“This is going to sound very chichi,” Saunders begins, “but I’m at the Beverly Hilton in LA.” He’s trying to find a seat, poolside, away from other people, so that he can talk to me over the phone. With characteristic humour, he’s quick to downplay any notions of book-tour glamour: it’s “combination of joy and humiliation,” as he puts it. A description that would also fit his fiction. Whilst he can downplay the Hilton, it’s getting harder for Saunders to downplay his literary accolades. He’s a multi-award winning short story writer who, at fifty eight, has just published his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Zadie Smith deemed it “a masterpiece” before it was released – and it has continued to receive rapturous praise since.
It’s fairly common to think of short-stories and novels as different forms with shared materials. Like cakes and biscuits. Saunders’ analogy of choice is yurts and mansions. “I kept waiting for it to be something different,” he told me, thinking that, for a novel, he would need “a whole new set of tools.” He later came to realise that both forms share “the same basic skill set in storytelling.” By which he means “polishing the bit you’re in, so it really is saying something and then, at the same time, looking ahead and behind the story – to see if anything back there needs to be adjusted. [And] what the current bit is prompting.” Or, returning to his mansion analogy, Saunders realised he “could just link up a bunch of yurts.” Still, he refers to his book as “its own weird, little machine.” “When it comes to the 800 page, multi-generational novel,” he continues, “that may take a different muscle…”
Saunders’ “weird, little machine” concerns Willie, the 11-year-old son of the presidential Lincoln, as he navigates the Bardo, a hallucinatory state – drawn from Tibetan Buddhism – that exists between life and reincarnation. Abraham then visits the son’s body whilst grieving. ‘Why Lincoln? Why Buddhism?’ you may ask. Saunders is, or at least was, just as curious as you, for his approach focuses as much on how as what he writes. Buddhism not only influenced the book’s setting, but it’s very execution. “I think I was a Buddhist before I knew what it was, through writing,” he tells me. “I had a breakthrough when I was maybe thirty two,” he continues, “and the breakthrough was so simple that it’s kind of hard to talk about…”
The first of Saunders’ two breakthroughs was that writing “is a branch of entertainment.” “I’ve always been kind of funny in person,” he tells me, “and that energy, of trying to entertain somebody,” he recognised, “could be part of writing.” But this came with an associated realisation: that “your job as a writer was to try your best to read the passage as if you hadn’t seen it before. Your real job, which is almost impossible, is to blank out your attachments to it.” He uses the analogy of having a meter in your head, with ‘P’ on one side and ’N’ on the other. “I just need to keep that meter up in the positive zone as much as I can,” he tells me. “To put it in a kind of new-age way, you’re trying to fully inhabit the moment of the story – even to the level of the phrase, or the word, and see – like when you go to the optometrist – ‘is this better, or is this better?’” He writes iteratively. Intuitively. Moment-to-moment writing accompanying moment-to-moment living. “When I began mediation,” he tells me, “I was really surprised by the overlap [between it and writing]”.
The practical implications of Saunders’ intuitive, moment-to-moment approach shaped one of the novel’s strangest characteristics: that the names of the spirits, who narrate much of the novel, come after what they say. You don’t know – until you begin to recognise their speech patterns – who was talking until they have finished. Originally, the academic and pseudo-academic quotes in the novel were displayed with the attributions at the bottom. And the names of the spirits appeared before their speech. “I just had this feeling, that I’ve really learned to trust over the years,” Saunders tells me, “that it just bugged me. It made that transition from ghost to non-ghost too obvious. Those little impulses are very holy.” So he switched the ghost’s attributions. In doing so, he lost clarity and gained instability. But he liked that. “I made the case that this had some aesthetic benefit, because you’re dead. A little instability is to be expected.”
“In fiction, the way you make value is very much about trusting the intuitive,” Saunders tells me. “So many images in this book were for fun. At speed. To service that little inner-satisfaction you get when something looks right on a page. And when you do that, you step back and go ‘oh yeah, that makes some thematic sense.’ That’s allowing me to speak about things I didn’t even know I wanted to speak about.” And this notion, at least according to his teaching experience, is “true for everyone, but manifests in different ways.”
“Even a comma can be a very bold statement,” Saunders says, discussing the brain when reading – and its sensitivity to detail. “Part of this intuitive approach,” he continues, “is to say, alright, hopefully on page 8 you’re going to be in some elevated state of textual awareness. I’m going to try and be in a very similar one, so that when we reach a decision point, you and I are kind of connected, in a way. You, the reader, and I, the writer, are inhabiting that same field of indicators – and my subconscious is a little ahead of both of us. And you just trust it.” This intuitive notion of storytelling, as a way of connecting, is a cornerstone of Lincoln in the Bardo – “the book,” Saunders tells me, “was a larger attempt to use that philosophy,” which informs his short fiction – and it is also diametrically opposed to the kind of storytelling the ghosts perform within the novel itself.
