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Man Booker Prize Winner George Saunders On His Craft, The Internet, And A Reading List For Donald Trump

The pleasures and pains of the writerly life.

20/10/2017 9:32 AM IST | Updated 20/10/2017 11:51 AM IST
Mary Turner / Reuters
George Saunders, author of 'Lincoln in the Bardo', after winning the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2017 in London, October 17, 2017.

On 18 October, George Saunders became the second American to win the Man Booker Prize, since it was opened out to writers in English across the world.

Lincoln in the Bardo, the book for which he won it, is his first novel, published at the age of 58 and after a successful career as one of America's finest short story writers.

A haunting story, put together with patchwork quotes from extant sources, historical documents as well as imagined chronicles, Lincoln in the Bardo is unabashedly brave with its formalist experiments.

Moving between 19th century America and that nebulous zone called the Bardo, in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, where the souls of the dead get stuck on their way to heaven or hell, the novel revisits a grieving Abraham Lincoln, struck by the death of his 11-year-old son Willie in 1862.

The story, featuring apparitions and humans, is complex and layered, but executed with a lightness of touch and spirit of generosity, making Lincoln in the Bardo a contemporary classic.

Saunders spoke to HuffPost India on email soon after he was named the winner.

READ: George Saunders Wins Man Booker Prize For Debut Novel, Lincoln In The Bardo

Many congratulations! To begin with a rather obvious question: tell us the thoughts that crossed your mind when you were named the winner.

Thank you so much. I honestly wasn't expecting to win, so my mind went pretty much blank. Then a surge of gratitude. And then a surge of gladness that I had already written a speech and would not have to improvise, from that state of high adrenaline.

Your transition from short fiction to the longer form has given us a beautiful, structurally complex and many-layered novel. How did this shift affect your writing and thinking? I'm also curious about its physical and emotional impact on you in general.

Well, thank you again. I would say that writing the book put me, for those four years, in a really wonderful, elevated mental state — open and curious, having fun on every writing day. Using that 19th century diction (or my approximate version of it) had the effect of opening up new areas of my mind. It felt as if, in the first half, I threw a bunch of bowling pins into the air, and then they came down very deliberately in the second half, as if they had wills of their own — a magical and mysterious process that I am still thinking about.

What would you say is the most frustrating moment for a writer and how do you overcome it?

I love this quote from Einstein: "No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception." And I try to think that any frustration I feel when writing is, essentially, the story telling me that my current vision of it is too small. It has higher aspirations for itself and my attempts to control it — my attempts to handle (and limit) it with my conceptual apparatus — is causing the story to throw a small tantrum, until I adjust my vision upwards.

READ: If You've Ever Grieved Over The Death Of A Loved One, You Must Read This Book

You began writing Lincoln in the Bardo years away from the political moment America is witnessing now. From its conception to publication, did the world of circumstances, especially the upheavals America has been through in the last few years, affect the destiny of the novel?

The book was essentially finished before the rise of the Trump phenomenon. But I think that if a writer is working hard and trying to get her or his work to be as deep as possible, it will accommodate whatever political moment arises. In this case, it was interesting to have written (what I see as) a sort of homage to the honourable and beautiful parts of the American project, only to see the country veer off the path. It felt good to have clarified my relation to my own country, via the book. Then it is possible to see the current administration for what it is — an unfortunate and dangerous misunderstanding of our (true, better) national ethos.

Does your writing follow a regime? How do you cope with boredom? What's your relationship with the Internet like?

I try to write every day, although that is getting more difficult with my travel schedule. But when I'm working, I like to start fresh in the morning and work all day. It helps, I've found, if I start out in a happy state of mind. I don't get bored writing. I find that if I re-read what I've already written, that's a good way to start. I can feel all kinds of opinions about the text, and that is...well, that's writing, actually. To start marking up the page, to get into conversation with the text. As for the Internet — I am getting pretty sick of it, actually. I notice that my mind "on Internet" is snarkier, more aggressive, shallower, less kind. So I don't do social media, except for a pretty minimally attended Facebook author page. I've recently taken news links and Facebook off of my phone and am trying to be a little more mindful about checking mail. The real world is so beautiful and we are here for so short a time. The "virtual" world is just that — not real — and our manners in that realm are not so good. So why spend any more time there than is necessary?

As for the Internet — I am getting pretty sick of it, actually. I notice that my mind "on Internet" is snarkier, more aggressive, shallower, less kind.

I'm just as curious to know about your reading rituals: e-books or print, marginalia or clean books, the state of your to-read pile and what all there is in it, if you reread any particular books and which ones, your guilty secrets as a reader, the books you liked and disliked among the ones you read last.

I am a dedicated but not prolific reader. I tend to go back to certain favourites that I know will inspire me: Toni Morrison, Isaac Babel, Nikolai Gogol, Flannery O'Connor. I've recently read a brilliant book called Stamped from the Beginning, A History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Fendi. I am also re-reading some James Baldwin at the moment, and had a beautiful experience reading the books of my fellow Man Booker Prize shortlisted writers.

If you were to send three books to President Trump, what would those be?

"How to Be a Better and Kinder President of the United States," might be one. Ha ha. No — I would send The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison — a beautifully compassionate book. Maybe Enrique's Journey, by Sonia Nazario, which opens up the dismissive phrase "illegal immigrant" and puts a human face on it. Also, Exit West, the wonderful novel by Mohsin Hamid, my fellow short-listed author, which might help the President have more empathy for refugees. I would also recommend Ghettoside by Jill Lepore, as an antidote for any too-simple thinking about urban violence.

If you weren't a writer who (what) would you have been?

I once heard the great American writer Tobias Wolff answer this question with one word: "Sad."

I likely would have been a musician — which, given the extent of my musical talent, would have been sad for everyone, or at least uncomfortable.

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