No one needs another spiel about Why George Saunders Is Important. He’s “the writer for our time,” according to the New York Times Magazine, which laid that honorific at Saunders’s feet in 2013 upon the publication of his story collection Tenth of December. And with the release last week of Lincoln in the Bardo, he became a long-awaited first-time novelist at age 58. But you’re probably aware of this already. What I wanted to find out is: What don’t we know about George Saunders?
After all, he’s filled readers in on much of his life through his nonfiction. While his stories are often set in bizarre or supernatural environments—Civil War-themed amusement parks, dystopian future societies, the afterlife—the emotional insights Saunders extracts from his characters’ experiences are timeless. But there’s an art to taking real-life exploits and using them to speak through metaphor; it’s a skill that’s just as difficult and impressive as creating a fictional world. In “Chicago Christmas, 1984,” a personal essay from a 2003 issue of the New Yorker, Saunders recounts a gloomy time in his mid-20s when he was a broke wannabe writer living back in his hometown, in his aunt and uncle’s basement, and working on a roofing crew when he became acquainted with a coworker unable to shake off his bad habits—specifically, gambling—despite the man’s awareness of the consequences: the destruction of his and his family’s financial well-being. During the 2016 campaign season, plenty of prominent writers tried to decipher why Donald Trump resonated with so many people, but Saunders seemed to come closest last July in a New Yorker piece in which he used snapshots of various Trump rallies to illustrate how the reasons were more varied and complicated than most journalists and pundits realized. In “My Writing Education: A Time Line,” a 2015 piece for the New Yorker, Saunders chronologically lays out the moments that informed his development as a writer. As much as the story is a paean to Saunders’s teachers, it’s also a meditation on generosity—how trying to suppress narcissism is ultimately a path to a more fulfilling life.
Interviews with Saunders tend to focus on the art of fiction, how the writer does what he does. What’s not always apparent is the man himself. Saunders was born in Chicago and mostly raised in Oak Forest, but he isn’t often asked about his formative years. In advance of his appearance at the Music Box on March 2, an event sponsored by the Chicago Humanities Festival, Saunders spoke over the phone from his “little house” in the hills of Santa Cruz, California, about his earliest inclinations toward literature growing up in Gage Park on the city’s south side, being a countercultural control freak in high school, his transformative first experience with the work of Stuart Dybek at a downtown library, and how the Catholicism of his youth relates to his present faith in Buddhism.
Yes, sir. George. Please, George.
But not George-boy, correct?
No, that’s OK! Whatever you want. At this point, my standards are very low.
I’d like to talk about your background in Chicago.
Oh, great, yes. That’s beautiful.
You’ve said you came to writing gradually, and that you vaguely remember seeing something on TV about Hemingway’s death that left an impression on you when you were very young, maybe three or four. There was a photo of him in a safari jacket, and the announcer was listing all the amazing things that he’d done: Africa, Cuba, friends with movie stars. You got this idea of a writer as someone who went out and did adventurous things, jotted a few notes down afterwards, and then got all this acclaim and worldwide attention. Is that the first memory you have of wanting to be a writer, or desiring to live the writer’s life, or did it come later?
I have two memories from this time when we lived in an apartment on, I think, 55th Place, which was just off of 55th and California. It was a little upstairs apartment. I remember the Kennedy assassination, and I vaguely remember that little thing about Hemingway. I remember seeing someone on TV with the safari jacket who had just died. So those are the two early memories. Definitely there was no way I was thinking “I want to be a writer” at that time. That was just something that lodged in my head. I think the first time—I mean, I don’t know. I had a big experience with that [Esther Forbes] book Johnny Tremain when I was in third grade, which I’ve written about as when I first became aware of style. And then the next thing I can remember was in high school. I had this teacher named Ms. Williams, who was just beautiful and smart and the kind of teacher you really wanted to impress. And she taught at Oak Forest High School. And she did this film-strip presentation on great American writers. I remember listening to her talk about these writers with such admiration, and the feeling was that these were people who were both in their time and were able to step out of it. That really got in my gut. There was a picture of Nathaniel Hawthorne or a stylized cartoon of him. And I just thought, “It’d be cool if you could live your life all the way and at the same time be turned to future generations to tell them what it was like.” So that was the next time I had consciously thought about being a writer. And then the other thing that happened, maybe the next year or so, was when I was visiting family in Texas, and there was this mall called Las Haciendas, and it was the first themed mall I had ever seen. It was kind of a simulated Mexican village. We were walking around in there, and up until that point, I think I had dreams of being on the White Sox.
