George Saunders is both a blackly hilarious satirist and our most compassionate writer, who takes as his subject the striving of ordinary (and sub-ordinary) people to be good, to live decently, to do no harm, frequently under extraordinary, near-futuristic circumstances. He’s known first as a short story writer, and his works often culminate in moments of breathless grace, or acts of great heroism from unlikely sources (see: “Victory Lap,” “The Falls“). That they’re also blisteringly beautiful and riotously funny is icing. Or maybe the funny is the meat of the thing: his stories get at something so tremulous and painfully bright at the core of human existence—all the best and worst of us expressed on one unending spectrum—that humor might be our best chance at taking it in.
Lincoln in the Bardo is Saunders’ first novel, and a masterpiece. It takes place in the days after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, as the grieving president visits his crypt each night to take the boy’s body in his arms. But the president’s attentions have an unintended consequence: they pin his son’s soul to the Bardo, an in between place populated by ghosts who refuse to accept that they’re dead. Their forms are manifestations of the earthly concerns they haven’t left behind, and they consider death to be a temporary state they can deny their way free of. Their chorus of voices is interwoven with a collage of divergent historical accounts of Lincoln and of the night Willie died. It’s a dizzying, experimental, utterly accessible tapestry of lives, culminating in a fireworks display of an ending that I won’t spoil here. The book is astonishing, fresh in form, and an extension of everything that has made Saunders one of our most celebrated short-story writers.
I spoke with the author last May at Book Expo America, about the novel’s roots, his path as a writer and teacher, and uncanny things.
B&N Reads: What about Lincoln as a subject first fascinated you?
George Saunders: The weird truth is that I just heard a story about him when Bill Clinton was president. Our kids were little and we were driving through DC, by Oakfield Cemetery, and my wife’s cousin said, “That’s where Lincoln went into that crypt and held his son’s body in 1862.” And I was like, “What? First of all, Lincoln had a son? I didn’t know.” And she went, “Yeah, it was reported in the papers at the time that he had gone to the crypt several times.” I was like, “Wow.” I had this image of a Pietà meets Lincoln Memorial. At that point, maybe I’d written one book, and I knew I couldn’t do that, materially.
You weren’t ready?
Yeah. I knew there would be something you couldn’t approach satirically, and I didn’t feel like I had the chops at that point to do it. So I set it aside, and then right before Tenth of December came out, I was like, “You know, if not now, when?” And it felt like from having kids and going through everything you can do in a life, why couldn’t I approach that material? In a sense, I didn’t want to write about Lincoln. That’s like writing about God or—
Yeah, like “I’m going to write a novel about the Beatles.” So I didn’t want to write about him. But then I thought, “Actually, you’re not. He’s in it, but it’s not him. He’s somebody who’s going to pass through that narrative at certain points and when he gets here, we’ll greet him. But we’re not going to get too tied into writing about him.” But once I got into it, people always talk about how sad he was and how kind he was. And the kindness, I hadn’t picked up on that. But people who met him would always sound like he was the kindest man in the world. “He can’t be harsh. He empathizes so much.” And then you think about that guy having to do Antietam and Gettysburg. It’s intriguing.
What were some of the more strange or interesting or humanizing details that you learned about him?
The thing about him that I didn’t realize was how lumpy his progress was. For example, on race. It wasn’t like he was a young man and got it. He really kind of did, kind of didn’t. What was really inspiring was that in that five-year period, he covered several generations’ worth of wisdom in the way he progressed toward the right idea—but not smoothly. You can almost see him as you read his speeches, you can see him bumpily getting there. Which is inspiring, because I always thought a person would be either a visionary or not. But he both was and wasn’t. He did really stupid things like right before—not long before he died—maybe before the “Emancipation Proclamation”—he had a bunch of African American leaders to the White House to persuade them to go to Africa and they were so angry with him. And my theory is he was so humiliated by that, that the true-telling part of himself was so sickened by what he had done that suddenly his mind crystalized and he became the Lincoln that we know today.
