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IU College Arts and Humanities Institute bringing bestselling author George Saunders to Bloomington

Sep 18, 2017
George Saunders sitting outside on a bench

One hundred sixty-six.

That is the number of ghosts, or voices, contained in George Saunders’ new book, “Lincoln in the Bardo.”

It’s also the number of voice actors Saunders sought for the audio version of the book, because he wanted the ghosts to sound authentic.

The New York Times bestselling author visits Bloomington Tuesday, Sept. 19, at 7 p.m. at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater to give a reading, hold a Q&A and do a book signing. The event is free – although tickets must be reserved through the Buskirk-Chumley box office – and open to the public and is sponsored by Indiana University’s College Arts and Humanities Institute.

CAHI is financed by IU’s College of Arts and Sciences and sponsors three different kinds of research and/or artistic activities: conferences, workshops and performances; research travel grants; and fellowships. Additionally, the institute sponsors a popular lecture series, “Meet the Author,” now in its 13th year, and invites world-renowned writers, artists and intellectuals to the IU Bloomington campus.

“Lincoln in the Bardo” was named last week to the 2017 Man Booker Prize shortlist. Of the six novels on the list, only one will go on to win the prestigious literary prize at a gala ceremony in October in London.

The book project began several years after Saunders heard the story about the death of Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie. Newspapers at the time reported that Lincoln, who was overcome with grief, had visited the crypt many times to hold his dead son’s body. Saunders envisioned Lincoln holding his son in the crypt, and the image remained with him for years. Then, one day in 2012, he decided to start writing a book based on that historical fact, and the result was “Lincoln in the Bardo.”

The book’s format has been one of its most polarizing aspects among critics. Saunders chose to write it in epigraphs with characters from the “bardo,” a term taken from Buddhism meaning the time period between a ghost’s separation from the body and its departure for its next phase. In the book, each ghost speaks about what it sees happening in the White House or makes observations about what Lincoln is doing. When Saunders started writing the book, he wanted to avoid using a third-person construction, so he wrote the characters’ dialogue in short lines.

Cover of the book Lincoln in the Bardo

“The job of an artist is you are trying things over and over, keeping the stuff that works and getting rid of the stuff that doesn’t,” Saunders said. “I like to be able to make a speech, and I like a monologue, and what is the truth of the room is there are probably 80 different monologues going on at once. So much of what you do as an artist is intuitive, and you look up one day and you say, ‘This works.’”

Among all the voices in the book, there wasn’t one that Saunders enjoyed more than another.

“In this book, one of the rules was that there were no contemporary voices, so they were all equally difficult or distant from who I am, so the rule of thumb was for them to be equally liked,” Saunders said.

And what would the ghosts think about the current occupants of the White House?

“Depends on what their politics were when they were living,” Saunders said.

The book was completed before the 2016 presidential election. Saunders said he can’t imagine what the voices in the book would say, but he knows that Lincoln was genuinely curious about the world and had humility.

“I don’t think that’s true about (President Donald) Trump,” Saunders said. “I think Lincoln’s vision of the country expanded without ever giving up hope for his Southern enemies. His view expanded what America could be, so that expansiveness is something that we love about Lincoln.”

After his book tour concludes, Saunders will be working on his TV show for Amazon, “Sea Oak,” a new series starring Glenn Close based on his short story by the same name.

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