Few authors anywhere get more hype than George Saunders. But the man is truly a prose wizard, as reaffirmed in this year’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which the New York Times likened to “a weird folk art diorama of a cemetery come to life.” The novel, Saunders's first, takes place after the death of Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son, and follows a huge cast of ghosts in the liminal space between life and death. It's a different sort of beast for readers accustomed to his high-concept, darkly zany, deeply funny short stories. Now Saunders—a professor at Syracuse University and a MacArthur "genius grant" recipient—is bringing his brilliance to the screen. In March, Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman scored the movie rights to Lincoln in the Bardo. And this summer, Saunders spent two weeks in Brooklyn, as Amazon filmed a TV pilot based on his 1998 short story Sea Oak, starring Glenn Close as a zombie—look for it later this fall.
On Thursday, October 12, Literary Arts hosts Saunders at the Schnitz. In advance of his visit, we talked with him about getting snarky on the Trump campaign trail, hanging out with Glenn Close, and learning to be "more precisely manic."
I read much of Lincoln in the Bardo in one sitting—it really swallowed me up. Have you had that kind of reading experience lately?
I long for those kinds of experiences. I had one yesterday, actually. There’s a new book coming out called Bring Out the Dog by Will Mackin. I read it on the plane and had exactly that experience where the words disappear and you’re not aware of yourself laboring at all. It’s just immersion. I think it’s harder these days. This phone thing is really a toxin. My wife and I were kind of late adapters of cell phones. I noticed in that first couple of weeks of having it, I could literally see my reading comprehension dropping. I could feel it. I can’t prove it, but I feel like there’s something in the wiring that changes so you’re less able to be absorbed into a fictive reality. It’s kind of catastrophic.
With Lincoln in the Bardo, how did you call forth this enormous cast of characters? Or how did they come to you?
It certainly wasn’t planning. It’s much more playful—who’s here? Who wants to talk? For me, when you immerse yourself in an artistic project, there are parts of your mind that are enabled that you have to trust are there. You don’t have to actually go digging around in there at all, you just have to let them come to the table. The one thing I’ve learned in all these years of writing is that that’s real. Just like when you’re playing a sport, you know you could plan out the whole game, but when you’re actually in there, there’s something else that takes over.
With this book, one of the other things was to get out of my own way in terms of the voice. With my stories, I really obsess over making them sound unique and very strange and very much like me. But with this one, because there were going to be so many people, I had to be a little bit looser. If somebody started talking to me in a unique voice, I really listened—OK, you’re distinguishing yourself, you can come in and join the club. In truth, the most interesting things you do in fiction are coming out of that soup that is your mind on art. The game is to trust that thing even though it’s a little murky.
Was it mostly practice that allowed you to be able to trust yourself?
Yes, exactly right. I wrote so many stories where that happened, and you’re like, "OK, not only do I believe that can happen, I’m praying it’ll happen. And if it doesn’t happen, I have to wait it out." With writing, once you’ve had that intuitive burst or seen that unconscious or subconscious part of yourself take over, you don’t forget that buzz. Then it becomes a process, one, of trusting that it’s real and it will happen again, but it might be a little bit shy. And, two, insisting that it has to happen. Try to enact that beginner’s mind. As you get older and more ensconced in a reputation, it’s a little harder to say, yeah, even though you’re 58 years old, your job is really, truly to not know, and have the book kick your ass for a few years.
You've described your fear of tackling death and grief in Lincoln in the Bardo—they're dark topics, but also earnest.
The main thing was a problem of tone. As you write, you learn to tell yourself little consoling things—like, "I’m really funny." Or, "I'm edgy." With this book, it became clear I was going to have to leave some of those "gifts" at the door. This is not going to be in contemporary voice. It couldn’t be a relentless satire on capitalism. So that was scary. In the end, I did what you always do with a book, which is to say, "I’m going to cut myself some slack for two or three years and allow myself to go off in this part of the forest, knowing that meanwhile the other part of the forest is going to be neglected."
And what happened?
My definition of intensity got rejiggered. In my work, I always want to be intense and I want to be original. I don’t care about much else, actually. If there’s something I fail to do in my work, as long as it’s intense and original, I can live with it. With this book, I learned a little bit about formal intensity. I don’t think these voices are boiling off the page. They’re a little more sedate. But the intensity came from the juxtaposition of different elements ... or something like that. That’s exciting to me, because it means I might be able to take on a wider range of tones and get my intensity somewhere else. I’m always trying to make the stories somehow more redolent of actual life as I’ve lived it. Not realism, really, but as weird and confusing and beautiful as real life. This book showed me that one way is through form, where maybe before it was more language. But that might also be bullshit because I haven’t started the next project yet, so I’m not sure what will happen next.
After you finished Lincoln in the Bardo, you spent time on the Trump campaign trail, attending rallies for a New Yorker story. What was that transition like?
Coming off the novel, my mind was so—I’ve rarely said this, but it was such a pleasure to be me at that time, because everything was so rich and lovely, and I was so comfortable with ambiguity and confident I could express ambiguity in prose. And then I switched over to the campaign mode, and I could literally feel my mind shrinking and getting more snarky and defensive. I think nationally that’s what’s happening.
