Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. This bonus episode accompanies the third episode of Season 3, Willie was his favorite, right?
As we work on answering the questions for the show, we sometimes have fascinating encounters that are outside the main episode, but we still want to get them in your hands. About two and a half years ago, our Executive Director Erin Carlson Mast was in conversation with George Saunders, the author of Lincoln in the Bardo, on the Kojo Nnamdi show. The Kojo Show and American University were gracious enough to allow us to share with you some excerpts from the conversation.
You can hear the full Kojo Nnamdi show episode at: https://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2018-02-14/george-saunders-introduces-us-to-166-singular-ghosts-and-another-side-of-president-lincoln
In addition to the embedded media player below, you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher / Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode (coming soon!)
Joan: Hi everyone – This is Joan and Callie from Q&Abe, a podcast by President Lincoln’s Cottage.
Callie: As we work on answering the questions for the show, we sometimes have fascinating encounters that are outside the main episode, but we still want to get them in your hands.
Joan: This bonus episode accompanies episode 3.3, Willie was his favorite, right?, so if you have not yet listened to that episode, that might be a good place to start.
Callie: About two and a half years ago, our Executive Director Erin Carlson Mast was in conversation with George Saunders, the author of Lincoln in the Bardo, on the Kojo Nnamdi show. Lincoln in the Bardo imagines Lincoln at the cemetery the night of Willie’s burial and is a vivid evocation of their relationship. The Kojo Show and American University were gracious enough to allow us to share with you some excerpts from the conversation.
Kojo Nnamdi: As we approach President’s Day, what can we learn from such an imaginative engagement with history? George Saunders joins us in studio. George Saunders is the author of numerous short stories, essays, and novellas – his most recent book, Lincoln in the Bardo, is his first novel. George, thank you for joining us.
George Saunders: Thank you for having me.
KN: This is a most unusual novel, The New York Times described it as a, quoting here, “weird folk art diorama of a cemetery come to life.” What is this book about and how do you describe it?
GS: Well, that’s a pretty good sales pitch right there-
KN: [laughs] The diorama…
GS: Yeah, it’s basically just, you know I heard many years ago that Lincoln had been so grief-stricken when his son died that he actually entered the crypt on several occasions to interact with the body, and that idea just kind of stuck around for twenty years. And when I went to tell it, it seemed the best way would be to have a kind of chorus of ghosts to narrate it. So, it’s just your typical “guy going into a grave narrated by ghosts” story.
KN: What exactly is the “bardo” of the title?
GS: The bardo is a Tibetan word that means transitional space – so we’re actually in one now, we’re in the transition between birth and death – but the one the title refers to is that zone between the minute you die and whatever happens next, and it also kind of refers to the fact that Lincoln in this moment of parental grief, you know, is at the low ebb of the Civil War and had to kind of make the transition through to being useful again.
KN: It’s a fascinating read. This is your first novel, but readers expecting a straightforward narrative might be surprised at what they find – almost a play-like text. Why did you choose this format?
GS: You know it’s, ah – you know Hemingway says something in one of his books, they say “how did you go broke?” and he says, “gradually and then all at once,” and this, it kind of evolved. When I write I do a lot of iteration, I go back to it again and again, and, and it seemed like the most – somehow the most honest way to do it, it, it didn’t seem so fun to narrate it from Lincoln’s point of view, so I just kind of blundered into it after several months.
KN: Certainly as heck wasn’t the easiest way to do it. This particular, this particular bardo is a product of your prodigious imagination, but as we said, Oak Hill Cemetery is a real place. If you’ve ever driven through Rock Creek Park past Georgetown, you’ve probably noticed it, a beautiful historic cemetery on the hillside running down to the creek. How did you draw from visits to the grounds?
GS: Well we, you know, the first – the idea came exactly as you said, we were driving by in the parkway and my wife’s cousin just pointed up there and I – and you can see the crypt from there, so then I, I went back several times. And the first time I couldn’t find Linc – Willie Lincoln’s grave, and then the same cousin actually went off and did it, did a little reconnoitering and found it. And I went back probably three or four times just to kind of get the feeling of it, and then at one point I thought okay I’m going to do this, I’ll make a map, I’ll write down all the names of the adjoining graves, and I brought all that back with me, and then you know at some point with a novel that’s not really what’s important – it’s not a catalog, it’s a, it’s a dramatic adventure, so I started making up the names and fudging the geography a little bit. But that, the, the mood of that place is so beautiful and that, that really got into the book.
KN: People have been showing up at the Oak Hill Cemetery after reading the book, some of them with the book in hand – did that surprise you?
GS: I love it! I – and I have to be honest it, before I wrote it I kind of thought that would be cool, maybe a Halloween event or something, but no I – that’s very touching, you know, it really is, ah… I, I’ve done that, you know, I’ve gone to Hemingway’s house or you, ah, you think about when you drive through Lorain, Ohio where Toni Morrison is from, and you go on – so I think that, that means the book meant something to you.
KN: So you fantasized that if this book is okay, then people may go to Oak Hill Cemetery with the book in hand, but I’m not gonna let myself believe that –
GS: Right, exactly…
KN: And then it happens!
GS: Because then you see what a crazy idea that is. But it did happen, and it’s very nice.
KN: Historical fiction had not exactly been your thing up until now. How did you make the shift to telling a story that was rooted in real events and places?
GS: Yeah. The – you know, sometimes if you, especially as you get towards the, you know, middle or end of your artistic life, it’s a really good thing to put yourself under constraint, and to sort of deny yourself your usual gifts. And in this case, I couldn’t do what I love to do most, which is write funny contemporary language, so I had to do some kind of a simulation of 19th century language, so it was a bit like having some leg weights on – and I really liked it, it kind of forced me to do, to learn how to do different things with language. It also allowed a little – I think a little more sincerity… when you’re writing about the death of a child there’s a time when you just have to put the satirical tools down, and look right at the thing and that was – at, you know, fifty-nine it was refreshing to be able to do that.
