George Saunders's 2013 short story collection Tenth of December was a runaway critical success, but its publication was not without difficulty for the author: it also meant that he had to record an audiobook, which, as he recounted somewhat breathlessly on a recent morning, meant learning how to talk just a little more slowly. So last year, when the release of his first novel this February was just around the corner, Saunders, sensing what was coming, "was basically trying to figure a way out of" recording the audiobook, he recalled with a laugh, for Lincoln in the Bardo, about the death of Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son and his interment in a Georgetown cemetery.
To his delight, Saunders' suggestion of hiring a few actors to take up the many voices in the ghost-filled graveyards and White House dinner parties that play host to the book's plot quickly ballooned—all the way to Guiness World Record levels. With the help of producer Kelly Gildea, Saunders ended up with a cast of 166 actors, including David Sedaris, Susan Sarandon, Julianne Moore, Lena Dunham, Ben Stiller, Jeff Tweedy, Nick Offerman, Carrie Brownstein, and Jeffrey Tambor, not to mention some of the author's family members and high school friends. The overall effect is a bit cacophonous, which is actually just right. "At least in my mind, the book is about American variety," Saunders said. It's a message he finds all the more timely in the current climate, too, especially after spending last summer on the campaign trail with Trump supporters for the New Yorker. He recalls that experience, along with the distractions he's been immersing himself in lately—including everything from Biggie to Macbeth—in his culture diet, here.
You've said this book is about how we function when everything’s really broken, which seems timely now, especially for a narrative centered around a president. How do you feel about the connections inevitably made to the present day with the book's release not even a month after Trump's inauguration?
Honestly, I felt that it was good timing, because in a way I felt like it was saying, Here’s a president who was a high watermark for the country: compassionate, kind, a little heartbroken, and seemingly going through this process of becoming less about himself, and more about everybody else. So I felt it really kind of comforting to keep in mind that America was capable of that kind of vision of itself. The other thing that I found interesting is that when you go into a work like this, you sort of just pure-heartedly throw yourself into it; and to finish a novel, you have to really use a bunch of parts of your mind that are normally dormant, so you’re using a lot intuition and a lot of compulsive revision, of course. But I think the novel-writing stance makes you more sympathetic to the characters and it makes you want to come back and reexamine something; you have to sometimes live with ambiguity for a long time. So there’s that mindset, and then there’s the one that we are all in with the election and the constant social media stream. I was just really struck by the difference in size of those two modes. The first one is so expansive and generous and open-ended and it tends to look at "the other" as a possible friend. It’s not afraid of otherness. And the second one is, even if you’re on the progressive side, you’re always firing off responses and pretty much in permanent defense mode. So in a sense, to go from writing this book to the Trump campaign was interesting—just to see that part of our national malady right now, I think, is our sort of addiction to quick media, which actually shrinks our brains’ potentialities. It makes us more aggressive. It sort of drives us even deeper into the island of self. So to me, the timing couldn’t have been better.
How are you feeling now that his term has started?
A little queasy. I think what has really kind of saved me from being really depressed is just the quality and the peacefulness of the resistance. The Women’s March—nobody can squirm out from under that. It was peaceful, it was beautiful, it was well organized, and nobody in the world can write that off. My only concern would be whether that kind of passion can be sustained, but I feel a sense that it can. I think people are really offended by many of the things the Trump administration is doing. So I think those of us who feel like we’re resisting is to keep the pressure on and then gradually, gradually move them over to a mediocre, typical Republican government. That would be a big victory—if we got basically four years of a George Bush-like administration, that would be great. And the only way we can do it is just the way we’ve done with the Women’s March: constant, unrelenting pressure.
Is that something you learned from being on the road with Trump and his supporters?
Yeah, having been out on the campaign trail with those guys, I really think the trick is to do it sort of blamelessly and peacefully, with high levels of specificity and a high amount of understanding. One thing I found Trump supporters were very sensitive to was stridency on the left, and so I feel like, Well okay, let’s not be that. Let’s try to be as persuasive as we can and get as many of those middle people who didn’t vote, or voted for Trump while holding their nose, or voted for Trump because they couldn’t stand Clinton. Let’s just pick those people right up by being so agreeable and precise, and having such well-reasoned arguments and being so willing to listen. So I’ve been thinking about it a little bit, yeah. [Laughs.] It’s crazy timing.
Did you go to the Women’s March?
I didn’t. Both of our daughters went to different ones, and I tried to, but I was here basically doing book stuff. But I will go to as many things as I can in the future. I’m glad I’m going on tour—I’m kind of looking forward to using that as a way to talk about some of these things.
On a bit of a lighter note, what’s the first thing you typically read in the morning?
