George Saunders: What happens when you die? | KUOW News and Information

George Saunders: What happens when you die?

Mar 4, 2017

What happens when we die? Writer George Saunders speculates on what happens to Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie when he dies in his first novel "Lincoln in the Bardo." Most of the book takes place in a cemetery and is described as having the ambience of Hieronymous Bosch and Tim Burton.

What’s the Bardo of  the title? Tibetan Buddhists believe it’s a state of being between death and life. But to George Saunders, it’s not purgatory.

“I’m an old Catholic, and for me purgatory is you sit on a hard bench until the end of days. You’ve messed up. Sit in there for punishment,” he said.

“I’m not in strictly keeping with Tibetan Bardo," he continued. "In the one that I made, you’re in this state because of the way your mind is now in this life. So if you’re full of regret when you pass, the image stays and is actually super-sized in the Tibetan tradition. The mind freed from the body is a wild beast. In my Bardo, there’s a chance you can get free of it.”

Saunders drew on ghost mythology for his version of how dead souls escape the Bardo: 

“In my version of the Bardo, the ghosts know a little bit that they’re dead, but they’re like alcoholics. They’re a little bit in denial. One way you get out is that you realize you’re dead, then you can proceed. I suppose there should be a model by which they could turn toward their own regret and recognize it. But in this book, they inadvertently find out they’re dead, they can no longer deny the truth of it, and off they go.”

Saunders imagines that the dead in the Bardo assume a grotesque appearance. “There’s one guy who was about to consummate his marriage and he dies, so he had a large member. That was part of the way you could counteract the sadness with a little bit of levity.”

Credit Ross Reynolds

The audio interview includes Saunders on:

  • How the audio book of "Lincoln in the Bardo" came to include 166 different vocal parts including David Sedaris, Nick Offerman and Lena Dunham.
  • His impression of Trump supporters after covering Trump rallies for The New Yorker last summer.
  • “If you made a machine to create a Trump voter, it would be a Willie Wonka machine.”
  • Tips on talking to a Trump supporter.