Author George Saunders on learning about mortality
A few years ago I sent George Saunders an email, and he replied. His response, though brief, was warm, heartfelt and, at least to my mind, invited an email back. So I sent another, and he again replied. Which, skipping a few steps, is how I find myself in a car with him, driving towards the Mississippi Delta. George is up front, fiddling with Spotify. Next to him is Lee Durkee, Mississippi novelist and friend of George’s from his student days at Syracuse. The Monkees are playing, not by accident, as George and Lee riff on the old days.
“Remember when we spent the last of our money on a sixpack, and then had to negotiate with the guy in the tollbooth?” Or, “How about the time I was driving to meet you in Chester and ended up in Canada?”
We are driving from Oxford to Greenwood, where George is booked for a signing. From there, we’ll head to Jackson, for another signing, and, later, for a reading at a liberal arts college. Out the window, peat bogs zip by. The Monkees, having been indulged, give way to the blues. It’s day 10 of the tour, but George shows no signs of tiring. He and Lee talk about mutual friends, old teachers, musicians, TV shows, books. If George is unsure of a fact – a release date, a band member – he’ll look it up on his phone. If a writer is mentioned and he hasn’t heard of them, he’ll note their name.
At one point, caught behind a slow-moving timber truck, logs stacked precariously above our windshield, conversation is replaced by a tense quiet. Lee looks for a gap, pulls out and then back into our lane. I shift my weight, look over my shoulder. Staring up at the logs, George says, “Looks like one of those has our number on it.”
This pronouncement, made by him in his manner, doesn’t seem altogether bad. And although it’s a cliché to say of a writer that a certain fate would oddly befit them, if George were to be pestled by a flyaway log, then chalk one up for irony.
Death, particularly of the grisly sort, is a frequent theme of George’s work. Examples include: crushed by wave-maker at theme park, bitten by rabid dog, butchered by family member, mowed down in living room by drive-by shooters, death by own hand, death by fright.
“When I was younger,” George tells me, “I had some mortality things. I remember one time sleeping a room away from my grandparents, and I could hear their laboured breathing. At the time I thought, death happens, they’re old, ergo: what would stop them from dying?”
George laughs, noting that, at the time, his grandparents were probably about the age he is now. But irony and “mortality things” aside, this would be a terrible time for him to go. The previous day, as he was giving an interview to Rolling Stone, George’s agent called, informing him that his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was to debut at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list – news to which he reacted coolly. Later that evening, George was onstage, being presented with a splinter of door, brass knob still attached, which had been salvaged from the recently demolished furnace room in which William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying. These days a George Saunders book tour includes spots on the Colbert Late Show and Q&As live-streamed from Facebook LA.
After the reading we migrate to a nearby bar. George moves from group to group, talking with old friends, gracefully accepting praise from strangers, smiling. If he is bemused at all by the fuss, he doesn’t show it. My guess as to his motive: if you act bemused you might undermine the fuss, opening up a slight possibility that the fusser feels silly.
When you interact with Saunders, you come away feeling funnier, more interesting, and, strangely, like trying harder. His face is handsome in a way that pulls you in, with twinkly blue eyes and the blond-grey muzzle of a Yorkshire terrier. His intelligence is hefty but not intimidatory – speaking with him, you realise that, yes, he is smart, very smart, but this smartness is not there to open up a distance between you and him. When you ask Saunders a question, he zeroes in on it; he doesn’t do flippant or brusque. He speaks quickly, but not at the expense of thoughtfulness. His words tumble out in their Syracuse-by-way-of-Chicago accent, always qualifying themselves, limiting their application to the experience of their speaker, open to the possibility of being way off the mark. Mid-sentence, Saunders’ voice might change its inflection, the understanding being that he is now talking within quotation marks, inventing a character on the fly, narrating the situation you’re in from their fictive point of view. Once you’ve caught your breath and replayed the tapes in your head, you realise that what you’ve just heard might have leapt right off the page.
Saunders survived his childhood – which is to say he won friends and staved off boredom – by learning to adopt and mimic different voices. He found that humour was contained within voice. Often, the more stilted the voice, the richer its contents. He explains it like this: “If you assume that every human being has a full range of emotions, and that they feel it as much as the next person, but some people have a crimped expresser valve – so a high-functioning person can lay out his problems eloquently, but this guy maybe can’t – that doesn’t mean the emotional range is not there.”
Growing up in a working-class neighbourhood in Chicago, there was no shortage of such voices. “I remember this one house where I would go to deliver chicken. The owner of the house and I had a running joke: he’d answer the door and he’d say, ‘Hey, you married yet?’ and I’d say, ‘No sir’, and he’d say, ‘Don’t ever get fucking married, it’ll kill ya’, and his wife would go, ‘Harold, shut up’. But actually he was miserable. He wasn’t kidding. Sometimes she wasn’t home and he’d say it … he was funny, he had a funny way of speaking, and he’d come out in his underwear. But his tragedy was a real tragedy.”