Dreams of being on the White Sox?
Yeah, yeah, I was a big baseball fan, and it was the time of my life that I remember thinking to myself, “If I don’t make it to the majors, I’ll just kill myself—it’s just so embarrassing to be a grown-up human being and to not be in the major leagues.” So by this time in Las Haciendas I realized that this physically wasn’t a possibility for me.
But I remember having this very sweet conversation with my seven female relatives, and I was wandering around thinking, “What should I do, what should I do?” And it came to me with this great breath of relief that if I did something with my mind, it would never have to be over. You know? It wasn’t like you get to be 30 and then you’re done, which would be the case with the baseball players. So I had this weird—looking back on it—this very strange conversation, this inner monologue about, in some way, trying to be involved in intellectual things because it would have a longer resonance time or something like that. Welcome to my world.
So 55th Place and California—is that the apartment you lived in the entire time you grew up in Chicago?
No. My dad worked in the air force, and he met my mom in Texas, and so we moved [to Chicago] when I was about one, and then we stayed there. I went to kindergarten from that apartment, and then when I was in first grade, we moved to Oak Forest, which is a south suburb.
What are your memories from Chicago? What do you remember most fondly?
Oh, so much. It’s weird because I was only there until I was about five or six or something. I’ll tell you one that I don’t know how to make sense of, but my grandmother took me to the polling place in that neighborhood. [Gage Park] has got a lot of classic Chicago bungalows, and the polling place was in the basement of one of these. And it had a giant American flag over this red brick. And there was something really magical: all the grown-ups together, kind of somber, not a lot of talking, filing in there. So that was a little fragment that stuck. And I think we usually think about these things as, “Well, what did it cause?” But I think about something as, “Why did I notice that so much? What is it about that vignette that caused it to get into the ‘save’ pile?” And then the other thing—well, actually, there’s a lot.
Mostly it’s tonal, though. It’s like the mood of that neighborhood—I found it years later when reading Dybek—was that kind of feeling of a little European village picked up and transplanted to Chicago. I remember there was a girl on our corner—there were two girls named Debbie on our block, and so they were distinguished by calling them Big Debbie and Little Debbie. And Big Debbie was probably 12 or something, and she was just this hero to all of us. At one point she got hit by a car. And this was kind of the Summer of People Getting Hit by Cars. A hot dog vendor got hit in a parking lot—[the car went] over a curb and knocked over his cart. And [Big Debbie], I think she had both her legs broken or something. And that was very—you know in the way how childhood experiences get supersad—that was really like a malevolent universe coming to our neighborhood. And then my mom used to sell—not Amway, but the other thing. Mary Kay? No, it was before Mary Kay. Anyways, she used to sell cosmetics door-to-door. She had clients, and one of her clients also had a kid who had been hit by a car. On the same block!
These cars were going nuts! So the thing was, there was some sense we could come along on this sales call, but we had to be very quiet because this boy was very sick and, in my mind, on the verge of death. So therefore we had a lot of responsibility not to kill this kid by being bad. And it was the year that the song “Eleanor Rigby” came out. And that was somehow the theme for that afternoon. This makes no sense! But anyways, as we came up to the porch, there was a big jar, I think it was just a planter or something but it had water in it. And that crossed in my mind with the line, “Wearing a face that he keeps in a jar by the door.” I was petrified to go into this house—nothing actually happened and the kid recovered, but there was something magical about that whole time. And I suppose it’s because your brain isn’t formed yet. So metaphors are coming in, and images, and you’re trying to sort them out, and it’s this kind of beautiful dreamlike stew. Maybe this is insane, I don’t know.
