How Buddhism Made George Saunders a Better Writer

An interview with the author on his debut novel, 'Lincoln In The Bardo'

George Saunders
George Saunders David Crosby

How to describe the ambitious debut novel from modern master of the short story George Saunders? Here’s my attempt: if the singing busts from the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland collaborated on a work of prestige fiction.

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“I love that,” Saunders said on the phone when I offered my verdict. “And actually, you’re not far off there because when I was a kid, we went to Disneyland, and that was a very powerful thing to see. And you know what’s interesting about that is, if I’m not mistaken, you’re in a car, in the Haunted Mansion, but the car turns, and that is exactly narrative stance. The narrator, which is the car, says, ‘Hey, look over here.’”

That exchange more or less sums up what it’s like to talk to George Saunders. The esteemed author, winner of the MacArthur “Genius” grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and whose 2013 collection Tenth of December was named by the New York Times Book Review as one of the 10 best books of the year, speaks with a soft Midwestern accent peppered with kind of’s and you know’s. He reminds me of the archetypal favorite high school teacher, who can take whatever comment a student might make (“this reminds me of the haunted mansion,”) and flip into a pedagogical opportunity to teach the class about narrative stance. He’s also—it might not even need to be mentioned—an incredibly kind person.

I often bring up Saunders short stories in discussions about books to read in the time of Trump. He writes about disorienting capitalist dystopias—theme parks   haunted by ghosts or which require full-time employees pretending to be cavemen nonstop, worlds in which having migrant workers pose as dolls on your front lawn is the ultimate status symbol, drug tests for chemical components to manufacture love, lust, intelligence—and the people trapped inside. He writes with empathy about protagonists that are decent, but not heroes, complicit in a terrible system and usually forced to pay the price. Of course, he also famously wrote insightfully and empathetically about Trump and his supporters for The New Yorker, but it was his short stories to which I kept returning, reentering these tiny, awful universes of bureaucracy which were, unlike ours, at least funny.

“I think it’s getting easier,” Saunders replied when I asked whether it was getting harder to imagine ridiculous fictional premises when our very real country just elected an unqualified reality television star president. “I think what’s getting harder for me is my views are not as simple as they used to be. I think that’s good, I think that’s supposed to happen as you get older, but it’s a little harder for me to lower the boom on somebody than it used to be. I’m a more inclined to go how must it look to this character for him to be doing the thing that seems wrong—that’s more appealing to me right now than a simple, cutting portrayal of someone who’s evil.”

Lincoln in the Bardo
Lincoln in the Bardo Random House

There is very little that is simple in Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel narrated primarily by the ghosts who surround Willie Lincoln, the President’s son after he arrives at Oak Hill Cemetery. Instead of a conventional narrative structure, the book itself is a mosaic of multiple viewpoints, each lasting anywhere from a sentence to a few pages, interwoven with historical citations, some real and some invented (Saunders estimated that ratio at about 85% to 15%).

“I had that party scene at the beginning of the novel in my mind for about twenty years,” Saunders said. “I heard that story of Willie Lincoln’s death way back in the 90’s, and I read a little bit at the time and I had a version in my head, and you know how you kind of novelize in your mind a little bit? So over the years, I built up what would become this book in historical anecdotes. Then when I went to make that scene using just the facts, it was somehow not as beautiful as the version I had in my head. With the novel, I think what you’re trying to do is, by any means necessary, stumble towards some really high truth, that even you don’t know what it is when you start. So for me, it felt like in order to get there, I had to provide this supplemental material to plush out the contouring of what was in my head.”

It’s a surprising and striking experience, reading false sources side-by-side with ones, like Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, you might recognize, but it turns Lincoln In The Bardo into something greater than the sum of its sentences: it’s an experience for the reader. “The idea is that we’re playing this game together where you’re trusting me to construct a parallel reality, and the goal, for both of us, is to get our eyes out of the quotidian and into the stars for a little bit, by any means necessary.”

The unusual mosaic structure of the book, part excerpts from history and “history” books and part ghostly oral history, came about less by choice and more by necessity for Saunders.

“To answer truthfully, I don’t really do a lot of pre-deciding,” Saunders said. “It’s more like wading into it, trying to make good line-to-line energy, and then trusting that that will decide for you. So in this case, that weird form came out of a series of obstructions that I ran into, and then thinking, how can I do this without sucking? How can I avoid this move that I think is going to produce a boring text? On a simple example, I had it in my mind that it was going to be Lincoln going [to the cemetery] at night, by himself. And that just moved me. It was sad and gorgeous that he would do that, so that’s cool, but then you have a problem which is, who’s narrating the thing? Then the former engineer in me takes over and I’m like, ‘Well, there are only a few possibilities. Lincoln can narrate it, in first person, which I didn’t really like. Maybe there could be like a gravedigger but why would he be there that late? So that doesn’t really work.’ So then you just sit in that moment, like, ‘Oh shit, I don’t know.’ Then of course you ask yourself, who would be in a graveyard at night, and you’re like, oh, ghosts. So, a lot of these decision are on the fly, is what I’m trying to say.”

