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Saunders the sensible

Saunders the sensible

George Saunders, the new Man Booker winner, talks a lot of sense. When asked about the innovative form of Lincoln in the Bardo, which mixes spirit voices, monologues and historical facts, he pointed out that such seeming tricksiness

was for a very good reason. “I always try to focus on the emotional centre of the story,” he said “and then whatever it takes to convey that emotional power to you – that’s the correct form. I would never want to be experimental for experiment’s sake.” When he was quizzed about the rights and wrongs of Americans being eligible for the prize he pointed out that literature is border neutral: “The essential thing that happens when you’re writing is that ‘you’ fall away for just for a minute,” he said “and then the reader hopefully has the same experience. That’s the whole premise of literature – that you and I are different but we can both work ourselves into the same state.”

Alastair Niven, the former Director of Literature at the Arts Council and the British Council and a Man Booker judge in 2014, had a different but succinct response to the same argument. In a letter to a newspaper he stated simply that “I refuse to accept that the Americans are so overwhelmingly amazing that the rest of the world can only watch in awe as they inevitably scoop up every literary prize going. Who won the Nobel Prize in literature this year? A Briton of Japanese origin.”

Elsewhere, in another interview, Saunders found an unexpected analogy when asked why it took him so long to write Lincoln in the Bardo after hearing the story of Lincoln visiting the body of his dead son some 20 years ago. He likened his predicament to the moment in the Clint Eastwood Western The Outlaw Josey Wales, when Eastwood’s ageing sharpshooter is in a saloon and a hired gun comes in to kill him. “Josey Wales says to him, ‘You know, you do not have to do this.’ And the guy gets this look and he goes out, and then a couple of minutes later he comes back in and he says, ‘I had to come back.’ And Josey Wales says, ‘I know,’ and then he kills him. For me the book was like that. I kept thinking, ‘I have to do it. If I do not do it, I am going to really not be viable any more.’ ” There you have it: to be a novelist is to be a gun-slinger.

Far from being crushed by the number of interviews he's given following his win, Saunders is relishing the whole razzmatazz: “It's been so much fun,” he says “I think I'm going to have trouble going home and taking out the garbage.” Of course there were times, as there are for any writer, when taking out the garbage was almost a highlight: “When you're young nobody asks you to do anything. So someone says, 'Hey could you come to the grocery store and read your work and then mop the floor?' and you're like 'Oh yes, of course I'd be happy to do that'.” It is probably safe to say that Saunders has now got beyond the grocery store and mopping stage.

Lincoln in the Bardo is not destined, it seems, to remain on the page. The book has comic moments but nevertheless it comes as a surprise to learn that the film rights to the novel have been acquired by Megan Mullally (who plays the squeakily acidic Karen in Will and Grace) and her husband Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation). To make sure the project doesn't enter sitcom territory Saunders himself is a co-producer and will write the screenplay. Filming such a complicated book will be no easy task but, as Saunders says, they have to “go big or go home”.