Going back to Dybek—did you encounter his writing early in your life or much later?
Later, and at a very critical moment. I was actually living back in Chicago, when I was maybe 24 or 25.
Was this around the time of the “Chicago Christmas, 1984” essay?
Right about that time, exactly. I was staying with my aunt out in the suburbs and coming into town, and I was trying to figure out my next move. I know I wanted to be a writer, and I kind of came to the realization that I had never read any contemporary stuff really, that I was still stuck in the 30s, you know? And some intelligent part of myself said, “You’ve got to address that.” I don’t know how I picked this up, but I took the train to the Chicago Public Library on Michigan Avenue.
When the library was in the Chicago Cultural Center, before the Harold Washington Library was established?
Right, and I just set up camp there and pulled out 50 or 60 literary journals, and thought, “Once I’m done, I’m going to discredit contemporary fiction once and for all.” And I was just reading, randomly, these literary journals. I didn’t like it that much. It didn’t do anything for me. And then I got to Dybek, and it was a story called “Hot Ice.” And I just remember sitting there and going, “Oh, fuck, this is so good. I can’t avoid this. This is as good as Hemingway, and it’s speaking to me more directly from my experience.” When I was reading Hemingway, it got put in black and white. It got transposed to 50 years before, and it was very cold and tidy, and I liked that. But with Dybek, these were people that I recognized from my neighborhood, using phrases that I recognized, struggling with similar issues. It was just undeniably alive for me. So that was a big moment because I basically said to myself, “You idiot, you’ve been missing out on this all these years. And you have been failing to develop because you haven’t exposed yourself to this sort of thing.”
You realized that there were other people out there who could convey an experience that you yourself were having?
One-hundred percent. That’s exactly it. It also felt a little bit like—I don’t know quite how to explain it, but there’s a relation to a work of art that I would call museumlike. In the world represented, there are no traces of your actual life. So, for example, if I’m reading Tolstoy, all the peasant huts and the carriages and the horses—I don’t know what that is. The formality of the people, I don’t understand it. So there’s kind of a trance form that involves distancing. But if you look at that Dybek story, he’s making very beautiful metaphors and symbols out of stuff that I could walk out my door and see. So that gave me a feeling like, “Oh, that’s what real life looks like when you fork it over into the artistic.” It was like if you had a bunch of guitars around your house and all you ever heard was symphony music, and you go, “Oh, these don’t sound right. I can’t use these things.” And then all of the sudden you heard the Allman Brothers or something, and you say, “Oh, I see, I see. I can use what’s at hand.” And the transform is what’s important: taking what’s real and what you actually know, and that little torque that you do to elevate it up into the metaphorical is what’s important.
You were in Chicago until you were five or six?
I was in the city until I was five or six, and then I moved out to Oak Forest right when I started first grade.
What was your experience in Oak Forest like?
Oak Forest is made up of some really old houses that were made in the 20s, and then there were probably six or seven distinct subdivisions that had come into being at different times. So as a kid there, you really knew the distinctions. You actually knew what it was between this block of houses and that block of houses. And you could almost feel that difference within the two or three years that they were built—the water tasted different in different subdivisions. So ours was, I think it was called El Morro, and it had this vaguely Spanish-conquistador vibe. There were three main house styles that were used. And sometimes they would rotate them 180 degrees, and they were different colors of siding and so on. So at one point my three best friends and I all lived in the same house with the same floor plan. So you would go in and you would know where everything was.
Because all the houses were the same.
