Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
I’ve known George a little bit for a while now. We’ve chatted and emailed each other praise and encouragement. So it was a great joy to finally sit down with a writer whose stories have astonished me for years. His new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, takes his gifts into deep, expansive territory without sacrificing the comic concision and emotional explosiveness of his earlier work. No one has shaped the landscape of recent American fiction quite like Saunders. No one has shaped the lives of students in recent years quite like Saunders, either. A writer who studied with him at Syracuse University once said to me: “George taught me how to write, but more than that, he taught me how to be a person.” There are no real surprises when you meet George Saunders. He’s the kind, curious, witty, thoughtful, and open-hearted man you might expect from his writing. Which is not to say he can’t be viciously funny when the moment calls for it. We met at his hotel in New York City for over three hours. We ate a big plate of fruit and drank a pot of coffee.
Sam Lipsyte Last night, someone asked me how publishing a story in the New Yorker is going to fight—
George Saunders —oppression?
SL The oppression of the moment.
GS What did you say?
SL You can respond to the moment, but you can’t guarantee that whatever good might come of what you write will happen now. Your work may not be relevant or useful for a while, so don’t worry about it not meeting present needs.
GS Yeah, writing is not necessarily a short-term tool. That came up when I did the Trump story last year in the New Yorker. Sometimes, if I’m feeling egotistically needy, which is most of the time, I’ll drop the New Yorker card. If someone’s stonewalling, you can say, “Well this is for the…” But I went to five rallies and a bunch of other things and nobody knew what the New Yorker was. It wasn’t even, “Oh, that’s a liberal—
SL —commie mag!”
GS Or even, “That must be lamestream media.” It was just, “What’s that?” And because it had “New York” in the title, they’d then say, “It must be liberal.” It was amazing to realize that your big piece was not going to be landing on many ears, was not going to have the big persuasive effect you were hoping for.
SL Your New Yorker piece was really meaningful in the moment.
GS Well, thanks. I think there’s a way that preaching to the choir in a time like this can actually be helpful. Let’s make sure that our understanding of where we are is as profound as it can be so that whatever happens, we’re—
SL —all on the same page.
GS Exactly. If somebody on the left reads a good short story, they might be a little more confident, if not more receptive, when they have occasion to engage with someone on the right. By confident, I mean, of the other person’s humanity. If you have to fight somebody, it’s important that you’re not fighting a projection, but rather someone who you realize is a little more like you than you might think. Fiction can do that, I think, sort of soften the boundaries and reduce the level of projection.
SL That ties in with a lot of what you’re doing in Lincoln in the Bardo about shared suffering. There’s a line I recall: “Everybody has lost something, or is losing it, or will lose it.”
GS I believe that one hundred percent, and yet I hear so many friends saying that that’s a form of enabling at this moment. In other words, “Oh, we’re going to be the compassionate loving ones and we’re going to get run over.”
SL Or get our heads bashed in.
GS The perception is that the other side isn’t applying the same principles. But compassion doesn’t have to be wimpy. It can be quite energetic and even combative. The underlying idea—that everybody is suffering, that suffering people make mistakes and get violent—is a gentler form of “know thy enemy.” “Know thy opponent,” I say. When you engage in that wide-open, nondenial mode, you get more data, and, therefore, know better what to do if and when the time comes for action. You’re more persuasive and less full of shit. But things are strange right now. It seems to me that in the past, if things went beyond a certain point, into outright incivility or borderline fascist ideas, the media would intervene and reestablish some boundaries. Maybe by just disallowing certain guests, or subtly reinforcing the conventional (moderate) wisdom. I don’t think that’s true anymore.
SL People are not rational, it seems, and there’s no common sense anymore.
GS Exactly. I got a taste of that working on the Trump story. I would go out thinking I’d have long conversations with people, that we’d veer together toward some common ground, and then I would persuade them of my position. But suddenly the conversation would zip away to some totally unrelated point. I’d be thinking they were about to concede something, but instead they would just jump to some other thing. After four or five times, you’re like, “All right, nice to see ya.” Part of that is just human nature. No one likes to be wrong. But there was something new and toxic there, too. I didn’t really understand it then, but now I see it was extreme right-wing website thinking. I didn’t even know then that these sites even existed. I thought it was all just Fox News.
SL It’s not Fox. It’s not even Breitbart. I’ve been wasting my time reading really sick ones. The Daily Stormer, for example.
GS I’ve seen the Daily Stormer.
