George Saunders was sitting in London’s Guildhall at a dinner on Tuesday (Oct 17) night celebrating the 2017 Man Booker Prize.
“It’s a nerve fest,” he said. “I’d picked up on a vibe that it wasn’t going to go my way, and that was fine. We were having a lot of fun, so it was a big shock” when it was announced that his novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, had won the prestigious award.
Saunders’ decidedly unconventional novel follows US President Abraham Lincoln into the graveyard where his 11-year-old son, Willie, has just been laid to rest. Elsewhere, the American Civil War, not quite a year old, kills scores. And within the boundaries of the cemetery, but beyond Lincoln’s view, the souls of people trapped in the bardo – a transitional state between death and rebirth, according to Tibetan Buddhism – still toiling, telling and retelling their own stories.
In praising the book, a statement from the Baroness Lola Young, chair of the Man Booker Prize judging panel, said, “The form and style of this utterly original novel reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative. … Lincoln In The Bardo is both rooted in and plays with history, and explores the meaning and experience of empathy.”
We reached Saunders by phone on Wednesday. He was still in London, where he had been fielding press calls since the early morning hours. Here’s a transcript of the call, edited for clarity and space.
Saunders, 58, is the second American to win the British prize, which was closed to US authors until 2014. American author Paul Beatty won for The Sellout last year.
How does it feel to win the rather British Man Booker Prize for what is perhaps a distinctly American book?
A British reader doesn’t feel Lincoln as acutely as (Americans) do. They don’t know who he is, but a lot of people were saying, “I kind of knew who he was, but he seemed to me like a grieving father so that was good enough”.
You can feel and hear a lot of nervous agitation about this Trump era and about Brexit here (in Britain), and I don’t know quite how the Lincoln book connects with that.
As I was writing it, I felt like it was sort of reworking my patriotism, in a sense. Like, OK, this is us at our best in a moment of great trial, and I think that seems to resonate with people here too. Because of the Brexit situation, there’s the sense in Britain that the centre isn’t holding. Which side are you on, and what are the sides?
That kind of feeling seems to be very much in the air, and they’re looking at (the United States) with some concern and with a lot of love just to see if this old friend of theirs is going to come out of the ditch or not. I don’t know what the judges were thinking, but in the discussion, people are very aware of our situation and kind of mindful about it.
(Brexit refers to the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union, an ongoing – and bitterly divisive – process. Donald Trump’s US presidency is seen as “unhelpful” to the British situation.)
What do you think is the role of literature in confusing times?
I think among those of us who read, I think it’s the same consolation it ever was, which is, you feel alone and you feel like the gap between you and other people is unbridgeable, then you read a book and that just gets softened a bit. You think, oh yeah, actually people are on the same continuum as I am; it is possible to understand someone else’s mind.
I think the secondary effect is, both for the writer and the reader, I think the brain on art is pretty amazing. At least from my experience, when you’re in the middle of writing a book like this, your mind is really sharp and it’s very agile and it’s kind of OK with ambiguity, and it’s curious and it’s sort of more fearless.
If we’re in this situation we’re in right now, anything that makes us bigger in terms of our humanness is a plus. Anything that makes us a little slower to judge or to be violent or to be projecting about other people is useful.
But having said all of that, I also know that’s a nice argument for people who are already reading, and a lot of the people who are already reading are already those things. For me, it’s just a consolation to go into that place of artistic creation and be reminded that there are actual layers to who I am.
Like, when I’m only on social media, I’m kind of agitated and kind of aggressive, and I want to reach a quick decision and prove to everyone else that they’re wrong. But in story mode, you’re kind of doubling down on the idea you can occupy different consciousnesses and move back and forth between different people.
So I think that’s just a more enjoyable way to live. It’s almost like if you’re in a period of your life when you’re in really good shape, everything physical is more enjoyable; I think that when you’re reading or writing a lot, it’s the same but for your brain.
What do literary awards, in general, mean to you?
The real wonderful thing was to be in that short list with those writers because we really bonded. It was honestly just a feeling of, wow, that’s amazing that I could be in that club. That was the first order thing.
And then selfishly – and this is probably a bad commentary on my character – you think, OK, this group of strangers liked my work and that always gives me a little confidence. I could afford to go a little farther, be a little weirder, be a little more difficult.
So I guess what I would say is, it kind of reassures you that your assessment of your audience isn’t 100% wrong, which then kind of emboldens you to try bigger and more difficult things.
And then, practically, it’s amazing. I came out of the award thing and I looked at my phone and there were like 80 messages there. The Booker has a really incredible power that I hadn’t seen before with any kind of good news, so that was really interesting to see.
My thing is, what you want to do is enjoy it for about a minute and then kind of plow it under the category of things that might help me do better work later. It’s sort of that old Catholic in me who doesn’t want to go dancing. You know, just go back to work.
Saunders is a former geophysicist and technical writer who attended Syracuse University in New York as a mature student and has taught there as an English professor since 1996. He has been a highly acclaimed short-story writer since the 1990s; Lincoln In The Bardo is his first full-length novel.
On his personal website, georgesaundersbooks.com, Texas-born Saunders says he grew up in Chicago and “(barely) graduated from the Colorado School of Mines with a degree in exploration geophysics”.
His interest in writing blossomed while he was working as a geophysicist in Sumatra, Indonesia: “We worked four weeks on and two weeks off, in a jungle camp that was a 40-minute helicopter ride to the nearest town, so this is when my reading life really started. The game became filling up an entire suitcase with books sufficient to get me through the next two weeks of camp life,” he says.
Saunders became ill after about 18 months in Indonesia from “swimming in a river that was polluted with monkey shit” and “came home (to America) to try and be Kerouac II”, he says, referring to renowned Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969).
Saunders began studying at Syracuse Uni in the late 1980s, when he met his wife, Paula. The couple have two daughters.
“We had no money and so I worked as a tech writer, first for a pharmaceutical company and then for an environmental engineering company,” he says.
From 1989 to 1995, he wrote three “abortive first books and then an actual one, CivilWarLand In Bad Decline (Random House).”
The New Yorker magazine published one of the stories in that collection, “Offloading For Mrs Schwartz”, in 1992, heralding “the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with that magazine”.
“Since 1996, I’ve taught in the Syracuse MFA (master of fine arts) programme, where I’ve had the privilege of teaching some of the most remarkable young American writers of the last 15 years,” the author says on his website.
“I write short stories for The New Yorker and travel pieces for GQ magazine,” Saunders says. “The latter have been part of an attempt to avoid the mental rictus that comes with old age.
“I’ve travelled to Africa with (former US President) Bill Clinton, reported on Nepal’s ‘Buddha Boy’, gone on patrol with the ‘Minute Men’ on the Mexican border, spent a week in the theme hotels of Dubai, and lived incognito in a homeless tent city in Fresno, California.”
Saunders is probably best known outside literary circles for a commencement speech he gave in 2013 at Syracruse University with the key message “Try to be kinder”. It went viral on the Internet (see video below), became an animated cartoon, and was published as a book in 2014, Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts On Kindness (Random House). – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/dpa