KN: Welcome back. We’re talking with George Saunders, he’s the author of numerous short stories, essays, and novellas. His most recent book, Lincoln in the Bardo, is his first novel. Also joining us in studio is Erin Carlson Mast, she’s the Executive Director of President Lincoln’s College. George, you depict Lincoln wrestling with the weights of both his personal grief and the tragedy of war. Can you read us one of those passages where readers get to peer into Lincoln’s mind, courtesy of the ghosts who dive into the president’s body and recount his stream of consciousness?
GS: Sure. This is a section where he’s just turned his mind to all the dead that he sort of feels responsible for, so he thinks – of his son: “He is just one. And the weight of it about to kill me. Have exported this grief some three thousand times so far to date. A mountain of boys, someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the result, but here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders… I may not have the heart for it. What to do? Call a halt? Toss down the lost hole those three thousand? Sue for peace? Become great course-reversing fool, king of indecision, laughing-stock for the ages, waffling hick, slim Mr. Turnabout? It is out of control. Who is doing it? Who caused it? Whose arrival on the scene began it? What am I doing? What am I doing here? Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up, hands extended, sons intact, wearing on their faces enforced sadness masks to hide any sign of their happiness which – which went on. They could not hide how alive they yet were with it, with their happiness at the potential of their still-living sons. Until lately I was one of them, strolling whistling through the slaughterhouse, averting my eyes from the carnage, able to laugh and dream and hope because it had not yet happened to me.”
KN: George Saunders reading from his most recent book Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel. George, clearly he’s feeling the weight of the Civil War here – as we come up on President’s Day there are few more revered figures in American history than Abraham Lincoln. How did you manage to get into his head?
GS: Well, you know, when you’re, when you’re making a character you’re sort of supplying a lot of your own stuff and assuming that, you know, that he was just like you. So there’s about thirty percent of my belief, and then a lot of it really for me was just to say, Lord knows I can’t represent Lincoln in his totality, but I might be able to catch him between 11:45 and 11:50 on that particular night. And you have the gifts of specificity – so, it’s cold out, uh, he’s been up all day, you kind of know where he just came from and where he’s headed, so you can kind of um – I remember there used to be a commercial where the person would say, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV -”
KM & ECM: [laughs]
GS: So there’s something to that, you know, if you took on the job of representing Lincoln I think you, you couldn’t get started, but to say, I’m going to show a grieving father for six minutes – that you can kind of do, you know.
KN: Erin, in the book and in real life President Lincoln and his wife took refuge at the Cottage after the death of their son. Tell us a little bit about that time in the president’s life and how he might have spent his days at the Cottage.
Erin Carlson Mast: Yeah. Well, we know that he wasn’t just sort of, using it as a retreat where he was, you know, burying his head in the sand. We know that he was bringing his, his work home with him. And in fact, you know, a lot of people know that Lincoln saved notes and stuck them in the lining of his top hat, and that first summer they’re living there, he is working on the Emancipation Proclamation, we know that, there’s numerous accounts, and William Slade, his valet, talks about the fact that he would -Lincoln would sometimes leave these little bits of paper all over the place and he would, you know, maybe sometimes didn’t get into his hat, but Slade would gather them up and put them in a desk, and that by the time Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation he knew it by heart. But we also know that, you know, Tad was there, and Lincoln spent time with his son Tad. By the end of that first summer there’s also a group of young men – teenagers and early twenty somethings – who are assigned as his presidential guard. And in many ways he was a surrogate father figure for them, and for his son Tad. And that they were also serving – the soldiers were serving as surrogate big brothers for young Tad. There are stories of him playing checkers on the porch, so he did certainly have those moments, but by and large we also know that the war was weighing very heavily on him.
KN: You mentioned Tad, and George, I wanted to mention Mary Lincoln – she does not make an appearance in this book. Why is that?
GS: Well, you know, she makes a very brief one, very – it’s almost as an afterthought. You know, ah, my experience is that a book has a technical life that you have to honor, and then, in this case, Lincoln’s, Lincoln’s mind was I thought mostly on Willie, that, you know, throughout the course of the book and I, I had originally planned that he would visit the crypt three times, and then come home during the day, and then that’s where Mary would come in. But when I would try to do it, it’s just, the energy would drop every time it became daytime, basically, so then therefore Mary gets shunted to the side. And, and then I thought, well you know, actually if you were that person maybe – and he also doesn’t think of Tad very much – so my thought was, well, you’re in the graveyard for an hour and a half, the last goodbye to your son, maybe those people in your family fall by the wayside a little bit. But I think they had, uh – I think she’s gotten kind of a bum rap over the years, I think they really in love, and I read somewhere that he had – he was incredibly attractive to women, actually, and knew it. And he also was very attracted to women, but out of deference to her he would kind of fend off any flirtation and kind of keep, you know –
KN: And she kind of helped too.
ECM: Yes, she did.
GS: I think she was a good fender.
JC: Those excerpts were from the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5 FM, from an interview which aired on February 14, 2018. You can find a link to the full show in the show notes, and on the page for this bonus episode on our website.
CH: We hope you’ll take a listen, and we’ll see you in a week with our next full episode!
JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, and Callie Hawkins, with backup from the President Lincoln’s Cottage team. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted by Clancy Newman.
CH: Q&Abe is possible thanks to generous supporters of President Lincoln’s Cottage, including the National Endowment for the Humanities. To find out how you can support this podcast and other programming, visit us at lincolncottage.org. You can also write to us at email@example.com.
JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!