SL I read it and think that maybe I should troll them in the comments section and find a clever way to reveal their idiocy and hate. But it’s such extreme hate and scummy smugness over fallacious claims there’s not even ground enough there to do battle on. I’d just be swarmed, driven off, called “elitist kike,” or something.
GS After my Trump story, I got a lot of letters, mostly pretty civil, and I had a few exchanges that followed the same pattern. They’d usually start by accusing me of being elitist and arrogant. One was with a woman who said that fifty percent of Muslims are in favor of Sharia law in America. And I said, “Madam, sorry, that’s bullshit.” So she sent me the link, and I just did an English 101 deconstruction of the text. The headline didn’t fit with the text itself, the text itself was evasive, and in the sidebar there were articles like, “Obama to Cut Off All Food on Election Day.” I decided to just go through it point by point. And I did, trying to politely explain the places where the text was faulty and something about the fact-checking process at the New Yorker. I expected some kind of fight, but she was very sweet about it, and said, “That’s so interesting. I never thought of that.” If only we had time to do that for 400,000 people.
SL Marc Maron used to joke, “You know, if I can just reach one person, then I’ve failed.” (laughter)
GS (laughter) It was literally a case of bad Internet literacy. I don’t think she converted, but maybe she’ll think twice about it next time. Maybe.
SL It’s all drifting toward, “We have our paper, you have yours.” And “the New York Times is fake news that you believe.”
GS False equivalencies.
SL Traditionally, most right-wing sources were still tied to reality in some way.
GS The weird thing about the Internet is the scale. How many people are actually reading the Daily Stormer? Is it seventeen angry people or a hundred thousand?
SL It’s not 1930s Germany, but it’s something.
GS The danger is thinking that it’s the 1930s and looking for it, but it’s already appearing in many different guises. My friend Michael Herr used to say, “When the fascists come, they’re not going to be wearing jack-boots.”
SL Jeans and a T-shirt. Sandals. Or some business-casual clothes. Craft beer in hand.
GS It’s creepy.
SL So as we’re thinking about all this, we’re also trying to write imaginatively and create other worlds. Lincoln in the Bardo is such a marvelous novel.
GS Thanks. Luckily, I finished it before all this shit happened.
SL There are so many things to talk about. First of all, I couldn’t help thinking that these ghosts talk about themselves as being sick or that they’re in denial of their own death. It was a great device. I loved the world you created in the “hospital yard,” how Bevins, Vollman, and the Reverend cut off anyone who comes close to saying “coffin” or “grave”—”Don’t say that!!!” How does that play into the idea of the bardo state?
GS I read that if there was a disturbance in a house, people would go in there with a medium. One surefire approach was to ask the ghost what year it was and then straighten them out on that score. Apparently, they’d often sit up straight and leave at that point. So to underscore the fact that they were dead was kind of a deal breaker. There were many early drafts of my book where the ghosts were using the words “dead” and “coffin.” Toward the end of the book, there’s a moment when Willie uses the word “dead” for the first time, and it causes this panic. To heighten the effect of this, I went back and took out all previous uses of that word. But these thematic things always come via the technical route for me. I don’t think up the rules in advance. They reveal themselves in the revision process. Once I knew that they were all going to leave at the end, triggered by Willie’s use of the word “dead,” I saw that that couldn’t convincingly happen unless they hadn’t known until that moment that they were dead. I had to recalculate everything that had come before for that ending to work.
SL A new rule arose.
GS Yes, to honor the dramatic moment that came later—
SL —which initially you didn’t know was going to be the big moment.
GS Exactly. It was really cool to get to the end and see that that had been the sub-intention all along.
SL It’s funny how that works.
GS I like to put a lot of my thinking aside and rely on a kind of vaudeville approach, things like pace, dramatic payoff, and all the rest. I find if I concentrate on that stuff, everything else takes care of itself.
SL You have a classic vaudeville duo in this book, Vollman and Bevins. They’re major voices that guide us through everything. It’s a vaudeville routine via Beckett.
GS I’ll take that.
SL There’s also the Reverend, who doesn’t know he’s dead.
GS I didn’t know he knew that until near the end either. Same kind of thing. There was one really difficult scene where the three of them were leaving Willie behind at the crypt and I couldn’t quite get it to make sense. Then I realized that Vollman and Bevins had to leave the Reverend behind with Willie. So he’s there, alone with Willie, and that gives him a chance to turn to the reader and tell his story. That story indicated to me that he knew more about his condition than the other ghosts. So, again, responding to the structure of the story (what the story is telling you it wants to do) rather than to some preexisting idea about the story is key.
