An interview with author George Saunders, whose highly anticipated first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” is a heartbreaking tale centering on President Lincoln’s grief over the loss of his 11-year-old son Willie.
“Seated one inside the other now, they occupied the same physical space, the child a contained version of the man.”
— “Lincoln in the Bardo”
George Saunders’ innovative first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” has at its center an image from history. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s beloved 11-year-old son Willie died after a brief illness. The bereft father, struggling to emerge from grief, was said to have on several occasions left the White House alone at night to enter his son’s crypt and hold his boy once more.
“I had a little mental flash on a kind of a Pieta,” said Saunders, in a telephone interview earlier this month, remembering when he first heard the story from a relative while visiting Washington, D.C., in the 1990s. “It just floored me. The questions were, why would you do that, and why would you stop doing it? What would happen to you between the time you felt moved enough to do it, and the day you said, ‘this is not helping me?’ ”
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Saunders, who’ll speak at Town Hall on Feb. 28, said the image haunted him for years. He toyed with writing it as a three-act play (which came out “kind of weird”). But while he established himself as one of the greatest current practitioners of the short story (his collections, over two decades, include “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and “Tenth of December”), the Lincoln idea waited. “I kept pushing it off,” he said. Finally, a few years ago he thought it might be time to try, “as a fun little experiment.”
“Lincoln in the Bardo” is not told as a conventional novel would be; instead, it’s a chorus of voices from another world. The bardo (a Tibetan concept of an intermediate state; in this case, between death and the hereafter) is full of ghosts that greet young Willie on his arrival. They watch, as one from the living — a tall, grieving gentleman, who “might have been, at that moment, a sculpture on the theme of Loss” — sits among them.
And they tell their stories, many of them; interweaving together in a noisy, messy symphony. It’s a technique that owes something to the play that “Lincoln in the Bardo” almost was, and to other influences too: chat lines — “I love the way those look on the page, rambling misspelled texts and the answer showing up three pages later” — and to the stream-of-consciousness modernism of Faulkner and Joyce.
As the book developed, Saunders found himself learning things from his characters. The ghosts, he said, seemed to be wondering about whether they were connected to humans. “To me it was kind of moving — the ghosts were like, ‘Are we any good or not? Are we just completely divorced from real life, or are we somewhat active?’ They didn’t know and I didn’t know, and we together developed this way of testing it.”
Of the 166 different voices in the book (he knows the exact number; “I made a spreadsheet”), not all are fictional. “I thought, to do ghosts all the time was not going to work,” Saunders remembered. “It’s almost like there’s too much control in the writer’s hand, since the ghosts can do anything.” The idea came to him: why not add voices from nonfiction accounts of the period?
“It was an intriguing idea — a little bit naughty, not like real writing. Once I started doing it, it was kind of fun. There’s skill involved because some versions were more polished than others.”
The result gives texture to the book, filling in details of Lincoln’s appearance (which are, fascinatingly, contradictory — “what memory does with time is so beautiful,” Saunders said), his demeanor, and the party given at the White House on the night Willie died, with his worried parents slipping upstairs to check on him.
Most of these references are real, from the many books on Lincoln’s life and times that Saunders consulted; some are made up. “I loved the idea of the reader and writer playing this elaborate game,” he said. “I’m inventing these sources, but maybe you don’t know it.”
Every one of those voices gets his or her due on the upcoming audiobook, for which 166 different readers were recorded. Among them: Julianne Moore, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, Don Cheadle, Carrie Brownstein, Keegan-Michael Key, and Saunders himself, who’ll voice the elderly Rev. Everly Thomas.
Immersion into 19th-century language was something new for Saunders, whose short stories generally take place in a slightly futuristic present. “I think so much of art is stumbling into a situation where a constraint is thrust upon you, and then cheerfully accepting the constraint,” he said. “In this case, I wanted to write about 1862, and that means I can’t use contemporary diction, which is my best tool.” Because his strongest gifts were not allowed to the table, he said, it launched a process of “developing compensatory gifts.” “Now I’m having to relearn to speak contemporary English!” he said, with a laugh.
There may be another future for “Lincoln in the Bardo”: Offerman and Mullally, friends of Saunders, are in the process of developing the book for the screen. “I have no idea what a movie might look like for this,” Saunders admitted. “It’ll be fun to see.”
Though he plans to return to writing short stories (“this was a vow I made to myself: write stories the rest of your life”), Saunders said he enjoyed the process of spending several years on one work.
But he never lost track of the essential sadness at the heart of his story: a lost child, a devastated father. “I was a little sensitive that I was using a real kid,” he said, saying that he kept photographs of Willie and Lincoln above his desk. “I thought, I really have to do this, guys. I’m going to try to honor you both by making your heartbreak real. In the end, that was the whole point of the book for me, whenever I got a little lost. You’re trying to honor this actual heartbreak.”