In 2017, George Saunders had a dream. The author – named “the best short-story writer in English” by Time – had just published his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, a profound and beautiful work about Abraham Lincoln’s grief over the death of his son Willie in 1862, unconventionally told by a chorus of spectral voices. It was to prove a Booker Prize-winning, internationally bestselling hit, but, for Saunders, there was one problem: he had no idea what to write next. “This is going well,” he remembers thinking. “Now I’ll f*** it up.” One night the answer came to him as he slept: a fully realised vision of his next major project. Rolling over, he scrawled down the title on his bedside table before peacefully returning to contented sleep. “When I woke up, it said: Custer in the Bardo,” recalls Saunders, chuckling ruefully. “I thought wait a minute, you can’t do that!”
The idea of doing a straightforward sequel featuring the famously doomed US cavalry commander General George Custer was hardly likely to tempt Saunders. A writer known as much for his formal inventiveness as the sharpness of his satirical wit, Saunders rarely repeats himself. His stories, such as 2010’s “Escape From Spiderhead”, which was recently adapted into the sci-fi thriller Spiderhead, build idiosyncratic worlds which take time to reveal their true nature. Still, the idea of writing about Custer stayed with him. He’s long been fascinated by the popular mythology that surrounds Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, where US troops were comprehensively defeated by the combined forces of Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans. Custer has become an evocative historical figure, despite the fact that he and his men were, as Saunders puts it, “slaughtered basically from inefficiency, disorganisation and hubris”.
For a time, “Custer” was also Saunders’ nickname. In the late Eighties, the author was studying for his master’s in creative writing at Syracuse University in New York, where he now teaches. Back then, a poetry teacher took to calling him by the name of the ill-fated general on account of his “long, mullet-ish haircut”, a look which set him apart from his Ivy League peers. When we meet for coffee on a blisteringly hot day in Santa Monica, I can still see the resemblance. Saunders is a youthful 63, with a neat chestnut beard and a black Chicago White Sox baseball cap in place of Custer’s wide-brimmed felt hat. He describes his writing process with the warmth and enthusiasm of a beginner. “I thought it would be fun to try and do something like the Lincoln book, where you present the whole day [of the battle],” says Saunders, “But if you already know what you want it to be like, it’s boring. You have to be open to the surprise.”