Having spent that time on the Trump campaign trail, are you able to make clearer sense of what’s happening in politics today?
I think about it everyday. The only thing I’m trying to do is have a real artistic mindset about it. Obviously there was something I didn’t understand about this country. Even though I went to these rallies, I didn’t expect him to win, and I didn’t expect to see this blooming of this weird right-wing thing in our country. What I’m trying to do as a discipline is say, "OK, pal, that’s on you. I’m an artist. Let’s go back and try to understand it more deeply."
You’re also now embarking on your first TV and film projects.
They’re the first ones to come to fruition. I’ve written two feature scripts that never saw the light of day. It was something I’ve always wanted to do. We filmed the pilot [for Sea Oak] in Brooklyn this summer. I loved it more than I thought I was going to. It was such a wonderful, collaborative thing—totally creative, no compromises, just playing with a bunch of really talented people for two weeks. We worked with director Hiro Murai of Atlanta fame and Glenn Close, and just being around those two people was electrifying. They’re so wide open and so completely, 100 percent artistic individuals. Just to be in proximity to them and absorb their attitude was really, really inspiring, and I think it’ll help me in my own work, too. They’re just fearless and playful. It’s easy to forget that, and to get tight, to get scared about your own work. You start trying not to make a mistake. What both of those artists taught me is that you don’t have to worry about that. You have to worry about being joyful, and things will take care of themselves.
What’s your personal film or TV diet?
Almost in everything I do, I try to be not a professional. I watch whatever comes on that I’m interested in. What I’ve learned about my own process is that I’ve got something weird going on that I can draw on to make stories, and I only need to glancingly fill it with references. I’ll go back and read Gogol a lot, and I’ll read Tolstoy and I’ll read Toni Morrison and I’ll read something new. I know a lot of great artists who are amazing purveyors of culture, and I’m not really one of those. In fact, I feel like with my rickety education, I have to go a little light on that, because when I put too much good stuff in my head I start imitating instead of going off on my own. On this show, too, I noticed that the more TV I watched, the more I was becoming a bit slavish. So mostly I was going back to the original story and trying to think of ways to make the pathos of that story more visual.
But I like Arrested Development, I’m a big fan of that. I’m really enjoying the new Will & Grace. I go back also to the Grapes of Wrath, the John Ford version. Monty Python is something that always makes me happy. I give myself permission to be a bit of an amateur in terms of cultural savvy. I have a maybe new-age idea that what is needed will come to me. It’s really another way of saying that if you’re on the scent of something artistic, almost anything will benefit you.
And the Lincoln in the Bardo film adaptation? That’s still in the very early stages.
We’re just talking and thinking a little bit. One of the things I’m trying to keep in mind is that whatever we do with the film version, that process is probably going to be as weird and strange and full of surprises as the process I went through with the book. That’s a tough book to make a movie out of. But that’s cool to say, yeah, that’s going to be a pain in the ass, that’s going to be full of pitfalls. We have to find some some way to be as cinematically weird and original as the book is. Nick [Offerman] and Megan [Mullally] and I have talked about it and we’re like, yeah, we’re going to be stubborn about it.
As your level of fame has grown, how do you find yourself navigating your relationship with attention and praise?
To be honest, I’m sort of waiting for my hunger to come back. I’ve been traveling for this book and it’s been fun, but I’m kind of anxious to get home and start working again and let my ambition start to bubble up. There are times when my persistent desire for attention and my persistent desire to be excellent and my workaholism all work together very nicely. And there are other times when one of those will get out of whack, and I have to go, huh, that’s interesting—I’m somehow more interested in what people are saying about me than in working right now. That’s not right. And then you adjust. Or you get a certain amount of attention—I don’t think there’s any human being who’s immune to the farty effects of getting praised too much. I think the trick is to go, "OK, I’m noting this about myself. Let me do what I have to do to correct it." Maybe it’s just understanding that as part of your artistic journey, too—to be meditative in watching yourself. I think you’re always kind of doing that kind of self-work.
How has your advice to writers changed over the years as your career has evolved?
A person comes to writing for certain reasons, and they come with a certain personality both on and off the page. My main thing is to try to help the student exploit what actually exists inside her. I think most young writers—and I was certainly in this category—are so in love with writing and so in love with the idea of being part of that lineage that they tighten up. You start to think it’s some exotic, foreign thing you could never participate in unless you get lucky. Whereas really, as I understand it, the process is to be accepting of your actual gifts. It’s very much like the process many of us go through in late high school or early college where you’re acclimating to your actual personality. I played a lot of different games trying to be this person or that person, or trying to suppress this or that. And at some point you’re like, "This is hard work. I should just be who I am and then learn to deal with that." Like, I’m aware that when I get excited I talk really fast and I get really crazy and manic. At some point, I was like, "OK, that’s who you are, so get better at that. Get more precisely manic." That’s the main thing I tell writers.
7:30 p.m. Thu, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, $29