AWF 17: In the Bardo: George Saunders

George Saunders appeared on Saturday, 20 May at 12 noon at AWF 2017

George Saunders was a geophysicist in a previous life. He’s been a short story writer for quite some time. And his latest turn has been as a novelist, with the release of Lincoln in the Bardo.

He was in conversation with Paula Morris, who broke the ice by pointing out that for quite some time now, George’s books have been dedicated to his wife – who is also called Paula. ‘So for years, I’ve been pretending they were dedicated to me.’

Paula went on, however, to expand on what George has been achieving in his work, noting that Lincoln in the Bardo serves as a reminder that the novel is still a very experimental format – after all, at it’s crux it is ‘a story told by ghosts that explore what it is to be alive.’

george saunders

George Saunders, photo by Chloe Aftel

They discussed the original genesis of the book as a series of drafts for a play, and the shift to the long-form prose format of the novel. George extolled the  virtues of rewriting – which is eventually led him through the marshes of his play drafts (‘the idea of monologues intrigued me’) through a foray into a fiction piece in the third person (‘Gore Vidal-esque’)before arriving at the final cut. ‘Your first draft doesn’t need to be good … in a certain way, the writer’s job is just to not suck.’

So he settled on the ghost-based narration. ‘But ghosts are a bit like dream sequences – a teacher once told me that you have three dream sequences in your career, so don’t use them up all at once.’ It’s safe to say that this particular instance of ghosts/dreams has been put to good use, with Lincoln in the Bardo receiving plenty of praise and securing a spot in the New York Times Bestseller List.

I went into the session with a relatively unusual relationship (or lack thereof) with George Saunders. I hadn’t read any of his books, but I knew of his work – Tenth of December was read by many a Unity Books colleague in my time working there – and I had heard him speak very on a podcast very recently. So I had a sense of knowing what I was in for, while still gleefully knowing that I had yet to read and unpack his work.

He speaks candidly, with a chirpy tone – he described himself as sounding like ‘a Valley Girl on quaaludes at one point’ – but he at the same time be brings forth these cutting truisms and opinions about writing, about reading. As someone who fancies themselves quite dedicated to both, my notes were scribbled as much for personal reference as supplies for this piece. Here are just a few:

‘There’s that thrill as a young writer when, for the first time, you write something truer than reality.’BookSaunders-kuI--621x414@LiveMint

‘I talk about writing in the language of sales. It’s a contract, where my job is to anticipate your resistance … my best self comes out through revisions – your best self is led out through the intimacy of the conversation.’

‘A writer takes a chance, pushes you away – and then on the next page they bring you back with an uplifting, luminous scene.’

‘I know writers who plan everything out – and then they write it, and it gets subverted. I like to see where a story goes.’

That final point can apply to writer and reader alike – and George reinforced this as he pointed out ‘part of the job of the story is to not know where it’s going’. He even pulled out an Einstein quote to really drive this home, as applicable to the story as to a physics equation: ‘No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.’

Paula brought up the contradictory elements of the narrative – an entirely intentional move by the author to reflect the nature of individual experience. ‘Historical accounts are often contradictory … there’s the complication of understanding something, the limits of our own perception.’ With the multiple perspectives telling the story, multiple versions of the truth become inevitable.

The discusison also covered the idea of the bardo – a Tibetan term for a transitional space between life and death. ‘It’s not purgatory,’ George explained. ‘It’s a lot more workable.’ He referred to one school of thought in Tibet that suggested that any deeply affecting emotions and experience become amplified many times over in the bardo – regrets, unrequited love, that sort of thing.

Discussing the spiritual aspect of the book let into conversation around George’s own religious upbringing – in a Catholic family in the south side of Chicago in the 60s. That particular kind of religious exposure wove its way into the discussion several times – discussion of the devotional scapular, to Lincoln’s saintly attributes, to one particular nun that paved the way for George’s future as a reader and writer through trust in his capabilities.

But as a flip side to heavier religious influences, there was frivolity – inherent in his view of the world, it seems. He described coming across two ‘working-class girls’ on the street who caught his attention with their particular cadence of speech – so he went home and tried to emulate it on the page, unraveling things about these two characters that had leapt from life to his page, from reality into fiction. He summed it up, saying: ‘I like when a story comes out of genuine verbal joy.’

As a member of the audience, the whole conversation was genuine verbal joy – and this reviewer will certainly be shuffling George Saunders titles to the top of her to-read pile.

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408871744

Civilwarland in Bad Decline
by George Saunders
Published by Vintage Classics
ISBN 9781784871291

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