There were only three repeating floor plans. So we all lived in the same kind. I think the neighborhood was called El Morro, and the house we lived was called El Vista, or maybe it was vice versa. So that was kind of cool, you know? That was really strange. All three of us had the same relative bedroom in the house. But when we first moved out of the city, the experience was like moving into a mansion. We’d been living in a two-bedroom walkup in the city, and when we moved out of the city it just felt expansive. I remember actually going into the house and getting lost, I didn’t know where my parents were because it was so—it felt like there were 4,000 rooms or something. It was actually just a really nice three-bedroom suburban house. But, yeah, I loved it. I feel nostalgic for it, and it was a really wonderful way to grow up.
You said you were a White Sox fan. During your childhood, did you play baseball a lot? Was it just like a lot of kids where you would play outside?
Yeah, well, at the time I kind of had a vague feeling of being a suburban, spoiled kid. But now, in retrospect, it just seems Rockwellian. Like, we would go out and there was a nice little cul-de-sac near our house and we’d play baseball there. And one of the funny things was the house that was located next to center field belonged to the mother of that disk jockey Garry Meier. They would hate it when we would drop our ball into their lawn. Now it seems very small town. You know, we would go out to a vacant lot and play football, and there were absolutely no curfews, and we just ran ragged all over the whole place.
What were your interests at that age?
I really loved baseball and football. Basically I had that kind of universal dream that I’d play for the White Sox in the summer, and not the Bears but the Packers in the fall.
So you’d be Bo Jackson.
That’s right. In retrospect, I had a pretty strong religious bent—I went to the Catholic school, right up the block from our house, called Saint Damian. I had some really beautiful, magical experiences there, kind of mystic experiences. And also the more mundane ones that you read about in Catholic school at that time, like there was some physicality, some punishment—but it was rich. And my relationship to Catholicism was really earnest. I really felt it deeply that time, and that kind of powered me. It’s still with me, those early religious experiences.
Did you ever think about pursuing theology as a career of some kind at some point?
Well, being a priest was a big thing at that time. That was kind of cool. My mom tells me I had these colanders, these plastic, vaguely table-shaped things, and she would help me decorate them as altars and change the altar cloth and all that. I’d like to think that isn’t true but I’m afraid it is. But I do remember being in church at that time and being really taken by the symbolic parts of it: that on a certain holiday, everything in the church would be colored a certain way. What I really responded to was the idea that there was a kind of knowledge that wasn’t linear, that you could feel something happening. For a while we went to church every day, and we would do stations of the cross and all that stuff. There would be a mind-set that would settle in that would be very beautiful, and now I can see that it was basically meditative, your mind quieting down. So for all of the nonsense at that time of being in the Catholic church, somehow the real stuff got through to me. It was the tail end of the Dorothy Day Catholicism, which made Catholicism really beautiful. So whenever I mock Catholicism, I like to remember that really beautiful part of it.
You’re a Buddhist now, correct?
Do you make any connection between the meditative experiences of Catholicism that you experienced as a child and the way you practice Buddhism today?
For sure. I like to describe myself as a Buddhist and a Catholic. It’s the same, it’s the same. For me it was. I mean, there were times when, just because of the boredom, you’re sitting there and your mind races around for a while, and then gradually, just like a tired dog, it just sits at your feet, and then something else happens. In Buddhism you call it meditation and you try it, you try. But in higher levels of meditation, you don’t try—you just sit there.
Another thing that was really alive, at least in my mind, was that they were both very in love with the idea of empathy. And, I don’t know why I picked this up, although I’m sure that it was from a nun, but the idea that Jesus’s strength was—well, he was a by-product of God—but a by-product of that was that he was infinitely empathetic to everybody, from prostitutes to the people that crucified him. So that got in my head—the idea that this kind of thing would be possible, and also noticing in yourself that it wasn’t happening, that you were full of pettiness. The idea that you could theoretically line yourself up in a lineage according to that idea, and that instead of being thought of as frothy or wimpy, it was the most powerful thing you could do. But if you really could feel 100 percent love for everybody, you would be God—that’s actually what God is. That kind of thought was really strong and beautiful. And again, in spite of that—you know, one time I walked in on a nun and a priest kissing in a bathroom, and another time I had a nun chasing me around a room with a whisk broom. So all that funny, surface-level stuff in Catholicism was happening at the same time as this other, beautiful stuff.
