Introducing George Saunders makes me feel what I imagine flight attendants feel when, before takeoff, they have to give that safety speech—you know the one—to a plane full of passengers who just want to get in the air. One way to give the speech is to recite the bullet point list, which in this case reads: George Saunders is the author of four books of short stories, two screenplays, a children’s book, and a book of essays, among other pieces of writing. He’s been praised, many times, as contemporary America’s best short story writer and funniest satirist. He’s received a long list of awards for his work, including a MacArthur Genius Grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
The other way is to try to be engaging and peppy and descriptive (the Southwest Airlines strategy): George Saunders is indeed a genius! And he’s as kind as people say he is. And wow is he hilarious!
Both are true but neither fully work because really what you want is to get in the air. It’s better—and more fun—to enjoy Saunders’s work and mind directly than to read descriptions of them.
So, the last thing I’ll say is this: For the first time ever, Saunders published a novel. Titled Lincoln in the Bardo, the story follows President Abraham Lincoln over the course of one night in February 1862, shortly after his son Willie died. In mid-December, I spoke with Saunders over the phone about this book and some other minor things, like death, compassion, Trump and the buzzkill that is the “literary high bar.” And, okay, since I’ve come this far, I won’t resist the urge to say that talking to Saunders is kind of like flying: You’ll likely pass places you’ve never been and catch views, above the clouds, that you only get to see once in a while, if at all. I hope you forgive my analogies and enjoy the flight.
The Rumpus: I just finished the galley for your new book, Lincoln in the Bardo, on the flight home yesterday.
George Saunders: How’d that go?
Rumpus: Really well. But I had this memory of reading a New York Times Magazine profile of you from a few years ago, in which you spoke about an experience you had on a flight that didn’t go so well. I was thinking about that and reading this book about death and I thought, this is weird!
Saunders: I have kind of made a shtick item of that story but it was really not funny at the time at all, not at all.
Rumpus: It sounded pretty horrifying. Yesterday the weather was terrible so I spent a lot of time in turbulence thinking about that.
Saunders: It was very clarifying. You have an experience like that and the next two or three days are pretty cool when you’ve made it. I wasn’t working on this book at that point but for sure, those things stay with you. The thing is, you get out of that danger zone and you go, “I never have to go through that again!” And then you go, “oh wait a minute, actually I do. I just don’t yet.”
Rumpus: In that profile, you also spoke about the period that comes right after losing someone or almost dying yourself, which kind of feels like a mix of grief and enlightenment. Your book is structured around a chorus of different characters who are dealing (or not dealing) with death and reading it sort of felt like the experience of grief. That dreamlike state, when you’re living in little chunks of memory, with no ability to be fully present. Was this intentional?
Saunders: I wasn’t thinking about that, but that’s actually really interesting because in a sense all those ghost characters are in a form of grief. They’re in denial and they’re working really, really hard not to admit where they are. And in trying to work hard, they’re mostly just repeating what they already know about themselves.
Rumpus: There are so many characters in this story. Did these characters flow out of you during the writing process or were they more of a conscious creation? Did you think, “I need a character that represents this or experiences this kind of suffering?”
Saunders: No, it was definitely the first thing. My general approach to writing fiction is that you try to have as few conceptual notions as possible and you just respond to the energy that the story is making rather than having a big over plan. I think if you have a big over plan, the danger is that you might just take your plan and then you bore everybody. I always joke that it’s like going on a date with index cards. You know, at 7:30 p.m. I should ask about her mother. You keep all the control to yourself but you are kind of insulting to the other person.
In this book, the only thing I knew at the beginning was that Lincoln had to come and hold Willie’s body and then he had to stop doing that. And that it had to happen in one night. Then the whole thing became more about orchestrating the motion through the graveyard, and the motion through the graveyard would tell me who could talk and who you encountered. Something like that.
Rumpus: I don’t want to leave the topic of your book, but I love what you said about starting a piece with as few conceptual ideas as possible. Do you approach nonfiction the same way? For the New Yorker story you wrote about Trump, for example, did you begin with a similar kind of open-mindedness?
