“Every small, good thing.” A conversation with Booker prizewinner George Saunders on the transition from Lincoln to Trump and how to get back to goodness

George Saunders
Photo: David Crosby

Interview by Cara Suglich

On October 17, George Saunders received the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo.” The novel explores the transitional space — in Tibetan tradition, the “bardo” — between life and whatever comes after it. The story lasts one night, the night following the day President Lincoln had to put his 11-year old son, Willie, in the crypt. There are only three living characters — Lincoln, the cemetery guard and a woman across the street — the rest are ghosts. It is documented that Lincoln, mired in the Civil War at the time, was seen returning to the crypt to hold his son’s body.

“Lincoln in the Bardo” is the story of not only Lincoln’s experience, but of the spirits with whom he shares the crypt that night. The situation sounds terribly sad – and it is – but when Saunders gets his hands on it, he cracks it open and shapes it into something alive and free and honest and loving, even – yes — funny. One of the ghosts fixates on things that are “sublime, worth noticing while alive.” This book is one of those things. Sublime. Worth noticing while alive.

“What sets [Saunders] apart,” author Zadie Smith said in Interview in February, “is his willingness not only to go into the heart of darkness but to suggest possible routes out.”

In a phone conversation with ACM on October 25, Saunders described writing this shimmering triumph of a novel then going out on the campaign trail with Trump. And, because he’s George Saunders, he emphasized some possible routes out, to what he calls “one shining moment” where maybe we’re doing the best we can as humans, “because then that means that every small, good thing that we do is really powerful… Because goodness only is possible right now. And right now. And right now.”

Saunders and I first spoke in February 2014 for TriQuarterly magazine, when we discovered we’re both South Siders with connections not limited to a place called Chicken Unlimited. (He’s from a southwest Chicago suburb, Oak Forest, and I grew up in the nearby Beverly neighborhood of Chicago.) He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University but has taken the fall off to tour with his book. While he’s not traveling, he’s near Monterey, California with his wife. He’s a loving father and best-selling author of short stories, essays, novellas, children’s books, and now, one Man Booker Prize-winning novel.

What follows is an edited transcript of the phone call.

SAUNDERS: We’re out in California right now and it’s just hot as hell. It’s kind of like Steinbeck country.

ACM: Are you just recently back from your trip to London?

SAUNDERS: Two days ago. So, we’re still trying to pick up the pieces because I went from here to the New Yorker Fest to Lawrence, Kansas, and then to Portland and then to Minneapolis for A Prairie Home Companion and then to London. So, I had my tux in the suit case and it was kind of a big trip.

ACM: That’s such a funny thing. To have a tux in your suit case.

SAUNDERS: Yeah it was very James Bond. If James Bond was a dork.

But it was great. What a great week. It was kind of mind-blowingly nice. I’m just trying to keep head-out-of-ass and get back to work at some point.

ACM: How do you feel?

SAUNDERS: I feel happy. They do that award so nicely. You feel so honored. It was all really kind of uplifting.

I just feel like, if something good like that happens, then, if you’re smart and you do the South Side thing, you kind of plow the good luck under. You sort of say, “OK. That’s really nice.” And then use it to become more confident to do something harder the next time. It’s a little bit of a happy feeling, a victory feeling. And then I’m not real comfortable with that. So…

ACM: Yeah, you kind of need somebody to make fun of you now.

SAUNDERS: Oh yeah. I’ve got that. I’m married.

And you know, to me, and I teach my students this, everything that happens to you, it’s up to you — to some respect — to decide what you’re going to do with it. It’s about getting into the habit of going, “OK. Whatever happens, whether it’s good or bad, let me divert it into the cause of increased artistic power.”

This is a little bit harder because this book has been so much fun but, of course, part of me is like, “Oh yeah, well you can’t do it again.”

ACM: That voice of doubt is already in there, even though it’s been such a short time since you won the Booker Prize?

SAUNDERS: Oh yeah. It was in there that night. And even before that. With this book, it was the first time I hadn’t had something started before I went on the road so I still have a blank page, which is a little new to me.

But I think it’s a really important voice, the one that’s very, very hard on yourself and skeptical about your ability because then you don’t ever make that mistake of thinking something’s good when it isn’t. I think for writers, for me anyway, it’s really important to keep the possibility of failure in front of yourself all the time. And that’s how you work. And that’s how you revise. And it’s how you avoid phoning it in.

ACM: So, was this award something you wanted?

SAUNDERS: Sure. Yeah. It’s a really big one. My friend Paul Beatty got it last year and he was talking about what a big ripple it is in your life. And I like that. I’m interested in the experience of having a bigger career, just on an anthropological level.

