On March 6th, George Saunders made his third appearance with the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, in order to celebrate a first—his only novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, just debuted #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list.
To tour the book, Saunders has partnered with local actors in different cities to stage readings of the text. He borrowed performers from Houston’s own Alley Theatre—an experience he compared to driving a Lamborghini—for a scene in a graveyard haunted by two of his characters. Appropriately enough, the reading shared the stage with an eerie woodland set for the theater’s current production, Let the Right One In.
Novelist and Director of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program Alex Parsons interviewed Saunders, whose humane wit set the tone for the evening. “We’re just a couple of guys in the forest at night,” he said, settling into a chair wedged between the scenery.
The conversation addressed the book as well as questions around his writing process. In describing the conceit of Lincoln, in which ghosts can inhabit the living to gain access to their thoughts, Saunders discussed the problem of imagining the inner and daily lives of historical figures. Less concerned about whether the events of the novel did or could happen, he talked about wanting to explore what maybe should have. Instead of historic approximations, his approach rests (as his lauded short fiction sometimes does) on “a dramatic contrivance built to kick ass!”
My favorite moment of the interview was Saunders’ thoughts on the intimacy between reader and writer: whenever the writer condescends, respect is lost, and so writing should strive to intimate mutual respect. Consider, what does your reader really need to know? Cut everything else. (For more thoughts from Saunders on craft, check out his great interview with Gulf Coast Magazine.)
The novel has received high praise from all quarters, so what’s next for Saunders? He admitted to writing verse from time to time, and closed his reading with a recent piece.
A fragile egomaniac
Has taken up the reins,
Obsessed with size, defensive,
and unmoved by others’ pains.
He seems to think that saying A
While B is clearly true,
Will cause the truth of B to wane
And make A true, to you.
He stomps his foot and with his hand
He does that little chopper,
Then calls all things “amazing,”
As he tells another whopper.
What is it that he wants so much?
What wound must he assuage?
With all these lies and posturing,
and all that pent-up rage?
When all is said and done, it seems,
The thing he wants is MORE.
Enough to finally satisfy
some raging inner war.
Everything’s unfair to him,
So “sad,” so “overrated”;
Whatever gifts the world can give?
Insulting and belated.
If some of you who voted
For this vain and flailing man
Are noting now some meanness
In his attitude and plan:
It’s fine, it’s great, we welcome you!
Please come on back and aid us
In switching off the Kellyannes,
Who nightly serenade us.
With tricky sliding caveats
And puzzling odd denials
With scary twisted Orwell riffs
And sunny prom queen smiles.
In other times and places
This dopey gong has sounded
To claim that truth’s negotiable
And that we’re all surrounded
By enemies! By enemies!
By horror and by hate,
By refugees who want us dead,
And liberals sleeping late.
But what if, in the end, my friends,
What seems most true is true:
The president is like himself,
And not like me and you?
A famous guy for all these years
An ego in a bubble,
Who learned that great attention
Could be got by causing trouble?
And craving said attention,
Scuttled out in its pursuit,
The working man’s defender,
In a fine Brioni suit.
Speak out, rise up, correct and shout,
Be stubborn and satirical
Resist, rebuff, demand the truth,
Be positive and lyrical.
Your country needs you now, for sure
Your country needs your power.
It needs you like a fragile thing
In some uncertain hour.
For goodness, peace, and decency
Were never heaven-sent;
And each of us must now become
our own alt-President.
To watch the entire reading, enjoy this live streamed recording produced by Inprint and Houston Public Media.