Last week I went to hear George Saunders be interviewed by the great Eleanor Wachtel of CBC’s Writers & Company. Saunders is promoting his new book, Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel. (Which, in itself, is kind of mind-boggling! He’s written essays, articles, short stories, speeches and screenplays, but, in his own words, resisted writing this novel for a good 20 years!)
Saunders teaches at Syracuse and it shows. In answering Wachtel’s questions about his editorial choices in pulling together the book – why some characters remain a bit mysterious, why Willie Lincoln faces the threat of such a tremendous and terrifying transformation, why he put the ghost of a freed slave inside Abe Lincoln – Saunders gave an answer that suggests he spends a great deal of time really thinking about craft: it wasn’t a cute anecdote about reaching back into his childhood memories, it was a working, thinking writer’s answer. Because he believes it will energize the story.
He talked about having been an engineer, and sort of reverse engineering his stories, looking for ways to add elements that drive plot and add energy. Changing one characteristic in a single character gives that character something to use in the story and will open up a whole new branch of thinking and possibilities, he said. A lot of the mystical, magical elements that have dotted his writing in the past are all ways he’s sought to bring his writing to life. (He spoke in a way that spoke to me about how he finds realism just simply too real: it doesn’t have enough humiliation, for a start. Yes!)
He spoke of how he often teaches students to think of their stories this way: you’re essentially tossing a handful of bowling pins into the air and just trying to be in the right place at the right time to catch them. That’s a bit abstract, and it seemed writing his own novel both confirmed that for him and also made him see it a bit differently. In a novel, the number of bowling pins seems to multiply while they’re still up in the air. It’s the writer’s job, then, to make sure she remembers to catch all of them. The reader is keeping track. The reader can see where those bowling pins are hovering, same as you. What the reader wants is to see how you bring them safely to earth.
He didn’t speak about this directly, but he alluded to it many times: Saunders came into his voice “late,” as in, not in his 20s, and while facing mounting financial pressures, which as anyone who has spent time in the hallowed halls of academia will tell you is not seen as a pure enough motivation for making art. It took him time to work out his voice, to figure out how to write with his sense of humour. I found this comforting – I too find myself thinking I’ve lost my way a little in this last few years. Pursuing an MFA is complicated in that it teaches you a lot about what you don’t know and can really shake your confidence in your own “narrow talent,” as Saunders put it.
When asked how he found the confidence to at last write the novel that had been patiently – and sometimes impatiently – waiting to be written, he said part of it was reaching an age where he didn’t want to be the guy who hadn’t done the thing he said he’d always wanted to do. But part of it was taking on writing assignments that challenged him – writing for the New Yorker, for example. He found a way to write that kind of prose, in his kind of voice, and it made him realize, he could probably make it work in a novel too.
I left feeling quite comforted. There’s something really satisfying about hearing a writer really talking about writing. Not about how “the character told me to do this,” as though we’re just a pair of hands for a higher force. But about sitting at the desk, letting one’s mind wander and putting the plot pieces together, asking the tough questions of the storyline and wandering back through to see whether all the bowling pins had been thrown high enough and brought down well enough.
I can’t wait to jump into Saunders’ new book.
For a little more on Saunders, here’s an animation of the speech he gave on the importance of kindness.
If you’re unfamiliar with his work, here are a few examples of his stories. Semplica-Girl Diaries is sort of amazing; you’ll think about it for days. And Adams is the kind of political commentary I wish I could write! (Think of ‘Adams’ as an anagram for Saddam as you’re reading.)
And to listen to the interview between Wachtel and Saunders, here it is.
(photo courtesy of Tookapic)