George Saunders is an award-winning writer of short stories, essays, novels and children’s books. His latest work is the 2017 Man Booker award-winning novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which is set in a graveyard at the outset of the Civil War. The novel, Saunders’ first, centers on Abraham Lincoln as he grieves for his son Willie, who died of typhoid when he was 11 years old.
The audio book for “Lincoln in the Bardo” features an ensemble cast of more than 150 people, including Nick Offerman, Julianne Moore, Keegan-Michael Key and Saunders himself.
When you’re writing, are you imaging how the voices will sound when you hear them?
Yeah that’s exactly how it is. In the back of my throat I can, you know, hear them. And I think that comes from when I was a kid in Chicago. That was one way you could get some credibility if you weren’t an athlete, which I wasn’t, or if you weren’t so popular, which I wasn’t. If you can imitate a teacher — or, the high watermark was if you could just invent a totally new guy, you know like, “Dan from the River” or something.
So it was just for fun and for some status, and then many years later, after many years of me trying to be more of a literary writer, it clicked that that was actually how I could do it. You know, I could just literally just settle into that mode of trying to invent a voice, and then write along the way. So — very much voice driven, for sure.
How would you describe what the “Bardo” in “Lincoln In The Bardo” is?
The Bardo to the Tibetans is just transitional space. So this is a zone between the moment you die and the moment whatever happens next. In the book, one of the sort of salient features is that you in that zone is you times a thousand what you are right now. So whatever your thoughts and your habits and your prejudices and your fears are, those things get supersized and you have to deal with them.
What would be you a thousand times right now?
Probably too much ambition and not enough love. That’s what I struggle with, because I’ve always wanted to be a writer, I love it, and it’s become a lot of fun, and yet it blocks out a lot of other things. So I’d probably have a giant pen that I had to carry around all day and all night.
During the 2016 election, you covered some of then-candidate Trump’s rallies. One of them was near here in San Jose. What’s it like going from writing about Lincoln to writing about Trump?
Well it was kind of a shock. I found out that your mind on novel is really expansive and generous, and you kind of love all the characters, and your job is to get in there and basically give them a voice, you know, very generously. And then to segue into that Trump campaign and the necessary immersion in social media and TV and cable and all of that — I just felt a kind of sudden aggressive, agitated energy. I mean, I’m a liberal left of Gandhi. I just want to be right and prove to those dummies that I was right. And it’s not a pleasant state. I much prefer the novelistic one. So it was a shock.
The trajectory of that piece was, I first was in Arizona and I saw some Trump people beating up protesters. That was right in line with my natural allegiance. Then, the San Jose rally was really pivotal because I saw the opposite. I saw, for example, this one 70-year-old woman get slapped on her knees by an anti-Trump person. So that kind of rounded out the picture for me. It made me realize that there was an energy that Trump was releasing that was infecting everybody. And that’s been kind of my way of seeing it since.
When you’re not writing about dead and living presidents, you live near here in Santa Cruz, at least part of the year. What do you like to do around there on weekends?
Well, we do it real simple. We have two dogs, so we take them down to the ocean and let them swim. My wife and I are both writers, and we’re finding out that we’re both workaholics, so we really like to work. And our kids are grown now, so we have a lot of time. So, you know, we’ll indulge by going up to Carmel or something. But mostly we’re in our pajamas, passing in the hallway, going, “How’s it going?”