On January 28, at 7:30 p.m., Pico Iyer will welcome the award-winning novelist and short story writer George Saunders to Arts & Lectures for what should be a fascinating evening. Saunders, one of the most versatile and original contemporary American writers, is the author of the New York Times best seller and Man Booker Prize–winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo, as well as the books Tenth of December, Pastoralia, and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, among others. Saunders spoke recently with the Santa Barbara Independent. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
Where were you born and raised and how would you describe your upbringing? I was born in Amarillo, Texas, but my family moved to the South Side of Chicago when I was a year old, and we lived there until I went off to college. I had a pretty joyous childhood, with plenty of freedom to come and go. My parents operated a couple of restaurants that the whole family worked in, so there were lots of interesting people around, lots of stories. It was good training for a writer.
A lot of your work contains dark elements and often a sense of discontent, but it’s also leavened with humor. I don’t always know how that happens, to be honest, but it comes down to what a writer can make live on the page, and that sometimes requires an emphasis on the darker side of life, the worst day or scariest possibility or a world where the wheels have come off the car a bit. As a kid, I was interested in supernatural tales. My imagination gets revved when I contemplate the darker possibilities. I think of a story as a scale model of the world, so you can turn up the good or the evil and let them wrestle a little. Mainly, I try not to be boring. First, be interesting.
Lincoln in the Bardo has an unusual structure and is a challenging read. What was behind the decision to structure the novel as you did? It came after a number of attempts that either didn’t feel natural or interesting enough. Lots of trial and error. I had to poke around for a long time before landing on a structure that not only felt natural, but also felt challenging and fun and let me solve the problems a novelist always runs into. The novel has a small front door, so to speak, and then the passageway widens to deliver its emotional punch. I brought Lincoln in when he was needed, but never let him stay too long, because the novel isn’t really about Lincoln – it’s about grief and one particular night.
You spent some time writing about Donald Trump’s political rallies. What was that experience like? Confusing. Also sad to see the level of anger. I’m a product of the working class, but I never saw Trump coming. I want to keep an open mind about how Trump happened and try to understand it from the inside.
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents George Saunders in Conversation with Pico Iyer on January 28, 7:30 p.m., at Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.