Saunders: It’s a different form of that. With nonfiction, I go in trying to be really honest about what my preconceptions are. In the Trump piece, I knew I didn’t like Trump and I confessed that to myself and also to my interviewees. I’d always say, “I’m a liberal and I’m left of Gandhi and I don’t like Trump and this article is me trying to understand why you do.”
My theory for nonfiction is that nobody can be free of some kind of conceptions about whatever story they’re writing. But if you can find a way to build those into the story, then the story becomes a process of deconstructing and heightening and sometimes changing those notions and that makes dramatic tension. The initial statement of your position, and then letting reality act on you to change it, is pretty good storytelling.
All I really know in nonfiction is that when I come home, I’ve got all these notes and I’m trying to figure out what actually happened to me. I usually kind of know what happened, but as you work through the notes, you find that certain scenes write well and some don’t even though they should. Those make a constellation of meaning that weirdly ends up telling you what you just went through. It’s a slightly different process, but still there’s mystery because when you’re bearing down on the scenes, sometimes you find out they mean something different than what you thought.
Rumpus: I, and a lot of writers I know, really struggle with that. Quieting the parts of us that want to know exactly where the story is going or what the story is going to mean.
Saunders: Sure, because it’s so terrifying to not know, isn’t it?
Saunders: Somebody is paying you and you’ve got to go do this thing and exist in that state of uncertainty for a couple of months while they’re waiting for the piece. But that’s a profound observation because the insecurity that we have when a piece isn’t done is actually our enemy.
It’s like, if your kid came home crying and you say “what happened?” And then you start answering for her. “Did somebody push you? Was there a really scary dog?” She’s willing to tell you, but you have to make the space for her to do it. If you over control the situation, you’ll never get to her truth.
Rumpus: That actually reminds me of something Ta-Nehisi Coates said in an interview with Ezra Klein recently. He talked about how, for various reasons, it’s become more difficult to be uncertain in journalism and writing and to discover answers through his work. Readers don’t want uncertainty, they want answers, they want a stance. They spoke about how blogging used to be a space online where you could try out ideas and be wrong and dialogue about that, but now, things have become so polarized and so hostile, that it’s very difficult to be uncertain or wrong.
Saunders: That’s beautiful. Yes, there’s a feeling that if you step off the path, somebody is going to shoot you down. That’s really deadly to any kind of intellectual discourse. And that’s one of the reasons I take a lot of consolation in fiction. You have years to work on it. I think that allows you to reach for the best part of your reader instead of a lot of the internet stuff, in which you’re kind of reaching for the worst or the most shallow part of your reader.
Rumpus: Right. One of the powerful things about writing fiction, if it’s not tied to your income, is that you can be uncertain for a long time and work through it until you get a truth that you really feel is true.
Saunders: It’s an incredible luxury. Especially in this time where the left and the right are so polarized that it’s like tug of war. Somebody is going in the mud and somebody isn’t. But with fiction, and also with nonfiction that you can take your time doing, you have a much better chance of reaching across the divide and connecting with somebody who is opposed to you on some things. They’re opposed to you on one axis, which is politics, but if you go over the axis called puppies, you might find some common ground. But a really lively question right now is: is that any good?
In other words, I connected with all these Trump supporters on different levels and then when we were saying goodbye, I hadn’t changed my mind and they hadn’t changed their mind. Among my many progressive friends, there’s a bit of disagreement about to what extent compassion is the right answer to this thing.
Rumpus: That debate is contentious and constant on the left. What’s your take on whether compassion is the right path forward?
Saunders: I think my answer is one hundred percent, because compassion doesn’t have to be weak or enabling; it can also be quite bold. But it’s an interesting question. I was thinking, right after the election, that in a way, your first responsibility is to yourself and to your own goodness of heart. If I find myself obsessing about this stuff in some way that’s making me negative and hateful and shallow, I don’t want to be that person. But everybody has their own path.
And in a way, if this election stunned us, it’s partly because we were wrong and we didn’t understand our country well enough. This result is reality and to me it’s a little bit of an exciting time, although scary. I don’t know how you feel, but I feel like writing, clarity of thought, and truth have been validated because we see what happens when we get lax in those areas. I’m excited by the idea that writers like us can actually reach out and try to understand and prod and agitate the people who are in support of Trump because we have the tools to do it. We’re language people and we’re idea people.