SL I find that to be really true in my work. Whatever I can think of beforehand is not very good compared to what I find when I’m just composing.
GS I think it was Gerald Stern who had that old chestnut, “You start off to write a poem about two dogs fucking and you write a poem about two dogs fucking… and you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” You have to have a little confidence that if you do whatever interests you on the surface level, whether it’s language or jokes or nature descriptions, then the other things—ethos and politics and so on—will arrive naturally on their own.
SL Exactly. Don’t worry about your big theme. You want the small ones that gather and accrue into something felt.
GS And that you couldn’t have predicted at the outset.
SL From what I gather, one of the things rattling around in your head for years was the image of Lincoln going into the crypt.
GS Yes, for about fifteen years. Actually, it was an image of him touching his son’s body, which actually did happen, according to newspapers of the time. I don’t know if he would have taken the body out. I’ve heard this creative writing notion that there are stories about what happened, what could happen, and what should have happened. The third one, of course, is the province of fiction.
SL It feels very natural. It doesn’t feel like you took it too far by having him cradle the body of his son.
GS In those days, they were a little more corpse-friendly.
SL So you had that scene and started writing. I think you’ve said somewhere that you also had a graveyard scene for another story.
GS Yes, I had that going back to ‘97 or so. It was a story set in Pittsford, New York, where I lived at the time. It’s an old colonial village and there used to be these photo books you could buy around town. These were books of historic photos of the place. So I’d walk by a house having seen a photo in one of these books, of, say, people playing croquet on that exact spot in 1906. There’s a little village graveyard and I thought it would be cool if the dead could talk to each other. I hadn’t read Our Town at that point, or Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. The idea was that on the day of your death in that town, the dead would eulogize you. It was a rickety idea, and the book was static and not funny enough—which scared me off. As a young writer, I produced a lot of stuff that didn’t work, so once I finally learned to be funny and got some career-traction that way, I became really addicted to a certain comic mindset and loathe to give it up.
SL You don’t want to lose who you are just because the material demands something slightly different. The question is how do you respect the material without losing your sensibility?
GS Yes. There were a couple of early drafts when I thought, That doesn’t feel like me. It’s not funny. I didn’t like that there was this Lincoln material I personally found very moving, but that I couldn’t seem to get at. I kept asking myself how it could be that the material moved me but I wasn’t technically good enough to work on it? That felt sad. I had to rethink some things that I thought were my strengths and rename them in order to get them into the book. For instance, maybe what I’d been calling “funny” was a category of what we might call “witty.”
SL In a lot of your stories what’s funny is the way narrators narrate themselves, the way they think they exist in the world versus how they actually do. There are plenty of moments in your new book where that happens within the secondary narratives. When these ghosts tell their tales, the humor that you’ve used before comes to the fore and works brilliantly. You found a way to do old-fashioned speech, its diction and rhythms and syntax, but make it reverberate in a contemporary manner. It’s an amazing spectrum of old-time voices because the ghosts are of different eras themselves, a hundred years of corpses in that graveyard, from the Revolutionary War guy to someone who’d just recently died. They all have different registers in the book, and we can laugh at them and with them.
GS Neurotics of all ages. (laughter)
SL How did you get into the syntax and diction?
GS I love what you just said, so I’d almost rather not answer. The short answer is that I realized pretty early on that if I was going to have this many characters, the voice-making would have to be done on a more subtle level than in, say, a story with just two characters. The voiciness would have to be a little quieter and sometimes even dependent on small typographical or syntactical things. Now let me ask you something: You have a great scent for where the comic vector is—so what gets you from the first paragraph to three pages?
SL I think I follow something strange in the sentence itself. Sometimes, I’m really working sentence to sentence.
GS Is it a sound thing?
SL Yes, it’s often acoustic. I’ll do something until I know what’s happening. If I have that acoustic integrity, I can keep writing until I figure out what it is.
GS That shows in your work. I have a feeling that what you’re calling acoustic integrity is about what feels necessary. It sounds so good, it has to have happened. That’s interesting.
SL That’s a good way to think about it. In the first five or ten pages, I start to see how many elements I’ve thrown into motion. Is this thing spraying out or is it already starting to have short story contours?
GS I always talk about that as throwing the bowling pins up. You just throw the bowling pins up and then you see how many you have and how long they want to stay up.
SL Then all of the ideas about what should happen can start rushing in but you have to keep them at bay at first.