The empathy you describe—it doesn’t seem characteristic of a lot of people I knew as a child. Would you characterize your parents as very empathetic people? Would you say you absorbed that from them?
I think so, yeah. But again, I don’t think anyone has that quality, except Jesus and Buddha, and maybe some people I don’t know about—but that’s the aspiration.
But yes, my parents were really lovely. My dad was from the south side, and my mom was from Texas, and they both had these qualities that I really admired. My dad was this very—I’d call him empathetic through reason. He’s really great about destabilizing an emotion by stepping off of it and looking at it: Is this emotion doing you any good right now? Does it make sense? Is that an emotion that’s just coming out of your experience, or is it something you want to enact? At my school, Oak Forest High School, the cafeteria food was terrible. So, this being around 1973 or 1974, some of us decided to do a walkout on Friday. We were organizing, and it was really thrilling. On Thursday night I decided I’d better just tell my dad. I said, “You know, dad, I don’t want to bother you, but we’re going to do a walkout tomorrow.” And he was like, “OK, that’s good. Sounds good.” But all of sudden, like Columbo, he said, “But hold on a second. I assume you’ve made your concerns known to the administration?” And I was like, “No, man. They wouldn’t listen. You know, the man.” And he said, “I’m sure you’re right, but you open yourself up for a kind of an embarrassing critique if they point out that you didn’t make your concerns known.” And I’m like, “Aw, shit, he’s right.” I thought, “OK, I’ll go in the morning and talk to the principal, and when he rebuffs me, we’ll walk out.” So I go to talk to this principal. His name was Toby Hightower. He was from Texas. And he knew my name, which shocked me. He said, “George, what’s on your mind today?” I said, “The food in the cafeteria is an outrage.” He said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize that. What can we do about it?” And I thought, “Oh my god.” Then he said, “Why don’t we put you in charge of a commission? You pick the students. Would five meetings be enough? We’ll get a bus, we’ll take you to these different schools, and you come back, you recommend who we should hire, and we’ll do it next year.” And I’m like, “My god!” So we canceled the walkout, and they did exactly what they promised to do. So, yeah, that was my dad’s influence in compassion.
And my mom was just the most tender person I’ve ever met, just in the way she accepted all the other people. You’d bring someone over and they’d be a little odd—no problem. She totally accepted them and joked with them and made them feel at ease. And also, I think, in her attitude towards me—I read somewhere that we posit our understanding of the universe by the way that our mother understood us. I would do stupid shit or embarrassing, neurotic stuff that, in my mind, was pretty crazy. I would confess all these things to her, and she never did anything but totally accepted what I had to say. That made me—or really, only now, because I’m 103 years old—that made me try to think that way about the world, just by osmosis.
I’ll tell you one other thing that was emblematic of her. This was maybe ’72, ’73—you know, it was kind of like Doobie Brothers, very Allman Brothers, very back to the land. I bought Neil Young’s Harvest album, and I said to my mom, “I really think we should cut down our own Christmas tree this year,” which at that time was unheard of. But she found a place, my aunt took us out there, and I had my Neil Young costume and my mullet, and I went out and cut down this tree and brought it home. Back at the house, it’s like a Charlie Brown tree: it’s got huge, four-foot gaps in it and it’s dying in places. I was really crestfallen and heartbroken because I felt that this was my first really male, familial responsibility, and I botched it. My mom said, “You know, I think we can make do.” And obviously the thing to do was to throw it in the shit pile and buy a new one from the lot. But instead she said, “Let’s see if we can do something with this.” This is a great training in part. She cut off the lower part of the tree, retained the good branches, drilled holes into the trunk, and then put those in skillfully. And it was the most beautiful tree in the world. It took her about—well, actually, it took her most of the night. But she said, “Let’s not reject it, let’s redo it.” So we sat there and did that together, we had a lot of laughs—she both kept me on the hook and got me off of it at the same time. Just her care and hardworking spirit.
