My first meeting with George Saunders took place in his home of ten years, a ranch house in the Catskills. The house stood on fifteen acres of hilly woods, crisscrossed by narrow paths that he and his wife, the novelist Paula Saunders, had cleared over many afternoons, following mornings spent writing.
The Saunderses had lived in upstate New York for three decades; they raised their two daughters in Rochester and Syracuse, two of the region’s Rust Belt cities, and Saunders’s first three story collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2000), and In Persuasion Nation (2006), are marked by the experience of bringing up children and holding down jobs in a postindustrial economy. But the stories aren’t constrained by the conventions of gritty realism. There are ghosts, zombies, prosthetic foreheads, and memories uploaded onto computers straight from human brains. Many of the stories are extremely funny, many have endings of great emotional power, and most are written in a style that’s spare, vernacular, and very catchy. Appearing in The New Yorker since 1992, they won Saunders a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006 and have exerted an enormous influence on contemporary American fiction. The many writers who love Saunders often complain that it takes great effort not to imitate him.
In recent years, Saunders, too, has worked to write less like Saunders. Tenth of December (2013), shortlisted for a National Book Award, found him experimenting with new voices; in one story, “Escape from Spiderhead,” the narrator imbibes a drug that causes him to compose sentences in the style of Henry James. Saunders followed that book with his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), set in nineteenth-century Washington, far from the futuristic office parks and theme parks of his early work. It debuted at the top of the New York Times best-seller list and won that year’s Man Booker Prize.
Saunders and I spoke in his kitchen over mugs of strong coffee. Furniture was sparse, because he and Paula were moving. They’d decided to sell the place and live full-time in their house outside Santa Cruz, California. But the shed where he wrote Tenth of December and Lincoln was still as it had been when he was working on those books. His desk, flanked by bookshelves, faced a table displaying perhaps ten framed photos of Buddhist teachers in robes.