Getting Out of Our Normal Crap: George Saunders on Writing and Transcendence

But it’s actually a messy kind of transcendence. I had that feeling really strongly in the last third of the book. Weirdly, that actually does produce a result that’s much better than I, George, am on any given day. This happened in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War. So there are several bardos. Formally daring, it’s written as a series of oral testimonies by (mostly) a chorus of loquacious and bickering ghosts. It was a great five-year adventure, because the book seemed to have a mind of its own. Many people said Willie was his favorite kid — the kid most like him. When I was young, I was a pretty rabid Catholic, and I had a couple of really beautiful transcendent experiences. Maybe one day I’m in a really bad mood, so I edit — you know, I let my inner nun out and cut the text to ribbons. Yes, though not as regularly as I should. So I’m always looking back to see what evil actually looked like on its feet. In Tibetan, “bardo” means transitional state. There were turns in the plot I hadn’t anticipated, which were really meaningful and moving, that weren’t really me doing it. But the book was very willful and would say this is just what we’re going to do. What was it about Lincoln visiting his dead son that got to you? Even on the abolitionist side, a lot of people would be partly right or compromising in certain ways. To me, he’s kind of saintly, because he’s really not interested in propagating an agenda or being correct or clever or safe. I heard the story back in the 1990s and kind of thought, “Oh yeah, that’s weird and cool. But that isn’t it. I had so many beautiful days writing this book, and at the end of the beautiful day my self would reassert itself, and I was just a dope again. The idea is that, when you die, your mind is like a wild horse that gets let off the tether because it’s not dampened by your physical body anymore. In a relatively short period — and while he was in the public eye — he went through a dramatic transformation in his core values. And they’re pretty stubborn. You know, if you had an unimaginable loss, what options would be available to you? That’s the question behind the book. I make the same stupid mistakes and say the same dumb stuff. Have you had what you would call “transcendent” experiences — not just in writing, but in a more religious sense? One of the reasons I love writing is that you start with a simple idea — like Lincoln goes into the graveyard one night. And I feel like it had to inform what he did later. Speaking of transcendence, the really magical thing is that in about year three, the rules in place started producing weird fruit. You could argue that no human being has made such amazing progress in such a short time under so much pressure. Although it’s a little terrifying, it puts you directly in touch with the real terror of this whole thing. Saunders also reflects on life and death, good and evil, and the national trauma of the Civil War. I’d say he got out ahead of not only his culture but ours in his understanding of what democracy might actually look like. It’s just one manifestation, and different manifestations can appear. That’s probably more true of my bardo than the actual Tibetan bardo, but at some point I had to break from the Tibetan model and make a whole new concept of what might happen when we die. MAY 22, 2017

BY NOW, EACH NEW BOOK by the short story maestro George Saunders is a literary event. We used amazing Hollywood A-listers. We’re in one right now. One way to think of it is that God just sort of dropped in and said, “Don’t forget. Is there an element of transcendence while you’re writing? Does the bardo resonate for you personally — not just as a literary device but as a Buddhist concept? You could be trapped there for eternity. They were both so devastated that they hadn’t been there for each other. But then, at a deeper level, I think it was being a father with little kids at that time. The book was literally leading me, and I found myself reporting to the writing desk with a bit of trepidation, but also real anticipation. It’s worth mentioning that the audiobook of your novel has a lot of different voices. For me, that’s the big takeaway. None of those really predominates. And the hopeful thing is that you could cultivate a state of mind that’s more patient and loving and sane than the one you happen to be in at the moment. So what happens on the night when he says, “Okay, this is not helpful.” And what really intrigued me was just the image. That’s right. But this is more than just a parlor trick. GEORGE SAUNDERS: It’s one of those funny things about art. I could understand why one would go back to the physical body, just to be reminded of who that person was. Do you have a contemplative practice? Not really. And the bardo of the book goes from the instant of your death to the instant of your next birth. I’ve heard writers talk about this, but it’s never happened to me before. Of course Lincoln has inspired countless   books over the years, but this novel tells the story in an entirely original way. Now, after the fact, I can make these kinds of intellectual rationalizations, but really just that image kept coming into my mind over those intervening years. My wife and I have been students of Buddhism for a while, though I’m just a total beginner. It was the rules of the world saying, “If A, therefore B.”   It’s kind of a cliché, but I’ve heard writers say it’s like you’re a midwife. Even really smart people. When you read these historical accounts, there are very few people who had it right about slavery. The bardo is part of the Tibetan Buddhist version of the afterlife. Yet writing often seems like the essence of ego, because it’s all about channeling you. And as somebody who was born in the late ’50s, I’d say my life has played out in a relatively benign period of history. I’m really interested in the way a culture would have evil sitting right in the middle of it and not be able to call it that. There are highly articulate, reasoned arguments, all the way down to almost illiterate letters to Lincoln. Part of the writing challenge was to make a bardo that had some resemblance to what we think the afterlife might be, but different enough so we could share in the orientation of what a dead person would feel. So in some small secular way, I think that’s a form of meditation — to be open to whatever energy your text is actually presenting