribe that directly, it makes no sense. I think one of the keys, paradoxically, to good dialogue is for the writer to say to herself, "This is poetry, this is not real speech." It's poetry that's going to make you think it sounds like real speech. It's going to simulate the rhythms of actual speech. For me, when I realized that, it was a liberation to say, "Don't worry about how people talk. You've heard that your whole life. You know how people talk." But you're trying to make the dialogue serve the story, and one of the ways it does that actually is to have a propulsive effect. In other words, I read some good dialogue the other day, and what I noticed about it was it was pulling me through the story at almost twice the speed of the descriptive sections. Two separate human beings, or three in this case, were coming alive in my mind almost faster than I could process them. That's good dialogue writing.
One of the things that good dialogue writing doesn't do is exposition. We always here that. No exposition in dialogue. You don't say, "Hi, Bill. I hear you're a lawyer in New York City." "Yes, I am, Tom. How's your medical practice?" That kind of stuff is obviously exposition, but I think if a young writer who loves language understands dialogue to be poetry, I think for me that was the hint that helped me. The other bit of advice I got from Doug was that basically when two people are engaged in conversation, there are two other conversations going on inside their heads. If I'm thinking about whatever—my failed love affair—and I run into you on the street and you start talking to me about your trip to Puerto Rico. First, I'm not really listening to you 100 percent because I've still got my conversation about my failed love affair. Some of that internal monologue I'm having is going get reflected onto you. That was a really helpful thing.
In other words, people talk past each other. They don't answer questions directly, and they don't answer questions from a place of complete blankness. They've got an ongoing conversation of their own that they're injecting in. All those things can make dialogue skip around a little bit and be a little more lively than simple back and forth—highly functional people completely answering questions and complete sentences.
You’ve said you’re at a point now that when you don’t have any story ideas, you find joy in that moment, instead of considering it a crisis. The possibility of running out of ideas terrifies most writers. Where does that optimism come from?
It’s a mistake to think that a story is a result of ideas. I don’t think I’ve ever written a good story that came out of an idea, really. Or if I start it that way, I abandon it quickly. A story is actually a system of meaning that creates meaning by reacting to itself. In other words, you don’t actually need an external idea to write a story, you need an inciting something or other. For me, that can be a phrase or a vague idea of a theme park, or whatever. Sometimes it’s just a diction that I want to use; I just want to talk in a certain voice.
This notion that we have to have an idea is deadly. It always has been for me. I think if you do have an idea for a story, your wish should be that the story would burn that idea away and three weeks in, you go, “What a facile idea that was. That wasn’t enough.” As a starting point it was great, but I think the idea is always that the story would overflow its banks in some way and become about something that you didn’t even know it was going be about. Actually, it’s probably too harsh to say you start a story with no ideas. You start [with] a nice idea, almost like when you say, “Let’s take a trip to California.” That’s an idea—an idea that will get you started in the right direction, but hopefully you’re going to have some complicated fun along the way, and you won’t just get in a car and drive right to California. There will be some adventure [en route].
What I’m saying is, I find it really helpful to my process to say, “You don’t have to have any ideas. You don’t have to have any themes. You don’t have to have any notions of where a story’s going. You need one little chunk of text that’s interesting to you, then you’re going to go in there and start goofing with it and trying to make it sound better, and the story will reveal itself in that way.”
I’m working on a story now—I have no idea what it’s about. I don’t know where it’s going. There’s some good lines in it, and I have confidence that if I just get in there and sit down and start working on it, it’ll show me the path. It’s almost like if you were going to dinner with a really good friend. I don’t think you would feel inclined to sketch out your conversational plans. You would just trust that there’s enough energy there that you’re going to find out what the conversation is, and you’re good enough on your feet that you can move with it and the result of that conversation when you both bring your sincere interest to the table and let it rip, that’s going to be much more joyful and full of life than if you had talking points.
What’s the most important bit of wisdom writers can take away from this interview?
We look for writing advice because it’s such an uncomfortable, frightening profession—so subjective and so iffy. The [sought after] writing advice will be somewhat helpful, encouraging us to go ahead and try something, but the real truth is the only writing advice that actually matters is the stuff that you discover 12 years into your journey, which strangely is almost impossible
to talk about.
The real experience of writing a book or a story, if you think of it, is made up of thousands of tiny intuitive leaps. That moment when an image pops into your head and converts into language. You adjust that and boom, you typed it, and it’s good or it’s bad. That’s an almost indescribable thing.