Here, in a condensed and edited version of his chat with the Journal-World, National Book Award finalist George Saunders offers his thoughts on Abraham Lincoln's complex inner world, the connections between engineering and creative writing, and his feelings on the upcoming Booker Man Prize. (Saunders' novel "Lincoln in the Bardo" is heavily favored to win the prestigious British award, to be announced Oct. 17.)
In the meantime, you can catch Saunders at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St. As this year's Ross & Marianna Beach Series author, Saunders will participate in a live reading of "Lincoln in the Bardo" with a cast of well-known local faces, followed by a book signing.
Doors open at 6 pm. The event, organized by the Lawrence Public Library and the University of Kansas Libraries, is free and open to the public. No tickets are required.
I wanted to start by asking about the Man Booker Prize. A lot of critics have you pegged as the man to beat this year. Does that make you nervous at all?
Yeah, I’d rather be the underdog. I figure it’s going to be a little bit like dating in college — like a long, nice dinner and then a rebuff at the end (laughs). It’s such an honor to be asked. And yeah, it’ll be great. I’m in such good company. I’m reading all the other books now, and it’s like, “Wow.” They’re all fantastic.
Your bachelor’s degree was in geophysical engineering. First, how did you make that jump from engineering to creative writing? And how does that engineering background inform your writing? Is there much carry-over?
Yeah, in all kinds of ways. I was raised on the south side of Chicago and didn’t really have any plans to go to college. I was going to be in a band. Basically, that was my big career plan. And then, some high school teachers kind of intervened on my behalf and basically got me into the (Colorado) School of Mines out in Golden.
I didn’t even think about what I might want to do. I just got in that school and was just bound and determined not to flunk out, you know? Mostly, I just wanted to kind of justify the teachers’ faith in me and my parents’ faith in me. So, I got through engineering school, and at that time, there was an oil boom on, so even a kind of mediocre student like I was could go overseas. And I’d never been out of the country, so I leapt at the chance, went to Asia (and) worked in the oil fields there.
So, I guess while I was overseas it kind of occurred to me that I didn’t love engineering and wasn’t that good at it. But I really came alive when I was reading — with that feeling that a lot of artists would recognize, which is, on the one hand, you feel like, “I could never do this,” and there’s a little voice in your head that goes, “You could do this.”
It was a gradual sort of transformation, but it did really help me. I think one way was it got me out into the world a little bit and got me overseas and understanding how many of my ideas were just sort of provincial and small. I think also the logic of that kind of work (engineering) also got into my own writing. There’s a kind of a rigor in engineering. Engineering doesn’t care how hard you try — if the answer’s wrong, it’s wrong. So, that was something that’s been helpful to me over the years. I can do a lot of drafts of a story. After draft No. 400, if it’s still stupid, then I’m like, “OK, gotta do another one,” you know? I don’t have that expectation that putting in effort necessarily yields a result. You have to keep pushing.
Your newest book, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” deals with Lincoln’s grief over the death of his son, Willie. What I find fascinating about Lincoln was just how depressed he was throughout so much of his life, which I don’t think most people realize in their textbook understanding of him. What did you discover in your research about Lincoln that would surprise people or perhaps surprised you?
The way he describes himself is that he was really sad most of the time. And he mentioned that to explain the jokes that he used to tell. He used to tell these sometimes-bawdy stories, you know? I believe he said it was just a way of rousing himself out of that depression. And I don’t know whether it was clinical depression … but he certainly seemed like that guy who was sad a lot of the time. And he certainly had a lot of rough breaks in his life — children dying and catching a lot of grief in the world and so on. But one of the things that I thought was kind of moving about his story is that, OK, he’s kind of cursed with this sad nature, and so he tried to cope with it.
That was a much more interesting Lincoln to me than the one we get in history books where he’s just good. You know, smart, wise, all of that. That guy — I mean, I think those people exist, but I’m not one of them, so I don’t get much consolation from seeing someone like that. But you see someone like Lincoln who’s got all kinds of issues and who’s always working to be a better person. To me, that seemed a better role model — somebody who says, “Yeah, I’m kind of messed up, but I can still do good in the world, and I can still conspire to bring out the best parts of myself and suppress the parts that aren’t so powerful,” you know?
To what extent was the public aware of Lincoln’s mental health issues while he was alive? Do you think someone who was struggling to the extent Lincoln did would even be able to get elected today?
Yeah, because I think he was pretty high-functioning. I think it was just that he was kind of a serious, somber person. And I think also when he did get out into the public, he was an ass-kicker, you know? In his debates with Stephen Douglas, he was so vital and so alive and sharp and funny.
I did get the feeling that there was a real wisdom in his sadness. You know how it is when the world has really kicked you a few times? Maybe somebody you love is sick or dies, or those times in your life when bad luck seems to cluster around you and it really feels like God is playing a joke. The times when I’ve been in that situation, there’s a clarity that you get, because you’re no longer amping yourself up, you know? You’re like, “OK, bring it on. Pile the (crap) on me.” I think there’s a kind of clear vision in that where you go, “OK, I’m not putting up my defenses, I’m not denying anything. This life can be really hard.”
He was willing to see it pretty truthfully. I think in some ways, if we’d had a president who was more buoyant or was having better luck, that president might’ve had trouble understanding where we really were around 1863 or 1864 — which was, “All the chips are on the table and we’re not going to talk our way out of this, and we’ve finally reached a point in our country’s history where this Gordian knot has got to be snapped,” you know?
You’re working as a co-producer with Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally on a movie adaptation of “Lincoln in the Bardo.” How’s that coming along?
We haven’t really started yet, to be honest. I’m doing a TV show for Amazon, so I’ve been doing that. We’re just getting our ducks in a row and talking to a couple different directors. I’m supposed to try to write it at some point. I think we’re mostly just gathering our wits about us, because we want to make it really crazy and good. So that means kind of taking a leap away from the book as necessary to make it actually a fun movie. But those guys are so great to work with. They’re so creative and so generous-hearted. We all just keep reminding ourselves that it’s got to be a fun adventure — you don’t have to make a movie out of this, but we’re going to do it to put on a little carnival for ourselves.
I hadn’t heard that you were working on an Amazon series. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
It’s based on a story of mine called “Sea Oak” that was in a book called “Pastoralia.” So, we just filmed the pilot episode last spring with Glenn Close starring, and I’m writing it.
It’s a whole different thing. I’ve found that it’s really good for my fiction to go off and do different kinds of writing every now and then just to kind of kick the hornet’s nest a little bit. So, this has been a really fun adventure. We made the pilot, which will be out sometime soon, and then after that, we’ll find out if we’ll make the whole show or not.