as opposed to what you think it’s presenting. Heaven and hell are right now, and they’re not beyond our ability to influence. Absolutely. From what I know, it’s a really beautiful way of inflecting this life. The Civil War isn’t actually that long ago, and it’s one of those times when you can really find evil on its feet in America. He’s the author of Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science. But through those micro decisions, that transcendence happens a line at a time — and then, of course, it collapses. We talked about his creative process, his fledgling Buddhist practice, and the enduring fascination with Lincoln and the Civil War. And at that time he’s perceived as this dopey outsider who’s screwing up the job. It has 166 separate voices. Some of them are intuitive and kind of surprising. I really kind of miss it. When I first heard that story, I had this image of a combo of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà — this idea of Lincoln with the body across his lap. And writing for me is transcendent in a very real-world way. And when you take this kind of iterative approach with thousands of drafts, the world starts being very consistent. The premise of Saunders’s novel is that Willie is stuck in a transitional state of the afterlife — the Tibetan bardo of the title — because the ghost of the dead boy doesn’t want to let go of his traumatized father. They say the mind in that state can do anything. So when I think about something sacred, it’s just anything that will remind me to question my own perceptions. It sounds like you’re saying the process of writing takes you into an altered state of consciousness, just as you might experience from meditation or prayer. But for those few moments a day when I’m revising and rigorously trying to enact truth and specificity, the text will flare up and be a better version of me. I just started out trying to make interesting lines and fun dialogue and vivid images. To some degree, they’re both imaginative exercises. My ego and selfishness present in the same way. What are you going to make me do today that I wouldn’t normally do? I’m talking about slavery. The novel grew out of accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s devastation at the death of his 11-year-old son Willie. You sit and work really hard through thousands of micro decisions that are all pretty sensible. You’re meditating on your own text that you wrote on Wednesday. So one notion I really like is that any one of us possesses multiple energies, maybe thousands of different individuals at any given moment. For me, that’s very addictive. It’s not like I start floating up off the chair. You look at it on Thursday and the trick is to get free of whatever you used to think about it and see what it actually is. So you could see it as a literal afterlife or as a metaphor for the fact that we’re making heaven and hell this instant by our habits of mind. Pretty amazing guy. He could leave the White House alone and make his way across DC. My guess is that whatever happens is going to be a real shocker. It’s a wild premise. It’s not really in my wheelhouse.” I kept trying to put it aside over the next 20 years and it just kept coming back as an interesting and beautiful moment. If we’re going to see what American evil looks like, that’s a pretty good place to start. As I was writing and researching, I read these letters and editorials from the 19th century and I just saw the United States singing. But that’s good enough, I think. We’re in the transitional state between birth and death. And that’s a really wonderful thing, if only because it says that we’re not fixed in these mediocre daily selves and can actually get out of them from moment to moment. But why would he stop going there? Your small vision of things is actually not it.” So art can do that — and of course any religious practice can do that, too. But the ones that I trust now are not so mystical. ¤
Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s nationally syndicated show To the Best of Our Knowledge. On one level, it was just the idea that he could actually do that. Then there was the buzz about the accompanying audiobook with 166 readers, including Hollywood stars Julianne Moore, Ben Stiller, Lena Dunham, and Don Cheadle. Yes, they are. That’s really wonderful. Somehow, his mind expanded into an area where he really was interested in benefiting others, and his self diminished in those last three or four years. It reads like a play, except this is a novel. Transcendence really   means getting out of our normal crap that we inhabit habitually. There’s a systemic metaphysics to your novel. In short story collections like Pastoralia and Tenth of December, his blend of satire, moral seriousness, and sheer inventiveness stretched the boundaries of what a story could do. Hmm, it could be a grave digger working overtime or it could be these supernatural beings.” So trying to do justice to this emotional moment sent me out in a lot of really interesting technical areas that I wouldn’t have anticipated. So in addition to this incredible personal loss, he’s probably feeling he took the job at exactly the wrong moment and might well be leading the whole thing into the ditch. It sounds kind of comical, but I ask myself, “Who else would be in a graveyard at night? One of the last conversations he had with his wife before his assassination was a pledge that they should get their love back on track. And in world-building, especially in a book like this, you get to decide what the rules of ghosts are. They’re all present, and you can be both for something and against it at the same moment. His new book, Lincoln in the Bardo, has generated even more anticipation than usual. The newspapers said he had been there on several occasions. Oh yeah. Do you meditate? So I go back there a lot, just because it’s so close in history and yet so far away. Hopefully, we can train ourselves to be the best possible manifestation. It’s a beautiful thing. Every region is piping up, so the goal was to get that in the audiobook — to have people from every walk of life reading and talking past each other, to get this kind of chorale effect. Do we know how Lincoln responded to his son’s death? They hadn’t really been right since Willie’s death. You know, I’m 58. Well, Lincoln in the Bardo is a revelation. So what now looks to us like an obvious evil was rationalized and gummed up and hidden in a lot of eloquent arguments. Yes, in five years. For example, when I first thought of the idea, I was looking at 300 pages of internal monologue from Lincoln, which was daunting. It was just deeply enjoyable. So before I started the book, I certainly thought this wouldn’t be separate from what happens in the rest of his life. ¤