Rumpus: Yes, it feels like compassion doesn’t have to be fluffy or lazy.
Saunders: There’s this idea in Eastern spiritual traditions that if the teacher is faced with a student who has an obstruction or is a little full of shit, the teacher would do really extreme things to get that person to not do that. The idea is that the way you interact with and oppose people can be very imaginative. Especially in this case, where the people supporting Trump are, whether they know it or not, signing up to terrify and humiliate and marginalize whole groups of wonderful people. They really are doing that, so you can’t let them off the hook. You can’t warm and fuzzy that out of being.
But if you love somebody who was a Trump supporter who was, whether they knew it or not, endorsing those things, the most loving thing you could do was stop them. Shock them, however you wanted to do it. To me, that makes it more energetic.
I don’t like that new age posture where you kind of tilt your head. I don’t like that posture right now. I want something a little more confident and more sure of the values that we’re defending, which are the old ones, love and empathy and patience and tolerance and civility. Not to get into politics or anything.
Rumpus: Well, since we’re on the topic, when you wrote that piece about Trump, did you believe he could win?
Saunders: No. But I’ve always had that lingering feeling that we might be dumber than I give us credit for. The one thing I noticed retroactively was that the energy at those Trump rallies was off the charts compared to the Hillary rallies. The Bernie energy was as good, gentler, but there was a real passion there.
The other weird thing was that, at the time, I went to Trump rallies thinking I was going to run into militant, right wing, racist people and mostly I didn’t. That should have been a clue to me. The people I talked to were not, on the surface level, crazy. They were quite nice, quite normal, employed, and actually were wealthier than the press at that time would have led us to believe. At that time, the narrative was that these were all working poor but these were not working poor. That should’ve been a clue to me that this was a little bigger than I thought.
But I know I was a nervous wreck all the way up until Election Day. I’m sure this wasn’t just me, but I found myself going to the internet for any article that assured me that Hillary would win. Apparently, I didn’t think it was that much in the bag. Isn’t it amazing, after all that stuff about the sexual harassment and the sexual language…
Rumpus: Oh my god.
Saunders: Sometimes I just turn on the TV and I’m like, wait a minute, that guy? It’s incredible that he did all those things and he still won. It’s hard to process.
Rumpus: I’m still in some form of shock.
Saunders: I guess part of me says that, when we talk about adversity, this is the moment when character really gets tested. When things aren’t going the way you want and you can’t see anyway that they’re going to go the way you want. That’s kind of when those old virtues really become valuable and vulnerable also.
Rumpus: Do you think you’ll write more about Trump?
Saunders: I’m sure. What really interests me, on a deeper level, is how our information is coming to us in some kind of messed up way that is making us idiotic. I don’t think we’ve become more idiotic than we always were, but I think the information transfer is funky. The shorthand of it is that social media is making us mentally insane. I know it’s also virtuous at times, but I think there’s something about the way we’re getting walled off into these self-reifying informational universes and also about the way that anti-truth has found a really nice home on the internet. I’d love to write about that to see if I can make sense of it. Right now, I’m at a resting place and I’m waiting. I’m trying to really to be in the presence of this historical moment, not flinch, and see what goes on.
Rumpus: I actually think that’s not a shallow idea, to focus on being in this historical moment. Because one of the dangers of social media it is that it makes us more reactive than we already are.
Saunders: That’s exactly right. And that’s very perceptive for someone of your age because old people, we can kind of see that because there was a time when we weren’t involved in social media. On Facebook or Twitter, you’re always enacting a stance of some kind. It’s being made really quickly and as you say, it’s usually being made in reaction to something else.
In essence, what you’re really doing is limiting your own freedom: your freedom to go deeply into something, your freedom to experience ambiguity and different overtones, just so you can slap back an answer right away. I think that’s going to be an amazing, deep topic for your generation.
I’m reading this great book called The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu and he talks about how, over the course of the 20th century, this exactly the issue that has been coming to a boil: how many hours in the day and in what locations are we allowing other voices into our heads? He talked about a time in the early part of the century where it was unheard of that anybody would ever advertise or try to advertise in your home. And when the radio came, suddenly that got dropped.
