George Saunders and Joel Conarroe ’56 met for conversation and a slice of Mary Todd Lincoln’s almond cake on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s 209th birthday. Saunders, a celebrated short-story writer in the middle of the tour for his Man Booker Prize-winning first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, delivered this year’s sold-out Conarroe Lecture.
Saunders came to writing by way of geophysics and is described as an original, a “writer’s writer,” and an unfailingly generous spirit. Conarroe, the lecture’s namesake, is president emeritus of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the author of books and articles about American literature, and an editor of anthologies of poetry.
Before dinner and the lecture, Conarroe and Saunders entertained each other and this editor with musings on art, grief, Buddhism, friendship and rigor.
Apocalypse & Art
GS: How will the world end? It’s going to end in a blaze of glory when I die in the middle of a rescue at age 200. I have no idea.
JC: Well, I can say that reading George keeps me more positive than I would otherwise be. Reading Lincoln in the Bardo has been a wonderful sort of respite during these surreal times because it takes me away from worrying about how the world is possibly going to end.
GS: For me, reading is a good way to be in whatever moment we’re in and take joy in it, and kind of rejoice in specificity and detail and the possibilities of reworking situations. So I tend not to think apocalyptically but to think in the moment, and there’s a great joy in that.
JC: We solved that problem. Next.
GS: And then, in a cutaway, we can see the meteor coming towards Davidson. I don’t know if you’ve felt this, but I’m 59 this year and having spent this much of my life in the arts—I’m a little bit sad that it’s not more effective, especially in this time. I wish I could do more, but on the other hand I also feel very happy with the comforts it actually does provide. I’m doing a big tour now, and you meet so many people who will say, “I read your book. It made a difference to me,” and you’d be a fool if you didn’t put that on the scale as well. Both those things kind of coexist in a certain way.
JC: That’s true. And I know you’re still teaching and have been at Syracuse for many years, and I think I used to get some of the same solace from teaching—just the communication and knowing that you’re doing something that is ultimately maybe worthwhile for a number of people.
GS: Do you miss teaching?
JC: I miss teaching. I liked it. I taught at Penn for about 20 years, and then I began to commit administration. Left teaching behind.
GS: Of the classes you taught, what was the one that you would most like to teach again now?
JC: I have this fantasy, George, of giving a course in American fiction, and the syllabus would include Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Sound and the Fury, Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Annie Proulx’s Shipping News, Joyce Carol Oates’ wonderful but underrated novel called What I Lived For, and Lincoln in the Bardo. And I say that not just to be nice—these are the books that move me most.
GS: Well I’d love to take that course from you.
JC: Well thank you…I would like to have you in the course.
GS: Can I ask something? Because you’ve had such a unique place in the culture over the last 50, 60 years—and this is a hard question—at the intersection of art and politics, how has it changed since you were a young man here at Davidson the first time?
JC: That’s one of those questions that will leave me with what Edith Wharton described as the belated eloquence of the inarticulate. At 3 p.m. this afternoon I’ll say, “Why didn’t I say this?,” but yeah, my career has been a little odd because almost as soon as I started teaching, I began taking administrative jobs. I ran the Guggenheim Foundation and PEN, the writer’s organization, and I was chairman of the National Book Foundation… all this to say, I have a sense that writers are playing an increasingly large role in shaping human consciousness. I’m optimistic.
GS: Oh, that’s good—I’m glad to hear that. Because I’ve felt a sense of frustration, maybe because when I was younger I had an unrealistic idea of how influential writers would be. You go to a town and do a reading, you have a nice full crowd. Almost everybody’s already the converted. So last year, when this book came out, right after the inauguration, I thought, “Great—there’ll be a great chance for dialogue.” But the people that I might have wanted to persuade didn’t show up. I’m happy to hear that in your experience, writers are more influential than they were.
JC: They’re not simply writing for one another. Just going back, I think of Annie Proulx, for example, when she wrote “Brokeback Mountain.” Who would have thought that this little 12-page story in The New Yorker would become a rallying cry for a whole generation of gay writers, and just human beings?
GS: So what’s it like being back here at your alma mater? Emotional?