Well, like everybody else, I just kind of hop on the phone, I think. But usually, I’m writing, so I try to not read anything, not even the phone. I just get into writing as quickly as I can before I’ve kind of been sullied by language. Usually I’ll take the dogs on a walk and have a coffee, but the idea would be not to talk too much or not to read too much before I go in there. It doesn’t always happen, but that’s the dream. And I try to hold off on everything until after that, and then, you know, I don’t have very good habits, so it’s not like I have major five newspapers lined up. [Laughs.] I’m kind of just a spotty reader. During the Trump story, I had to kind of keep myself posted on everything, so I would just go read all the main ones just to see what the big news was. But I’m kind of a weird reader. I came from a background where I wasn’t reading that much as a kid, or I was reading a lot of war books and baseball books. I never really developed the habit of reading like two novels a week. I’ll have a period where I’m not reading at all and then suddenly I’ll binge.
Which books are on your bedside table right now?
I’m doing an event with Colson Whitehead so I’m reading The Underground Railroad, which is amazing. Then I have a Buddhist book called Our Pristine Mind: A Practical Guide to Unconditional Happiness by Orgyen Chowang; The Girls by Emma Cline; The Sellout by Paul Beatty; Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez; Macbeth [laughs] by that Shakespeare dude; and A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. But I haven’t started them yet. [Laughs.] I’m reading the Colson Whitehead and the Buddhist book and they’re both absolutely astonishing, so it’s a good book table.
Which TV shows have been keeping you up at night?
Well, there’s a lot of guilty pleasures in there. [Laughs.] We’re definitely watching The Bachelor these days. I would say, well you know, I have to keep apprised of the pop culture. I will watch Portlandia any time I’m feeling bad; that’s one I just go to again and again. We just started Westworld, which is pretty incredible, and Master of None, which I think is a really incredibly smart and good-hearted show. There’s also Atlanta, which is so funny and humane, and so beautifully shot. Of course, we watched House of Cards and were big fans of that. There’s a lot of great stuff on these days. Out here [in California], that’s kind of become our routine. [My wife and I] have this really old cat who we found in the woods who's been kind of skittish and antisocial, but if we head out there at a certain time of night and put the TV on, he comes running out and sits between us. It’s like his whole life he’s been trying to work up to be able to accept love. And now, if we have the right TV show on at the right moment, he’s in love.
He was just waiting for The Bachelor this whole time.
I know, who knew? He’s just on a journey. He’s trying to put himself out there, as a cat. [Laughs.]
What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?
Why Him, with James Franco and Megan Mullally and Bryan Cranston. I loved it; we were literally screaming with laughter in one of those kind of boutique theaters, because it just had that over-the-top quality. We live way up here in the hills near Santa Cruz, a little town called Corralitos, and so to go to a movie is like a 40-minute thing, but then last time we went I was really reminded of how fun it is to be with other people. If a joke is coming, the room either really likes it or doesn’t, and if it does it’s really wonderful.
Are there theaters out there? What’s the last thing you saw at the theater?
Yeah, we saw an incredible performance of Persian music at Stanford the other night. Before that, in Santa Cruz there’s a festival called the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, which only features new classical music. We just kind of wandered in and there was a John Adams performance. I’m a big fan of his, so it was almost as if you went to a local rock ‘n roll festival and Springsteen or Bono showed up. When you listen to pop music, I think a lot of the thrill is you find something you listen to a million times, and you listen to it one more time and it sort of revs you up. But with this classical music, we saw two or three programs of all new music I’d never heard before, and you were really experiencing it with other people in real time. It was so thrilling. There’s a guy named John Corigliano who has kind of an AIDS remembrance symphony that was so moving. It just ripped you open.
Is there a song you’ve been listening to on repeat lately?
I just got Spotify. [Laughs.] I’ll tell you a song that’s a bit of a gem, that I’d never heard of before. I’m in the gym the other day and I’ve got a playlist of, like, acoustic music. This song comes on and it’s so beautiful. I thought it was a new kind of Brooklyn hipster acoustic duo, but it was the friggin’ Monkees. The song is called “Me & Magdalena,” and it’s pretty, and it feels so current. But I listen to “Via Chicago” by Wilco on repeat all the time, just because. And then also there’s a live version of “Angeles” by Elliott Smith. Isn’t that a great song? It’s live so he kind of speeds up a little at the end and you can really feel it’s him playing his own guitar. He’s so wonderful. And, you know, the other thing we’ve been doing out here is I’ve been trying to kind of go back and revisit rap, which I kind of missed the early days of because my kids were little. So the one thing I think is incredible is that Biggie song, “F---ing You Tonight.” Do you know it? It’s so funny. As someone who wasn’t really familiar with rap, it was like a one-minute lesson in why rap is great, because it’s so bold and so honest.
Have you bought any art recently?