Rumpus: Right. It feels like there must be consequences to us putting all of our emotional and mental work into Facebook and Twitter posts, instead of in conversation with each other. One consequence is that you let an insane number of voices into your head all the time. Another is that the medium kind of becomes the message. The mediums are designed to simplify our messages, so they end up simplifying our ideas of one another as people. Maybe it’s not so much about information bubbles as it as about how these mediums affect our interactions.
Saunders: Imagine this. Imagine if you were in a courtship with some other person but all you could do was lurch forward and shout three-word verse. You could say, “you’re really hot!” and he’d go, “you are too!” But if there was a misunderstanding, you couldn’t bring it back. As you say, the medium is the message because you’re so constrained in what you can say and how generously you’ll be received that you basically consign yourself to be a simpleton in a certain way.
I don’t really do much social media. I just don’t like it that much. I’ve trained myself to write very slowly for a lot of money so it really galls me to write quickly for free. But I have an author page on Facebook. I hadn’t posted anything since the election and then, literally, there was a fox outside of our house and I took a picture of this fox and I just put it on. I said, “I was going to write something political but I’m going to send you this picture of a fox instead.”
Rumpus: I saw that.
Saunders: There were so many people, not really saying mean things, but it felt like everybody has to rip on it and a couple of people were vaguely judging. I thought, my god, it’s just a picture of a fox.
The way that that makes you feel as a human being, that you’re going to tentatively put something out there knowing that you’re going to get some weird pushback, that’s different than when you write an essay. When you write an essay, of course you’re going to get pushback, but you’re going to be allowed to make your case at leisure. You’re going to be allowed to take into account possible objections and to fully humanize your reader. That feels to me like a much more sane thing to do. It’s not an either or, but these days it kind of is getting to be.
Rumpus: That brings up a lot of thoughts for me. Posting the fox, I think…
Saunders: It’s a cute fox, right? I mean, come on.
Rumpus: It’s a cute fox. I don’t want to get too far on this tangent, but your fox reminded me of another point, which is how performative social media is. To a toxic degree, it seems to me. So that the political posts that go up after a major event feel like more of a performance than anything authentic. The most powerful thing we can do is engage in conversation, which you argue you could do over social media, and then go take action. Instead, what we have is this pressure to spend all this time performing our political allegiance online.
Saunders: That’s right. What you’re calling the performative aspect also dissipates the energy of true resistance. You feel like, well I’ve posted about it, what else can I do? There’s this feeling of tag, you’re it. That if somebody can point out an inconsistency in your argument, then they’ve done a service or something.
I would think that this makes people very rigid and very tentative at a time when we ought to be really flexible and inventive and creative and daring. Because it’s a time when a lot of principle virtues are being tested. Do we still believe in the truth? Do we still believe in empathy? Do we still believe the protection of the weakest among us? These are yes or no questions, but the means of communication is all tied up with those virtues and you can’t abandon those virtues as you pursue them.
Rumpus: I want to ask you some other questions about your book. Towards the end of the book, Roger and Hans have what felt like a rapid-fire revelation session. They start talking about being dead and reckoning with what that means. It’s a really powerful section. How do you get into that revelatory territory without ending up with something heavy handed or too much? Is it intuitive for you? Or have you trained yourself to know when to “bang the gong,” as some people say?
Saunders: I think it’s intuitive but it’s intuitive after many, many, many hours of work. That scene you’re talking about got written in the wake of realizing that none of these characters knew they were dead. That came to me late. In early drafts, it was a little mushy. But then I figured out: oh yeah, they kind of know they’re dead but if they say it, it’s going to screw them up. Once that was in place, it made a tension. If nobody in the book knows they’re dead, then the reader is waiting for the moment when they do know. So ok, when is that? Well, that’s when Willie tells them. And, if they know it, then narratively they have to admit it and discuss it.
I think that’s the first time the word “dead” is used by the characters. I had to go back and clean that up because that wasn’t always the case. It’s definitely intuitive and it’s hard to explain, but the greatest thing about writing a book like this is that at first it’s all inchoate, but the more you work on it, the more the book teaches you its internal rules. As you learn the internal rules, those lead to opportunities like the one you’re talking about.
