Thanks so much for signing up to receive these notes about my first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo.”
Sometimes my short stories start by way of some inciting incident or visual. For example, my wife and I once drove by this house outside Rochester and saw this little kid on a long dog chain in the backyard, running around, apparently happy – he’d race to the end of his tether and let it snap him back. So that was…interesting. After many years of wondering what the heck had been going on, I wrote a story called “Puppy” – just as a way of working through that image.
In my little mental box of “interesting images” there was one that dated back to the 1990s. Back then, we’d been in D.C., driving along past Oak Hill Cemetery, when my wife’s cousin mentioned that Lincoln’s son, Willie, had died at age eleven, when Lincoln was in office, and that there – in that crypt on the hillside – was where Willie’s body had been temporarily interred, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln, according to newspapers of the time, had “on several occasions,” entered the crypt and held the body.
That image – Lincoln with his dead son across his lap: a mix of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pieta – rose up in my mind and stayed there, for many years. I found it really powerful but had no idea what to do with it. I had always written in a contemporary voice, often in vaguely futuristic, sci-fi environments, and in a comic mode – and couldn’t find a way into this very sad story.
For many years I tried, on the side, to write a play about it, but that was hard – I’m not a natural playwright. It was also hard because so much of the beauty of the story did not seem to yield to dramatization – after all, all that really happened was: Man enters graveyard, crosses graveyard, enters crypt, holds body, leaves graveyard. No, or very few (maybe just one?) witnesses, no dialogue, etc. Also, as I read about that period, it came to seem that a lot of the drama of that moment was informed by some things that happened before, or around, the death – a famous and controversial party the Lincolns threw, the war itself, the family dynamic. So how to get all that stuff in? In other words, I felt (and I think I was right) that, at that time, I didn’t have the chops to pull it off.
So basically I let it sit for many years, occasionally going back to that crummy play (“Four score and seven minutes ago, I did enter this yon graveyard…”) and then racing away in fear. (At one point, doing a year-end review of projects I was doing on, I wrote this across the top of the play manuscript: “Run away. Don’t do it. Do not.”)
Finally, back around 2011 or 2012, when I had just finished my most recent collection of stories, “Tenth of December,” and was starting to turn my mind to what was next, it occurred to me that I still (still!) wanted to write the Lincoln story. In all of those years, whenever I was feeling artistically happy or ambitious, my mind would just drift over there, like it might to a happy memory, and with this feeling: “Why in the world can’t you do this, tell this beautiful story that you, in fact, can feel, and deeply? What’s up with that?” So I had a little talk with myself that went something like this: “OK. You really want to do this, right? Why wouldn’t you?” (“It’s too hard,” I answered myself). And then I felt: “Look, if not now, when? Do you want to be some ancient guy who never took on a project that really interested him, because he felt he might not be good enough (deep enough, brave enough, etc.)?” And finally the reliable and smartass Chicago part of me thought, basically: “Come on, dummy, you’ve had a good run. If you dropped dead right now, you’ve done fine. How about taking a chance/risking failure, in the name of keeping the artist in you alive?”
Well, that was hard to argue with. So, just before “Tenth of December” was about to come out, I started casually messing around with the Lincoln idea, in an exploratory spirit. And, sure enough, as artists hope will happen, it was, in fact, really hard, for all of the reasons mentioned above. But it also turned out to be a great adventure, challenging and fun at every step and it forced me (allowed me) to expand who I was, as a person and an artist. It kept creating technical problems that I had to solve. I think that’s really what it’s all about, this practice of art: a ritual way to keep oneself awake and off of auto-pilot.
And, to be frank, a lot of this post-writing talk is a little….wobbly. The truth is, you leap into something and then for (in this case) five years, you keep leaping, making tens of thousands of intuitive choices, but you’re not really sure why you’re making those choices, except that they seem, in the moment, to produce more beauty – and then, at the end, you look up and you’ve made something that is the sum total of all those choices, made over those many years. The wonderful thing, and the thing that keeps me writing, is the hope that the result is somehow better than you, the writer: more alert, kinder, funnier, more big-hearted, more big-minded, and that working on it has enlarged your view of things – made the world seem wilder and more confusing than before, albeit lovelier.
I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I enjoyed writing it, and I thank you for agreeing to receive these notes from me, and for all the support many of you have given to my work over the years. Hope to see you out on the road in February/March – at last count, I’ll be doing twenty events across the country during that period (and then going on to England after that).
All the best,