But once you read the other books that have been nominated, you think, “Man. I could see it going many ways.” Those books are so good. And you realize that it’s actually subjective based on who the panel is. So, then you ratchet your expectations back and, as soon as you meet the other shortlisted writers – I had only met Mohsin Hamid before – you realize that any one of these people could win. And it’s good for books. Whoever wins, it’s good for books in general.

ACM: How do you think you got here, to this moment of winning this prize?

SAUNDERS: The only thing I think is true — and this is something I’ve kind of been banking on all these years — is that, whatever it is that’s driving an artist, it’s not him or her. There’s some way of thinking or a part of the mind or the subconscious or whatever you want to call it that’s incredibly powerful, and that we have access to, but not 100 percent and not regularly. Whether that’s true or that’s just a myth, I believe it.

And since I first started writing, I’ve kind of relied on that in this one very practical way. My assumption is that you only can access that thing if you work. And you gotta work really hard. And if you work really hard, then that thing likes you. And it tends to show up more fluidly and more often. So that’s how a story takes a surprising turn and suddenly gets better. And that’s also the way that your career will kind of almost self-manage, if you just keep trusting in that mysterious thing, your career will actually be guided by it.

So, like with this book, I just couldn’t quite get it out of my system. And that felt like something outside of me, guiding me, something that always pushes you toward trying harder things. So, in this book, I felt a little bit constrained by the sort of sarcastic humor in the other stories I’ve written — which I love but I felt like it was making a little ceiling for me. And that just bothered me all those years.

So, this book was sort of a lurch over in that direction, to knock that ceiling out. Then the assumption is, every bit of work you do is making a path for that subconscious that you have. And that’s really how I got there.

A student told me that Carl Sandburg said: “Don’t worry. Work.” Which I thought was really great. Because when you’re a writer, you’re always trying to play the angles and figure out “Who should I sound like? Should I write about my hometown?” and those are fine questions but you’re not going to answer them by being conceptual. You can only answer them through sweat equity.

And later, a Sandburg scholar told me that was backwards. What he really said was, “Don’t work. Worry.” So, I don’t know but I stand by it. The first one seems more truthful to me.

ACM: Do you think about your reader when you’re working?

SAUNDERS: Yes. That’s all I’m thinking about. I mean, it’s a version of my reader because I don’t know who my reader is. Yesterday on Facebook, a woman said, “Congratulations! But the book is still awful.” So, you never know.

But what you do is basically pretend like you had never seen your manuscript before and you just pick it up on a bus – what would it do to you? And what would you like about it and what would you not like about it? So, in that way, I’m very much thinking about a reader. And I guess the whole enterprise is kind of resting on the assumption that, if that imaginary reader that I try to become is close to the way most people read, then we win. And the day that that shifts away, I’m in trouble.

That’s one reason maybe — now, you have to be careful with this — that’s one reason that these awards are meaningful. You know at least those five or six people who were the judges, it fired for them.

ACM: You talked about picking it up on a bus. If you were a different person. I think Willie’s death, and the effect it had on Lincoln, that would be a surprise for an American reader, with what we know about Lincoln. This is an international prize. Did you think about — or how do you think about it now — a mother in India reading this book while her kid naps? She has a different expectation of Lincoln.

SAUNDERS: While you’re writing, you’re trying to appeal to the most common human stuff. I didn’t write it for a Lincoln scholar, although I hope I can pass the test. You’re trying not to exclude anybody but, at the same time, you’re trying to include them at the highest level.

So, my hope was, that mother reading this book, she may not have the Lincoln connotation that we do but I don’t think the book needs it that much. I think you have to know he was president during the war. And then, when I was writing those parts, the grieving father is who he really is. He could almost be a plumber whose son died. Except then you lose the gravity of needing to go back to work a little bit. But that night at 2:00 in the morning, he’s got a light coat on, he’s shivering a little bit. He’s not thinking about the Civil War that much. It’s almost like this big, looming, terrible thing he’s got to deal with but that night, the night of the day you put your son in the crypt, you’re mostly a father.

ACM: Then if it’s the most human and the most true, then any human can connect with it.

SAUNDERS: Yes. Exactly. And I think if the writer was less hooked into the emotional moment, they might try to make a smokescreen of a historical novel. Make him be thinking about General McClellan and this or that battle. But I don’t think he would on that night.

GeorgeSaunders (c) Chloe Aftel
Photo: Chloe Aftel

ACM: So how do you manage all that deep sadness, that emotional weight that you’re carrying around, empathizing with your characters?

SAUNDERS: Well, it sounds weird, but it feels good to do that. To empathize with those people feels really good. And my method of doing that is just through rewriting.

For me to imagine what it’s like to be a person who’s lost a child, it’s nowhere even in the ballpark of actually doing it, thank God. So, you’re not a grieving father. But you are a father. A loving father. So that’s almost like the machine is already loaded.

But it’s been strange to go out on the road and meet people who have lost children. And go, “Oh God, I hope this doesn’t make it worse for them.” And many of them said it helped. But the people who couldn’t finish the book, I probably didn’t meet.