The one word answer is revision. You go through the story so many hundreds of times and every time you make it make a little more sense. Every time, the story talks to you more directly about its needs and its wants and what it will and won’t allow. I’m not sure if that makes sense.
Rumpus: It does, and it’s interesting to learn that the scene between Roger and Hans came to you later in the process because, as a reader, that scene feels so central to the book. It feels like the very thing we readers have been working towards. It speaks to what we discussed earlier, that maybe a writer can’t set out to convey a revelation, they must find it in the process.
Saunders: That’s right. You have to discover when the revelation wants to be made and what it is. I remember being in this headspace myself when I was younger and I see it in young writers. When you’re embarking on a piece of writing, the anxiety is just too much, especially when you’re young and you’re trying to figure out if this is your thing or not. You feel like, “if I don’t write a good story, I gotta get going to law school!”
One of the ways that we cope with anxiety is by over planning and over controlling. If we know where it’s going to, we can just relax and do it. Unfortunately, in my experience, that’s not the way it works. The story doesn’t want to be told what to do. You have to enter into this process with a high level of trust that the many hours of choosing that you’re doing every day will gradually clarify the narrative for you. And that’s what happens.
What was exciting to me about this book was finding that a lot of the principles I discovered in short fiction also held to a longer narrative. All these things that dropped into place at the last minute were too complicated to have planned. They couldn’t have been that well orchestrated if I planned the story four years ago. That’s a pretty weird thing. But cool.
Rumpus: Cool and kind of empowering, if you can get over the anxiety of it.
Saunders: Empowering is exactly the word that I would use. Now, here’s what it means. It means that you can trust that a bunch of revisions will do everything you need to have done. The millions or billions of micro decisions that you’re going to make, that’s what will determine who you are as a writer, not you deciding in advance.
That is a little scary at first but then it’s like saying, if you simply walk seventeen miles through Manhattan, you’ll definitely meet the love of your life. You say, “like, anywhere?” “Yes, anywhere in Manhattan. Just walk seventeen miles, you’ll find a person.” That is empowering because all you’ve got to do is walk.
But then the question for any reasonable person is: okay I get it, but by what method will I revise? You’re not just randomly rewriting something. I’m making it sound more rational than it is, but I think each writer has to seek her most energetic prose style. She has to find a way to write so that nobody can deny it. Or as Flannery O’Connor says, a person can choose what she writes but she can’t choose what she makes live. Some people are really acoustic writers and so for them the secret revision is sound. Other people may revise in terms of the way a paragraph feels. There’s a million ways to do it.
The idea is that every writer has to find the thing to keep her eye on about which she has strong opinions. That’s of course deeply personal, but the nice thing is that it has to do with joy rather than fear. It has to do with you. If you’re funny, your method will be to try to be funnier. Which again is empowering I think.
Rumpus: It’s about finding your strengths, not just trying to be a certain kind of writer.
Saunders: Yes, and there’s another thing about this approach. I’ve seen this with my students. By the time you’ve gotten into your mid twenties, you’ve lived a lot and you know how to go into a situation and make it work for yourself. You know how to be charming, you know how to be funny, you know how to be serious. What’s empowering about this method is that if you understand writing as primarily engaging an imaginary reader, well, you’ve kind of been doing that your whole life. You walk into a room and you’re engaging with imaginary strangers because you don’t actually know who they are. For me, it was really empowering to say: this is a branch of entertainment and communication and engagement, as opposed to jumping over some perceived literary high bar. That was the buzzkill.
Rumpus: The perceived literary high bar is definitely a buzzkill. I also wanted to ask you about some of the things that often come up when your name is mentioned. One is that you’re often praised for having an original mind. I wonder what you make of that.
Saunders: I appreciate it but from my side of the fence, it is more like having a freaky mind. As a young kid I assumed that everybody was sort of on the same wavelength as I was and then I found out in a lot of small ways that that wasn’t the case. It’s sort of a mixed blessing. My mind is like a puppy. It goes all over. I guess writing fiction was a way of harnessing that. I could hook a puppy up to a treadmill and get something out of it.
