American writers may have made a poor showing in the Nobel sweepstakes these past few decades, with only the joke award to Bob Dylan last year to show for all their scribbling. Yet since the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s shiniest literary trophy, was opened to Yanks (and anyone else writing in English) in 2013, American writers have shouldered their way to prominence.
George Saunders’ recent win for his unclassifiable first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, marks the second consecutive year the prize has come home to the good ol’ U.S of A. (Last year, Paul Beatty became the first American ever to win the Man Booker, with his satire of race, The Sellout.)
In the U.K., some literary lookers-on still grumble against the inclusion of American writers in the Man Booker competition. Saunders, who has been unabashedly delighted with the attention, acknowledged it gave him an upwelling of patriotic feeling, but add, “Yes, but it was a upwell of patriotic feeling for England.”
Saunders is just one of the hundreds of writers — local, national, and international — on hand for this year’s Miami Book Fair International, Nov. 12-19 (Saunders will be there Saturday, Nov. 18, at 2 p.m.). A smattering of other notables includes Wallace Shawn, Isabel Allende, former Vice President Joe Biden, Laurence O’Donnell, Mary Gordon, Colm Tóibin, Joyce Maynard, and many more.
In some ways, George Saunders is an unlikely choice for such a prize, while in others he seems all but inevitable. Before Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders was known exclusively as an acclaimed short-story writer. He waited until age 58 to produce his first novel, a stylistically challenging imagining of Abraham Lincoln’s grief over the unexpected death of his 11-year-old son, Willie, in the middle of the Civil War.
The book is set entirely in the graveyard where Willie lies entombed, as Willie and other ghosts watch Lincoln come and go.
Just back from England, where he picked up his Man Booker Prize, Saunders answered a few questions by email. He’s too busy right now for something so ordinary as a phone interview. As he joked to The Telegraph, “People say it’s supposed to be humbling, but it’s not,” and he told the Sydney Morning Herald, “I think I’m going to have trouble going home and taking out the garbage.”
Saunders turns serious when discussion turns to Lincoln in the Bardo. Asked if it didn’t seem curious that he would, for his first novel, write a ghost story set in the 19th century, he said he first heard the story of Lincoln’s nocturnal visits to Willie’s tomb 20 years ago. The idea of the grieving president “interacting” with his son’s corpse in the middle of the night, “so sad, so strange, so hard to explain,” stuck with him.
“To be honest, I never choose these things,” Saunders said. “As I mentioned above, that anecdote got hold of me and wouldn’t let go. And I really didn’t want to write a novel unless the material forced me to. I’m a believer in a book coming out of need; out of a desire to do justice (in this case) to a strong central emotion vector.”
The “bardo” in the title refers to a Tibetan Buddhist conception of a realm between life and death, where dead souls linger. A Buddhist himself, Saunders adapted the idea to fit the needs of his novel. He worried, while writing the book, whether people would understand what he was getting at.
“Sort of, but my working theory,” he said, “is that there are so many good readers in the world who would respond positively to that sort of bafflement – who might be curious about it and a little destabilized by it, and dive right in. And, anecdotally, that has been the case. Difficulty – especially difficulty that, if endured, leads to an aesthetic or emotional payoff – is an honorable part of art, I think.”
Along with most critics, the Man Booker judges certainly agreed. Baroness Lola Young, chair of the judges’ panel, praised Lincoln in the Bardo as “utterly original.” Vox quoted her as saying, “This [book] really stood out because of its innovation — its very different styling and the way in which it paradoxically brought to life these not-quite-dead souls in this other world. There was this juxtaposition of the very personal tragedy of Abraham Lincoln with his public life, as the person who’d really instigated the American Civil War.”
More than most writers nowadays, Saunders came to writing by a circuitous route, earning a degree in geophysical engineering and working as a technical writer for a decade. In addition to his other “slender gifts,” he is an accomplished journalist. In 2016, he produced, for The New Yorker, what may have been the best reporting on the Trump movement of the campaign. He mingled with supporters at Trump rallies, finding them disarmingly human, if misguided.
“Lately I’m thinking that generalizations are difficult,” Saunders said. “‘If someone asks me, now, ‘What should we think of these Trump supporters?’ I’m inclined to answer: ‘Which one? And: ‘On what day?’ And ‘Under what circumstance?’
“I think we drive ourselves crazy with agitation otherwise. So: If a ‘Trump supporter’ falls in front of me and twists her ankle – I know what to do. If a ‘Trump supporter’ is screaming at someone he perceives to be ‘an illegal,’ I know what to do. I think we progressives need to practice what we preach — curiosity and empathy.”
That doesn’t mean progressives have to be passive pushovers, said Saunders. Empathy does not have to be toothless.
“If we really care about another person and see them doing something harmful,” he adds, “the most compassionate thing we could do is to help them cut it out. But the best way to do anything is at a specific time, specific place, specific circumstance, and with a truly open mind, to the extent we can manage it, so that all the data can get in.”
It could be said that empathy and curiosity are among the central themes of Saunders’ novel.
“My experience of my own slender talent is that, if something appears in front of me feeling ripe (as this Lincoln book did) I’d better grab it – ask no questions, just move ahead while it’s still alive for me. Any book is just that one book – there are, hopefully, others lined up behind it, waiting to be written.”
The Miami Book Fair International runs from Nov. 12-19 in downtown Miami. For more information, including tickets (Joe Biden will set you back $40, but most events are all but free), see www.miamibookfair.com.