While Saunders was drawn to the energy and the humour of his neighbourhood, he wasn’t so sure of its literary merit. “As a young writing kid I thought: You don’t do literature here, because they don’t live right,” he told me. “Later I realised maybe I just didn’t have a big enough vision.”
Of course, that changed. In seventh or eighth grade, in a theme mall in Amarillo, Texas, called Las Tiendas, George had a “funny kind of logical conversation” with himself. He recalls it as “the moment I allowed myself to find the intellectual life cool enough to pursue”. And it’s a neat genesis point: much of Saunders’ early work inhabits those strange shapes of American life – theme parks, shopping malls, sitcoms, corporate compounds, advertising machines, muzak.
“I sometimes wonder,” he says, “if there isn’t some connection between that realisation and where I had it … Suddenly everything seemed so alive and interesting and beautiful.”
We leave the delta and head to Jackson for the second signing of the day. Outside the bookstore, a nervous kid approaches Saunders. George stops, chats with the boy, and then, shaping to go, realises that the boy is there with a girl. “Are you here with Mike?” he asks. “He’s a really cool guy.” George heads inside, while outside Mike is busy inscribing this memory on the most treasured part of his brain.
This kind of fame is relatively new to Saunders. His 2013 collection of stories, Tenth of December, was something of a late-life breakout piece. While George, 54 at the time, was far from unknown – he was a MacArthur Fellow, a darling of The New Yorker, and a four-time winner of the National Magazine Award for fiction – Tenth of December took things up a notch. The book spent 15 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, was declared “The Best You’ll Read This Year” by that newspaper only a few days into January, and Saunders found himself one of Time magazine’s “most influential people”.
“This one is bigger than the last one,” he tells me, comparing tours, “and that one was 10 times bigger than any I’d done before.”
The moment isn’t lost on him. “David Foster Wallace used to say, ‘The most famous American writer is about as famous as the local TV weatherman.’ So to have a moment where you’re just starting to get on the periphery of big culture, I feel that’s kinda nice, kinda important.”
Lincoln in the Bardo has edged its nose into “big culture”. The audiobook version is read by a cast of 166 people, among them: Ben Stiller, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Jeff Tweedy, David Sedaris, Don Cheadle, and the duo Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman, who have also acquired the film rights.
To many, this attention is long overdue. Saunders’ catalogue of fans has long included the likes of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, Junot Díaz and Tobias Wolff. David Remnick considers him the benchmark. Colson Whitehead says he is a true artist, charting hidden creative territory. Zadie Smith called Lincoln in the Bardo a masterpiece. Ron Charles, writing for The Washington Post, called the novel both “strikingly original” and “divisively odd ... bound either to dazzle or alienate”. And this is true. What criticism there is of the book can be traced either to its ambition; its weirdness; its sincerity, perceived as “schmaltz”; or its structure, in which half of the story is told through the cumulative narration of a chorus of ghosts, and the other half through a collection of historical journal entries, some real and some invented.
Corresponding by email before we met, Saunders told me “this new book is about everything I want to say”. It reads that way: many of the dictions, tics, and even plot points of the novel have been kicked around in various forms in other stories of his. In essence, though, it is a book about death and grief, and the place those things have in life.
“In life what happens is you suffer, suffer, suffer,” George says, “and at some point your body or your mind can’t take it so it normalises it.” The choice is whether we deny that suffering and death are inevitable or we accept this knowledge and “try to build it into our thinking in a way that might theoretically make us more happy”.
Later that evening we arrive at Millsaps College. There is a crowd of people waiting. A signing table has been set up. Nearby, I spot Mike, hanging around with a book under his arm.
George gives a reading to a packed theatre. People stand in the aisles. Afterwards, he sits down at the signing table, smiles, and spends a personable minute with each person. He scribbles a cartoon inside the covers of their books, including Mike’s.
After dinner, we head back to George’s hotel. Having been waylaid by fun, we are yet to sit down for a “proper interview”. And even though George has a flight to catch at 6 o’clock the next morning, we stay up well past midnight. There in the lobby, a little buzzed from dinner, a little sleepy from the road, we pull together some plush velveteen chairs. We talk about George’s life and career. About family, childhood, the formation of his artistic subconscious.
“I haven’t talked about this before, maybe ever,” he says, “but I realised it a couple weeks ago. When I was in college, I had a cousin named Debbie, and we were really close and she was just a dear person. We’d get together and we’d always cut to the chase and end up talking…” He trails off, then finds his way again.
“She was killed in a car accident. I was in Colorado in school and she was in Amarillo, and I just… I was thinking the other day maybe I never fully processed that. It was just like, ‘What?’ It was so unthinkable, and so sudden, and I think what I probably did was block it, really quickly.
“And so I think what changed was, if that happens to you, basically you have the knowledge that it can, and so every minute it doesn’t you’re kind of like, ‘Ah, good.’ ”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 15, 2017 as "Ghost in the shelves ". Subscribe here.