June 08, 2017

George Saunders on "Lincoln in the Bardo" at AWF 2017

So now he was going to appear, the man who gave me my most disturbing reading experience in recent memory (at least until I read Roxane Gay's Untamed state, which has now joined it at the summit). It was "The Semplica-Girl Diaries", one of the stories in the must-read collection Tenth of DecemberIts hallucinatory defining image shattered me. For months I'd flash back to it while driving, or waiting in the check-out line at the supermarket, or taking off my makeup, each time with the same feeling of claustrophobia and dread, my heart wanting to claw its way out of my chest and the ocean roaring in my ears.

There is a hallucinatory quality to all the stories in Tenth of December, although mostly of a Salvador Dali type rather than the Goya of the Semplica-Girl Diaries. The evident love for science fiction, most noticeable for me in the echoes of Ray Bradbury, though funnier, and his having grown up in Chicago, not just a Chicagoan but a White Sox fan, led me to imagine their author as someone who would spend a lot of his time in a basement den with his computer -- or typewriter in the early days -- amid shelves full of his cult books (Bradbury? John Wyndham?) with an athletics cup or two from his high school years. A kind of a big guy, a Root Beer drinker.

Instead George Saunders is kind of small, and kind of monochromatically sandy-coloured. His face is inscribed with a multitude of expression wrinkles, and the prevailing expression is quizzical and bemused. He is talkative!


Paula Morris opened by reminding us that novels have always been a form for experimentation, and in a nice twist she likened what Saunders has just done literally in Lincoln in the Bardohis first attempt at the form, to all novels, "stories told by a cast of ghosts, exploring what it is to be alive". Turning to him, she asked the long version of what appears in my notes as "1st historical novel - planned? like Hilary Mantel?" -- I confess I don't worry too much about getting down the exact phrasing of interview questions, unless they aggravate or stun me.

Saunders had a friendly, self-deprecating, and predictive (not predictable) reply.

Not really, he said, it was more that "I realised when I was young I had a wedge of talent, and I've been going along on that. I'm not a natural writer. My first drafts are crummy. Though actually, it doesn't mean you're not a good writer. Writing is a craft."

As I said, predictive, because what followed was, for most of the hour, a conversation between two writers, both creative-writing professors after all, about the craft of writing, with Saunders sharing tips such as:

On writing fiction: "You write Frank is an asshole. The gods of fiction don't like it. The gods of fiction say, How so? You explain. The gods of fiction say, Tell us more".

On writing short stories: "When I started I decided, I like Hemingway a lot and I agree with his world view, so I am going to use a Hemingway construction. It was like going on a date with index cards. In the short story, it's important not to know where it's going and let the writing take you where it wants to."

(I actually thought for a second he said "going on a diet with index cards" and maybe he did. It possibly fits even better with attempting a Hemingway style.)

He quotes Einstein, "No problem was ever solved on the original plane of its conception".

He quotes someone else as having said to him, "The story is always talking to you. Listen to it."

He talks about how every story has an understory, and describes it like this: "There's something beautiful (he personifies it as a reindeer) coming up behind you, and if you keep your eyes on the table and don't spook it, the story and the understory will come together".

My favourite lines came when the subject turned to the book at hand. The departure point for the book is Abraham Lincoln's little son's death from typhoid, in the middle of the Civil War. It's known that Lincoln made repeated visits to the crypt where his son's body had been laid in the days after his death. At the heart of the book, which Saunders sets in that time, is the idea that the boy is in the Bardo, the state of existence between death and rebirth according to Tibetan Buddhism, together with a cast of ghosts who, a bit like a Greek chorus, tell the story.

Morris asked Saunders, a practicing Buddhist, to tell us more about the Bardo. Is it a form of Purgatory?

"I was raised Catholic in Chicago", he preambled -- in other words he knows all about Purgatory -- and "Bardo is a little more. My version of the Bardo is that these people full of regret or sick with unrequited love, at the moment of death they balk at the door."

It was a thrilling image, but my true favourite line came when he was asked about Abraham Lincoln. "I'm in love with him," he said simply, for once without his usual loquaciousness. He talked about the arc of Lincoln's learning and growth. "By the time he died he was 100, 200 years ahead of his contemporaries". He calls it Lincoln's spiritual ascension. Another Bardo, I realise.

In a rare moment of personal, as compared to professional insight (the craft of writing), we got "I have a Pollyanna-ish tendency that gets edited out". He says he has a sardonic view of the world, but he is also sentimental. It took him a while to allow his sentimental side to come out in his writing, now he does, and then he corrects it with his sardonic side.

We didn't get questions or observations on some things I would have liked to hear the Semplica-Girl Diaries author on, things like fiction's subversive possibilities, or existential shackles, or fighting words. We didn't get any anecdotes like the one James T. Farrell, also a Chicago Catholic-raised writer, liked to tell about going to Ireland and hearing a local tell people that they'd lose their immortal souls if they read him.

But this wasn't bad, wryly told:

He grew up in Chicago, the South Side, where I didn't, but where I was born, and know enough to know that it was an area where neighborhoods were called things like "The backs of the yards" -- the stockyards.

"Every human being is full of sentiment but where I grew up there was a lot of crimping of the excess. So it was like 'Fuck off', but it meant 'I love you'."

In that sense, I think that the best way to know the passions of George Saunders is to read him. Here, I've found you The Semplica-Girl Diaries in The New Yorker online.

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 23:47
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