George Saunders: Under Pressure

By Flora Stadler

UPDATE: When I received George Sauders’ response to my question, I reached out again to ask him if he could tell me about a new pressure-relief method he’d learned for his novel. I didn’t expect to hear back, so I wasn’t disappointed when I didn’t. But then a holiday miracle happened and he responded! Scroll down to his original response and see what else he had to say. 

In a piece for The Guardian last year, author George Saunders described the obsessive grind of his writing process: “My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

I’ve been a Saunders fan-girl ever since I read his short story collection, In Persuasion Nation. So when his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, came out, I was excited to walk around inside a novel-sized version of his brain.

In that same Guardian article, Saunders wrote about his transition to novel-writing, which he thought would require lots of hidden meanings and more complicated plans than his short stories. He eventually realized that wasn’t the case.

But I could see his point. The two kinds of writing seem to exercise different muscles. A short story is a sprint through an idea, but to hold onto that idea for hundreds of pages can feel like a marathon. If a short story is the work of a quick mind, a novel is an expression of its stamina. So when I somehow got George Saunders to agree to sprint through a question with me, I asked:

Was there something in the writing process for Lincoln in the Bardo that your previous work hadn’t prepared you for? And if so, how did you overcome it (if you feel you did)?

“I suppose it was the earnestness of the narration. In my stories (and because of the contemporary voice I use) I can narrate serious stuff with a constant option to toggle momentarily over into the comic. This functions as a sort of pressure relief valve. The subject matter of this book (the 19th century death of a child and his father’s grief) complicated that — I found myself needing to do longer stretches of narrative the purpose of which was not overtly comedic. So this was a good thing—it taught me other ways to do that pressure-relief work.

Essentially what happened was that, by bearing down on what ‘the comic’ meant, I found out that it is more than just ‘being funny’ but can also include ‘paying closer attention to what you’ve already said.’ In this case, there was a moment when, in the midst of some earnest expositional stuff, I recalled: ‘Hey, that one ghost — you’ve said he has a huge and permanent erection. And that other one — he’s supposed to have thousands of eyes and ears.’ So then, without any change of tone, just by ‘recalling’ those things and writing them calmly into the text, the tone shifted — it wasn’t ‘funny’ exactly, but it wasn’t boring historical exposition, either.”

George Saunders is a professor, author and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and everywhere. His writing has won countless awards, including the National Magazine Award for fiction (1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004), a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006, the PEN/Malamud Award in 2013, and most recently, the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo. His many books can be purchased or ordered at Binnacle Books in Beacon.