GS Yes. This book was a little different than my stories, maybe more similar to nonfiction in that I had some idea of where I was headed. Not much, but a little bit. More than I would for a story. I knew this was not going to be twenty years in the life of Lincoln, or eight years. It was going to be just that one night.
SL That’s a big part of reading your book. There’s that startling and provocative scene at the end when he has sort of reached some pinnacle of empathy for humankind, and then resolves himself to kill.
GS That was a big moment for me, too. It was channeling myself into Lincoln and having all that material about suffering, which I totally believe, but then having to tell myself, “That’s not going to work. You’re full of shit.”
SL That was such an amazing turn at the end, and so necessary.
GS It felt honest. Even as I was doing it, I thought, I don’t like that, but it’s honest.
SL You can’t just sit there and be peaceful Lincoln.
GS Right. I can’t have him calling Jefferson Davis—even though the telephone isn’t invented yet—saying, “God darn it, Jeff! Can’t we just put this behind us?”
SL As we were saying earlier, that’s because the Confederates weren’t going to be convinced. (laughter)
GS No, they weren’t. If you read the history of the period, it’s very similar to our own time. People talking across each other, and the vehemence … My daughter reminded me of Charles Sumner, the abolitionist Senator who was caned almost to death in the Senate. They weren’t joking around.
SL Can you talk about your historical sources? It’s masterful the way you use citation to not only tell us where we are in the story but also to question the figures who are speaking. You have these great runs where they all contradict each other about the moon or the color of Lincoln’s eyes.
GS The historical sources are full of contradictions. I first thought of introducing the historical sources because a ghost-only book was feeling sort of flimsy. A ghost is a bit like a dream sequence. You can have them do whatever you want them to, and that made the early drafts a little wobbly. There was too much freedom.
SL What are the stakes for a ghost? (laughter) Thinking about the historical record of Lincoln, I wonder how it might have become an anchor for you in the process.
GS For me, the story of Lincoln going into the crypt was weirdly meaningful, and I’d done a lot of reading about it over the years. Part of the reason the story moved me was because of the historical context. So I knew I needed to get some of that history into the book, and the question was how to do it. There were a lot of things about the circumstances around Willie’s death that drew my interest. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln threw a big party while Willie was dying that I’m sure they felt badly about. It was in the press. How do you get that in? The direct historical quotations became a mechanical way to get some spine in the story.
SL You didn’t want to rewrite it.
GS That’s right. I tried and it was very bland. So I thought I’d eliminate the middle man. But then I started working with that historical stuff and got a little panicked. I remember sitting in my shed having typed everything up, cut it up with scissors, and moved it around. I had a long day of that, and thought, God, what would my writer friends think? I’m not writing. But when I looked at version ten or eleven, it was a lot better than the one I’d started with. It’s a form of curation, really.
SL You’re creating narrative and texture. It reminded me a bit of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke.
GS Yes, or Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana. Have you ever read that one?
GS It’s an alternate history of the twentieth century, all true, but arranged in a weird way. For example, he starts the fascist era by concentrating on American nationalist groups like the ones Charles Lindbergh was involved with. It throws your whole sense of history off, and yet every word in it is true.
SL Baker’s book is about our entrance into World War II, but it’s all quotes. You get this kind of alternate pacifist version of the story, but you also really get the arc of all the politics.
GS That’s amazing.
SL You handle the history beautifully. There was just enough to create momentum and context, and set up the reader at a new place in the narrative—and have a little fun with the idea of ever having a definitive history of events.
GS It was fun to figure out the rules for how to bring the history sections in. I wanted the book to be really emotional no matter what I had to do to get it there, so the history sections were almost a concession. I didn’t really want to do them, but I could see that they gave the book more substance. So I decided to throw down on it one hundred percent, and then we had to go around and get permissions for everything. It was amazing how many lines I stole. But then I thought: if the payoff is good, then it’s all right.
SL Did you get to play with the quotes?
GS I never altered any actual historical quotes. But I made some up—a lot of them, actually. And the ones I made up were always, in their first form, a little more writerly—they sort of stuck out like sore thumbs, compared to the “real” ones—so then I had to back those down and say, “This is not the time to be fancy, or funny.”
SL You made up certain books, too?
GS Oh yeah. A bunch.
SL But some are real.
SL Lincoln is your most ghostly character in a way, even though he’s the living being in the book.
GS It was fun to say, “If you introduce a concept you have to remember that you introduced it, clarify its rules, and then develop it.”