The ghost Hans Vollman repeats, throughout the book, a single story regarding his unconsummated marriage. “Intuitively, and by limited talent,” Saunders continues, “I resisted the beat where I tell a second story about Hans Vollman’s life. I didn’t want to. And when I tried to, I couldn’t. This is where it gets really zen…” Rather than seeing this as a failing on his part, as a writer, he just continued with this notion. “So whenever Hans would come up, he would just repeat that first story. I exported it: it’s not a failure of mine, it’s a feature of theirs.” But he then wondered why they – the ghosts – could not come up with other stories. Then it dawned on him: “they’re dead. And this storytelling is not just decorative. It is literally keeping them there in this place they shouldn’t be. Not only are they not capable of making additional stories, they don’t have them anymore.” He compares them to the stereotype of an elderly person repeating the same anecdotes continually. “It’s very touching, they’re clinging to their identity through these, often traumatic – or sometimes just irritating – narratives.” The ghosts cling to a sense of self, through storytelling, in a spiritual realm where the self is an obstacle to be overcome. All this stemmed from not wanting to write another story for Vollman.
“I struggle to explain it,” Saunders continues, “but the subconscious, if you call it that, is an incredibly powerful storytelling machine. It can actually take your flaws as a human being, and your flaws as a storyteller… And then if you respond to them in the right way, with a little patience, they can actually turn into strengths.”
Another obstacle Saunders encountered was writing – even if only occasionally – in the voice of Abraham Lincoln. His way around this was to think of Abe as “just another human being.” “He’s going to be me, basically,” Saunders continues, “me on a different day.” Which is the same for all the characters. “So much of this fiction is actually gaming oneself, and recognising that this is not a catalogue, not a photograph – it’s a dramatic contrivance that’s designed to produce a certain effect… And I don’t know what it is. I want it to be powerful and non-trivial. But I’m not guiding you, really.” He pauses. “I’m, hopefully, blundering off in a nice way, and you’re following – and together we have some transformative little moment at the end.” In the hands of a lesser writer, Saunders’ personal projections could’ve resulted in narcissistic fantasies. Instead, he grasps for something universal.
Despite Saunders’ personal writing strategies, however, he knows that you can’t evade the politics of writing in the voice of such a central, historical figure. “Even with this approach, you don’t get out of the responsibility. You still did make a Lincoln. Now it might have helped you to do so, to pretend that you weren’t, but in the end, of course, you did.” To publish is to endorse. “One of the moves that we don’t talk about in fiction writing is ‘I approve this message.’ You do something by accident, and then go ‘ooh, okay.’ That’s writing as well.”
“Part of energising an historical person,” he continues, “is when the reader sees part of her own mindset appearing there. I’d be going along, making this Lincoln who is, in a large part, me – with my understanding of life and love and so on – and I’d go: ‘wait a second, this is the guy who… is going to leave this graveyard [and] invent the concept of total war.’” He massacred hundreds of thousands. Freed a sixth of the population. And had feelings like you or I.
“The history sections [of the novel] came in as a corrective,” Saunders continues, contrasting them with the supernatural elements. He had previously attempted another book set in a graveyard, inspired by chatlines. He liked the errors that so often occurred in chatline text, and thought they looked like “souls talking back and forth.” But the book had “no forward motion.” “There’s some kind of subtle contract between reader and writer,” he tells me. “If you know I’m writing ghosts, you know I have 360 degrees of possibility. And there’s a little bit of an indulgence that I’m getting from you.” He compares this indulgence to dream sequences. “You have three dream sequences in your career,” an old writing teacher told him, “so don’t use them up too quickly.” With Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders realised he needed a “factual spine,” so that “if a reader was drifting” he could “snap her to attention with a quote from Doris Kearns Goodwin,” a Lincoln biographer, “and suddenly something changes in the contract. It literally is like if someone’s drifting to sleep and you let off a firecracker.” Saunders first heard the, likely apocryphal, story of Abraham Lincoln cradling the body of his dead son twenty years beforehand – and he had been doing some casual research into Willie Lincoln’s death since. He found the historical details made Willie’s death all the more tragic. But the core, dramatic intent of the historical asides was to ensure readers didn’t resist the novel “because it’s just a bunch of ghost.”
Inevitably, we get to Trump. “People I love are Trump supporters,” he tells me, trying to explain his country’s fractious political situation. Saunders may have a near-mystical approach to writing as a process, but his views on art’s role in culture is practical. “We marginalise art,” he tells me, “and I think we’re paying the price. Our discourse is degraded.” He calls the “social media snark” of Donald Trump the “total opposite of art,” and compares a hypothetical social media spat with a Trump supporter to a wrestling, or boxing, match. “But if he was reading my book – or I was reading his book – suddenly you’re in a different, much more generous, space. This country that we,” America, “are right now,” Saunders continues, “is not the country that we always were. It’s not the country that we’re meant to be. And art,” he tells me, “is a way that we can remind ourselves of that.” I can’t think of a more generous space than Lincoln in the Bardo.