Five Things to Know About 2017 Man Booker Prize Winner George Saunders

He becomes the second America to win for his book “Lincoln in the Bardo,” an experimental ghost story that explores the grief of the 16th president

George Saunders
George Saunders poses with his book Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. ASSOCIATED PRESS

George Saunders' surreal and experimental ghost story Lincoln in the Bardo has won the American author the 2017 Man Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards. Lincoln in the Bardo follows a grieving Abraham Lincoln as he visits the crypt of his 11-year-old son, Willie, who succumbed to typhoid fever in 1862. In the cemetery, Lincoln is joined by an eclectic cast of ghosts, who hover between the world of the living and the dead.

Saunders, who draws upon his faith and a moving historical tale to blend fact with fiction in the novel, is a fascinating figure in his own right. Here are five things to know about the latest Man Booker Prize winner.

1. Saunders used to work as a geophysicist

Before he was dazzling literary critics and scooping up international prizes, Saunders graduated with a degree in geophysics from the Colorado School of Mines, Alexandra Alter of the New York Times reports. He worked as a geophysicist at a remote camp in Indonesia, but when he returned to the United States, he struggled to find employment. (Or as Saunders put it in an interview with the Guardian, he was “a dope with a college degree who couldn't find work.”) At various points, he took jobs as a doorman, a roofer, a tech writer, and a slaughterhouse worker.

2. Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel

Saunders ultimately enrolled in an M.F.A. program at Syracuse University, where he now teaches creative writing, and published his first collection of short stories in 1996. Prior to the success of Lincoln in the Bardo, the author was known for his short fiction, which Alter of the Times describes as “dark and often funny.” The author has won four National Magazine Awards for Fiction and a MacArthur Fellowship.

3. Saunders mulled over the premise of Lincoln in the Bardo for 20 years

The idea came to him in the 1990s, during a trip to Washington, D.C. A cousin of Saunders’ wife pointed out Willie Lincoln’s crypt in the historic Oak Hill Cemetery, and told Saunders that the president used to visit the cemetery and hold his son’s body.

Though Lincoln did frequent the crypt, there is no evidence to suggest the he ever held the dead boy, as National Portrait Gallery's senior historian David C. Ward points out in a article. But Saunders was captivated by the story.

“An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà,” the author wrote in the Guardian in March of this year. “I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read ‘Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt,’ decided to take a run at it.” 

4. He is a Tibetan Buddhist

Though he grew up Catholic, today he and his wife, writer Paula Redick, practice Nyingma Buddhism. The bardo—as referenced in the title of Lincoln in the Bardo—is in fact a Buddhist notion, a liminal state between life and death. As Ward points out, Saunders never specifies which Lincoln occupies this transitional spiritual plane. “[A]s Saunders’ describes Willie’s death and Abraham Lincoln’s mourning, the state of in-between becomes apt for both son and father,” he writes.

5. He is the second American to win the Man Booker Prize

Established in 1969, the Man Booker was for many years awarded exclusively to authors from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. But in 2014, the rules were changed to allow any novel written in English and published in Britain to be eligible for the prize. Last year, Paul Beatty became the first American to win the award for his novel The Sellout.

The expansion of the Man Booker to include international authors has sparked concerns among some members of the British literary scene. “[T]he presence of the Americans is simply making it harder for British talent to flourish or even survive (not to mention the writers from the Commonwealth),” British writer and Booker nominee Tibor Fischer told Anita Singh of the Telegraph.If the Man Booker cares about British literary fiction, maybe it should have a rethink."

When he accepted his award on Tuesday, Saunders expressed his gratitude to the United Kingdom, which he called a "beautiful country,” reports Singh. And of his win, Saunders opined that “[p]eople always say it's humbling, which is stupid because it's not—it actually fills you with shit. But it's wonderful and I feel very grateful."

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