'In America, art is a freaky side show' / George Saunders on the Man Booker Prize and a divided America
Poster by T.A.
'In America, art is a freaky side show': George Saunders on the Man Booker Prize and a divided America
It’s 9am in a central London hotel and George Saunders is looking remarkably chipper for someone who has had four hours sleep and, thanks to jet lag, only two and a half the night before. On Tuesday evening the Texas-born writer won the Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, and the party at his publishers went on until 2.30am. Did he cut loose?
“Oh yes, I’m not one of those monkish writers at all,” he says, even though he has the wholesome look of a man who drinks carrot juice for breakfast. “Although I do find prizes very anxiety-inducing: the disappointment if you don’t win, the need to make a speech if you do. But then I’m an anxious person. I’ve been anxious since the womb.”
Lincoln in the Bardo is Saunders’s debut novel, although he already has a peerless reputation in the States as a writer of dystopian-flavoured, satirical short stories full of unhinged incident and unexpected compassion. Lincoln in the Bardo gives full reign to his reality-bending powers in the way it takes a true event – the night a grief-stricken Abraham Lincoln visited his 11-year-old son Willie, newly dead from typhus, in Oak Hill cemetery – and uses it as the launch pad for a hallucinatory tour-de-force told through the fragmented voices of 166 narrators, many of whom are unquiet ghosts who haunt the same graveyard in a state of purgatory.
It’s a novel much easier to read than it sounds, but surely it was an organisational nightmare to write?
“I had a lot of cross charts and diagrams,” admits Saunders. “I felt a bit like a stand up comedian – I kept moving across the room to be one person, and then another.”
Much of the novel’s emotional power comes from the depiction of a bereft father dealing with the loss of his son. Has Saunders, who is the father of two teenage daughters with his wife Paula, also a writer, had any personal experience of grief? “Not particularly, I am also lucky both my parents are still alive,” he says.
“But when I was at college, a cousin I loved dearly died in a car crash, and I suppose in new age speak, I never processed it. I don’t think I could process the suddenness of it, that such a thing could happen. It’s still percolating through my body. I think a lot of those feelings have come out in this novel.”
On the other hand, he says “I don’t believe you need to experience something to write about it. I’m a great believer in the response Laurence Olivier gave when Dustin Hoffman asked him how he could achieve a similar emotional verisimilitude: ‘My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?’”
He wrote it during the tail end of the Obama administration. “And then Trump won. And I know it’s a facile comparison but for all his faults, Lincoln [who preserved the Union through the convulsions of America’s Civil War and helped bring about the abolition of slavery] was working towards a vision of what America could be at its best. Trump doesn’t have that generosity. He has this weird, other view which obviously resonates with a lot of people, but which feels completely contradictory to America’s founding principles.”
Saunders poses with his Man Booker PrizeCREDIT: REUTERS/MARY TURNER
Saunders spent months on the road following the Trump presidential campaign for the New Yorker magazine, talking to supporters at the rallies. He blames the current divisions in America on a general and widespread neglect of culture and art.
“We got into the place we are in now because of an anti-intellectual bias,” he says. “A sense that art and intellectual activity is a freaky side show. So the public discourse has become kinda stupid.” This may sound like snobbery but Saunders, who describes himself as the working class college student anxious that everyone else was far better read than he was, has always considered himself a champion of the same blue-collar America he grew up in. Sometime after leaving college with a degree in geophysics, he went back home to help look after his ill father, and had a string of menial jobs to make ends meet, from roofer to slaughterhouse worker.
Slavery was a great karmic debt that hasn’t been paid back and it won’t be until white people pull their heads out of their asses.
They were formative to him as a writer. “Doing those jobs made me realise that life has difficulties. You get in these working situations and it’s not like you can separate your moral and spiritual concerns from your working ones, if that makes sense. I was working these 14-hour days thinking – now I understand Steinbeck. I understand protest movements.”
“I keep thinking about that Paul Simon line: ‘We’ve lived so well so long’. There is a decadence in America that comes with materialism and wealth and for a long time that was a very comfortable position for me because I could write about how the common man was suffering. But there was an Achilles’ heel I’d forgotten about – which was race, basically. And the fault is mine for not noticing it.”
‘The race wars in America didn’t end [with the abolition of slavery],” he continues, “but I don’t think I realised that till last year. We say, ‘oh we are so progressive now; we aren’t racist’ but slavery was a great karmic debt that hasn’t been paid back and it won’t be paid back until white people pull their heads out of their asses.”
He smiles. “So it’s an exciting time to be a writer,” he says. “The world is not what I thought it was. I need to look again.”
Poster by T.A.
Saunders is the second American to win the Man Booker prize since it was opened up to all books written in English in 2014. Many British writers have been dismayed by this rule change, but Saunders sees it as progress. ‘I think the Man Booker has done a really courageous thing in saying: ‘We are going to be an international prize’. You can feel people in the States really taking notice of it.”
He thinks American book prizes should now reciprocate and open themselves up in turn: literature, he says, should have no borders. “As a white male American, you are always aware that you benefit from the updraft of history, from years of undeserved privilege. And I get this.
“But in the moment of writing, those specifics of who you are – white, middle aged, etc – get burned away, and something more profound and transcendent comes out, and the reader has the same experience. There is a moment when we come together. And you have to believe in this possibility of there being that transcendent union, even if I, as the author, am a white American man. Otherwise there is no point.”
As for Tuesday night’s success, he won’t let it breed contentment. “Chekhov said every happy man should have an unhappy man in his closet with a hammer, to remind him of what unhappiness feels like. So whenever I get a bit settled about life, I remember that.”