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How writer George Saunders was inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s grieving

PREVIEW What: An Evening with George Saunders Where: Ambrosia Centre When: Tonight, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: Sold out Twenty years ago, someone told George Saunders a tragic tale about Abraham Lincoln.
George Saunders.jpg
George Saunders reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list with his novel Lincoln in the Bardo and has sold the film rights to the book.


What: An Evening with George Saunders

Where: Ambrosia Centre

When: Tonight, 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: Sold out

Twenty years ago, someone told George Saunders a tragic tale about Abraham Lincoln.

It was so powerful, the American writer never forgot it. Indeed, it altered the course of his literary life.

At the time, Saunders’ family was visiting Washington, D.C. His wife’s cousin mentioned that a famous crypt was situated on a nearby hill. It was the resting place of Lincoln’s son, Willie, who died in 1862 when he was 11 years old.

Saunders — who will give a reading and talk in Victoria tonight — was particularly struck by one detail. The cousin said Lincoln was so grief-stricken by the death of Willie, his favourite child, that he returned to the crypt on “several occasions” to cradle the boy’s body.

The striking image of a president deeply tormented by his son’s death got Saunders’ mind humming.

“That was interesting. I didn’t know if [returning to the crypt] meant on four successive days or over the course of several months. Who knows what happened,” he said in an interview from Corralitos, California.

“It felt, to me, sort of true. It also seemed crazy. How do you get from the White House to the graveyard? Was it at night? And why did he stop? What was the night when he went: ‘Yeah, I’m not doing this anymore.’ ”

This sliver of history inspired Saunders’ acclaimed new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

The movie rights have been purchased by actors Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) and Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation), who hope to produce an adaptation in collaboration with the author.

Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, the book takes place just before and after Willie’s death. Key characters exist in the “bardo,” a Tibetan Buddhist term referring to a transitional state between death and the next life. (A follower of Buddhism for the past 15 years, Saunders jokes that he “knows enough to be dangerous.”)

In the novel, Willie’s spirit sits cross-legged on his tomb, waiting for another visit from his father. Other phantoms, also ensnared in the bardo, comment on and narrate the story. One is Roger Bevins III, who committed suicide after being spurned by his male lover.

There’s also Hans Vollman, who married a young woman late in life, unexpectedly found happiness, but then died in a freak accident in which he was crushed by a beam that fell from his ceiling.

Touchingly, none of the spirits in Lincoln in the Bardo know they’re dead. They are blissfully unaware, referring to their coffins as “sick boxes” and Willie’s crypt as a “white stone home.”

Sometimes compared with Kurt Vonnegut for his free-wheeling imagination and satirical edge, Saunders is best known as a short-story writer. Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel. A writing professor at Syracuse University, he took a degree in geophysical engineering before turning to fiction full-time.

Although Saunders is better known in the U.S. than in this country, he has his share of Canadian devotees — the 400 tickets to his reading/talk at the Ambrosia Centre were snapped up weeks ago.

It may seem curious that Saunders waited two decades to write Lincoln in the Bardo after hearing about Willie Lincoln. He admits the project initially filled him with “trepidation.” Saunders said it took him many years to figure out — in terms of writing approach — how to tackle such a daunting subject.

“If the possibility of a [literary] voice presents itself, it’s exciting … your mind lights up, like a little puppy. If not, it makes me cringe a little bit. It always felt like the latter thing. I’d go: ‘Yeah, I don’t know. It’s a nice idea. But how would you start that?’ ”

There were false starts over the years. Saunders once tried to write the tale from a third-person point of view. This didn’t work.

He also experimented with a chat-line style of presenting the story. And he tried fashioning it as a play, but it turned out “like a very earnest after-school production.”

Abandoning the project was always a possibility. Certainly, writing a novel seemed more difficult than writing short stories, a discipline with which Saunders was both familiar and successful. But it occurred to the 58-year-old that it was now … or possibly never. “I felt I had to say yes to it or be in ‘perma-shrink’ mode. I thought it was time to do some stretching,” he said.

Lincoln in the Bardo is written in an unconventional manner. It’s essentially a series of monologues — some of them just a few words. Saunders says he used a “cut-up” technique (used famously by William Burroughs) to arrange some of the factual historical snippets. He would mix and match bits of typed paper to see what rang true.

“I guess it wasn’t random so much as it was like a Chinese restaurant [menu], one from Column A and one from Column B,” he said.

To keep from getting lost within the vagaries of technique or the maze of his own imagination, Saunders pinned up photographs of both Lincoln and Willie in his study.

“With this kind of project, it’s easy to get a little carried away with the experimental part of it. It just felt to me every time I would do that, or become overtly comic, the energy would drop a little bit. I would think, you know, these are real people who lived a long time ago,” Saunders said.

“As silly as it sounds, I would like to think if Lincoln read this, he wouldn’t be totally angry.”

Lincoln, who lived until 1865, was 53 when Willie died. Saunders believes writing the novel as a man his 50s made him better able to identify with Lincoln’s mid-life sorrow.

“You’ve lived long enough and seen the futility of certain things . . . You see there’s a sorrow in life. It’s not necessarily an unhappy sorrow. It’s just this sense of who you are and where you’re headed. It puts everything in a beautiful light,” he said.

“I think Lincoln got a super dose of that. It was a compressed version of what we’re going to have to be — hopefully — living to 180 to get.”