George Saunders may be the most celebrated debut novelist of the 21st century. Saunders, 58, won decades of acclaim for his short-story collections (1996’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, 2013’s Tenth of December) that amplify the intricacies of American culture via the surreal and fantastical. Lincoln in the Bardo, his remarkable first full-length novel, continues apace, taking for its starting point a historical anecdote about Abraham Lincoln visiting the tomb of his recently deceased son, killed by typhoid fever in 1862. In the novel, dozens of ghosts linger over the 11-year-old’s grave, observing a President and father in grief. They are also Saunders’ narrators, a chorus reflecting on parenthood, patriotism, race and death.
TIME: Thousands of books have been written about Abraham Lincoln. Why write another?
Saunders: I really didn’t want to write about Lincoln but was so captivated by this story I’d heard years ago about him entering his son’s crypt. I thought of the book as a way of trying to instill the same reaction I’d had all those years ago. But then writing about Lincoln became sort of a necessary thing, not a necessary “evil,” but a bit of a burden. Which I then worked with by telling myself that I wasn’t writing some big comprehensive book about Lincoln but was just providing little snapshots of him, as needed, at very particular moments, on this one night. It became, “What state of mind would a man be in at 12:45 a.m., on a cold February night, five minutes after he’s seen and held his dead son’s body?” That felt more workable to me, originating, as it did, with that great fiction writer’s friend, specificity.
The book is written entirely in block quotes. Why?
A gifted former student of mine, Adam Levin, emailed me that he thought that if I ever wrote a novel, it would be in the form of a series of monologues. And my reaction was something like, “Ooh, fun.” And at the same time, I was trying to avoid some obvious pitfalls/buzzkills. For example, I didn’t have any desire to write a 300-page Lincoln monologue and found myself resisting a straightforward narrative approach, à la: “On a dark night, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, entered the dark graveyard furtively.” Ugh.
A lot of writing is just intuitively lurching away from that which bores you, or that which feels like it might, uh, suck. One good compositional approach is to steer toward the fun — that which you can do easily and with relish and joy. One “Aha!” moment came when I realized that if I set up the ghost parts and the historical stuff identically, I could move between them with less fanfare.
What in your research surprised you most about Lincoln?
The incredible, exponential growth he accomplished in those five years — spiritual, moral. In many ways we still haven’t caught up. Also I was surprised to learn about his incredible unpopularity in those early years of his presidency and the way he was able to keep growing and striving in the face of this.
You wrote about Donald Trump’s rallies long before he won. Did you predict the results?
No. But in retrospect I should have been able to, based on the size and energy of the rallies and the fact that the people I met were very nice, mainstream people — not the fringe types I’d been led to expect. I disagreed vehemently with their views, and especially with the way the movement was willing to throw whole groups of hardworking people under the bus. But they were affable and happy to talk with me and not rabid or particularly angry. That should have been a preindicator that the Trump thing was (sadly, to me) more mainstream than I’d been able to imagine.
What do you make of the country’s anger toward the elites?
I think I’d advocate for retiring elite as a pejorative. That’s a term the right-wing media has appropriated. We should all, in our own field, strive to be elite, i.e. really good at what we do. There are elite cross-country truckers and elite cooks at Denny’s, and when I go in for a root canal, I am praying that my dentist be elite, and not some affable dude who does dentistry on the side since he flunked out of dental school.
I think what’s happened in our country is pretty simple: The money went up, up, up. The middle class got decimated. Slight animosities got exaggerated.
Why do you think people like reading about political dealmaking and compromising in Lincoln’s era but dislike hearing about them today?
Our idea that compromise and conversation and uncertainty are signs of weakness is a real problem. A really powerful person like Lincoln, for example, could be very quiet for a long time and have a lot of insults thrown at him, have a lot of bad ideas heaped on him, have a lot of people calling him names, and just quietly abide with his own cognitive processes until an answer presented itself to him. That’s a strength that is very unusual.
You’ve been called a “slipstream” writer, incorporating sci-fi or fantastic elements into otherwise realist fiction. Has reality caught up with this kind of wacky realism?
I use those elements as a way of honing in on the emotional truth of a situation. When I look at what my life has actually been, to just represent what literally happened is to shortchange the emotional range that I’ve experienced. In other words, just a straightforward “realist” representation of life seems to leave a lot of stuff on the table in terms of the real confusions and emotional complexities and beauties and terrors that are experienced even in a relatively bourgeois life like mine. I really consider myself, ultimately, a Gogolian, trying to get at what life feels like, but knowing that, to do that, we might have to swing a little wildly. Because life itself is so beautiful and insane.
This appears in the February 27, 2017 issue of TIME.