That image, of President Lincoln entering the cemetery at night and holding the corpse of his dead son in his arms, is a morbid, modern pieta: the physical representation of all the sons that would die during the American Civil War and the grief and guilt President Lincoln would feel for their loss, and it echoes over every line in the book. The book is very funny, like all Saunders work, (and there are plenty of jokes about penis size), but it is ultimately a book about loss.

The Bardo is a Buddhist concept referring to an “intermediate state” between life and death. It’s where Willie Lincoln exists over the course of the evening during which the novel takes place, able to see his father hold his former body, but unable to communicate with him. But Saunders’s Buddhist faith informs his writing in more subtle ways as well.

“I think actually I was a Buddhist before I knew what it was. I had a big breakthrough with my writing way back when I started to understand the writing process in direct relation to the text in front of you, just as it was manifesting at that moment, without too many side ideas about what you thought you were doing or your intentionality—just read it, see if it’s speaking to you, and edit accordingly. I think that’s a fundamentally meditative stance: you’re in a moment, if you could shut your mind up a little bit, you’re more apt to see what’s actually going on.”

“I did a lot of walking around graveyards, and reading period letters and Lincoln speeches. I just bathed myself in everything I could get hold of that was 19th century, and then when it was time to write, I was just trusted my improvisational skills. You’ve been pre-injected with the right tone: just go for it.”

Saunders also applies an approach of trusting for the text when it comes to his pitch-perfect character names, like Hans Vollman, The Reverand Everly Thomas, Roger Bevins III, names that sound strange and distinctive and completely right.

“I always feel like when you have a name or a nugget you have to supply, there’s a complicated dynamic going on between you and me if you’re the reader and I’m the writer. You’re at a particular place in that passage, and it’s hard to explain, but you know how sometimes in conversation someone will say just the right thing, and later, you don’t know why it’s just the right thing, but it’s all context. So I have a theory that if I’m on page 80, halfway through, something about the rest of that page is going to tell me what [the name] should be. So I just kind of submerge myself: I did a lot of walking around graveyards, and reading period letters and Lincoln speeches. I just bathed myself in everything I could get hold of that was 19th century, and then when it was time to write, I was just trusted my improvisational skills. You’ve been pre-injected with the right tone: just go for it.”

“Trusting your skills and going for it,” is the sort of advice that seems like it’s most helpful if you also happen to be a genius writer, the sort of advice you might expect if you were to ask an Olympic diver how they manage to flip a dozen times and a half before entering a pool fingertips first. People like George Saunders make it look easy.

At the end of Lincoln In The Bardo, President Lincoln exists the cemetery with the spirit of a former slave, Tom Havens, still walking in step with him, sharing in his thoughts and experiences, a constant reminder and a symbol for the community that’s too often overlooked amongst the praise for Lincoln’s heroism and bravery.

“I’m not sure how much this makes it not the book, but I came away from my research thinking of the great unwritten story of our country is that community’s resilience, and the faith in the American ideals, in spite of the shit that was being piled on them relentlessly.”

Saunders mentioned one particular incident that helped Lincoln “get it, finally, about race and about slavery,” in which the President met with a group of elder statesmen from the African American community with the goal of attempting to convince them to repatriate to Africa. “In my reading, they sort of humiliated him with their integrity. And Lincoln never suggested that again. So we always think about race in a certain way that has to do with a white narrative and then this unfortunate swerve into slavery, but you can’t imagine our beautiful country right now without the contribution of this race of people that was essentially being genocided.”

I asked how long he imagined President Lincoln would have stuck around in the bardo—or Saunders’s version of the bardo—after his death, replaying the events of his life or and clinging to the hope of returning.

“I don’t think very long,” Saunders said. “But my view on Lincoln was that in those last few years, he somehow or another was close to enlightenment. I shouldn’t even say that, because who knows, but he certainly made a lot of spiritual progress in those last few years to where, Lincoln the guy, diminished, and something else rose up in his place.”

“I had a scene at one point where Havens is still in Lincoln when they go to Ford’s theater, and he’s there even as Lincoln’s shot, he’s there even as the body’s being carried across the street, but he can feel that Lincoln is dying so he actually exits, right in the middle of the street outside Ford’s theater. It didn’t turn out to be needed but in my mind, I think Havens says something like, ‘This guy is fine, he’s not going to be in trouble. He knows just where to go.’’”

How Buddhism Made George Saunders a Better Writer