And if it was today, we’d be like, “Flip-flopper!”
Oh yeah, he was very comfortable with that. He flip-flopped in a day. He’s easy to fall in love with, and he’s dangerous. You could spend the rest of your life—there was a time about a year ago where I was like, “I never want to know anything else except about Lincoln. I’m going to become him, I’m going to start dressing like him.” But then you wean yourself off. That, and also he was a great writer of course. There was one critical moment when he was trying to figure out slavery and race, and he wrote—there’s a little scrap, and I don’t remember what it said, but it was a beautiful, syllogistic piece of logic. Just to himself, he never published it. Almost like a mathematician thinking about race and equality. And he wrote it and he put it away.
So he was a man who’s actually wrestling with these things, not even in the abstract. He was like, “I need to see what I believe.”
Oh, he had a lawyer’s mind, a kind of logical mind. I mean, I do it. When I’m really confused, I go, “Let me make a chart.” And just look at it. And it gets into your mind and starts easing your logic. So it was cool to see that he was not perfect. And you know, the first part of the war was a fiasco. And he had to feel like a big dope, and people were dying because of his decisions—or lack thereof. So that was the interesting thing: as always with these leaders, the perceived wisdom is glossy. You start looking behind and you go, “Oh, my god, he was a guy. He told dirty jokes.”
How did the novel’s experimental form evolve? Did it start with a short story?
You know, I think what happened was—okay. I knew, for me—you write fiction also? Okay. So I think part of fiction is, you’re hoping to run into a problem. Because that’s when your plan has to be set aside and the story’s plan starts to talk to you. So in this case, I loved the idea. But in reality, there’s nothing there, it’s just a guy. One guy: Lincoln. He’s the only living person in the thing. He goes into the crypt, he holds the body, and he leaves. So pretty early it struck me that I needed other presences there to push against him and at least just to be there. And then, then the next problem was ghosts are gauzy. Literally. I mean, that dream sequence is—Tobias Wolff told me once that in your career you’re allowed two dream sequences, because there’s no substance to them. Likewise with ghosts, you start doing ghosts and anything happens. So then I needed a ballast in the historical stuff. So at one point I had decided to use those historical nuggets as ballast and just quote them directly. Just visual things, seeing that, the text and the attribution. I thought, “Oh, that’s what I’ll do with the ghost.” Before, I’d had the ghost identifier at the top. But I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have the whole book be just monologue, attribution. And then that moment when you go from historical to ghost. So it’s kind of like that. It’s feeling your way through.
Early on, I started with a soldier who was alive and writing letters to his wife. And the indicator was those attributions have capital letters in them, and when they die they become lowercase. So at one point I had him going into battle, and then the next letter was lowercase. Which is when he’s dead. So that was a cool thing, but then eventually I had to reverse that. From writing, you know, after the fact, you’d like to simplify the answer, but so much happens incrementally as you go. You think of a problem for yourself and then you try to think of a cool way to solve it. So one day I just looked up and I went, “That form’s kind of cool.” Because you can have a classic seven-page monologue and then it can devolve into the theatrical, from which someone can turn to the camera. So that’s kind of a fun form. It was just iterations, four years of messing around.
Something I love about all of your work is the way you focus on writing average characters who have so much dignity and they struggle so hard to be good. And that’s not a focus I see a lot of in fiction. There’s usually something more extraordinary at stake than goodness.
That’s a really acute reading, thank you. I’m going to take a guess. When I look at myself, I don’t feel that I’ve done anything that exceptional in life. I’m not a person to whom cool things happen. Some writers, they tell these stories, and I’m like—oh my god, Joseph Conrad. My life never lands that way. It never has. To me, things are interesting from a perceptual standpoint, so that’s where your emphasis has to as a narrator. So if I wrote a story in which the point was how amazing this event was, I don’t actually have that experience. But I have the experience of being in an unremarkable environment, an unremarkable mind, but noticing it. Flannery O’Connor says, “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.” It means that a lot of these craft questions come down to I do this because in that mode I can suck the least often. It’s kind of like you’re going to your own power as a person. And just as in personality, when you’re 12, you don’t really know what your best mode is. You’re finding it out. And then you find it out, and there’s usually a time when you deny it. You’re trying to be somebody else. But that power of saying, “Well, for whatever complicated reason, this is where my power is.” I think that’s what revising is. You write so many things and you say, “I’m going to be the next Virginia Woolf.” Well, your neurology says, “No, I don’t want to be that.” So it’s a humbling process of trying out a lot of things and different costumes and going, “Oh, I guess I’m going to have to be myself.”
