He has long had a cult following, but this, it would seem, is George Saunders’s moment. He is a literary rock star.
One of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2013, the short story master’s first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” has earned critical accolades and shot to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
The novel, which reads like a script with no stage directions, centers on Abraham Lincoln and his dead son, Willie, stuck in a kind of purgatory or, in the Tibetan tradition, a bardo, while ghosts, both fictional and non, comment on the scene like a Greek chorus.
The Syracuse University professor and 2006 MacArthur Foundation genius grant winner now finds himself on a major book tour — 22 US cities in 20 days, followed by a European tour.
We chatted with Saunders after his recent Harvard Book Store reading at First Parish Church in Cambridge.
Q. You’ve said the idea for the book first came to you about 20 years ago when you heard a story about Lincoln going to the crypt alone to hold his dead son. But why a bardo?
A. My wife and I had been into Buddhism, and I don’t really know why, I just love that title. I love it more than “Lincoln in Purgatory.” Sometimes if you really love something, you just trust it and leave it alone.
The after-the-fact answer, as a former Catholic, you see purgatory as “Sit down, mister, and wait here until God’s ready for you.” In the bardo, you got there because of the way your mind worked in life. Once you’re in there, at least in the way I distorted it, you still have some redress.
Q. What was it about that story of Lincoln that stuck with you for so long?
A. That image of Lincoln with his dead child across his lap was riveting. It was just an image for a while. Then I was driving through the Berkshires one day, and I had this spontaneous vision of what that image would look likeon a stage. And I started writing it as a play. I don’t know why. The role of an artist is not to poke at it too much. Take the fact that it’s fascinating to you as a welcome sign.
Q. What was it like writing a novel after a career in short stories?
A. I’m not even sure it’s a novel. I mean, it’s long. [laughs]… It’s like I’ve spent my whole life making custom yurts and someone said, “Can you build a mansion?” And I said, “Well, yeah, I could link of bunch of yurts together.”
Q. You wrote this book before the election. Has the political climate changed the way you read it, or has it inspired you to write something else?
A. You know, if someone said to write about [where we are today], this is it for me. This is that book, in a much more complex way than I could do it if I was trying to address it. The book was supposed to come out last fall, and it was thought to be bad timing. But it’s amazing — more than I’ve ever seen in my life, people are saying, “What are we doing?” The progressives who tend to show up to my readings [are asking], “Should we be empathetic? Fierce?” And my answer is “Yes.”
Imagine back in the caveman days, there’s a tribe of 10 people. And God constructed everyone to have either a conservative or liberal mode — and after covering rallies, I believe there’s something to that, something neurological. And there are five of each type in the tribe. And another tribe starts across the prairie. And five say: “Cool! Let’s let them in!” and the other five say, “No, they might mean harm!” These two mindsets working together are high-functioning if there’s an overlap. . . . Now imagine the sides are so out of touch, they just start screaming at each other . . .
Q. OK, so what book would you suggest that the fearful five read?
A. This might be weird, but I’d say “The Grapes of Wrath.” Because that’s a book where you see why migrants migrate, and the humiliation they have to put up with. Maybe you have trouble imagining the harshness of life for Mexicans, but here are these carloads of people from Oklahoma.
Q. Do you have thoughts on the importance of making art in a time like this?
A. If anything, it’s time to hone our language skills. Right now, we’re paying a price for having neglected art. . . . If you’re a dancer, dance. If you’re a shouter, shout. Remember the million points of light — I think Reagan said it or Bush. That’s what it will be. It will be a million people who say, “Actually I do have a few thoughts.”
Interview was edited and condensed.
Lauren Daley is a freelance writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.