one inside the other now, they occupied the same
physical space, the child a contained version of the
in the Bardo"
Saundersí innovative first novel, "Lincoln in the
Bardo," has at its center an image from history. In
1862, Abraham Lincolnís beloved 11-year-old son Willie
died after a brief illness. The bereft father,
struggling to emerge from grief, was said to have on
several occasions left the White House alone at night to
enter his sonís crypt and hold his boy once more.
had a little mental flash on a kind of a Pieta,"
said Saunders, in a telephone interview earlier this
month, remembering when he first heard the story from a
relative while visiting Washington, D.C., in the 1990s.
"It just floored me. The questions were, why would
you do that, and why would you stop doing it? What would
happen to you between the time you felt moved enough to
do it, and the day you said, Ďthis is not helping me?í
said the image haunted him for years. He toyed with
writing it as a three-act play (which came out
"kind of weird"). But while he established
himself as one of the greatest current practitioners of
the short story (his collections, over two decades,
include "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" and
"Tenth of December"), the Lincoln idea waited.
"I kept pushing it off," he said. Finally, a
few years ago he thought it might be time to try,
"as a fun little experiment."
in the Bardo" is not told as a conventional novel
would be; instead, itís a chorus of voices from
another world. The bardo (a Tibetan concept of an
intermediate state; in this case, between death and the
hereafter) is full of ghosts that greet young Willie on
his arrival. They watch, as one from the living ó a
tall, grieving gentleman, who "might have been, at
that moment, a sculpture on the theme of Loss" ó
sits among them.
they tell their stories, many of them; interweaving
together in a noisy, messy symphony. Itís a technique
that owes something to the play that "Lincoln in
the Bardo" almost was, and to other influences too:
chat lines ó "I love the way those look on the
page, rambling misspelled texts and the answer showing
up three pages later" ó and to the
stream-of-consciousness modernism of Faulkner and Joyce.
the book developed, Saunders found himself learning
things from his characters. The ghosts, he said, seemed
to be wondering about whether they were connected to
humans. "To me it was kind of moving ó the ghosts
were like, ĎAre we any good or not? Are we just
completely divorced from real life, or are we somewhat
active?í They didnít know and I didnít know, and
we together developed this way of testing it." Of
the 166 different voices in the book (he knows the exact
number; "I made a spreadsheet"), not all are
fictional. "I thought, to do ghosts all the time
was not going to work," Saunders remembered.
"Itís almost like thereís too much control in
the writerís hand, since the ghosts can do
anything." The idea came to him: why not add voices
from nonfiction accounts of the period?
was an intriguing idea ó a little bit naughty, not
like real writing. Once I started doing it, it was kind
of fun. Thereís skill involved because some versions
were more polished than others."
result gives texture to the book, filling in details of
Lincolnís appearance (which are, fascinatingly,
contradictory ó "what memory does with time is so
beautiful," Saunders said), his demeanor, and the
party given at the White House on the night Willie died,
with his worried parents slipping upstairs to check on
of these references are real, from the many books on
Lincolnís life and times that Saunders consulted; some
are made up. "I loved the idea of the reader and
writer playing this elaborate game," he said.
"Iím inventing these sources, but maybe you donít
one of those voices gets his or her due on the upcoming
audiobook, for which 166 different readers were
recorded. Among them: Julianne Moore, Nick Offerman,
Megan Mullally, David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, Don Cheadle,
Carrie Brownstein, Keegan-Michael Key, and Saunders
himself, whoíll voice the elderly Rev. Everly Thomas.
into 19th-century language was something new for
Saunders, whose short stories generally take place in a
slightly futuristic present. "I think so much of
art is stumbling into a situation where a constraint is
thrust upon you, and then cheerfully accepting the
constraint," he said. "In this case, I wanted
to write about 1862, and that means I canít use
contemporary diction, which is my best tool."
Because his strongest gifts were not allowed to the
table, he said, it launched a process of
"developing compensatory gifts." "Now Iím
having to relearn to speak contemporary English!"
he said, with a laugh.
may be another future for "Lincoln in the Bardo":
Offerman and Mullally, friends of Saunders, are in the
process of developing the book for the screen. "I
have no idea what a movie might look like for
this," Saunders admitted. "Itíll be fun to
he plans to return to writing short stories ("this
was a vow I made to myself: write stories the rest of
your life"), Saunders said he enjoyed the process
of spending several years on one work.
he never lost track of the essential sadness at the
heart of his story: a lost child, a devastated father.
"I was a little sensitive that I was using a real
kid," he said, saying that he kept photographs of
Willie and Lincoln above his desk. "I thought, I
really have to do this, guys. Iím going to try to
honor you both by making your heartbreak real. In the
end, that was the whole point of the book for me,
whenever I got a little lost. Youíre trying to honor
this actual heartbreak."