You’re a teacher at Syracuse, and I’m so interested in the teaching process. First day stuff, how would you kick off a semester?
The big class I teach is a six-person workshop. And I teach our third-year grads, so they’ve already been through a lot and they’re almost leaving. And I know that for me, if I’m working with a young writer, what I’m doing is a bunch of line edits. With not too much explanation. So part of what I want to do the first day is establish a kind of trust. So what I do is say, “I’m going to edit the hell out of your work. It certainly won’t be the case that every edit is going to be to your liking, but try it. Let’s assume that you could learn something from cutting and some of the stuff about narrative logic.” But basically, put parentheses around the semester. I’m going to do a boot-camp kind of thing. At the end of it, I’m going to say, “Release.” It puts us in a kind of intimate space where I’m confessing that I have a particular way of doing it which might not be right, they’re sort of submitting to that, and for those three months we’re working really closely together with this mutual intent of making their work better. But that had to do with the intimacy that says, “I’m going to pretend like I know everything and you’re going to push back.” So the first meeting is really important to say it’s not class, you don’t need a class. I don’t know any answers; I only know them for me. It’s almost like a breaking down of certain expectations that would make the class lame. So that’s the main thing. Then, after that, I’ll do a lot of edits, and you can see what’s landing and what isn’t. And we have meetings, and I’ll say, “Did those edits help?” “Yes and no.” “Okay, where?” And then I can customize it. It’s mostly line-to-line stuff.
The thing that’s really beautiful about that job—and I remember this so well from being a young writer myself—you come in with your defenses up. It’s such a subjective profession and you’re nervous you’re not going to be good enough, so you come in with a lot of ideas and projections. And part of my job is to get those to come down a little bit, because the projections often involve a kind of falsification about the imitation of somebody else or the embrace of certain conceptual ideas. What we tend to do is over those three years, those walls come down and the young writer is face to face with herself. Which is so exciting because you can get there. So part of it is developing an intuitive sense of what your defenses and avoidances might be. Now, it’s just intuitive, but it’s lovely when I’m right. And every so often, you go, “Ah-hah, this guy is imitating David Foster Wallace out of pure insecurity.” Now, I can’t say that. But I can start editing.
You’ve said that in your own grad school experience, you came in clean and then proceeded to bury yourself under writing the way you thought you should for the next few years, and then dug your way back out. How did you begin that process? Had you read the right things?
I hadn’t read anything. I hadn’t read much, and I was very anxious to be under the tent of the approved. I wasn’t very well read, and when all that literature came in on me, I had a pretty good verbal ability, so I could imitate everybody. So I thought it became, “Well, which of these people should I choose to imitate?” That was kind of the feeling. Of course, I wouldn’t say imitate—I was going to continue the lineage.
Right, you’d be the heir to.
Who should I agree to be the heir to? So I think it was necessary, but I just got overloaded with shouldn’ts and shoulds that I was supplying myself—nobody else was doing that. Then it was just, I remember that feeling of being full of knowledge and devoid of intuition. And then what happened was we had our first daughter and we moved, and I finished the program and started to work for a living. And that clutter started to ease and a kind of desperation energy started to rise up.
And that ended up being productive?