So in high school, you were a sort of countercultural person?
Yeah, but I wasn’t. I was a weird control-freak countercultural person because I never did drugs and I never drank. I was a completely straight arrow. But to look at me, you wouldn’t think so. I had long hair and was pretty good at guitar and fully bought into the counterculture scene, except for the drugs part of it. I don’t know why. I mean, I was a control freak, and I still am. I want to control my phenomena as much as I can. And I saw a lot of—when you’re straight and you see people who are fucked-up, if you’re a control freak, it’s offensive. I just didn’t want to go there.
When did Buddhism become a big part of your life? And how did your parents respond when you made that move?
It was no problem. I was probably in my 40s. It was very gradual. My wife got interested in it, and I saw how much fun she was having, and how beautiful it was, and I just kind of followed her, as I do with most things. And honestly, I’m a little uneasy, because with this book in particular, I mean, the tendency of putting me in this position as a Buddhist when really I’m just a newcomer and an amateur, even though I’ve been doing it a long time—I’m definitely not very knowledgeable, certainly not in an academic sense, and I’m a little hit-or-miss in practice. So I’m wary of being the poster boy for something that I understand so poorly.
About the book—one thing I was thinking about while reading Lincoln in the Bardo is that Abraham Lincoln is such an essential figure in Illinois history. As a child growing up in Illinois, did you have a particular appreciation or engagement with Lincoln?
Oh, sure. He was sort of the patron saint of Illinois. You know, let me try something. I’ve never tried to articulate this before, but I have a thought that people who end up being artistic—well, maybe I shouldn’t generalize it.
I can look back in my life, and I can see certain reveries I tended to fall into as a kid. I fell into them because they were kind of beautiful. It’s almost like they came from a different life set. There’s something about prairie life and Lincoln and that kind of Aaron Copland-y American plainness that I can remember being an old—I don’t know if I’d call it a vignette or a mental vista—but that was really with me. When we were kids and we would drive by a cornfield with a little shed—something about that just resonated. So in some ways I wonder—we can talk so logically about art and where things come from, but those somehow seem powerful to me. Another way of saying it is there are certain little blocks that seem cool to me. Like, the Civil War seemed cool to me. And the music and the uniforms—that all seemed charged to me. So Lincoln was always in that category. Again, I don’t know about the relation with that and coming to write about him, except maybe those little pods tend to yield interest. You feel like staying there for a long time. But I didn’t study him or anything like that.
So where did the kernel for Lincoln in the Bardo come from?
About 20 years ago, when Clinton was president, we were in D.C., and I heard that anecdote about how Lincoln had reportedly gone into the crypt to hold his son’s body a few days after he died. My wife’s cousin just threw it out there. And it doesn’t happen that often, but that just got into my head. It’s such a beautiful image: him in the moonlight with his son’s body across his lap. I kept pushing it away because it just didn’t seem like something about which I would write. It seemed totally . . . not funny! So I kept booting it to the curb, but the image kept coming back. And normally I don’t work from that sort of thing. I distrust that kind of thing, where someone tells you a story and you go, “Oh, that would make a great novel.” That doesn’t work. But in this case it was just this persistence. It was like if a man kept asking a woman to marry him, she’d eventually go, “All right, all right. You must be correct or you wouldn’t be so persistent.”
The story takes place in this historical time period, but the book’s also about all these other characters and their experiences. Was that the original intent when you began writing?