JC: I always get a rush when I come back to Davidson. Coming to Davidson was the most important thing that ever happened to me because I grew up as a tennis-playing kid in a high school in southwest Florida, and I was intellectually a blank page. And I came into contact with these faculty members who devoted themselves to teaching.
Almost as soon as I got here, I was simply awakened. I had some terrific teachers and they turned me into a lifetime student, and I’ve always been grateful. Plus, you see that it’s a wonderfully picturesque.
GS: I was walking around late last night and I thought it could be 1870. I also got a nice taste of Davidson town life. I was running around yesterday and I left my wallet at the CVS, and I went back kind of panicked and they didn’t have it, and I got a text from the bookstore owner saying, “A customer went to CVS, found your wallet, googled you, saw that you are a writer and dropped the wallet at the bookstore, and you can pick it up whenever you’d like.”
On a Good Life
GS: As you go down the path of life a little more, you start to really think about what makes a good life, what makes a life well lived. For me, when I was younger, it was always success. And then you see, there’s an ability to embrace the world, and that’s really where success lies—that opening out. You mentioned coming to Davidson—when I was young, I grew up on the South side of Chicago and hadn’t planned to go to college.
I was a guitar player, and that was going to be my nest egg. And then a couple of high school teachers intervened on my behalf and got me into the Colorado School of Mines, just with a phone call. And that first week was life-changing, you know, to see that rigor is a real thing in the world and you will be judged according to rigor, and if you can rise to the occasion, the world gets big. That was a great gift.
I always had an affinity for writing, but I didn’t really know anyone who was a writer, and I didn’t understand how one became that. So, I went to School of Mines and studied geophysics and that was a great pathway for me because I got to go overseas for the first time—I went to Asia as an oil person. While I was there, I had a lot of downtime in the Sumatran jungle and I started reading more and got the first inkling that I might be able to write, and that writing would probably be the only thing that would really make me happy. I got sick in Asia and used that as an excuse to quit my job and started kind of beatniking around the country, and then the virus took hold and I was just writing all the time.
Professionally, the big step was when I got into Syracuse when I was about 26—suddenly I was around people who were real serious readers and writers. And I kind of joined the flock.
There’s a part in Hemingway, I think, where someone asks someone how they went broke, and he says, “gradually and all at once.” That was how I became a writer.
One thing I really have loved about this writing life—it’s not really temporal in a certain way. If you can have a beautiful thought at age 105, it’s a young thought, and if you can have a very wise thought at 28, it’s an eternal thought.
JC: I know you do some reading of your own work. I will admit I’m somewhat technophobic, or maybe old fashioned, but I have never listened to a book on tape and I am so eager to hear this book [Lincoln in the Bardo] on tape because I’ve now read it a couple of times and I’ve fallen in love with Roger and Hans, who I think of as the Abbott and Costello of the book. I want to know how they’re interpreted—I’m interested to know whether the book is as moving to the ear as it is to me when I read it, and also whether the humor is as wet-your-pants funny when you hear it as when you read it. So, I’m going to lose my virginity on Lincoln and the Bardo.
GS: I’m honored to be in that position… I dreaded the thought of trying to read the whole thing on tape because I can’t do that many voices. And then the producer had the idea of trying to get a separate individual for every individual voice, and it turned out to be a 166 people were needed. We have movie stars, my parents and those two high school teachers I mentioned—we had to just get everybody.
JC: Was this a several-day process?
GS: It took months—11 different studios all over the country, and no two actors were ever in the room at the same time. People who have listened to it all the way through say it’s moving in a different way. It’s a little slower because the attributions are read aloud. And when I read the book, I’m sort of skimming those a little bit in my mind.
You know, what was interesting was to have a book like this kind of appear miraculously—to have those beautiful four years of dwelling in it. Then you feel, as the writer, you feel the clock ticking. You can’t take 20 years. It has to be done sometime in the next two years for it to really bloom. So I did that, and then you miss the book so much. So the audio book was a nice way to kind of ease out of it a little bit. Just have one more little period of time with it, you know.
JC: You must have been surprised and pleased by the response to the book—I know it was one of the bestselling books last year.
GS: I was very pleased—the thing I was most happy about was the moment of artistic truth. I took a fairly uncertain path through the book. The form is kind of strange, and I didn’t know if it would work, but I had this feeling that I just wanted to really throw down on this book no matter what. So to see a book that you took a real chance on be embraced was very, very good.
