George Saunders: “Fiction is kind of like empathy training wheels.”

Lincoln-Bardo225Back in January, when the Amazon Book Review’s editors were choosing February’s Best of the Month picks, George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo was one of our hands-down favorites. We were bowled over, devastated and then, only a page or two later, elated by this wildly unconventional historical novel. It’s set in 1862, in the graveyard where Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, has just been interred. Lincoln, overwhelmed by grief, visits Willie’s tomb, unaware that all around him, ghosts of others buried there are deeply interested in his arrival. The story is told through their voices, interspersed with those of a few living characters, and snippets from histories of the period. You have to read it to believe it.

Well, we were not alone in loving Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s now #1 on the New York Times hardcover fiction list. A couple of weeks ago, Saunders read excerpts of the work at an event with Colson Whitehead, whose brilliant and innovative historical novel The Underground Railroad was the Amazon editors' pick for Best Book of 2016, won the 2016 National Book Award, and was also # 1 on the New York Times list. The two writers filled 900 seats in the 92nd Street Y’s biggest performance space. It was an awesome evening, in both the colloquial and dictionary definitions of that word, and proof, if any was needed, that ambitious, risk-taking fiction will find the audience it deserves.

It’s worth watching the free, on-demand video of that evening at the Y. You’ll hear the authors read from their books, with Saunders acting out his characters in voices so differentiated that you’ll wonder if he ever did stand-up comedy. And don’t miss the question-and-answer session. If you are scanning through, it’s about 13 minutes from the end. We’ve all heard about studies showing that reading literary fiction increases readers’ empathy. But Saunders has a very interesting take on how the act of writing increases an author’s empathy. “For me, I have a natural smart-ass tendency, so when I first make a character, he’s always under me, kind of a dummy, and the reader and I are going, ‘Oh, that poor idiot.’ And then somehow through revision as I approach it, that person has to come up. In the early drafts he’s just an object of fun, but then somehow the language in that mode is not as interesting as when you start concentrating on that person and thinking, ‘He’s an asshole, but what does that mean specifically?’ So then as you do that, the person actually starts to come up, and I guess the idea would be to get him as even with you as you could. So sometimes I find in life that I can actually can almost do that with actual people.... One thing fiction can be is kind of like empathy training wheels, where our habitual stance—of me up here, world down here—can kind of get adjusted. And weirdly, it’s somehow through attention to language. I always say, ‘Frank was an asshole.’ And fiction asks you to say, 'Well, how so?’ ‘He snapped at the barista, or whatever.’ And you’re like, 'Oh yeah, OK.’ ‘Well, why?’ fiction asks. ‘She reminded him of his wife—dead wife.’ And suddenly Frank is maybe still an asshole but a specific asshole, who is grieving for his dead wife. So Frank suddenly came up almost equal to you, and that seems good.”

Have a listen for yourself: Saunders and Whitehead are masters of literary fiction, and the video’s an amazing opportunity to hear their work and their reflections on the writing process.

 


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