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George Saunders writes a ghost story about Abe Lincoln’s grief

March 28, 2017 at 6:10 PM EDT
In George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo” the ghostly inhabitants of a cemetery don't yet know they're dead. Instead, they're stuck in whatever neurotic condition they were in when they died, narrating the story of Abraham Lincoln's visit to the graveyard to visit his dead son. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Saunders about the challenge of writing about Lincoln and the importance of being baffled
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: a most unusual take on ghost stories, Abraham Lincoln, and the dead.

Jeffrey Brown has this latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: February 20, 1862, 12-year-old Willie Lincoln has just died of typhoid and been interred at Oak Hills Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

His grieving father, the president, visits at night. So far, all true.

But in the new novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” it’s the cemetery’s ghostly inhabitants that tell us of the visit and its consequences.

This is the first novel by George Saunders, widely acclaimed as a short story writer, including his most recent collection, “Tenth of December.”

And welcome to you. Nice to see you again.

GEORGE SAUNDERS, Author, “Lincoln in the Bardo”: Nice to be here, nice to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, this is a ghost story, very human ghosts, right? They don’t even think they’re stuck. They don’t even know they’re stuck. They don’t even know they’re dead.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: They don’t even know yet.

Yes, they’re stuck, and they’re stuck kind of in the condition they were in at the moment of death. So, if they were worried about something or feeling shortchanged or in love or in hate, they suddenly are in this other place, and desperately trying to stay there, which they do by repeating their grievances.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which makes them very, very human, very, very alive.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: They’re just neurotic and free-floating, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: We should say the bardo is a Tibetan term for a transition?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Well, actually, we’re in one now.

We’re in the transition between birth and death. But the one that people often know about is the transition between the moment of death and whatever comes next, so reincarnation or heaven or hell.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, this particular bardo is a cemetery, as I said, a real one, not too far from here in Washington, D.C., right?

And you tell the story through voices, a chorus of voices. Why that approach?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: The first thing I wanted to not do was tell it in a way that made death and this experience seem banal or manageable.

So, my approach to fiction is to kind of just to go in there moment by moment and try to always make some sparks. And, in this case, it meant kind of telling it from a strange angle that might even give the reader a little struggle in the first 10 to 15 pages.

But I thought, you know, whatever happens after this life, it would be really strange if it was what we expected. So, I wanted to kind of simulate that in the book. So the reader is a little destabilized, the ghosts are a little destabilized, and I found you could kind of do that through the form of the thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just to make it clear to our audience, there’s no one narrator. It’s all of these voices which you are assembling, including snippets from and quotations from real historians and some made-up historians.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Right.

When I first heard the story about Lincoln, I — it was so beautiful to me and sorrowful and gorgeous, that I — my mantra was kind of just make the ending so — make the book so weird and beautiful, that it would do some justice to that emotional core.

So, along the way, that was a great mantra to kind of say, does this decision lead to the direction of emotional power or not? And so the strange thing was, following those bread crumbs, I looked up about a third of the way in, and it had this crazy form, and very fun and gratifying.

JEFFREY BROWN: It raised the question for me just about, almost, what is a novel?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Well, somebody told me is a novel is a long work of prose that has something wrong with it.

So, I think, by that …

(LAUGHTER)

GEORGE SAUNDERS: … standard, it qualifies.

I never — I wanted to write a novel. This particular material was so insistent. And I really kept a close eye on it, like, don’t be a novel unless you have to. And at some point, it really convinced me that it deserved the length.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it makes me wonder, did you feel you had to sort of play with the form of a novel, or you — you just couldn’t write a straightforward narrative?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: I couldn’t write a straightforward narrative. And I couldn’t write a brief narrative.

But, again, I would have. I have been happy to do all of that. But it’s kind of strange. My artistic approach is that you’re supposed to be a little baffled as you’re writing. And …

JEFFREY BROWN: You, the writer?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Yes.

The holiest state is to be a little confused about what you’re doing. And you’re guided by the energy that the story is actually giving you as you revise.

That’s kind of tricky, because it means you have to abandon your ideas about organization or thematics, and really submit to the story, just as if it was a friend kind of trying to convince you of something.

So, if you do that, sometimes, it takes you — it asks you to do really crazy things. And, for me, that’s the thrill of it, is to say, OK, I will try it. And then, hopefully, it will result in some kind of new mode of beauty.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, at some point, you’re no longer confused by what you’re doing? It never stops?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: I’m still confused, because, hopefully, the book is doing things that you didn’t consciously plan.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, at the core of this is this figure, Abraham Lincoln, probably the most written of personage in American history, right?

You come at him through angles, the voices of the ghosts observing him, his son, the historians. Was that because you couldn’t get a grasp of him, or you didn’t want to?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: It scared me to try.

And, also, I was a little bit afraid of coming with all that conventional wisdom about him. And, at one point, I thought, you know, actually, I don’t want to write a book about Lincoln. There’s — I don’t claim to know him, but I needed him, the father who’s so grief-stricken, he goes to see his dead son’s body.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is Abraham Lincoln at a moment of tremendous personal grief, but also surrounded by the Civil War and the grief of so many who will die, right?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Yes. Right, right.

It was actually a wonderful chance to hang out with him for four years. You see a president who really made a virtue of things like sorrow, of being defeated, because he had setback after setback. He has this great loss.

And, somehow, he was able to transform all that sorrow into a kind of expanding empathy for everybody, you know? It was kind of inspiring to see somebody whose response to fear or hardship was expansiveness, instead of shrinkage.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new novel is “Lincoln in the Bardo.”

George Saunders, thank you very much.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Thank you so much.

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