Man Booker prizewinner George Saunders on Lincoln in the Bardo
George Saunders talks to FT books editor Lorien Kite about his first novel, in which he reimagines a night in 1862 when president Abraham Lincoln visited the graveyard where his beloved child Willie had been interred after succumbing to typhoid fever.
Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis. Produced by Josh de la Mare. Images from Getty.
This is just some ghosts speaking about what it's like to be dead. Please do not misunderstand. We have been mothers, fathers, have been husbands of many years, men of import, who had come here, the first day, accompanied by crowds so vast and sorrowful that, surging forward to hear the oration, they had damaged fences beyond repair. Had been young wives, diverted here during childbirth, her gentle quality stripped from us by the naked pain of that circumstance, who left behind husband so enamoured of us, so tormented by the horror of those last moments, that they had never loved again. We had been loved and remembering us even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory."
George, congratulations. It's a wonderful novel. What does winning a Man Booker prize mean to you?
Well, it's a tremendous surge of confidence. You meet the other writers and read the books, and it's a wonderful thing just to be included in that company. And so what I try to take a good fortune like this and fold it into my future work and just try to have about three minutes of happiness, and then just mentally get back to work.
Can you tell me about the genesis of the novel? What was the inspiration for Lincoln in the Bardo?
Sure. I just heard a story 20 years ago that Lincoln had been so grief-stricken at the loss of his son that he went into the crypt and somehow interacted with the body. And so I heard that story back then and I thought. That's a book for somebody. But not for / but then over the years, I just couldn't shake it, and so finally I decided to try to tell the story.
What is at stake for Americans when they think about Lincoln?
Well, I think we, with any country, you look back and you try to see when were we at our best, and I think a lot of people's minds go to Lincoln. It was the ending of slavery. It was a president who was a poor person who came up. So I think right now people are, for obvious reasons, looking back at our history and trying to maybe recalibrate who we are as a country based on what we've done in the past, and Lincoln is a pretty good milestone for us.
And there's an obvious comparison that would be drawn by America's current president, Trump.
Well, I think if you want it to be not snarky about it, the simplest way to say it is that Lincoln was a presidency of expanding generosity. He kept expanding the definition of equality pretty fearlessly. And I think now the present moment is more about constricting that, to say America is actually a white country. It's actually a country for rich people, and so on. So that's an alarming development, and I think when we look at Lincoln, we remember that the actual statement of purpose of the country is that all beings are created equal and that's very-- it's actually a pretty hard standard to live up to, and we're actually not living up to it very well right now.
Have your views changed by the experience of living under the Trump administration?
I think as a fiction writer, your job is to try to be empathetic always to everybody. And now, that doesn't mean to be weak or to be a pushover, but I still believe that, but I think it's in a kind of an alarming time, and the danger is that this whole thing will get normalised, which it could. I don't think it's happened yet, but as people get tired, despair starts to set in. So I'm actually like most Americans, just pretty confused and a little bit alarmed, and just trying to be watchful.
Can I ask about the form of the novel? I mean, it's a dialogue between ghosts in the graveyard, but the story is also told through a mixture of real and some invented excerpts from historical sources. How did you come across that?
Oh, just gradually. My way of writing is I don't really do well with thinking up things in advance, so I have to do a lot of rewriting over many months and years. And what happens is it's almost like if you had an apartment that someone had decorated kind of generically, and then every day you took out one thing and replace it with something you like better.
That's, for me, is kind of like rewriting. And at some point, you will look up and you have this form that you couldn't have thought of in advance, but has evolved to meet the emotional needs of the book. So honestly, I just messed around for about eight months, and whenever something was boring or tried or predictable I'd just throw it out and kind of looked up one day and there was the form.
"On our wedding day I was 46 she was 18. Now, I know what you're thinking. Older man, not thin, somewhat bald, lame in one leg, teeth of wood, exercises the marital prerogative, thereby mortifying the poor young-- but that is false. That is exactly what I refuse to do, you see. On our wedding night, I clumped up the stairs, face red with drink and dance, found her arrayed in some thinnish thing, an aunt had forced her into. Silk collar, fluttering slightly with her quaking. And could not do it. Speaking to her softly, I told her my heart. She was beautiful. I was old, ugly, used up. This match was strange."
I was quite struck by the historical accounts that you drew from contradict one another, even to the point where the most basic facts seemed to be contested, like whether there was a full moon on the night of Willie's death, or the colour of Lincoln's hair. Was this something that struck you when you were researching the book?
Yes. You would reach accounts of the same incident or of Lincoln's appearance and people would very confidently just completely contradict each other. So I thought there was kind of beautiful, just in the sense that well, if you're going to a high school reunion or something, someone will say do you remember that party when such and such happened and you said this. And you have no recollection of it. It's kind of a lesson in humility.
Yeah. And I guess humility is quite important in terms of the theme of personal growth and moving on in the novel.
And one of the things that I discovered about my Lincoln anyway, was that he had this incredible heaping up of sorrow. The war was going badly. He was responsible for all these deaths. His own son died. He was hated in his time.
But somehow, that sorrow made him more honest. Sometimes in your life when everything is going wrong, you can't hold on to any of your pretext about who you are, and that can sometimes make a real honesty, and that honesty, in turn, can be very effective. And I think that's what happened with him. He was so reduced that he had this wisdom, which I think that's one of the reasons that Americans love him so much. He was not a towering, confident hero at all. He was quite, quite the opposite.
I'd like to ask about how the experience of writing a novel differs from writing short fiction, which is what you become celebrated for.
Yeah. Well, I kept waiting for some big difference where I would grow a long, flowing beard and the trumpets would blast, and I'd be a novelist, but it was actually very similar. The same gifts, slightly repurposed. So the joke I've been making is that it was like I spent my life making custom yurts and then somebody said could you build a mansion, and use it Yeah. You kind of link a bunch of mansions together. And so it's kind of the same basic technique, just maybe on a bigger canvas.
And are you going back to short fiction next?
Yes. That's what I love, and I'll start there and see where it takes me.