As Lincoln in the Bardo is one of my new favorite novels, I was immensely pleased to hear that its author George Saunders would be making the trek to my hometown for a book talk and signing this month. It’s not every day you get to hear a Booker Prize winner speak!
Saunders began the evening with a “lecture.” I could really tell he is a creative writing professor from the way he spoke about fiction/ He took the audience through his writing process, which includes using a mental positive/negative meter while he reads. Using this meter allows Saunders to close-read his work and look for ways that it can be better. He described the relationship to his work as similar to that of a parent/child, wherein he is the parent constantly asking his childlike story what is wrong, and furthermore determining how he can fix it.
Saunders also discussed his rough start to writing fiction. He claims he tried too hard to separate his personality from his work in order to be more “literary,” and that’s why writing wasn’t working out for him. As soon as he introduced his personality into his writing- his dark humor, his sarcasm- it became a lot easier for Saunders; he published the first story he wrote this way. Saunders said, “you can’t fake 300 pages,” so use what comes natural to you in your writing. Thus, the age-old saying, “write what you know,” rings true for Saunders.
After this lecture, the evening moved on to an audience Q&A. Saunders discussed Lincoln in the Bardo at length. He said in the beginning of his writing process, he questioned his authority to do certain things with the novel, i.e. to include fictive historical documents. However, once Saunders progressed into the mindset of, “it’s my book, I can do anything I want” and ran with that, the rest of the novel came very easily to him. Saunders said that the only thing he found problematic to write was (quite understandably) Willie’s death.
After just a few hours of listening to Saunders speak, it is easy to see how a writer such as himself could conjure up such a humorous yet tender novel. Laugh-out-loud funny and extraordinarily intelligent, George Saunders is a pleasure to listen to.