"George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You'll Read This Year" proclaimed the headline in the New York Times. And with that, the publication of Tenth of December in 2013 catapulted Saunders from the ranks of well-regarded authors with several well-reviewed books and plenty of New Yorker stories to their name to a new league of literary renown. The arrival earlier this year of Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, has only served to add weight to the late David Foster Wallace's assertion that George Saunders is the most exciting writer in America.
As with Lincoln in the Bardo and the short stories that first made his name, Saunders' travel writing charts the despair and depersonalisation of our time in a manner that is deeply cutting in its precision, but somehow invested with enough humanity and generosity of spirit that a glimmer of hope and redemption still shines through.
On Tuesday 23 May he joins fellow authors Brit Bennett and Anne Enright at the premiere event of the Sydney Writers Festival, delivering an address on the festival's theme of refuge.
Speaking to GT's Pat Nourse by phone from California ahead of the festival, Saunders discussed how he travels, how writing and travel come together in his life, and the state of the union.
How do you travel, George? There was a time in my life when every trip, especially on a plane, felt to me like I was drawing on some reservoir of luck. I felt a little guilty when I travelled - it's risky, it's nervy, I shouldn't be doing this. And as a writer, I also thought "why am I not at home writing? This is indulgent".
There's a country and Western song that goes "wherever you go, there you are", and I try to have that philosophy. If I'm in a plane, I've got a little cone around me that I can influence. If I get off the plane and I'm in a really crazy, dangerous situation, same thing - I can only do so much. If I'm in a really beautiful, glamorous situation, same thing. No matter where you are, you have about the same amount of influence, and mostly you have influence over your own mind.
That made it easier to travel. Whenever you go into a town to do a tour and you're in a new town and it's all fucked up - that's okay. You can only influence that circle around yourself. You're walking in New York City and it's crazy and you're feeling stressed out, but there's still just that little cone around you. It makes travel more fun somehow because you're going into these new places and letting this multiplicity and variety of the world wash over me and maybe inspire me.
I don't know how to describe it, but I always felt a little bit horrible when I travelled, and now whether I'm sitting in my room very secure in my usual habits or I'm in some entirely different place, you still have the same stuff to work with, which is your mind and your body and your sense of generosity.
What are your props? Aisle or window? Pre-flight routine?
Part of my routine is that I have no routine. I don't care where they seat me. I have maybe a little superstitious faith that wherever I'm put is where I'm meant to be. For me the maybe self-flattering idea of myself as flexible has become my habit. If I get seated next to some obnoxious person, I'll be like, "thank you, that'll be interesting".
The other day I had one of those arm-rest battles with a guy. He not only instantly took over the arm rest but four inches of my space. That was interesting because I like to think that I'm mellow but it really got on my nerves. I was playing the mind-game with myself, saying "why don't you just get over it?", and I couldn't. Then they brought the food and you could see that he was really in bad health. He was super-stiff and he tried to reach over and get the tray out and he couldn't do it and I reached over and helped him and that was when my resentment went away. Which maybe doesn't speak well of me. His elbow-imperialism was just discomfort, and you think, "oh my god, what kind of jerk am I to resent that?" and the whole thing turned.
When you arrive on these trips you're generally expected to perform, so the best strategy for me is to not be at all picky. No matter how shitty the trip is or the hotel is, my defence mechanism is to never challenge it, just let it be what it is. Then you can just put that aside. You don't have to have any feelings about the trip. The trip is just the trip. Even as I say that I realise it's a ridiculous position.
Book tours today are notorious for their jam-packed itineraries - how do you prepare for that?
The one thing I honestly love about it is that your job is to be yourself. If you are wrinkled-looking, so it goes. If you're tired, you're tired. If you're in an inappropriate interview, you try to have fun with that. I love that. You don't have to worry about taking the garbage out. You show up and you're there to be present at your event. I'm not a great multitasker, so I like that part about it. For months I just had to be wherever I was and just try to be as generous as I could, and that's the whole job.
Is there an expectation of lucidity?
