How does one craft a question for the likes of George Saunders? It needs to be original, witty, thoughtful, sometimes irreverent, deep, often ungraspable — much like the Man Booker Award-winning author himself. This would-be interviewer is hardly up to the task, but, on the off-chance those in the crowd at this year’s Unbound Book Festival keynote address get to ask an extra question or five, here are our recommendations.
So, Mr. Saunders ...
1. If you were going to describe it, what would you say monkey-poop-infested river water tastes like?
In 2013, Saunders gave the commencement address at Syracuse University, and his short speech captured an audience far bigger than those sitting in attendance. Like Steve Jobs or David Foster Wallace before him, Saunders’ message resonated in a profound way, reminding us all that great advice shouldn’t be reserved for college graduates. He explained that the time he went skinny-dipping in Sumatra, only to notice that “like 300 monkeys” were sitting above the river and pooping down into it (where he swam naked and with his mouth open), was not his biggest regret in life — despite the fact that he fell very ill after the experience. No, what he regretted most was something much simpler, though something much harder to avoid: "failures of kindness."
That's lovely, but we need to know more about this river water business.
2. Is cremation, i.e., avoiding the “sick-box” altogether, a surefire way to bypass the bardo?
Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’ first novel, is the story of a grief-stricken President Lincoln visiting a cemetery where his young son, Willie, has just been buried. Saunders intersperses historical facts and mid-Civil War context with the natterings of a host of ghosts stuck in the bardo, a concept drawn from Tibetan Buddhism that denotes the intermediate space between death and the afterlife. In the novel, everyone — Willie, the ghosts, the president — is in a transitional period, unable to let go, and therefore center stage for a tragicomedy of both life and death. Yet we can't help but wonder: Would the whole ordeal be avoided if Willie hadn't been buried in the first place?
3. How many Austrian Airlines hot rolls would it take for you to return to Nepal and spend one month sitting outside in silent meditation?
Near the end of 2005, Saunders received an email from an editor at GQ asking if he'd be interested in covering the following: A 15-year-old Nepali boy had been sitting at the base of a tree silently meditating for seven months without food or water. After initially blowing off the assignment, Saunders found himself unable to stop thinking about the boy. He said there were two general responses from those who heard the tale: a) the “Realists” who pooh-poohed the idea with a dismissive wave of the hand, noting that it’s “impossible to survive even one week without food and water, much less seven months,” and b) the “Believers,” who expressed amazement and wished "they could go to Nepal tomorrow.”
Saunders, the Believer, traveled to Nepal, but the story he came back with complicated the nature of belief and doubt, over and over again. We'd like to know: Would he go again? And how might he be convinced? Those hot rolls are apparently "very fresh."
4. If you had a pole in your yard that you festively decorated for holidays, how would it be decorated today for Easter weekend?
Saunders, in his much-lauded collection of stories Tenth of December, wrote one that packed a wallop in a few short words. In “Sticks,” the narrator reflects on a father who would decorate “a kind of crucifix he’d built out of metal pole in the yard.” Every holiday, the pole would receive a new outfit: a Santa suit at Christmas; an Uncle Sam costume for Fourth of July. These were the father’s “one concession to glee.” But as the decorations take a turn, so does the story.
Well, Mr. Saunders, this weekend is Easter. What would the Tenth of December dad recommend?
5. If Donald Trump is the Skipper, who in his administration would make up the rest of the cast of Gilligan’s Island? (Except for Gilligan — that one’s just way too easy. It’s Jared, obviously.)
During the 2016 presidential election, Saunders ventured forth into America’s heartland to see with his own eyes what was happening at Trump rallies, and more importantly, who made up those massive crowds of supporters. He wrote up his findings for The New Yorker, which has published much of his writing since his first story appeared there in 1992. What he documented was an up-close portrait of what he suspected but did not truly appreciate at the time: Ours is a deeply divided and fractious country. He conveyed the good and the ugly, and he did so with his characteristic Saundersian thoughtfulness, grace and humor.
He also compared Donald Trump to Alan Hale of Gilligan's Island, and honestly, we're desperate for more of this metaphor.