SL It has to pay off.
GS Exactly. The ghosts ended up producing the big revelation of this book for me. One of the ongoing questions was, Okay, I’m asserting that if a ghost passes into a living being, it can channel the living being’s thoughtstream. Now, does it work the other way around? There were many different answers over the course of the revision, and the question stayed open until the very end. In other words, they think not, they think so, they hope so when they inhabit Lincoln during that long walk, and then, when he goes ahead and leaves the cemetery, they are discouraged and think, No, actually, we can’t, we can’t influence the living, who did we think we were? At the very end, we see that actually this thing has inflected Lincoln’s mind a little bit. That was not planned out at all. It was there all along as a rules-of-the-world question.
SL How about the comedy? You keep reminding yourself while reading that Vollman’s enormous member is hanging out there for the entire book. (laughter)
GS That was one of the things I had to keep remembering. I had to keep remembering that huge shlong. That’s a good creative writing catchphrase: “Keep remembering the huge hanging shlong.”
GS But I’m relieved to be able to use contemporary diction again. I was in 1862 for about five years, and I wasn’t reading much fiction. Weirdly, since I was a kid, I’ve always found the contemporary world very beautiful—even in its ugliness. I used to go to Sears with my mom and just look at how they arranged things and listen to people. Working on this, all that fell away. I had a panic-stricken couple months thinking I’d lost all interest in the present.
SL You were stuck in 1862.
GS Yes. It was as if pulling out of the language-generating machine of our era actually made it less alive, which is a bit freaky. Luckily, we have our politics to warm us up again. (laughter)
SL The political language felt a little richer in those days.
GS It was kind of funny. Once I gave myself permission to do nineteenth-century speech, I found that I could describe many more things, things I didn’t know I was capable of describing. Suddenly you’re smarter.
SL In those days, speech had to do that. It was television. It had to paint a picture.
GS That’s right. Today, our language is so utilitarian and materialist—almost as if language that does anything other than communicate information is self-indulgent or weak.
SL That’s because it doesn’t have to take care of the visual and no one’s really interested in the poetry.
GS Or the ambiguity. I wonder what the relation is between that and the obnoxious political speech or outright lying we’re seeing today.
SL That’s just the other side of information: disinformation.
GS So if you say it simply, you can also lie about it simply. In the nineteenth century, there was always a tendency toward expressing an idea across a range of frequencies, which is really rich. Today, there’s no more painting a picture or telling a story. It’s just, “Yeah, we’re gonna get jobs. We’re gonna build this. It’s gonna be amazing.”
SL There’s no attempt to craft a narrative.
GS It’s people pounding each other with one-liners. If you read some of Lincoln’s speeches, it’s clear that he was taking a lot of chances. He would admit the virtues of the other side’s argument. As a lawyer, apparently, he would do the same thing. If he was defending somebody, he would concede the easy stuff and then go right at the opponent’s most worthy argument and refute it. Today, politicians are so scared of having something excerpted that they just say, “Jobs, jobs, jobs, virtue, etcetera.” In the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Lincoln would just say, “Here’s what I think Senator Douglas is saying at his best. Now, allow me to demolish it.”
SL That’s a great point. Today, you can’t even grant the idea that somebody might be right about something or that you might see the other side’s position at all.
GS His conclusions in those speeches take your legs out from under you. He grants your argument and then comes back very calmly, and almost syllogistically shows the flaws in your best-case argument. One thing that’s gone out of our system is a willingness to tolerate andrefute someone who says something hurtful. The anger was so great at those Trump rallies that you just didn’t have time to stumble or grant that someone else had a point. You had to always be playing defense, and it’s exhausting. Trump’s like the drunk friend who, once he says the worst thing he can say and you’ve failed to object to it, and remain friends with him, thinks he has permission to say whatever he likes going forward. That’s where I turn to literature and, especially, to editing as a model. When I was a kid, I was an Ayn Rand fan. In college, I was full of hyperbolic right-wing one-liners, and I think I trained myself out of that by revising my work, by putting something down, looking at it, and not being able to tolerate it. Also by living, traveling, and so on. But the moment you look at your own prose and say, “That’s some hyperbolic bullshit,” you’re smarter.
SL There’s a moment in your book where Lincoln says, “Now it’s time to kill.” I don’t know what that means for the left in America.
