Friday, February 16, 2018

Jill Krementz covers George Saunders at Symphony Space

"Now that the book is out I'm going through Lincoln withdrawal. I could have written about him for the rest of my life. Lincoln was a bad Buddhist but, like me, he had lots enthusiasm but limited compassion. I loved the man — he even played the guitar."
George Saunders
Lincoln in the Bardo
A Reading with Radhika Jones, Russell G Jones, Jane Kaczmarek,
and Denis O'Hare

Symphony Space; 2537 Broadway at 95th Street
February 13, 2018

The paperback edition of Lincoln in the Bardo. The "bardo" is a term that Saunders has borrowed from Buddhism for what might be called the "justafterlife" — the interval between a ghost's separation from its body and its departure for whatever comes next.
George Saunders is not only one of the best writers being published these days — he's one of the nicest. He is the author of eight books, including the short story collections and novellas of Pastoralia, In Persuasion Nation, and Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Lincoln in the Bardo, the first full-length novel by Mr. Saunders and a huge bestseller, was recently awarded the Man Booker Prize. The book, unfolding over the course of a single night in a Georgetown graveyard, is a fictitious oral history of the night President Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son, Willie, was interred. It is around the seed of historical truth that we listen to the voices of over a hundred ghosts, including the dead boy's bereft father, in what the Buddhist tradition calls the bardo.

To celebrate the paperback publication of his book, George Saunders flew to New York to participate in a staged reading at Symphony Space. We heard the voices of Lincoln and two of the ghosts as they were read aloud by actors Russell G. Jones, Jane Kaczmarek, and Denis O'Hare. Radhika Jones, Vanity Fair's editor-in-chief, was the evening's emcee. The performance was followed by a lively conversation on stage between Ms. Jones and Mr. Saunders.

Among the sold-out-audience: Maria Tucci, Tonya Pinkins, Anne Kauffman, Jeanine Tesori and Random House's Chayenne Skeete.

Radika Jones is the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair.

Previously she served as the arts editor for The Moscow Times,managing editor of The Paris Review, deputy managing editor of Time, and editorial director for the books department of The New York Times.
Jane Kaczmarek is best known for her role as Lois in "Malcolm in the Middle." She most recently played the Stage Manager in "Our Town," a co-production with the Deaf West Theater at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Ms. Kaczmarek is a frequest host and reader on Selected Shorts at Symphony Space.
Russell G. Jones won an Obie for his performance in Lynn Nottage's "Ruined." Jones's TV credits include recurring characters on "The Americans" and "Godless." He is the founder of Blind Spot to facilitate cross-cultural dialogue regarding bias and oppression.

In two weeks Mr. Jones will appear in "St. Joan" on Broadway.
Denis O'Hare is known for his award-winning performances in the plays "Take Me Out" and "Sweet Charity," as well as portraying the vampire Russell Edgington on HBO's fantasy series "True Blood."

He is also known for his supporting roles in such films as "Charlie Wilson's War," "Milk,"Changeling," "Dallas Buyers Club," and "Noviatiate."

One of his upcoming projects is a role in "The Goldfinch," based on Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize winning novel.
Also helping: Denis O'Hare's son Declan Redwood O'Hare who is "6 and 3/4-years-old" (adopted by Denis & his husband Hugo Redwood) and Drew Richardson, the Lead Producer of Literary Programs at Symphony Space.
Before the reading, George was backstage signing 400 books with the help of Jennifer Brennan, Director of Literary Programs at Symphony Space.

So many books to sign that it's mostly his initials. A situation every author dreams of.
Chayenne Skeete, an editorial assistant at Random House — the publisher of Lincoln in the Bardo. Ms. Skeete wrote the reader's guide questions in the back of the paperback.
A group photo before they go on stage: Radhika Jones, George Saunders, Jane Kaczmarek, Russell G. Jones, and Denis O'Hare.
George and his entourage on stage reading excerpts from his book. Radhika & George narrated; Russell was Lincoln; Jane and Denis channelled ghosts Vollman and Bevins.
The discussion between Radhika Jones and George Saunders following the staged reading.

George later said, "Radhika did the rare thing a masterful interviewer can do: make the writer see his own work anew."

Chayenne Skeete, even though she worked on the paperback publication, participated in the Q&A. Chayenne was interested in the last page/chapter of the book.

"Essentially, I was just appreciating the powerful and, especially now, poignant image of the spirit of a black man, a slave, riding freely along Lincoln out of the grave at the end. My question was how he came to that ending, and the significance of that.

"George dazzled me with his response so I can't remember exactly what he said but essentially it was that there were so many pins juggling in the air, and the character of Thomas Havens, once he was invented, needed to land somewhere, and not be left behind, as it were, historically, narratively.

"Lincoln's stance on slavery wasn't always so clear, but he did feel beholden to all the black soldiers fighting in the union, and I guess the final image helps externalize that burden, of literally carrying
around the souls of these people with him."
George greeting a member of the audience following the reading.

Following the reading/discussion, George stayed on stage and personalized copies of his book. On each book was a post-it of the name to whom the book should be inscribed.
Matthew Love (Consultant for Literary Programs), George Saunders, Drew Richardson, and Kisky Holwerda (a producer of Literary Programs).
Actresses Maria Tucci and Tonya Pinkins. Lots of friends, and alumnae of Symphony Space productions came backstage to visit with the performers. Tonya Pinkins won a Tony Award for her performance as Sweet Anita in "Jelly's Last Jam." She was nominated for her roles in "Play On!" and in "Caroline, or Change," where she played the title role.

Jeanine Tesori attended George's reading with her her friend, Annie Kauffman.

Ms. Tesori did the score of "Caroline or Change" and also produced my husband's "God Bless You Mr. Rosewater" for Encores!

Anne Kauffman is a director known primarily for her work on new plays, mainly in the New York area.
Anne Kauffman chatting with Russell G. Jones. Matthew Love and Jennifer Brennan.
A raptuous Jane Kaczmarek after the reading: "I've read Lincoln in the Bardo three times and counting."
Anne Kauffman, Richard Stanislaw, Vidya Misra, and Jeanine Tesori.
The evening's poster signed by all the participants, except for George's who, as the captain of his ship, had not yet left.
"Truth is a sophisticated system of contradictions." — George Saunders

Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved. Contact Jill Krementz here.