Yeah, we bought some paintings by Kenrick McFarlane, a Chicago artist. Our daughter Alena went to the School of the Art Institute so we’ve kind of been buying paintings by her cohorts. We just bought a big painting of Ethan Stewart’s, and there’s Nick Nes Knowlton, Hartley Mellick, and Anders Lindseth. We’re trying to get to know the work of younger artists.
Have you seen any museum exhibitions you’ve loved lately?
Yeah, I was at MoMA a couple of months ago and I saw these paintings from the Russian Revolution [“A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde.”] I just finished teaching a class at Syracuse that was on the Russian short story, mostly in the 19th century, so it was kind of cool to have read all those guys and then drop into the artistic movement that followed them immediately.
Is there a release coming up you’re most excited about, besides your own book?
I know it’s been released, but Nick [Offerman]’s movie The Founder is coming out, and we’re just waiting for it to get here. And there’s a book coming down the pipe I’m really anxious to read by Jonathan Dee, a writer who’s always meant a lot to me. And I have a book [out in August] by a short story writer called Jenny Zhang called Sour Heart.
You mentioned your phone, but how do you typically get your news? Do you use Twitter?
No, I don’t use Twitter. I have an objection to Twitter, I guess. We do a little bit of cable-watching at night: CNN, and occasionally I’ll cross over to Fox just to know what’s going on over there. I listen to a lot of NPR and we have satellite radio, so we sometimes listen to CNN and MSNBC on there. I’m getting really fond of the Washington Post as a source, and the Times. You know, it’s almost hard to say because the last year has had such a disturbed media environment; we’re just addicted to it, and now we’re kind of talking about what it would be like to enforce an hours of operation where there’s no phones between 8 and 4 or something. Because, especially when I was reporting that Trump piece, it just took over my life. It had to—that was correct—but it literally is like an addiction that you inflict on yourself and then you can’t quite bear how to get out from under. And I can feel it flattening out my thoughts. It’s not a good thing to do, actually, to receive a bunch of information that’s been kind of flattened out and made 24/7. It's kind of a way to make a dullard of yourself, so I’m trying to figure out how to get out of that.
Yeah, it’s tricky. Do you use social media at all?
I have my author page and I go in there and update it a couple of times a week, but I don’t follow anybody. I really don’t. I have the idea that as a writer, you’ve got to be kind of protective of your head space. For me, agitation is a real enemy of being able to write well, and especially political agitation. It just disturbs my calm in a way, so I’m trying to make pretty conscious decisions about social media.
It is interesting to think about how Trump uses Twitter and how that’s going to play out going forward.
It’s like a leash—if you’re looking over there and he gives it a pull, you’re looking over at him. It’s just funny for somebody who’s a writer; my whole life has been trying to learn how to interact with texts over a long period of time to make them better and fuller and funny and fair. So it’s interesting to see the culture now being dominated by text written instantaneously with literally no forethought, not just by Trump but by everybody. It’s almost like the first thing out of your mouth is leading the culture. I remember as a kid, people saying, Think first, then talk, and I think so much of what we’re doing now is responding out of a part of our mind that probably isn’t the best part of our mind; even a thoughtful tweet doesn’t come out of sitting there for months. I’m kind of an inarticulate person naturally, I’m kind of a defensive and aggressive person, so what I’ve seen is if I work with a text for a month, the fact is those qualities diminish and the better ones replace them. So I wouldn’t want to be firing off tweets from the first, lesser part of my mind. But on the other hand, it’s pretty fun, and it’s pretty powerful, that people can get in shouting matches with the President of the United States. And if you got into writing because you wanted to influence people, it must be awesome to have a million followers and actually get into people’s consciousness.
Do you think you’re going to stick with writing novels?
I don’t know. My policy has always been to wait and see what grabs you, and I’m missing short stories, because that’s all I did for 25 years. I think I’ll probably go back to those. But for me, writing kind of has two tracks: the public part, where you’re publishing and traveling and speaking to people; and then the private part, where you're trying to use that artistic form to work through your own shit and figure out who you are and your particular combination of strengths and weaknesses. That second thing is really the most important one, and I think that has a mind of its own; it's kind of following that quiet voice of your artistic impulse, which will lead you to the most productive thing for your own personal development. I’m working on a TV pilot [for Amazon], but in terms of fiction I’m just kind of waiting to hear that little voice.
What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?
My wife and I read as long as we can, and then we go to sleep. It’s just kind of a nice routine, because we noticed with the social media thing that we were crowding out our reading time. And we have a little puppy who’s not really a puppy, but she’s got total puppy energy, so right before that we take her out, but she doesn’t like it. She doesn’t like any rain or mud so she’ll kind of symbolically sit on the porch for about half an hour. [Laughs.] Then we go read.
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