GS I don’t know what that moment means in general, actually. It had to be that, but I’m still thinking about it. Certainly, slavery was going nowhere with negotiations, so he had to be thinking that Providence was expressing itself through necessity. In other words, he didn’t understand why 40,000 people had to die in a single catastrophic battle, but he said something like, “If that’s what’s needed to offset the hundreds of years of the bondsman’s lash, then that’s it.” Basically, he said: “If God wanted slavery to be over, it would be over. It’s not over, therefore, let’s get after it.”
SL We’ve got to end this.
GS And we’re not going to do it by pulling back and negotiating. We have to complete the mess we’ve made, which is really scary. If I were alive then, I’d probably be one of the idiots saying, “Negotiate! Everyone’s dying!” Researching this period made me realize that life has always been insane and fundamentally unsolvable. I heard a Buddhist teacher once say, “Life is not fixable.” The idea is that there isn’t a system that will always work, there’s no sustained, golden age.
SL There are some slave voices in your book. How did you approach that?
GS At first, I thought, I’m not going to do Lincoln, and I’m not going to get into slavery. It’s too hard. It’s the night of a funeral, and that’s it. But as I wrote, I realized I had to. At that time, I think, Oak Hill Cemetery didn’t allow African Americans to be buried there. That led me to imagine having a small number of slaves buried in a kind of Potter’s Field adjacent to it. I had to wait for the moment when it would be natural for them to come over the fence and purposefully enter the graveyard. In trying to decide how to embody the first of them, Elson Farwell, I thought, If I had been born at that time as an African American, what kind of slave would I have been? I thought I’d have been a person who was trying to game the system by being extremely agreeable—that’s kind of my approach to life. It became a matter of finding a speech to embody that person.
SL Lincoln’s feelings about race shifted, we think. But do we know if he really changed some of his personal racist beliefs?
GS I think he did. He came very far in four years. By the end of his life, I think, he supported the vote for African Americans and was leaning heavily towards the forty-acres-and-a mule idea. In the early debates with Douglas, he dismisses the idea of intermarriage, but by the end he was in a different place.
SL Was Lincoln a figure for you as a boy?
GS I grew up in Illinois, so he was always present, and I think there are times when I projected onto him. He’s somebody it’s easy to do that with, like Jesus—or like David Foster Wallace. There’s something so universal about these people that you recognize some part of yourself in them. At the same time, one of the reasons I avoided writing this book for so long was that I just didn’t like the idea of writing about Lincoln. In the end, I didn’t really write “him.” But the more I studied him, the more I came to love him and think of him as this incredible spiritual being.
SL I’ve read a little bit about that era. People said horrible things about Lincoln in the newspapers all the time. There was also a meme about Lincoln being a dictator, and not just in the South.
GS He kind of was. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus.
SL And then there were figures like General McClellan who were superstars.
GS And would-be dictators.
SL Yes. Even though McClellan was Lincoln’s general, he was scheming against him, making political plans—even refusing to go into battle if there was a chance he would lose. It’s fascinating.
GS We’re in a pretty chaotic time today, but the differences are striking.
SL It was an all-bets-are-off feeling, I think.
GS I think so, too. In the midst of that chaos, nobody knew what was going on. You’d get a report that tens of thousands of soldiers are dead in a single day. How do you, as the leader of the country, deal with that? Lincoln gets reduced, in our time, to the guy on the penny or in the comical car commercials, but there he was, this real guy whose son had just died, and he was seen as badly mismanaging the war and causing all this death. He must have felt like the world’s biggest fuck-up. There was a story that after one of the big massacres, which was supposed to be a Union victory but had turned into a debacle because somebody made a mistake, that he paced all night long in his office. An assistant left at midnight and came back at five in the morning, and he was still pacing.
SL He trusted the wrong people sometimes. He would listen too much to one guy, and then too much to the other. His generals kept failing him in one way or another. It took him a while to find his inner voice.
GS Yeah, that’s a beautiful notion. There’s a whole line of thought that had he not died, he would not have become such a hero. He did win the war, but at that point the cost was just starting to become clear. There was also the fact that there were so many white racists in the North. But then his death gave him a saintly patina.
SL What do you think of Lincoln as a writer?
GS He’s great. I read a lot of his speeches just to get him into my head. He was an incredible writer. But he didn’t sound like that without revising. I had to keep that in mind when I was channeling him. For example, he once said in a speech: “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we will save our country.” A beautiful sentence. For a while, I tried to work in the word “disenthrall,” until it occurred to me that this wasn’t the kind of word he would have used casually. So I thought, Just put as many of his words in your head as you can, and maybe some of his rhetorical patterns will seep in when you are channeling him.
