Lincoln in the Bardo Redux: Still Weird, Still Great

Most weeks, this blog is about a different book. Lincoln in the Bardo is so important that it gets two posts. It’s seriously good. It’s hard to call this stuff, but it might be the next big thing people look back at in a century and think “Whoa, there was a forking path in the history of art.” One of the areas in which Saunders was most inventive was how he constructed 166 completely distinct characters in a single book, so I asked him about that.

I was lucky enough to go see Saunders speak about his book. The event took place in a church, because the demand was so heavy that the nearby bookstore couldn’t accommodate it. High ceilings, arches, stained glass, and a guy from Chicago standing at the pulpit talking about art. It was a really great night, and I got to ask him a question about what his process was for making all those different voices sound so very different. What follows is an inexpertly copied transcript, with changes made for the various uncertainties of human speech (ums, ahs, you knows). My question was about how different each character sounded, but the answer I got was about his entire philosophy of writing. It was extremely gratifying. Thanks, George!

He drew me a ghost and a Lincoln inside his signature. I mean, he drew that for everyone, but he also drew it for me.

Anyway, here it is:

Q: When I was reading, what I was most impressed with was how sharply distinct each voice was, and doing that with 160-odd characters, even the ones that are just there for like, half a page, hello-goodbye, I was just wondering what went into making those voices so clear and distinct.

A: Oh thank you, yeah. You know, in my short fiction, it’s always in a contemporary voice; I’ll often have two or three characters, and I really try hard to distinguish them in voice, and that means going really overboard on two or three voices. In this book as soon as I realized how many people there were going to be, there’s a hundred-sixty-six, I thought, I have to maybe scale it down just a bit so I can sort of make that many versions. And the approach really was, I mean, my whole thing on writing is, it’s based on a three-part mantra. Donald Barthelme said, ‘The writer is a person who, embarking on her task, does not know what to do.’ Gerald Stern, in a slightly different register, and I’ll clean this up because we’re in church, ‘If you set out to write a poem about two dogs making love, and you write a poem about two dogs making love, then you wrote a poem about two dogs making love.’ And then Einstein, taking it up another level, as he always did, said, ‘No worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its original conception,’ which for artists is a real deep thing. If the thing only is what you thought it was gonna be, then you’ve disappointed. So, in my process, I’m always just kind of proceeding at speed, trying to have as few notions about it as I can, almost imagining like there’s a meter in my head with ‘P’ over here for positive, ‘N’ over here for negative, and the job is just to read, and revise, and watch that needle, without any sort of attachment to where you wanted to be. So, it’s up in the positive, if it goes in the negative, you don’t do that thing where you say, ‘Oh no it didn’t,’ and you also don’t do the thing that says, ‘I suck. I have to go back to law school.’ You just say, what you kinda do is, and my thing is you sorta turn to the story and you say, ‘Hey, I notice you’re down in the negative here,’ and the story will go, ‘No I’m not,’ and you say, ‘Well, I kinda think you are, it’s okay, I still love you,’ and it says, ‘Ah yeah, well,’ and you say, ‘Well, what’s the problem, what’s the problem with the story?’ And it goes, ‘I’m boring.’

‘You are boring, you poor thing. Can you tell me, where are you boring?’

‘Page six.’

‘Ok, I agree. Where exactly?’

‘Third line.’

And you go to the third line, and it says like, ‘Bill sat at the empty table, the black planar expanse, the dark flatness,’ and you go ‘Oh yeah, I get it.’

So it’s a very intuitive approach, and it’s kinda based on the idea that when we’re reading, something crazy’s going on in the mind; it’s so intelligent, and it’s picking up so many signals off the text that are kinda subverbal, you couldn’t articulate them. So in that heightened beautiful state, reader and writer together kind of reach this communion, basically. So, when I’m writing I’m trying to make the voices (to come back, finally, to your question), I think what I do is I try to be as deep in the text as I can, and then I turn over and say OK I need a ghost over here, and then, this is the scary part, I just trust the verbal overflow. You know at that point, a voice will appear, as you’re typing, bom bom bom. So, the trick is to not say, ‘I don’t want that ghost,’ or ‘What does that ghost mean?’ but just like, ‘Go ahead, tell me,’ you know. And so it’s sort of a sustained improvisation, and even with that number of characters you kinda remember what you’ve done before, and your subconscious is moving you away from those, so it’s kind of a crazy process of believing there’s a part of your mind that’s smarter than the surface part, and then sort of allowing that to come through.

So there’s a small piece of George Saunders’ writing process, which I was super excited to hear. Whether he’s the greatest living American writer is a matter of opinion, but he’s doubtlessly in the running. Part of why he’s where he is, and part of what his answer makes clear, is he takes his writing as seriously as a heart surgeon takes his work. He’s not just, you know, telling some story or whatever. He’s telling the perfect story, the only story that could grow in the space in which he’s working. If you haven’t checked out his entire opus, you really should.

Here, I’ll help: