SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A writer who's acclaimed as a genius of the short story has written his first novel. It reads like part "Our Town," part ghost story, even part Ken Burns. It's a story that gives voice to a child who's died and resonance to the silence of his father who was both enveloped by and is the instrument of much grief. "Lincoln In The Bardo" is a novel that grows from the seed of the real-life death of Willie Lincoln, the 11-year-old son of Abe and Mary Lincoln, in 1862. It is the first novel by George Saunders, a longtime contributor to The New Yorker and GQ, still a professor at Syracuse. He's received Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships, an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is certainly the best-known writer to come out of the Colorado School of Mines. George Saunders joins us now from his home in Watsonville, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us.
GEORGE SAUNDERS: Oh, thanks for having me.
SIMON: We should explain the bardo of the title is a Tibetan concept, yes?
SAUNDERS: Yeah. It actually is - just means transitional zone or transitional phase. And so, for example, we're in one. We're in the bardo right now that goes from birth to death. And the book takes place just after that in the bardo that goes from death to whatever's next. So in the Buddhist world, it would be reincarnation.
SIMON: Yeah. And I'm - I must say a lot of the people who we encounter in the bardo don't seem to quite know that they're dead.
SAUNDERS: Yeah. They don't know, and also they are there because something just didn't happen for them here on Earth. You know, they were frustrated or unhappy or unlucky in love. And so they had that feeling of, one, I can't be dead because I'm not done and, two, as long as I don't turn my mind to my own death, I can stay here a while until I'm allowed to go back into the real game.
SIMON: Yeah. Is this a short story that kind of just grew or what?
SAUNDERS: It is. You know, I had only written stories, and I was so happy with that and even maybe a little proud of it, you know, that I'd never written a novel. And this one - I heard this anecdote many years ago during the Clinton presidency about Lincoln having been so grief-stricken that he actually returned to the crypt one night to sort of commune with his son's body. And so I carried that idea around for about 20 years, almost trying to shuck it off. It seemed really difficult, you know? And then, you know, four years ago, I just was like, jeez, this has been bothering me all these years. Maybe it's time to give it a try. And I kind of almost had a contract with the book, like don't blow it up on me. Be a story if you can be a story. If you can be a nice paragraph, that's fine. So I kind of, you know, kept it on a short leash, but it just kept kind of growing. So, you know, I finally said, OK, you are what you are.
SIMON: I want to give people an idea of the extraordinary structure and wordplay of the book. If we could read a section, and I'd like you to set it up for us, two characters will be speaking.
SAUNDERS: Sure. So these are actually - approximately ghosts, and they're bringing Willie Lincoln's spirit back to the crypt where he's buried. And they're - for reasons that are kind of complicated, they're trying to get him to just go on to the next thing. He's trying very hard to stay there. He misses his parents. So here I think they're trying to convince him that he'll never see any of his family again and it's better for him just to accept his fate.
SIMON: I will be the voice of the ghost, if I might call him that, of Hans Vollmann, 46-year-old guy with wooden teeth who got hit in the head by a beam.
SAUNDERS: Yes. And then I'll do the Reverend Everly Thomas, who's kind of a longtime denizen of the place and former priest.
SIMON: (Reading) We embraced the boy at the door of his white, stone home.
SAUNDERS: (Reading) He gave us a shy smile, not untouched by trepidation at what was to come.
SIMON: (Reading) Go on, Mr. Bevins said it gently. It is for the best.
SAUNDERS: (Reading) Off you go, Mr. Vollman said, nothing left for you here.
SIMON: (Reading) Goodbye then, the lad said. Nothing scary about it, Mr. Bevins said. Perfectly natural.
SAUNDERS: (Reading) Then it happened.
SIMON: (Reading) An extraordinary occurrence.
SAUNDERS: (Reading) Unprecedented really.
SIMON: (Reading) The boy's gaze moved past us.
SAUNDERS: (Reading) He seemed to catch sight of something beyond.
SIMON: (Reading) His face lit up with joy.