SL He’s got legal logic, but also a fine ear.
GS The fun thing was to realize that I wasn’t really writing a book about Lincoln, but about Lincoln from 11:35 to 11:40 PM, sitting against a particular tree, having just come from somewhere. It’s constraint stuff, basically.
SL You were talking about the label of the comic writer. I’ve always felt like all the writers I like could be called comic writers, and it just means that life is funny and tragic.
GS Serious writers are often just the ones suppressing the funny shit.
SL When I was younger, I felt that books couldn’t be funny, that there was something weird about a funny book.
GS Were the people in your family funny, joking people?
SL Absolutely. My dad was always full of bad jokes and puns. Gloriously bad stuff. My sister is the funniest in the family.
GS So where did the resistance to humor come from?
SL I think it came from school, where reading books was taken very seriously, or treated in this often ponderous way, even though they could be very funny.
GS They didn’t get credit for the funny.
SL Well, I had a few very sharp English teachers. But often there was a suppression of the comic nature of life.
GS In real life, if there’s a moment that’s not funny, there’s no guarantee that the next one won’t be a pratfall.
SL Exactly. The humor comes from the fact that we often have grand visions of ourselves, or possess some kind of absurd certainty about the way things are. We can’t see that we’re flawed humans staggering around in a world where there’s mostly uncertainty.
GS Somebody farts in an elevator and no one says anything. (laughter)
SL As you were saying before, it’s not about getting rid of the comedy but finding other ways that it operates.
GS Even that binary of funny versus serious—it doesn’t have anything to do with real life. The other idea that seems important now is that good small actions are good actions. In the face of the Trump election, you feel like you want to do something huge, but the small things that have always sustained society are even more valid. Loving your family and so forth.
SL Also, on the level of civility. The day after the election I was on the subway and everyone was being extra nice. It was really sweet to see.
GS Yes, I noticed that. One of the dangers of social media is that those civilities get lost in the shuffle. People think it’s the big pronouncement that’s important, but it’s the little daily decisions that actually oil the machine. After my Trump report, I realized that there hasn’t been a major fiasco since World War II. There have been some pretty significant smaller ones, but not an all-encompassing one that humbles us and makes us realize how conditional things are and how lucky we’ve been to live in a relatively sane time and place. We haven’t had one in our lifetime. One thing I observed about some of the Trump people I interviewed is a tendency to be a little spoiled. “Oh, America is falling apart.” I’m like, “Have you looked at the unemployment rate lately?”
SL So many people in the world live with uncertainty, with no idea what their government or their lives will be like in two, three, or five years. Now we’ve arrived at that place in America.
GS We all like courage, compassion, and love. In my lifetime, I’ve mostly had a chance to enact those at rest. Now we’re going to find out what courage looks like, what engagement looks like, and why writing is important when we have to do it in a moving vehicle. If you look at the Civil War period, the heroism is magnified when you realize how confused everybody was. There’s a famous story of Joshua Chamberlain, a Union soldier at Gettysburg. Some say that he won the battle because he ordered a bayonet charge against overwhelming numbers of Confederate soldiers charging his hill. He freaked them out and they turned back down the hill. It’s incredible. This was a real person in his early twenties who did this through some sort of intuition.
SL It’s a hard, interesting moment today, but we don’t want to get too apocalyptic. Let’s save it for the apocalypse. (laughter)
GS Yeah, that’s another form of projection. I also did a piece for GQ about the so-called Minutemen who patrol the border in Texas. A lot of those folks seemed to have daddy issues. I was a little older than they were, and whenever I’d engage them, they loved the attention. Just like at the Trump rallies, people loved the fact that a liberal was listening to them. You could see it softening them a little bit. If you project confidence and acceptance, you’ll get a hearing. Not always, especially, if there are a thousand far-right-wingers there. But within a typical group, there’s a lot of room for progressives to operate with confidence, to say, “I’ll listen to you. But I’ll prove you wrong and I won’t flinch, I won’t do the liberal flinch. Let’s fight a little bit and argue.” I see a lot of wilting on our side. “Oh, I didn’t know our country was like this.” At the same time, I’m saying to myself, “Dumbass, it’s on you. Why didn’t you know that? You’re a writer, and the heartbreak that you feel is proportional to the extent to which you were badly informed.”
SL Or “I knew, and I was just dismissive.” There’s that, too.
GS There’s definitely that, and it goes in both directions.