Well, there is an expectation. That was the challenge for me - to recognise that when I was lucid. When I was so tired and I'd had three hours of sleep, there's a way of taking that into account where you slow down a little bit. If you're wide awake, sometimes you might take a real wild swing at a question, but if you're tired you know to be a little bit cautious.
I know I'm not a really great thinker. I know I can be reasonably articulate if I'm well-rested and I don't try to do too much in a day.
One of the other really great things about a tour is that by the time you get home, you're done with that book. You still love it but you can feel your body going "come on, come on! Let's do something different! Can we get away from 19th-century diction, for example?" I think that's part of the process of bringing the book up behind you. When you're in it, of course, there's no other book you ever want to write, and then you finish it and it takes a while to come out, and then you tour it and pretty soon your whole body is just tingling with wanting to get clear of it.
You've taken some serious risks with Lincoln in the Bardo, and this is for a writer whose stories are often fairly out-there to begin with. I'm trying to picture the look on the face of your publisher when you said "rather than do short stories I'm going to write a novel, and it's about Lincoln spending a night in a cemetery with his dead child. Oh, and it'll also invoke elements of the Tibetan afterlife in its structure." That's a hell of an elevator pitch.
It was risky, you're right, but it felt good to get off the rails a little bit. If you deny yourself all of your usual gifts, what have you got? If you're someone who's really funny at parties and can juggle, and that's how you get through parties and then someone says "at this party you can't be funny or juggle," then what you find out is that whatever produced the funniness or the juggling is still there. There's some base thing there. That seemed like a good thing, especially at this stage of a career where the temptation could be to kick back, or just go back to the same thing - it seemed like a fun thing to do.
I knew, especially in the early incarnations, that it was a lot different than, say, Tenth of December. And as I was writing it, Tenth of December was just taking off here, so I had this mixed sensation: wow, I finally wrote something in a short-story form that could appeal to a bigger audience - yay - while at home I'm writing this totally different thing. That was an interesting artistic crossroads.
I don't say this to be modest but to be diagnostic, but my talent is not that great. It's not like a talent that I can turn to anything and make it productive. (I found that out over the years by having a lot of stale projects.) So part of the job becomes really investigating every corner of the little wedge of talent that I do have, and it was nice at this point to see what else is in the bag of tricks.
Do they call that growth?
I think they do. And I'm appalled to see that I haven't done more of that sooner.
What advice do you have for those of us thinking about travelling to the United States in the year 2017?
Just come on. Speaking as somebody who's from here, there's no difference to how the country feels now in 99 per cent of our doings, which makes me think we were wrong all these years in thinking how important the president was. Most people are just ignoring what he's doing and being our old regular selves. Part of me wants to say don't come, and then when tourism dries up they'll have to realise what a ridiculous position they've put us in. But as a traveller there's no difference. Just try not to have brown skin. Or an Arabic name. Otherwise you're good. If you're any kind of Mexican or gay, don't come. Or a lesbian. If you're a towheaded white guy, you're good.
What shocked me is how many things I'd taken for granted. I thought that to the end of my days we'd have a high-functioning democracy that would get better and better, and it's just incredible how quickly it went off the rails. It'll be interesting in four years to see what the presidential debates will look like, but I don't think they're going back to how they used to be.
It's a tough question. When I was on tour I did a lot of talking about Trump, and now I'm in more of a listening mode, trying not to be too glib or too anything. The thing that's maybe interesting is that everyone's confused. You'd never know it watching TV - those guys always have a take on everything - but people are just confused. It's really hard to know what to think or what to do. To a certain extent I feel like the right thing for me is to listen quietly and intently because it's very unexpected.
"Turn the megaphone down and insist what's said through it be as precise, intelligent and humane as possible."
Hey, that's catchy.
Somebody should write that down.
Nah - it wouldn't sell.
Catch George Saunders at the Sydney Writers Festival, 22-28 May 2017, swf.org.au.
Lincoln in the Bardo ($29.99, Bloomsbury) is distributed in Australia by Allen & Unwin.