JC: And I know you’ve been thinking about this book for 15 years.
GS: Yeah. As somebody who was working class, I feel like in my artistic life I’ve been coming from behind. I wasn’t that well-read. Then you have some early success based on, in my case, a kind of quick, funny, post-modern edginess or whatever. Then you get to this point in life and you see a path up a different mountain. Do you have the guts to try it? And I was happy that I tried. That was an expander. At this stage in the career, you can sort of start self-imitating and clinging to the side of the pool. So in retrospect, that was the happiest thing about it—I feel more positive and lyrical about life than I’ve ever been able to get on the page. Can I dedicate a few years to seeing if I can go that direction? So that was good.
I really miss that book every day.
JC: You miss writing it?
GS: It was an incredible surprise. I mean, I’ve heard writers say this, and I always thought it was phony, but that midwifing feeling, you know. I would go out to my little writing shed and just go, come on.
JC: I find this book almost unlike any book I’ve ever read—I respond to it as if it were a piece of music.
GS: For me, it’s interesting—a lot of the daily work is very, very lapidary, that you have a section of text and you can edit it to make it more propulsive and also more addictive. There’s something about the micro choices—you can make the prose more undeniable and that’s the thing that I’m doing every day more than thinking about theme or anything; it’s trying to please your ear in a certain way that is actually musical.
In fact, one day I was driving through the Berkshires listening to Philip Glass and I just had this spontaneous visualization of the stage that turned out to be pretty much the setting for the book.
GS: I think a year ago I would’ve said I just tried to recreate the love I felt in my life—then if you say, “love, love, love, love, love, death,” that’s grief. In other words, you don’t actually have to have gone through the experience of grief to simulate it because grief is just love truncated, essentially. But then as I was talking about the book, I realized something. I had a cousin who died when she was 25 and I was 19. I loved her dearly and it happened so early in my life and in the middle of so many other things that I guess I didn’t really process it. I knew it and it hurt, but I think after that I always felt death just there, you know. She died in a car accident and we heard about it kind of suddenly. I think after that, you always feel vulnerable. Maybe it’s not in the front of your mind, but in the back of your mind, you know death as a possibility. And then the third thing was, I’d gone to live for a journalistic piece in a homeless camp in Fresno for a week incognito. And that camp is the graveyard [in Lincoln in the Bardo]—people who were mentally disturbed or addicted repetitively telling you their stories in order to ground themselves in the real world. All those things kind of came together. But at the time I thought, “Oh no, I’m just making up a story about Lincoln.”
JC: Of all the people who have been moved by the book, I couldn’t help thinking of [poet]Ed Hirsch, because Ed lost his son at age 20 and it was just devastating.
GS: It’s been interesting to be out and meet so many people who have had losses. When I was writing it—and this is how much I believe in fiction—I didn’t even really think about that. I just thought, “Well, if you do a good job, it’ll be good for everybody.” You know? That’s kind of how I think. But then to have people come up and say, “This helped me through this loss,” that’s really wonderful. Now of course you don’t hear from the people who got two pages in and said, “I can’t, this is too much.”
More and more I think it’s important to do something that offers comfort. That’s one thing. And also to continue to believe that that’s important. In my life, when I look at the best times and the worst times, the best times were when I really believed that comfort was possible and valuable and I could give it; the worst times were when I had lost touch with that. When I thought, “Well, it doesn’t actually matter what I say or do,” that’s hell. But heaven is the idea that comfort is real and you’re capable of giving and receiving it. So right now I feel like that more than the other.
JC: As I indicated earlier, you helped me through this deranged, surreal period that we’re living through. This book is a source of solace.
GS: I’m a big believer, as I know you are, that that beautiful moment when one human mind at its best communes with another at its best, there’s a lot in that. It doesn’t seem like much when you think about social media and big headlines. It doesn’t seem like much, but just remembering the reading moments we’ve had. You’re sitting in some little grove of trees and you read [Guy] de Maupassant, and suddenly you think, “Ah, there’s another soul out there that’s like mine.” You know, we have to take those pleasures as real and substantial.