STEVE PAULSON: What drew you to the story of Lincoln going to the crypt to hold his son’s dead body? So there’s a danger of getting stuck in the bardo. Spiritual practice is often about shedding your ego, and you’re suggesting writing is also like that. You know, what’s fun is you flip on that switch and say, “Let me write a book that’s going to get attention and be moving.” And that’s a totally holy impulse. It was really a stretch to get that many people. My sense is that transcendence might want to be a little more muscular and regular than we make it out to be. When you talk about evil, are you referring specifically to slavery? You read a beautiful book and suddenly your mind flares up. It makes me wonder if there’s another analogy between literature and religion since they’re both exercises in world-building. There’s just something about that era that interests me. If that’s the case, the way we cultivate and train our minds right now is really key. So I felt this grief would knock aside all your nonsense and all your habitual constructs about life being a manageable affair. In my case, it’s coming back to a text again and again with as open a mind as I can get. Edmund Wilson wrote a wonderful book called Patriotic Gore, about the literary people of that time, and it’s incredible how almost nobody gets it right. I didn’t start off with a bunch of rules. You’ve written about the Civil War before — or at least about Civil War reenactments. So Lincoln has this devastating personal loss when the whole nation is traumatized by death. It had a kind of underlying design that my own mediocrity kept trying to suppress. Saunders told me that once he’d figured out the book’s basic structure, it pulled him along and almost seemed to write itself. ¤
You can listen to the TTBOOK podcast here. Lincoln would be extremely tenderized by this loss and maybe wide open to other losses — the losses caused by the war — but maybe also tenderized to the suffering of people in slavery. You’ve imagined Willie Lincoln suspended in the afterlife, in some sort of purgatory, with lots of ghosts arguing over the fate of his soul. Likewise, as a reader, you might be trapped in your workaday self. But the one voice that pipes up and is so beautiful is Lincoln. I’ve tried all my life to get better, but it’s like rolling a stone uphill. In all of his public utterances, he’s always trying to reason his way toward the highest possible ground. I’ve often found myself thinking about good and evil, as writers tend to do. Don’t you have a different actor for every character in the book? You’ve taken this fascinating historical anecdote and turned it into a ghost story. So then you think, “Okay, how else can I do this?” And just in your attempt not to be sucky, you start getting innovative. Then as you struggle to narrate that in a way that isn’t banal or doesn’t undercut the real emotion, you find yourself going off into strange areas. But it’s not for me to write. That terrifying reality that we spend so much energy trying to suppress would have been wide open for Lincoln in that moment. What I find so amazing is how Lincoln changed from being a virulent racist earlier in his life. You keep cutting back and forth between what your various characters are saying. It’s his first novel, so admirers were eager to see how he’d sustain a narrative over the book’s 340 pages. I don’t know, but I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t. It’s a perfect being, or has a strong sense of what it is, and your job is to manage your daily activities so as not to thwart the thing’s individuality. It’s maybe analogous to Purgatory, although it’s driven more by the user. Then maybe the next day I’m feeling happy and I’ll put some stuff back in. In conversation, Saunders is, for an author of his stature, remarkably down to earth. The book is there. I’ve never read a novel like this. When I was younger, I had that idea that something would just suddenly float up out of the chair and this beauty would flood into your head. We also used a bunch of people from Random House, and we used my mom, my dad, my friends. He’s very inquisitive, and his thinking about slavery is not selfish. Are you a Civil War buff? I consider writing to be a kind of farm team for that. I presume it was on a horse, because every so often he’d go to a soldier’s home on a horse and nobody would know about it. It’s a way of being more awake to things. I think it was a really deep wound. It can travel; it can be omniscient; it can experience horrible visions or beautiful visions — much like our idea of heaven. For me, the powerful thing is to know that whoever I happen to be at this moment isn’t any kind of emperor. I mean, the person who goes to the bardo can get out if he or she is just willing to face the music, particularly the thing they brought forward from life that’s not allowing them to go on to the next step. You can see which rules have to apply. I don’t really know why. You have a whole chorus of ghosts who gossip and bicker with each other. There’s a lot of talk in the press about the corruption of the war machine, and it’s too bad we elected such a hick. Finally, I thought that if something is that insistent, and if your reaction is always a kind of terrified revulsion — like, “Oh my God, I could not write that book” — then that might be a way to lead yourself to higher artistic ground, to finally man up and take a run at it. Did it change the way he thought about the Civil War? According to news reports, Lincoln made several trips to visit his son’s body in the graveyard. But when you go to read it the next time, you’d better turn that off and say, “Okay, that’s wonderful, but how did I actually do?” Then you revise as you’re working with the energy of it. We can actually let all that cacophony inside of ourselves sound off before we have to make a decision. Yes. I think Random House is actually applying for a Guinness Book of World Records spot. Some are very eloquent, while others are bawdy and practically lurking in the gutter. It was really the kind of book you hope will find you someday — one that yanks you out of your usual way of thinking and challenges you to go in new directions.