When I was working on this book, I had a picture of Willie and Lincoln above my desk, just to remind myself that they were real people. And this isn’t a game. Well, it is a game. But it’s a very noble game. And I’m trying to honor their pain and it’s gonna be a better book if it’s honest.

Of course, there were moments of real sadness when I was writing it but, to be honest, that happens once or twice and then you’re a technician. So, for me, the primary experience was just a complete happiness to be finding this world kind of coming out of the stone. And it was really, really responsive to work. The more I worked on it, the more treats it’d give me.

ACM: How do you feel now, after all the time you spent covering the Trump campaign and trying to understand Trump supporters, shifting into talking about this book?

SAUNDERS: It kind of went that I finished the novel and I was in that happy state. And then I went on the campaign trail and I was depressed. So, I’m really noticing the difference between those two modes. The mode of writing fiction, or towards the end of a piece of fiction where you’re just on fire with it. And that social media mode that you have to go into when you’re reporting. You’re following people and you’re watching the news and getting in fights on Facebook.

If you think about the human mind and think of it as being analogous to the human body — for example, there’s a time in your life when you’re just in great shape. And you’re like, “Wow! I can just do anything.” It really affects your disposition even, I think. Because you’re so healthy, you’re more helpful and all that. Then you imagine the time when you’re in the worst shape of your life. Where you’re way too heavy or your heart is no good and you feel like crap. Those are two different experiences of being a human being. I think most people would prefer to have the first one. To be in the best possible shape.

Now you take that to the mind, and the experience I had during this transition from Lincoln to Trump was having a really healthy mind, really open and happy to entertain ambiguities and my verbal capacity was really firing. I could have a thought and express it really quickly — except in 19th-century diction, which was kind of a drag.

But then, after that, when I was slogging through that Trump story and so much involved in social media and CNN and Fox and all that stuff, it was like being in terrible shape. My mind just wanted to fight with people. I didn’t want to understand; I just wanted to win arguments.

So, if you buy into that analogy, we’re a country that, in the last two or three years, because of this Trump movement and because of social media, we’re really in bad mental shape. We’re really prone to fighting.

And we’re also overlooking a lot of the pleasures of living. And overlooking the ways that we actually are a pretty good country. You go to a White Sox game, people behave pretty well. They get in and out of the stadium. If somebody has a flat tire, they help them. I think, in this mistaken idea that the virtual world is real, we’re damaging ourselves a little bit.

That’s actually what my takeaway is. That I really would like to get back into that art mode as soon as possible and stay there. Because I’m a better person in that mode. And I feel more powerful in that mode and less anxious.

ACM: We’re kind of brain sick. And it hurts. We used to be able to disagree and that could be a good thing. And now it feels like if we disagree, somebody might kill you.

SAUNDERS: And that you have to hate the person that you disagree with. And I think that’s mostly a construction of media. And I’m not against the media; I love the media and I’m part of it. But it’s partly a construction of the way the media was suddenly forced to be a ratings thing. “There’s a lot of money in agitation,” as David Foster Wallace once wrote. Yeah brain sick. That’s right.

The other thing I’m noticing is that, when there’s a big problem in the world – like this Trumpism is a big problem – we tend to construct big conceptual solutions. But I think we need to remember that everything we can control comes at us one thing at a time. Like, what should we do about Trump supporters? I have no idea. But if there’s one individual Trump supporter, who happens to be a family member who’s having a hard time, I know what to do with that person. It’s just to try to help them. Or if there’s an individual Trump supporter who’s screaming at a Muslim woman. I know what to do with that guy, too. Which is to intervene.

So, I almost imagine making a little orb around myself. So, this is what I can control right now. My mind, my body, my actions. I don’t really have to worry theoretically if I’m worrying spiritually.  If I’m trying to make myself the best possible person, then, when the moment arises when there’s something for me to do, I’ll do it.

I think despair is really the enemy now. The way the world stays together, actually, is by millions of positive acts that we don’t even think about any more. That’s how the fabric actually holds together. And in that way, we’re not at all powerless. It’s very powerful.

ACM: So, how do we tap into our creative power, how do we channel that into some sort of artistic, spiritual triumph in the face of what wants to bury all of that?

SAUNDERS: That’s what any work of art does. It doesn’t stop evil. When I was young, I was such a dreamer. I really thought if you just wrote the right book, you could stop evil in its tracks. And I don’t think that’s true. Except it stops evil in its tracks in little, individual ways. Or at least it slows it down.