Yeah, that was the first book. I bet it was essential that the clutter got in because I didn’t know enough. It was a sorting through of that and a kind of lonely moment where you go, “I don’t know that much. The only way to is to go with what I actually do know.” I always tell the story of Hemingway and the mountain. Hemingway—or whoever your idol is—sits on a mountain and you’re plodding up it to be like him or her. And at some point your real life experiences become vivid enough and undeniable enough that you feel sick that you’re betraying them with the falsification of taking on someone else’s voice. It actually gets physically sickening. You try to do something in someone else’s voice and you’re like, “Ugh.” For me, at about 30, with my own daughters and everything, it just became unacceptable to be a second-rate imitator of somebody else. The hard thing is, it’s such a big drop to go from being the third-best Hemingway imitator to being yourself. I always say, “Hemingway mountain and then Saunders downhill.” Very beautiful and also very liberating to go, “I don’t know much but maybe I can work with it to make it something substantial and energetic.” I’m not a big fan of myself except in that one moment when I was in my early thirties and I took that right road. That, I think, showed some good character. To go, all right, I’ll take this chance of writing something weird and new and a little sub the work of my idols because that’s the only way I can really survive.”
When was it you feel you achieved your new aesthetic?
I had done it briefly before grad school and then abandoned it. But the story after that was called “The Wavemaker Falters.” What I actually did was imitated the story I’d done before that I felt had some life in it, I just did a knockoff of that. I used the same voice and even some of the plot elements just to get that voice back in my head. And I remember that feeling of going, “Well.” If you were in a situation where somebody dragged you into an alley and was beating you up and you fought back awkwardly and drove them away, you’d be like, “Well, I’m glad I don’t have a video of that but I’m glad I won.” The story was modest, but I felt, yeah, that’s kind of me. I felt something in there. And also, certain kinds of truths that were so central to me that I’d been avoiding all my life, about the working life and about money, they were in that story undeniably, even though that wasn’t my intention. So that was an exciting moment. And your job is to be kind of naked-ish. To approach your process so that something uncontrolled happens, almost like a blurt. Whereas before I’d been very controlled about the whole thing, I thought you could just do it through intellectual control.
You were a working man before going to Syracuse. What made you decide to get organized about your writing practice?
I was about 27 and I’d actually published two stories the previous month; I’d had some good luck. And I was at a party—it was a wild party, actually. It was a little bit of a drunken brawl. And I went over to a table and there was a People magazine and it had an article about Raymond Carver and Syracuse and I didn’t actually know there was such a thing as creative writing programs. And I think I was wanting to be where things were happening faster. I only knew one other writer and I think I could intuit a little bit of a plateau. I’d written two stories, but I was like, “Well, I don’t know what else to do.” But also, Jay MacInerney just walked by, he was one of the guys that worked at Syracuse and he was in that magazine. And I think I just wanted to be where the real writers were.
So that hunger just kind of came on you?
I was very ambitious. In some ways, I had just figured out—I hadn’t read much contemporary literature, and I thought “Okay, even if it makes you uncomfortable, you have to go toward the heat.” And that was the other part of the experience—to go where all these talented people were was kind of terrible. But it burned away your lazy ideas about yourself. I was in Texas with no other writers and I was always the best writer in the room. And suddenly you’re in there with 15 great writers your age who have better work practices than you do, and you’re like, “Oh, I’d better speed up.” And also you start to see what you might have to offer that they don’t.
I’ve seen that great video you made about storytelling, right down to the sentence level. And I’m curious if you have any sentences in mind from other people’s work that are perfect sentences to you.
I don’t have them memorized, but I always go back to Isaac Babel, the Russian writer. He’s an incredible sentence writer. I think there’s something in one’s mind—it might be like hearing great music. If you’re going to go do a show, you’d better listen to some great music before just to get your bar up. For me, Babel always does that, and Orwell. The very, very high ambient intelligence manifested in every single choice—not only word choice but sentence choices and all that. You read that stuff and it just gets your bar raised. Babel has a book called Red Cavalry that’s just full of incredible moments, even in translation, where you’re just like, how in the world could two sentences have done so much work? Taking me from here to Russia in 1921 in a particular house with a particular smell.
