The Book Review

George Saunders on ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’

Episode Summary

The writer, celebrated for his short stories, discusses his 2017 debut novel, and the journalist Patrick Radden Keefe talks about “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.”

Episode Notes

For the next few months, we’re sharing some of our favorite conversations from the podcast’s archives. This week’s segments first appeared in 2017 and 2019, respectively.

The writer George Saunders has long been acclaimed for his short stories, which he has collected into five books since 1996 (including this year’s “Liberation Day”). But in 2017 he showed he was comfortable with longer narratives as well when he released his first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” invoking multiple voices and ghostly spirits to portray President Lincoln’s grief at the death of his young son even as the Civil War raged. Saunders visited the podcast that year to talk about the novel, and how the process of writing it was different for him from story writing. “It seemed like something that was going to have to be approached pretty earnestly, and I wasn’t sure I had the chops to do that,” he told the host Pamela Paul. “I kind of had this little talk with myself: Dude, you’re 50-whatever-I-was ... This is something you’ve been wanting to write your whole life. You’ve now been through many of the major milestones of life. You know, I’m old, I have beautiful kids, everything. Why is this material too earnest for you, or too whatever? So I made a little contract with myself that I would do three months of trying, just to see if it caught fire.”

Also this week, we revisit Paul’s 2019 conversation with the journalist Patrick Radden Keefe about his book “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland,” which looked at the Troubles in Northern Ireland through the lens of one young widow’s disappearance in 1972. “I’m drafting on an incredibly brave effort by her children, starting in the 1990s, to come out and break the code of silence in Ireland, and say: ‘We need to know what happened,’” said Keefe, whose book went on to be named one of our 10 Best Books of 2019.

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