I think, now, I have a more beautiful view of things which is: same as it ever was. There’s always going to be killings. Abuse. Oppressing the weak. That just seems to be the way the thing runs. So, then what we can do is reduce the mix. Like in a car, the gas/air mix. We could make, for one shining moment, a culture where there was so much less killing and so much less oppression and conversely there’d be so much more joy and so much more kindness and so much more functionality. I don’t think you can ever eradicate the dark forces but you can get them tamed to where you could have your shining moment in history where we were actually doing as well as we could. That’s an aspiration I can get my head around. Because then that means that every small good thing that you do is really powerful in that ledger.

ACM: So, little things matter. Helping your neighbor shovel her sidewalk or carry her bags, that matters.

SAUNDERS: Yes. And it even takes it a step further, which is kind of scary — even your intention at that time might matter. Say you just spoke rudely to someone at the grocery store and then you come out and you see someone needs help with shoveling their walk — go ahead and do it then, even if you’re not feeling like a 100 percent moral trooper. That seems to me like the hardest thing, the most honorable thing. To know that goodness only is possibly right now. And right now. And right now.

ACM: It’s fun to talk about it. It makes the possibility of goodness more present when we talk about it. I wonder how we pivot. I wonder how we switch it.

SAUNDERS: I don’t know. I think, what’s happened pretty steadily since I was a young person, was that we generally, as a culture, decided that religion is voodoo. Obviously not everyone. But we’ve drifted away from that, with the exception of some religious practices that are actually more political than spiritual. So that leaves us in a real fix because there’s this big shortfall between what we are capable of knowing with our normal minds and what is out there in the universe. And that’s a true shortfall.

But without some kind of spiritual approach to life, we morph into materialism which is to believe that actually we can know everything — that we do; everything we need to know, we know. And now we just accumulate more shit and insulate ourselves from danger by buying stuff.

So, I think that’s where we are as a culture. But, what I see in your younger generation is somewhat of an acknowledgement of that. Like, “Hmm. Let’s maybe turn back to this thing that broadly holds the spiritual and see if we can come back into it and reject the dogma and the bullshit and the power that was so much a part of religion. Let’s see if we can go back into it and extract the useful things that we need to make meaningful lives for ourselves.”

So, I’m not really discouraged by these things. I think your generation is pretty cool. And I also worry that, because of this Trump thing, there’s a lot of people in your generation that are getting pulled down and lured over to the dark side.

ACM: But then, on the morning after the election, I read the Maya Angelou poem (“Still I Rise”) where she’s got an oil well pumping in her living room. And, my whole life I’ve wondered, when would our big artistic revolution be? And I feel like it’s gotta be now.

SAUNDERS: I agree with you 100 percent. This is what I mean when I say that people in your generation are turning back to the spiritual basis. That’s also artistic basis. And if you look at how we got here, it’s for sure starting back before I was born even — this habitual American neglect of the arts. Treating the arts like they’re just some kind of silly hobby thing. It isn’t. And when you believe that, you wouldn’t fuck the culture up because it’s deepest way of understanding the world, it’s through art.

ACM: It’s sacred.

SAUNDERS: It’s sacred. Now the problem is, not all art is good. So, I think the trick is to develop reader culture. Because we have to have great readers to have great writers. It’s time for young people to put aside habitual tools and look for the tools that are really gonna help them. So many people before us who have been in similar or worse situations and they left behind a record. I agree with your movement. Go start it.

ACM: Is there anything you haven’t been asked that you want to talk about? I’m sure you’ve talked to so many people.

SAUNDERS: I have actually. But it’s been kind of fun. And it’s kind of a new conversation every time. This book has been hard to talk about actually. It was a very technical adventure to try to figure out this new form and get inside of it.

The one thing that I haven’t talked about that’s kind of interesting, to me it’s interesting, is that it’s been a strange and depleting experience. I’ve always been a really ambitious person. I had a lot of desire to do something good. And that was always a great driver for me.

And this (book) was weird because, when I finished it, I was so elated, expanded. I was in a state of mind that was so happy and I felt like I could take on anything artistically. And then, with the touring and stuff, I’m noticing a slower rebound of my ambitious energy. I’m maybe satisfied, which is a dangerous state. But these last couple weeks, I can feel it coming back, that ambitious energy. It’s even a little bit discontent at this point, which is exactly what I want. And that’s how you move on. I was a little worried there for a while because I thought, well maybe I’m just done. Maybe I did the thing that I was supposed to do. And these last couple weeks have kind of taught me that I’m not done yet.

ACM: I’m glad to hear that. I hope you have more.

SAUNDERS: I think I do. It’s funny. No matter how nicely a book turns out, it’s never life. And it never will be. So as long as you can keep feeling that — it’s not full life, there are more things that are in the world that are not in that book — then you’ve got something to do.


Cara SuglichCara Suglich is a writer from Chicago’s Southside. She grew up in a big, funny family and she steals most of her stories from them. (She says thank you.) Cara has an MFA from Northwestern University and runs the Electric Company. She does no actual electrical work. If you need that, call her brother. He’s got a guy.