How George Saunders used MacGyver tactics to write ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’

an evening with george saunders When: 7:30 p.m. MondayWhere: Writers Guild Theater, 135 S Doheny Dr., Beverly Hills.Tickets: Event is full, but standby numbers will be distributed one hour before the eventInformation: lfla.org/event/evening-george-saunders/...

How George Saunders used MacGyver tactics to write ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’

an evening with george saunders

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday

Where: Writers Guild Theater, 135 S Doheny Dr., Beverly Hills.

Tickets: Event is full, but standby numbers will be distributed one hour before the event

Information: lfla.org/event/evening-george-saunders/

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday

Where: Writers Guild Theater, 135 S Doheny Dr., Beverly Hills.

Tickets: Event is full, but standby numbers will be distributed one hour before the event

Information: lfla.org/event/evening-george-saunders/

George Saunders is not your typical first-time novelist.

The author of celebrated short-story collections “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “Pastoralia” and “Tenth of December,” Saunders has written stories, novellas, essays, journalism, a children’s book and a commencement speech before getting around to publishing his first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo.”

“For me, it was a bit of a pushback against midlife to say, I don’t want to be done yet,” said Saunders about trying a novel decades into a successful career writing short stories. “If I turn away from this idea that seems so dear to me, that’s a form of throwing in the towel.”

Currently on a nationwide publicity tour, Saunders will be in conversation with author Anthony Marra at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills on Monday as part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles’ ALOUD series.

Described by the author as a “labor of love,” “Lincoln” is a gripping, heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious story about the afterlife encountered by the 16th president’s son, Willie Lincoln, who died from a fever in 1862 in the early days of the Civil War.

Saunders said that years ago he’d heard an anecdote about President Lincoln cradling his dead son’s body inside the boy’s crypt and he couldn’t forget the image.

“I’ve tried for 20 years or something to resist doing it, and then at some point I felt like I’d grown enough as a writer to take it on,” said the genial author during a wide-ranging phone conversation. “The reason I hadn’t done it sooner was because it seemed too difficult, that it would require muscles I didn’t have.”

Narrated by the lost souls inside inhabiting a Georgetown cemetery — as well as utilizing quotes and historical citations (some real, some invented) and even the president’s own tortured thoughts — the novel is set in a kind of post-death limbo (the Bardo of the title) inhabited by troubled spirits.

“It’s almost like a punch line, ‘Who’s in a graveyard at night? Ah, ghosts!’” Saunders said, explaining why he felt he needed something other than a realist approach to tell it.

“If the story as you’ve written it seems to be begging for more power, then sometimes you have to kick down a wall and let some extra-realist element in. So in a sense you’re almost like MacGyver, you’re there trying to solve a problem and then finally at some point you’re like, ‘[Expletive] it, I need a paperclip!’ You didn’t really have a thing for paperclips” — or ghosts — “you just need one right then.”

The “Lincoln” audiobook gives voice to the book’s Civil War-era America with an astounding 166 narrators, include Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, Susan Sarandon, Bill Hader, Megan Mullally and more performers, as well as Saunders, his family and some of his high school teachers. Saunders credits producer Kelly Gildea’s “heroic” effort to put the large-scale effort together.

“He’s a great narrator, but I got a call from him last spring expressing absolute terror about having to narrate this himself,” said Gildea on the phone from the Woodland Hills studio where much of the audiobook was recorded. “When I looked at it and started reading, I realized that we couldn’t really do it in a conventional way with even just a handful of narrators. It was going to be something big.”

The recording process gave Saunders a chance to ease away from a story he’d spent years on.

“I was so sad to be done writing the book, and it was a nice way to decompress, like just do one more artistic project involved with this and now I can put it behind me,” he said.

The making of art matters to Saunders, and it’s something the author politely insists matters to the world.

“I’m more convinced than ever that art is not a sidebar or a frill or an indulgence — it’s actually the human mind firing on all cylinders. And we kind of marginalize that at our own expense. And I think a lot of political trouble we’re in now, actually if you trace it back, it has to do with the marginalization of art and the replacement of that with this materialist fetish that we have.”

Being kind, which Saunders addressed in his commencement speech “Congratulations, By the Way,” is something he believes necessary in these days of a divided electorate and the sometimes dehumanizing interactions of social media.

“Empathy for the people that you agree with is kind of a slam dunk,” he said, suggesting you need a balance between standing up for what you believe, which in his case are progressive causes, and accepting that others will disagree with you.

“Be a complete advocate for this stuff. And if you possibly can, maintain complete empathy for the people on the other side. Do everything you can to remind yourself that this is just another human being who’s going to be right about some things. Just to keep that civility in place, which I think that’s kind of an old person’s idea, to have civility, but to me it’s really the grease that keeps the democratic machine going.”

While he excels at writing horrifying behavior, Saunders aims to find beauty in his work, too.

“I’m kind of in a struggle to honor that — in other words, to keep the work lively and surprising and all that — while at the same time trying to be honest about the beautiful parts of life, one’s feelings for your kids or your gratitude, all that stuff. That has to be represented, because it’s real,” he said. “If the work of art only represents the hideous, you’re leaving something out.”

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