Actually, no. My shtick is always—especially with my stories—that I’m always better when I don’t know anything in advance, when I don’t have any big agenda in advance. I don’t know why exactly that’s the case, but I’ve found it out by hard experience. Whenever I have a projected idea of a theme, it never ends up getting finished. So my usual approach is just to say, “OK, so-and-so interests me.” Maybe it’s a story, maybe it’s just a fragment of language or a mental image, as we’ve been talking about. Then I just really try to aggressively hold all the ideas about it away. You know, the reasons why it’s a good idea or why it’s rich or why it’s relevant to this time. I try to hold those ideas at bay for as long as I can, and then just get into it on a language level, and then just start fucking around with it. And it kind of has an energy of its own. We were talking about Dybek, and he said once, “A story is always talking to you, so you have to learn how to listen to it.” That’s really my deal. So in this case I just thought, “I really love this image. I wonder if I can try to get at that.” And then what happens is you get into it, and the idea has problems built into it, but it also causes everything—structure and form and style, and all of that.
Did the project start out as a story, or did you know pretty early on that this was going to be a novel?
It started out as a section, actually. That first section, actually, I started writing in [Hans Vollman’s] voice, just messing around a bit with that party scene. But again, that’s actually one of the things—to not have any notions about length. Because I’ve had that moment. You think, “This is my novel!,” and then the novel kind of looks at you and gives you the finger. I really believe this: a paragraph has a DNA that tells you everything about it. It tells you the arc of the story, it tells you the length, but it’s not discernible just from looking at that one paragraph.
You have to extend it out to the next paragraph, and then the next paragraph, and pretty soon the DNA, just like in the real world, will start to make forms for you. So for me the whole thing is to deal with the insecurity of not knowing what the thing’s going to be by insisting, “I don’t know, I don’t know.” It’s better that it tells you what it is, rather than you tell it.
Right. I mean, you said that this idea came to you 20 years ago. I’m sure you couldn’t possibly have known the book would come out at the same time as all of this happening with our current president.
It’s funny because even a year ago, when I finished it, it seemed like—I mean, I imagined it would be coming out when Hillary was president. And it would have been a heartwarming story about American values. So that you can’t control. It’s like if you were an elephant with a two-year gestation period, and your baby was born on the day the zoo closed. But in a way I’m actually happy with the timing. For me it’s two things: The first thing is it’s hope—this ambition is still valid, and that the artistic way of thinking is much more capacious and generous than the other way of thinking. And the other thing is that it’s a reminder that we’ve been in this shit before as a country, and the way we get guided out of it is not through aggression. Well, it is aggression, but the way we get out of it involves some real patience, and a real kind of character. Maybe we think now of these qualities like forbearance and courage and endurance are kind of old-school. But I think we’re going to find out, especially for progressives, that these are the essential qualities.
Back in July, you wrote a piece for the New Yorker about going to a series of Trump campaign rallies. How did you come to do that assignment?
David Remnick e-mailed me and asked, “What do you think about writing about Trump a la Norman Mailer, ‘Superman Comes to the Supermarket’ [from the November 1960 issue of Esquire]?” And at first I was like, “I’m on break. I just finished this book.” But then my wife, who’s always my best counselor, was like, “How could you not?”
Did you have any idea that this could be the outcome, that he could become president? Or did it still feel totally unrealistic when you finished this assignment?
When I started, it seemed completely unrealistic. But after I went to the rallies, I was still saying to people, “It won’t happen, it won’t happen.” But I think I had a rising panic that, I think, had to do with what I saw at those rallies. Because I didn’t really see the crazy kind of people that I had hoped to see. They were pretty normal, measured people who were nice to me, and yet they were still supporting this guy that seemed to me an unimaginable candidate. So that made me a little panicked. Also the raw energy at his rallies—you’d go from one of his rallies to one of Hillary’s and you’d be like, “Come on, people! Wake up! You don’t know what you’re up against here.” Although I also went to a Bernie rally, and that was more energetic in a different way. That really gave me hope. Talk about “I Hear America Singing,” that was it: every type of person, happy. And he gave a speech—I had never heard a speech like that where every sentence you’re like, “Yep, yep, yep, thank you, yep,” all the way through the end. But, well, you know how that turned out.