SAUNDERS: (Reading) Father, he said.
SIMON: For any of us who's ever - who've ever been there, we recognize that's what happens. I don't mean in death. I mean with someone who's leaving, yeah.
SAUNDERS: Yeah Well, that was one of the kind of surprises of the book. You know, you always hope that a book will lead you somewhere that you didn't plan to go. And in this one, it was kind of unrelenting in leading me to think about that strange conundrum we're in here. Like, you know, we seem to be born to love. That seems to be what we do naturally and what we crave to do. And then all along, you know, we sort of know that everything is conditional. So how do you, in this world, live joyfully and productively in the face of those two truths? And what I do mostly is just deny the second one. But in the book, sort of showing Lincoln at this pivotal moment, he's not in a position where he can decide to live in denial. So it was kind of a harsh taskmaster, in some ways, because you'd get up in the morning and say, OK, let's go right, and then, you know, immediately you're led back to that conundrum.
SIMON: Yeah. I want to ask you about Lincoln. The image we - the most-beloved American of history - but the image we have of him is often a little frozen, and maybe that's because we, you know, we see him so much in statues or these unmoving portraits. He had a famous and even profane sense of humor, though.
SIMON: But he's kind of our American saint of sorrow, isn't he?
SAUNDERS: He is, and I think rightly so. I mean, he was, it seems, quite depressed at times and was in a kind of heroic struggle against the depression. You know, what struck me was that he had this sort of suite of characteristics, that certainly sorrow was one of them. People talked a lot about his kindness, also his ability to kind of get into a situation where people like me, for example, would be defensive or aggressive or be very concerned with asserting my correctness, and he would kind of step back and it seemed that his desire was always for the outcome to be positive, even if he had to take it on the chin a little bit or break something up with a joke.
He really had a long view of how to make things work, which I think was related to this deep concern he had for other people, not feigned and not political but a kind of almost automatic feeling of compassion for the people around him. And that was really instructive to me, especially in the way that in those last five years of his life, from what I could see, he just went through this exponential period of growth where he, by the end, you know, you felt like he was, in some ways, representing an America that we still haven't quite gotten to in terms of true equality and the idea that love could actually be kind of a political force.
SIMON: Yeah, you know, but I've got to ask you, in advance of the emails, how do we account for the fact that on both the left and the right of the time he was often - I don't mean just once or twice or on the edge - he was often assailed as a butcher.
SAUNDERS: And a dictator and all kinds of things. And, you know, the thing - when I was writing this, I kind of thought, yeah, maybe at the high levels of human sensibility that we had to be in as a culture during that time, maybe you need somebody who's a saint and a butcher, you know, a great empath and a dictator. In other words, the idea that maybe you actually can't neatly reconcile what he did. And I think that that sort of echoes his experience because there are things where he talks about, one, trying to understand what God is and what God might want from him, and his conclusion is kind of mind blowing. He sort of says, well, whatever God is, God put this in motion. God put slavery in motion. God put this solution in motion.
We are now seeing sort of the untying of that tremendous knot. And my role as president is to discern that will. But it's kind of getting beyond my understanding, so I'm just basically standing here watching that will assert itself. And it's asserting itself through blood. We're reversing ourselves out that terrible doorway of slavery through this butchery that I'm commanding. So, you know, I find - I love to be in control of my attitude, you know, to know what I think about something and just kind of sit there smugly (ph) on top of the data.
But of course, as we're all finding out now, I think we aren't actually in control of the data, and we don't necessarily understand what's happening in real time. That seems to be a skill set that Lincoln had, namely to continue to try to pursue positive ends even in the face of real confusion. And I don't mean, like, surficial confusion but deep existential confusion. I get the sense that he didn't think he was right most of the time. He was - he thought he was blundering but blundering vaguely in the direction of positivity.
SIMON: George Saunders, a new novelist (laughter). His novel, "Lincoln In The Bardo." Thank you so much for being with us.
SAUNDERS: I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.