Famed short story writer George Saunders had the idea for his first published novel — based on the death of Willie Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln's beloved son — in his head for more than 20 years before he decided to try to write it.
On Monday night, Inprint brought Saunders to Houston for a third time to read from his debut novel as part of the 2016/2017 Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.
Tickets for the reading sold out within minutes after they went on sale last month, and the audience gathered early to snag good seats — Inprint seating being more or less open — to catch Saunders taking part in a choral reading of his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.
Driving around Washington, D.C., someone pointed out an old cemetery and told Saunders that Willie had been temporarily buried in one of the tombs and that, the story goes, his grief-stricken father had pulled the boy's body from the tomb the night after the funeral. From then on, as Saunders made his name writing generous, macabre, gruesome-yet-kind short stories, the idea for this book sat in the back of his mind. Every time he finished a project, it would pop up, he explained on Monday night, saying, "How 'bout now? Lincoln? Lincoln?"
But Saunders refused to take the bait. "I told myself it's too earnest, too lovely, grief-filled, emotional. And I thought to myself that is not a reason to write a book."
Despite his reservations, after his most recent short story collection, Tenth of December, was finished a few years ago, the author decided to finally give the Lincoln idea a try. And thus we have Lincoln in the Bardo, a glittering novel ripe with an expansive, generous view of life, death and humanity that extends from the poorest debauched graveyard spirit to Lincoln himself.
"The book is odd," Saunders told the audience. "It's odd, but it's a very strange, new-ish form. It's also almost an impossible book to read solo."
The story unfolds over the course of a single night Lincoln spent in a graveyard mourning the death of his 11-year-old son, Willie, at the start of the Civil War. The 16th president believes he is alone, but he is actually surrounded by ghosts, the residents of the cemetery who act as a chorus narrating the events of the novel.
Because of the style of the book — it's written as a sort of Greek chorus with more than 600 characters commenting and observing as it unfolds — it's difficult for Saunders to show up anywhere and simply give a reading. On Monday night, he sprang onto the stage to explain this, reminding the audience repeatedly that even though it all sounds depressing, Lincoln in a Pietà position holding his dead son while spirits look on is really funny.
Instead of trying to pull off several different voices at once, Saunders read with five Alley Theatre actors (James Black, David Rainey, Jeffrey Bean, Elizabeth Bunch and Jay Sullivan). Saunders described one of the main narrators, Hans Vollman, a 19th-century printer who died the day before he was set to finally consummate his new marriage with his much younger and very beautiful new wife. "Help me imagine this. He's naked and he has a tremendously large erection," Saunders told the audience as he introduced the cast.
"I will be playing Abraham Lincoln, because it's my freakin' show," he said, chuckling.
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As the chorus read, people followed along in their books.
Afterward, Saunders and Alexander Parsons, director of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, kicked around ideas about how Saunders approached the book, and about writing in general.
For years, Saunders said, he was trying to write like Ernest Hemingway, instead of valuing his unique skills — his love of pop culture, a gift for all kinds of voices, his penchant for darkness and violence in his writing. That was when the writing finally started to open up for him, Saunders explained.
When it came to tackling the Lincoln idea, Saunders had to get past worrying about obsessing over accuracy — about Lincoln, the Civil War, the Bardo and how it is supposed to work according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead — to find a way to tell the story differently, he says, by working around the clichés. "If you take stock of the dangers, that's the jumping-off point to originality," he says. "The story or a novel is a dramatic contrivance designed to kick ass, and anything else just gets in the way."