Do you have a story of your own that you feel is a distillation of what you’re trying to say? A story you feel the most strongly about?
You always think it’s the next one. The story “Sea Oak” is one that I like because it really did come out of nowhere. I got about halfway through it and was stuck for years. I couldn’t figure it out and I gave up, and then, in the way that your subconscious will, it kept working on it. And at some point it gave me an answer in the weirdest, most intuitive way. So I’m fond of that because I have no idea how it happened, and I would love for it to happen again. This book I just finished, I love that book so much. I loved the experience of working on it and the stretching that it involved. And I know my job right now is to transition to going, “Yeah, it’s pretty good.” Because that’s the job, to get to your 180th birthday thinking, “Tomorrow, tomorrow’s the day I really do it.”
While reading Lincoln in the Bardo (where deceased characters’ appearances are altered to reflect their concerns on earth), it’s impossible not to imagine how I myself might appear in the Bardo—did you have a perception of how you would appear?
Yes, I’ve had dreams about that. That’s the scary thing, the idea is in the Bardo—or heaven, or purgatory—you’re you, but unleashed. And I always think I know what that is, because I’m a nice guy, and I’m pretty cool. But I think in fact, it’s probably more like you in an emergency. Like, me in a car wreck. Am I cool and nice then? No, I don’t know what I am. I have a feeling it’s not quite as cushy as I think. I think that’s why some people do such energetic spiritual practice. Because although it’s totally related to who we are now, it’s not linear—you can’t posit it yourself right now. I think that’s what meditation is a bit. You see your mind at rest—now what will it do under duress. I feel like there are ways to improve your equanimity, and I’m not doing them right now. The book was scary in that way. Sometimes you’d be writing it, and you’d get a little bit removed from, “Oh, those poor dead people.” And I had an idea but I didn’t do it of putting myself in as a character. There’s me. And I guess in a sense, I did—I’m the one doing all the yapping.
Have you read this Patricia Pearson book? I can’t remember the name of it, but it’s an incredible book about how common moment-of-death communication is. She’s a reporter for the Times so she went at this in a very scientific, investigative journalism kind of way. And she said something like 51% of Americans have reported this phenomenon. In her case, it was her sister was very sick with cancer and was going to die. And the sister had this dream not long after the diagnosis in which her father, who was alive, came to her in this long, beautiful, rich dream of comfort. “Everything’s going to be good, here’s what’s going to happen to your kids, your legacy is one of love, don’t worry.” And she woke up so happy and her father had died that night. And he wasn’t sick, it was sudden. And Patricia Pearson thought that was kind of weird and she started looking into it as she would any other reported story and she found all kinds of things like that. Her thing is, what if the Enlightenment went too far? What if our usual way of being is way too rational? If 50% of us have had some kind of experience with this, why are we acting as if it’s not real? And one of the things she said that freaked the shit out of me actually was they compiled years of studies of cases where someone has been in a vegetative state for a long time, years. And then the family decides to take them off of life support and they agree to do a brain scan at the moment of death. So here’s how it goes. Their brain function is way down. They take them off of life support and it goes to zero, then it goes way up. From three to twenty minutes they would have above normal brain activity, and then they would recede.
That’s enough time to make a whole novel out of, right?
I think I did. It’s that idea that that could be what we call the afterlife. Because your perceptual apparatus could feel that twenty minutes as ten thousand years. And what’s making that—here I’m just guessing—is just [whoosh]. And it’s unmoored. There’s no physical body to slow it down. So I don’t know if that’s true, and it’s a little too materialist for me. I don’t actually think that’s true, but it’s still intriguing.
Do you feel like in your own life you’ve ever had one of those sort of numinous moments?
Sometimes in meditation you get one of those. I’m not very advanced, but I’ve had a certain quietness that was weird. And I’ve had some strange dream experiences where it felt more meaningful than an actual dream. But I think I’m actually a little bit of a dullard in that way. I’m not particularly adept. Have you had one of those experiences?