But I actually believe that a lot of what people call originality has to do with persistence in the craft. My mind has an obsessive, neurotic quality, but I also have a very hard work ethic. I know that a lot of people think, oh, you have a wild imagination. I don’t, really. If ten people are sitting around and someone says, “Hey complete this sentence in a funny way,” I’m never ahead of the pack.
Rumpus: Wow, that’s somehow reassuring.
Saunders: Yeah, and when funny stuff is going on, I just always say the same old shit everybody else says. You probably can’t change your innate level of imaginative-ness, but I think it’s the persistence in the activity that burns through your lame answers until you make space for an answer that seems original. That’s consoling because that means you just have to work.
Rumpus: Definitely consoling. Another thing that comes up often when your name is mentioned is the question of whether you’re a dark writer. I always thought this is kind of funny because you strike me as the opposite. You don’t shy away from darkness, but it’s your ability to lean into the tender things that is really powerful about your work, in my mind.
Saunders: Thank you. I think you’re right.
Rumpus: I think a lot of people are drawn to your work for that reason. Do you have any advice for people who want to work towards creating that kind of emotional fiction or nonfiction, without producing works that’s too sentimental or lame? Maybe, again, it’s just a matter of working and revising a lot…
Saunders: I think in part it is. I don’t know if this would’ve helped me when I was younger but I think, in retrospect, the idea is that a person knows a lot at every stage of their life is helpful. Whether you’re eighteen or sixty, in a certain way, whatever you know is valid. Sometimes what we do, especially when we’re starting out, is think well, all the stuff I’ve done is not valid because I haven’t seen it in literature before. You hear somebody say, “Oh, I just grew up in the suburbs” or whatever. The switch that I’d like to throw on is the one that says, “Look, you’re a human being whose mind is every bit as active as anybody else’s. Your experiences are just as real.” For that matter, even if they’re even if they’re crazy, they’re valid. They occurred in this world so they’re valid topics for literature.
That way, I think the path for a young writer might be one that says, “I have to accept myself, this is what I am. I can’t eradicate my defects. I can work on them.” When you do something that’s going to speak to people, it’s going to be because you’re really allowing all of yourself to the table in an accepting way.
If you have a friend, what’s the best way you can experience her beauty? It’s to really accept her. She’s weird in this way, I accept it. She’s hard to talk to, I accept it. Then that person eventually will come all the way out into the sun. I think it’s the same way with our talent. We say, “Look, I’m not going to judge you. I’m going to try to use you in the very best way.”
For me, I always was aware I talk too fast. I didn’t like that, especially in high school. I always knew that I had a cheap propensity to go for laughs in moments of tension. I watched too much TV. I had a lot of class issues or issues about my own adequacy in different situations. When my writing really started to work was when all of those things came flooding in. I think that’s the key. If you’re going to make an emotional connection with somebody, whether it’s in the story or in the world, there’s a certain amount of self-acceptance that is required.
Rumpus: That feels true, because there’s a certain amount of vulnerability that’s required to connect with a person, so it makes sense that the connecting with people through writing requires the same thing. But it feels harder in writing because when you’re talking to an individual, you can read them for all their quirks and respond accordingly. It’s helpful if you don’t obsess over this, but in writing, you’re talking to an audience, to many people.
Saunders: That’s a great point. And for me, here’s what I think the answer is. I think about how I conceptualize the audience. The trick is that they’ve got to be smarter and more worldly than me. So as I’m revising, I’m keeping that in mind. I cannot condescend, even a little bit. Every single choice that I make is motivated by that. On the small level. If I give you a repetition of something that actually doesn’t yield any more information, it’s kind of disrespectful for me to let that stand. If I cut the repetition, there’s a subtle improvement in our relationship because you see that I’ve valued you.
I’m totally giving my internalizations, which may or may not be valuable to anybody else. But for me, that’s where all these things kind of converge. Because when you talk about a reader being emotionally moved, a feeling of empathy, I think that comes out of that line-by-line respect for reader. That’s actually where it all comes from. I just reached my comprehensive theory of literature. Wow!
Rumpus: Yeah, you can publish that as literary theory and complete…
Saunders: And watch it get flushed down the toilet.
Author photograph © David Crosby.