SL It’s not on liberals to be more understanding than people on the right. But it’s just the nature of their values that they’re a little more interested in understanding, compassion, and empathy.
GS As long as we remember that the compassion doesn’t have to mean wilting. We have to skillfully protect and defend people Trump has terrified, which means having a little bit of spine and calling bullshit when we see it. I always think art has to heal and teach, but historically, to do that, it has sometimes had to be really abrasive. Louis C.K., for example, is not always gentle. In comedy, sometimes you’re just purposefully saying the craziest shit. But doing so can raise the conversation to a different level.
SL I was just talking about this in a fiction workshop. Have you ever read the film critic and painter Manny Farber? He loved to talk about the old days of Hollywood, when they’d have guys writing scripts, and, if I have this right, they’d always have the wild man at the table. They’d say, “Well, what’s going to happen next?” And he’d just say, “He fucks a chicken!” And they’d say, “No, he doesn’t fuck a chicken, but he can go to this farm and—
GS —pick up a chicken!” (laughter)
SL Exactly! You have to be your own wild man when you’re writing. You have to go all the way out there to see how far it can go to figure out what works. And either you’ll get bottles broken over your head, or you’ll get to a real conversation.
Coming back to comic writing, I’m always asked, “Do you just write it and then put the jokes in at the end? (laughter)
GS I never got that one. It’d be nice if you could do it that way.
SL It takes a while for people to really understand that, it’s just your filter, it’s how you take things in.
GS For me it’s also my defense.
SL It’s a defense mechanism, sure. But you can also use it to open up, to be vulnerable. That’s when it’s most powerful.
GS I also use it for balance. Sometimes, as a person, I’m too straight up and didactic. So when I have some prose like that, I can puncture it with humor. My development as a writer was not to clean up or eradicate either tendency, but to learn to use them in tandem.
SL I’ve always felt similarly. It’s a way to cut against the pressures that build through the momentum of the story, a character, or a situation.
GS It has to do with an awareness of the imaginary reader and how much she is going to take. After grad school I had so many big ideas about writing, and then, when I started working my first engineering job, they all fell away and I retreated to a simple model of, “Who’s reading with me? Where is she right now?” Have you ever received one piece of writing advice that really woke you up?
SL In a workshop in college, I wrote that someone spooned up some instant coffee and put it in his mouth. I thought I’d described the sensation accurately. But the following week, some guy in the workshop came up to me and said, “You know, I did it, and it’s not like that at all.” (laughter)
GS You hadn’t done it.
SL No, and that was a good little lesson. But it didn’t change my style trajectory. I don’t even believe in style. I think it’s all one thing. A teacher said to me once, “Just tell it plain.” That struck me because I was trying to do a lot of pyrotechnics, but they needed to be connected.
GS To tell it plain?
GS That’s really good. It’s permission-giving because when you’re young you think that nottelling it plainly is what you have to do.
SL That’s what all my students are struggling with. “I don’t want to be obvious,” they keep saying. And I answer, “It may be obvious to you, but it’s not going to be obvious to the reader.”
GS That’s right. Almost like an algebraic equation: if you make it more obvious than you’d like, you’re buying back a lot of clarity, so later you have space to be more creative. In this book, that was a big thing: I didn’t want to be obvious, but I wanted to make a big platform the reader could stand on, to be a little difficult at the beginning in the hope that it would pay off by the end. One moment like the one you describe I had was with Douglas Unger. He used to have us over to his house, and we were a particularly pyrotechnic group. I think he wasn’t really happy with the first wave of stories. So right before the break, he said, “When we come back, you’re each going to tell a story off the top of your head. And we’re going to go around the room. Not something you’ve written, something you know.” That was the only instruction. So we came back, and the difference in the storytelling was unbelievable. Because of that performance pressure, and because we didn’t have a lot of time to think about it, students just brought forth something that they knew would be cool. The difference between the stories we chose to tell in their writing and the ones we chose to tell in that moment of duress was striking, and the latter were much better. We were drawing on what we were actually good at.
SL That’s a great anecdote. It’s similar to an exercise in which you ask a student tell the class a joke. It teaches you a lot about structure, too. If you can tell a joke, you can write a story.
GS And if you can’t, you can’t.
SL (laughter) I didn’t say that!
Sam Lipsyte is the author of five books of fiction, including The Fun Parts (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) and The Ask (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). A 2008 Guggenheim fellow and winner of the Believer Book Award, he teaches at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.