That anger and energy you saw among Trump supporters at the rallies—we haven’t been seeing it so much in the media since he won.
Well, the anger now is ours. It’s on the left, and rightly so.
The funny thing I noticed was that the crowd wasn’t that angry on its own. And then when Trump would start talking, there was this agitated energy that would just ripple out. Some would get giddy and some would get mean. But literally it was timed with his speaking. It was like wind in a wheatfield. I remember standing out in Tucson with the protesters, and they were angry and chanting. And then the Trump people came out and were really passive. They were kind of mellow and smiling, and the protesters were up in their faces, and I thought, “Oh, that’s really clever.” The Trump movement—its excesses were built right into the program. So nobody had to be angry, they just had to say, “We don’t want immigrants here” or “We think a Muslim ban is a good idea.” And that puts the brunt of the work on the protesters, who are the ones being insulted and humiliated and affronted by these policies, and they had to get angry. So it’s a real conundrum. It’s almost like a passive-aggressive form of demagoguery. And this was complicated by the fact that, like I said, most of the people that I know who were Trump supporters weren’t belligerent. When I left for that thing, I had in mind this huge mathematical machine into which you could pop somebody and tell whether somebody would be a Trump supporter. But then I thought, “Well, it doesn’t even matter. This is 33 percent of the population. Who cares what the machine looks like?”
When you were writing the novel, were you reading a lot about Lincoln?
I started reading about him casually, way back when, but nothing too serious. And then I started writing this book, and I got this table with about 200 books on it. And I would just find whatever I could. And I had some idea of which particular moments I was looking for. The theory was—if you could imagine having a hopper on top of your head with everything about Lincoln just pouring in—to let it percolate down and then at the moment needed just do a little improv based on that glob of information.
You said, “We’ve all been in this shit before as a country.” What parallels do you see between Lincoln’s time and the present day?
One thing is the idea of the two mythologies producing rhetoric that can’t cross talk. Like, when you look back at the Civil War, I used to always think, “Gee, I wonder why they couldn’t just negotiate.” And then when you really get into it, you realize that that was not going to happen. There was too much money in it, there was too much at stake, and two very separate rhetorical histories that were just walking right past each other. In reality, blood was going to solve it. There was no way you were going to talk that thing through. Now, I don’t think we’re in that situation, but it’s certainly scary, because the two mythologies are certainly in existence, and I think they’re rapidly being solidified by the climate of social media. And I certainly have experienced this existential dread of seeing two nice people—the same age, the same life basically—just scream at each other with absolutely no attempt at communication. And that’s scary. You don’t go from that position to anything but violence. Unless something really wonderful happens, and I don’t know what that is. I mean again, [the two eras are] not comparable, but you can see in miniature the same kind of division. And once the ball gets rolling down the hill, it just gets difficult to roll it back up.
I take it your view on social media is fairly pessimistic?
Well, as a writer, I try to have multiple views. My simple view is that, yeah, it’s problematic, and it’s a little like eating too much sweets. I don’t even do that much of it, but I have an author page, and I see when I’m on there arguing with people, I can just see my mind has shrunken and I’ve gotten neurotic and I’m thinking about these people even when I’m taking my dog for a walk. And it’s just such a marked difference to the head I’m in when I’m writing a book. I know I like the book head better than the social media one. But again, as a writer, one of the things I try to do is to constantly be saying, “On the other hand . . . ” So social media is a blight and it makes us stupid. Yes, but on the other hand—and then I run to the other side of the table and remember how fun it is, to engage in it, and how energizing it is. I think the highest form of artistic thought is to have multiple things be true simultaneously and have the strength not to have to choose one over the others. Now in real life, you have to choose, but I think it’s energizing to, briefly in that moment, let the plates spin without moving one way or another. v