Sunday April 23, 2017

George Saunders on love, war, and the American presidency

Lincoln in the Bardo is the first novel from acclaimed American author George Saunders.

Lincoln in the Bardo is the first novel from acclaimed American author George Saunders. (Penguin Random House/David Crosby)

Listen to Full Episode 53:28

When George Saunders won a MacArthur "genius" grant — half a million dollars, no strings — he was praised for bringing "a sense of humour, pathos and literary style all his own" to contemporary American fiction. He's an original.

A few years ago, his best-selling book of stories, Tenth of December, was named one of the top ten books of the year by The New York Times. It won Britain's inaugural $72,000 Folio Prize for literary fiction, as well as the $20,000 Short Story Award.

Now, George Saunders has produced his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, a surprising and complex story set in a graveyard where Lincoln's eleven-year-old son has just been laid to rest. It's 1862 — just one year into the American Civil War and Lincoln's presidency. Saunders conjures up a world of ghosts, set against actual historical material and a country in crisis.

Eleanor Wachtel spoke to George Saunders on stage at the Toronto Reference Library in front of a packed house.

Lincoln in the Bardo is on the 2017 Man Booker Prize longlist.

Dostoyevsky vs. Steven Spielberg

I was a working-class person, and when I had a book out for the first time, I got the question about influences. I always fancied it up a bit: "Well, of course, Dostoyevsky." Then, as you get more honest, you see that the real influences are the ones that really rattled your cage and that you didn't expect to be art. The movie Jaws was like that for me. It took years before I recognized that power and art are related. Even if the art is a little funky and a little embarrassing, it's still powerful. It gets in you, somehow. 


Eleanor Wachtel and George Saunders at the Toronto Public Library. Photo credit: Clive Sewell

The road to hell is paved with bad habits

In the Buddhist tradition, from what I've read, there's this idea that the death moment would not be unrelated to this one right now.  The really terrifying thing that I came upon in the The Tibetan Book of the Dead and some of the surrounding texts is the idea that your mind right now is like a wild horse, and your body is like a post it is tethered to. So as neurotic as we can get, and as anxious, and as passionate, it is dampened by our physicality. But when you die, these texts say that the rope gets cut and that wild horse is just — boom. It's the same horse, still. But whatever habits you've cultivated in life get let off the tether and super-sized. 

Why marginalizing art harms the whole society

Think about a culture that has marginalized art and freakified art and commodified it. That culture would have a strange, dysfunctional relationship with truth and language. When you're reading a book, you know how so many boxes in your mind come alive. You're attuned to a semicolon. A pattern of colours becomes meaningful. I would say your mind on art is probably the most open it ever is except maybe love. That's an incredible state of consciousness that makes us wiser and kinder and more engaged. And a culture that degrades that to a sideshow is going to end up in a kind of weird situation like we're in now.

George Saunders' comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Blues In" performed by the Art Pepper Quartet.