Once my brother spoke to me when he wasn’t actually at the house. He called out, “Hey, Mimi.” I responded, and we talked a little. And when I went to find him I learned he was in a different state—he was in Wisconsin and I was in Illinois.
Did he have any recognition of that experience?
No. And my mom immediately feared he had died. He had not.
There are all sorts of things like that in her book, where someone is in danger of death and somebody picks up on that from a distance.
That’s what we were both worrying about, but I guess it was just like a blurt of presence.
Well, you know—I shouldn’t be talking about this because I don’t know, but in physics now they have demonstrated there’s such a thing as action at a distance without contact. You can look it up, but there are these particles that have been in a certain relation in the physical world, and they separate them, and they’re still communicating at a distance. And as far as I know, there’s no actual physical mode of transmission. So it’s kind of an idea that ESP is not just a fiction, but there’s actual ways of communicating that aren’t necessarily physical. And now I sound like, “And actually, witches can actually turn you into a troll, that’s for sure.”
Speaking of, my husband and I still joke about the time-traveling warlock joke you made like 10 years ago in a Guardian column. It comes up a lot.
As a teacher, do you find yourself going back and teaching particular short stories over and over again?
Yes. I teach—actually, I’m doing it this fall and I’m so looking forward to it—I teach the Russians in translation. Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Isaac Babel, and that’s great. It’s great partially because their style is not new, especially in translation. The style almost goes away and then you get structure and cause and effect. I’ve taught them for many years. So there’s a little more sense of what the story can teach. I know what it is, and that gives you the freedom to let them come to it themselves. I let them take it apart for half an hour, and I know just where each story has its rewards. And a lot of these kids haven’t read those people, so showing somebody Chekhov for the first time is really fun, especially if they resist it.
That realization that the classics are alive, and you’re like, “Oooh.”
It’s almost like a beautiful person with a little dust on her. Chekhov is such vital stuff. And between the diction and the 19th-century social conventions, it gets lost. But then you get past that, and see the depth of that man’s view of humanity. The one I love to teach is a story called “Gooseberries.” There are like seven huge writing lessons you can get from that story. It’s a masterpiece. There’s nothing like it in literature. It presents very conversationally, kind of funny. That’s the one that’s got the line in it about, “Every happy man should have an unhappy man in his closet with a hammer, to remind him by his constant tapping that not everyone is happy.” It’s a good line.
Are you excited about anyone who’s writing now?
Actually, right now I’ve got a gap because of this Lincoln book, I did so much reading in that time period—not only what showed up in the book. I had a weird thing happen where I wasn’t reading any fiction, not any new fiction for sure. I kind of lost interest in the contemporary world.So now I can feel myself getting re-interested in the contemporary world a little bit. I know Don Delillo’s got a new book out, and everything he writes thrills me so I’ve got that at home and I’m looking forward to it. Dana Spiotta’s last book was really good—she’s a colleague of mine and I love her. Anything by Dave Eggers I love, Ben Marcus is another one. I’m a very selfish reader so I only just read what I know will inspire me—like Zadie Smith’s new book is coming out, and every time I read her I just want to write something beautiful.
So that’s the kind of book for you, the ones that make you want to run to your typewriter?
Yeah. They have to be great and daunting and leave you a little room. Like, “Great, I could never do that, but maybe I can do this other thing over here.” At this point, I read a lot for inspiration. It’s funny, as you get later in your career, you kind of know something about your ability. You have a pretty good road map, which is scary, because you know when you’re going backward. So you have to keep pushing out, and the only two ways to do that is one, by reading the work of people who inspire you. And the second is to live. To keep pushing yourself into situations that are uncomfortable or new so that those parts of your mind will reengage. And paradoxically as you get older, it takes a little more effort to do that than it does when you’re younger. So I just went to four Trump rallies to write about it, and that was really—
Where can I read that? (Ed. note: This interview took place in May 2016.)
That was for the New Yorker. This is so current and kind of vital, and I loved doing that just because it makes me uncomfortable.