GS: My editor is Andy Ward. We’ve worked together on a lot of non-fiction pieces that were kind of risky, and I would go to some strange place and he would, from a distance, kind of guide me to a what a real journalist would do, because I didn’t know. So I really have a lot of love and trust for him. When I sent him the first third of this book, just with such trepidation because I thought maybe it didn’t make sense to someone other than my wife and I, he was 100 percent for it. He said, “I just want more, I just want more.” Now, later we went back and reworked that section, but at that point, I think he knew that what I needed was a boost of confidence. That takes a certain kind of psychological acuity to know what to say when, so that the writer is emboldened. Because the natural state of writers is fear. You’re afraid you’re going to lose the small audience you already have, but if you have the right person in your life, you can press the button that makes you confident, and Andy does that for me.
JC: I like what Robert Caro describes as the arguments he had with Robert Gottleib, when he was working on The Power Broker, and they would have these shouting matches about semi-colons.
GS: As you should! From my engineering background, I’m very comfortable with rigor or high standards. What I can’t stand is when someone has no opinion, but if they have a strong opinion, I can push back. It turns out that even though I have a kind of mushy new age exterior, inside I’m quite sure of myself. So to meet somebody who has equally strong opinions is wonderful. The other editor I’ve worked with is Deborah Treisman, at The New Yorker, and she’s the same way—complete confidence in what she’s doing. She always brings out the best in you, and we’ve had a wonderful 15-year relationship.
On the Bardo
JC: I read somewhere that you are a student of Buddhism—is that so?
GS: I am. I think originally I thought I would make a kind of faithful rendering of that state the Buddhist’s call the Bardo, but then you know, you get into the book and the book says, “I’m a novel dummy, I’m not a catalog,” so let’s make this so-called Bardo whatever it needs to be to maximize the meaning of the book. So I kind of left the real Bardo behind—that’s described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and it’s very detailed and very complicated.
Pretty early on I decided one of the Buddhist things about the book was this notion that if we want to know what death is, we just look at right now because it’s the mind that’s going to determine what that is like. And some of those Buddhist texts, they talk about the mind being greatly enlarged at death, all the shackles are off. So whatever energy we’ve developed, it gets kind of super-sized, which is terrifying.
JC: I saw a headline the other day that said there’s increasing evidence that there is still consciousness after death. That made me think of Hamlet—“…per chance to dream, ay there’s the rub.”
GS: Exactly. That’s exactly the Buddhist idea. There’s a wonderful book, I always forget the title, but by the journalist Patricia Pearson. Her sister had this extraordinary sort of psychic event when their father passed away. So Patricia thought, “I wonder what would happen if I investigated this phenomenon of time of death experiences the same way I would investigate a scandal or a fire.” One of the things she found, and I hope I get this right, was a study of all these people who had been basically brain dead on life support and were then let off the life support, and at the time the families allowed for some kind of brain scan at the moment of death and after. In this study of people in different places, at different times, they looked at brain function over time. Of course, brain function was very low when they were taken off of life support—they would go to zero, and then sometime after that they pegged. And the thing that convinced me as a former scientist is this pegging would happen for a period ranging from three to 20 minutes. Very specific, you know, so maybe that’s the dream. But also the Buddhist in me thinks that’s a little materialistic. We’ll find out when we get there.
Legacy of Friendship
The Conarroe Lecture Series was established by Alex Porter ’60, a successful hedge-fund manager, quintessential scholar-athlete, voracious reader and lifelong learner, in honor of Conarroe, with whom he’d become acquainted during a chance meeting in New York. They quickly surmised that they had many things in common, including Davidson. Porter was diagnosed with cancer in 2014. He died surrounded by family and friends at his farm in Davidson.
Conarroe previously served as a professor and administrator at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as executive director of the Modern Language Association and editor of PMLA. He has chaired the National Book Foundation, and is a former president of the PEN American Center. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in American literature in 1977, was a trustee of the Foundation from 1985 to 2016, and is currently trustee emeritus.
Novelist Joyce Carol Oates inaugurated the Conarroe Lectureship in 2002, and those who followed her include some of the most notable authors of this era: Michael Cunningham, Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx, Michael Chabon, Russell Banks, Margaret Atwood, W.S. Merwin, Edward Hirsch, Charles Wright ‘57, Don DeLillo, Robert Caro and Lorrie Moore.