"I like the idea of a book that teaches you how to read it," George Saunders says.
His new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is just such a book. Saunders' innovative short stories and novellas have been winning prizes and garnering critical praise (and a MacArthur "genius" award for the author) since he began publishing in the mid 1990s, but this is his first novel.
Saunders will be at the Tampa Theatre to talk about Lincoln in the Bardo on Feb. 18. In a phone interview, he talked about its origin, its unusual structure and the star-studded audiobook version, with a cast of 166 different voices.
The idea for the book was born during a visit to Washington, D.C., during Bill Clinton's presidency. A friend talked about President Abraham Lincoln's son Willie, who died at age 11 in 1862, as Lincoln was grappling with leading the nation during the Civil War. According to newspaper reports at the time, in the days after Willie was placed in a crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery, the grief-stricken Lincoln visited several times to hold his son's body.
That image, of Lincoln and his son as a version of the Pieta, struck Saunders. "I'm not a very visual person," he says, "but I thought, I finally got a visual!"
He was intrigued, he says, "first, by Lincoln being able to leave the White House by himself late at night." Even more intriguing was the emotional complexity of Lincoln's actions.
At that time, Saunders, now 58, was at an early stage in his writing career. "I was learning what I could do, and all the stuff I couldn't do. I just thought, this is not going to be in my wheelhouse."
The idea kept coming back, though, and about five years ago it began to click. "Fiction is so intuitive," Saunders says. "One day you lift a rock and find all this fun stuff under it. For me, writing has to be fun. Or maybe compelling is a more grownup word. It was a kind of positive midlife crisis."
Still, he didn't intend to write a novel. "It was accidental. That's not my mode. I just started it with this internal mantra, no novel, no novel. I didn't want to put a burden on the material to force itself to be longer.
"But it was like when you're supposed to have a 20-minute conversation with someone, and suddenly you look up and an hour has passed. It was a matter of finding and honoring the DNA of the story."
That meant an unusual method: Lincoln in the Bardo is told in two ways, through snippets of historical record and through the voices of the dead buried in the cemetery Lincoln visits.
The novel opens with those voices, and it's a disorienting experience for the reader: Who is speaking, why do they seem so confused, what's going on?
That was intentional, Saunders says. "A book about the dead that was comforting and familiar wouldn't be right."
The "bardo" of the title is a term from Tibetan Buddhism for a transitional place where souls go after death to await their next incarnation. It has some parallels with the Christian concept of limbo, but not exactly. And Saunders' bardo isn't exactly the Buddhist version. "I didn't want to put that world in a story. It would be too neat a received idea.
"I wanted to write about an afterlife that is really freaky. You don't want the reader saying, 'Oh, St. Peter looks just like I thought he would.' "
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Chapters narrated by the ghosts are interspersed with chapters made up of quotes from newspapers, books and other historical sources. Some of those quotes are real, some Saunders made up.
Those chapters grew out of his extensive research for the book, and also as an essential part of its structure. "The ghosts are so much fun; they have no constraints," he says. "At some point the reader is going to say, oh, this is the writer writing. You want something to push back, some purely factual thing to bring the reader back into the fold."
Puzzling over how to get that factual information in — "The ghosts wouldn't know it" — he finally asked himself how he knew it: "You read it, dummy."
He typed up a mass of research and began editing, he says. "You can take a lackluster six-page party scene and zap it into a page and a half of poetry."
Both the ghosts and the history, he says, were a way of approaching the book's center, a famous and important man in a deeply human moment. "He's just this man who's in trouble. He's thinking about his boy at 12:06 a.m., it's cold, it's February, and he's in the ground. You need to find a mind meld with the historical Lincoln, that guy and yourself."
Steeping himself in writing about Lincoln, Saunders says, he came to see him as "a man who was always described as sad, deeply sad, but so many people described him as kind. He was always getting people off the hook. He didn't see anybody as his enemy. He always found a way to work things out. He was never thin-skinned, never took things personally. He had such empathy."
Those qualities made Lincoln a great leader, Saunders says. After he finished the book, he took an assignment from the New Yorker to hit the campaign trail last summer to write about Donald Trump's supporters. "I spent four years in a sacred space of not knowing (about current politics). Then I came down" to what he calls "this aggrieved, angry Trump movement."
"I'm snarking with people on the internet. It's a different mode, a lower mode."
Saunders also teaches writing at Syracuse University, where his students, he says, "are so good. You're not really teaching them, you're just coaxing them to go where they need to go."
He's excited about the audio version of Lincoln in the Bardo. His producer, Kelly Gildea, proposed finding a different reader for each voice — all 166 of them. (Penguin Random House Audio is applying for a Guinness World Record for most voices on an audiobook.)
Gildea assembled an "amazing" cast, Saunders says, that includes Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Don Cheadle, Lena Dunham, Keegan-Michael Key, Ben Stiller, Susan Sarandon, Jeffrey Tambor and Patrick Wilson. Other characters are voiced, Saunders says, by "my mom, my dad, two of my high school teachers, my kids" and the author himself, who voices the Rev. Everly Thomas, who is the closest thing the book has to a main narrator.
"I've been listening," Saunders says, "and it's so nice to hear the variety. It's like, 'America, step up to the mic!' "
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.