Did you feel like you were chasing the heart of what he’s about and that you found it?
The first part yeah, the second part no. The idea was to try to understand that campaign from the point of view of the average. Not the fanatic, and not the puncher. There are a lot of people supporting him who aren’t crazy, so I wanted to get a feeling for what that’s about. And I have some idea, but it’s so complicated. What’s funny, for liberals, you’re kind of seeing the world change. If some 40% of Americans support him, it destabilizes orthodoxy all of a sudden. Things that might seem terribly offensive to me, you might go, “Wow, so half of my country doesn’t find that weird.” It’s a very scary moment, hard to write about. It was easy when I started, it didn’t seem like he would get the nomination, and in fact like he was burning out a little bit. So then it’s like, “Oh, what’s that strange thing?”
It like was this little thing over here and now—
Now it’s front and center. So that’s really confusing. And also confusing because there are all kinds of people for him. So you can go in and cherry pick the people who say the most silly things, but that’s not really right. So then it becomes about finding the most reasonable version. So anyway, no, I haven’t figured it out. Maybe next week.
So when I ask, “What are you working on next?” is that the answer?
That’s for the next couple weeks at least, maybe a month. And I’ve got a TV pilot I wrote for “Sea Oak” that I’m messing around with. But really what I’m doing is waiting for the next big thing to present. There’s a certain feeling I get, and I got it with this Lincoln book, where I’m all in. And I’m just waiting to see what that is. And then after that, I’m going to abandon everything else and just do that for the next five years.
I’m going to ask you one more question, and thank you for letting me have double the time I was promised. You talked a little bit about the fear of not knowing where you’re going with what you’re writing and how exciting that is, or how good that is for you at any rate. So is that generally how you work? And what are the strangest origin stories for things you’ve worked on?
Lincoln in the Bardo might be the strangest, because it’s so traditional: that one image that came to mind. Here’s my operating assumption: the things we do as fiction writers, who knows what’s true? You’re just trying to find what helps you do your work. So for me, what helps me, the idea doesn’t matter. If you gave me an idea, my assumption is my creative process will take it and transform it into something intimate for me. That’s liberating because so many writers have idea anxiety, like, “Oh my god, I need an idea.” That is such a buzzkill. I’m like, “No, the idea doesn’t make a bit of difference.” It has to be interesting enough to pursue, and the assumption is if I get working on it, my work ethic and the subconscious process will transform it into this absolute perfect story for me at that point. Is that true? I don’t know. But if I believe that, it makes it easier for me to work harder. Like this Lincoln thing, at first it felt like, “Oh god, this is all wrong.” And then I thought, “Well, all right. Maybe it is right now, but why? What is it that’s bothering you?” And you keep turning your attention to that and soon the thing has transformed into exactly the story you should be writing. So I think it’s a matter of putting certain assumptions in your mind that ease your way, whether they’re true or not. So I’m not looking for an idea for the next book; that would be the worst. I’m looking for a voice. A riff. A little mood. I wrote a story called “The 400-Pound CEO” many years ago, and for me what started it out was I drove by a real standard circa-1985 corporate building, all black glass, plopped down in this upstate New York cornfield. What’s going on in there? So it’s more of a non-idea space. I don’t want an idea, because my ideas are generally pretty lame. But I want something—a little mood or a sentence even. That story “Sea Oak” that I keep mentioning, I was in this mall in upstate New York, and I heard these two teenage girls ahead of me and they were talking back and forth in this crazy central New York argot. And I just followed them around and having that voice in my head was so interesting. And I went home to, not imitate it, but try to use that energy, and that gradually grew out into a story. For me, that’s a nice starting place because it takes the pressure off. You know, that feeling of, “I don’t have a good idea, my book will be no good.” But if you say, “Eh, ideas.” The idea is what comes out of the finished product maybe, and the finished product comes by thousands of iterative decisions that you make at speed, to taste, and then it takes the pressure off.
Lincoln in the Bardo is on sale now and can’t be missed.