George Saun­ders

Sharp - - GUIDE -

EAD ENOUGH OF ANY ONE AU­THOR’S WORK, and you’re likely to dis­cover their pet ob­ses­sions. John Irv­ing has a thing about bears. Michael Chabon (pg. 48) can’t seem to help writ­ing about tragedies be­falling dogs. For George Saun­ders, it’s ghosts. His four books of short sto­ries are full of spir­its pop­ping up or hang­ing around. It’s not about hor­ror — he just likes them. Or, rather, he likes what ghosts mean — what they say about time, or guilt, or our in­abil­ity to get over our­selves. “We’re just these Dar­winian cut-outs,” he says. “But ghosts are a rudi­men­tary way of re­mind­ing my­self that what we see can’t be the end all and be all. We’re lit­er­ally just per­ceiv­ing machines with a very nar­row fo­cus.”

Saun­ders is all about ex­pand­ing our fo­cus. He’s do­ing it now by pub­lish­ing his first novel, Lin­coln in the Bardo, at age 58, af­ter a long ca­reer of writ­ing short and non-fic­tion (which has given him ac­co­lades such as the pres­ti­gious Macarthur Ge­nius Grant). The book traces the story of what hap­pens to Abra­ham Lin­coln’s son, Willy, af­ter he dies. (For those un­fa­mil­iar with Ti­betan Bud­dhist doc­trine, the Bardo is like a pur­ga­tory, in-be­tween life and death). The story is pure Saun­ders: heart­break­ing, hu­mane, deeply gen­er­ous, weird, and, not for noth­ing, funny. Imag­ine Kurt Von­negut — all his hu­mour and hu­man­ism — and in­ject a healthy dose of both the spir­i­tual and the sur­real, and that’s Saun­ders. He de­serves to be your next favourite writer. Sorry, nov­el­ist. He’s a nov­el­ist now.

RIsn’t afraid of ghosts

I had the same pro­gres­sion that you de­scribed. I’m go­ing to write a novel, and it’s go­ing to be so dif­fer­ent, and I can’t wait for the dif­fer­ence to start. The joke I make is that I’ve been mak­ing cus­tom Yurts my whole life, and some­body said, “Can you build a man­sion?” and I said, “No. Wait! Yeah! I can just com­bine a few yurts.” I fought so hard not to write a novel, that when I got into it, I did it be­grudg­ingly. I tried to keep it hon­est. Abide by the same prin­ci­ples as a story, which is if you’re cen­tral, you’re wel­come, if you’re not I’d like you to step out. I still had the idea of the sprawl­ing fam­ily epic, but when I would think of it I would al­most throw up.

You know what it ac­tu­ally is? When you say “sprawl­ing fam­ily epic” we both know what that book is. And who wants to write that book? If we can imag­ine it in­tact, why do we want to write it?

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