Published in Panhandler Issue 6
George Saunders is the author of three collections of short stories: the bestselling Pastoralia, set against a warped, hilarious, and terrifyingly recognizable American landscape; CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, a Finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and In Persuasion Nation, one of three finalists for the 2006 STORY Prize for best short story collection of the year. Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline were both New York Times Notable Books. Saunders is also the author of the novella-length illustrated fable, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, which takes us into a profoundly strange country called Inner Horner, and the New York Times bestselling children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, illustrated by Lane Smith, which has also won major children’s literature prizes in Italy and the Netherlands. Most recently, he published a book of essays, The Braindead Megaphone, which received critical acclaim and landed him spots on The Charlie Rose Show, Late Night with David Letterman, and The Colbert Report. His work appears regularly in The New Yorker, GQ, and Harpers Magazine, and has appeared in the O’Henry, Best American Short Story, Best Non-Required Reading, and Best American Travel Writing anthologies. In 2001, Saunders was selected by Entertainment Weekly as one of the 100 top most creative people in entertainment, and by The New Yorker in 2002 and one of the best writers 40 and under. In 2006, he was awarded both a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University. (Photo credit: Caitlin Saunders)
March 24, 2011
Brooke Hardy: I wanted to start with a question about technology. Between “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” and some of the stories in In Persuasion Nation you have several stories that comment on the role of technology in our lives. What is your relationship to technology?
George Saunders: I mostly do that because it gets me into places where the prose stops sucking. When I was a younger writer I used to do a lot of pseudo-Hemingwayesque writing—realist, naturalist—and I just didn’t really have an ear for it. I was doing a lot of imitating of Raymond Carver and my teacher Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford and all these guys, and as much as I loved their work, I just didn’t have the gift for making the prose come alive the way they did. It’s a long story, but I reached the point where I had two daughters, I was working at an engineering company, and I had been out of the MFA program for two years and nothing was happening. I couldn’t get anything to work. I’d had a brief period early on, before the MFA program, where I could feel a real fun sort of magic in my prose. During this period I’d published a story called “A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room,” in The Northwest Review.
But then I lost that feeling of fun for a long time. So at one point post-MFA I just, on a whim, decided to imitate that earlier [work], which was set in a theme park. It was a wave theme park. It’s in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. And somehow just that decision undercut all of my bad, fake lyrical tendencies. If you say you are in the “Virgin Mary Theme Park” and then you write earnestly, it’s funny. So it was almost like a mechanical Jujitsu on a certain bad tendency that I had. I find whenever I make up a technology, usually they are kind of silly, but if you put that in there it’s a preventative. It’s a Suckiness Preventer. It’s like if you are—which I actually am—a guitar player, and you are inclined to be very folkie. I’ve got 1977 stamped right on my forehead. The way that I would get around the danger of people saying, “Dan Fogelberg the Fifth,” is to write the song on the guitar, but then maybe use some other weird synthesizer keyboard to do the same effect and then suddenly, at least a little bit, it diffuses that 70’s vibe. So anytime you see sci-fi or pop culture or commercials [in my work], often the reviews will say, “He’s critiquing,” and I think by default I am, but mostly what I am trying to do is jangle-up the prose so I can’t go into that sucky imitation of Hemingway.
BH: One of the things I find in your techno-centered work is that you are so inventive, and you develop these new fantastical technologies that often highlight the absurdity of the technologies we use in our relationships. For example, the detail in “My Flamboyant Grandson” that the shoes determine what advertisement is popping up on the street reminds me of the technologies of Philip K. Dick and his simple things like the empathy box in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” where there is a function that technology does something we have forgotten how to do. What influences your choices in these technologies that you create?
GS: Honestly, it’s just that I found out early that I have a knack for making that kind of shit up [laughs]. On that story in particular, the basis was that my wife and I went to New York with our daughters, and I did what he did. I failed to get tickets to this show. I went up to this big ticket line and stood in line for about three hours, and I got to the front, and he said, “Oh, we don’t take credit cards.” It was pouring rain and my sweet little daughters are home waiting to see “42nd Street,” and I was saying to myself: “Oh my God, is it possible that you can’t accomplish this one simple task?” And I look up and see those huge accomplishments, those signs. I went home thinking about that story, but somehow, if I told that straight, it just wouldn’t sell. So it becomes like you put a little hand puppet over here to distract the reader from the very simple sentimental story you are telling, and then you say, “OK, I need a technology” and for some reason for me that’s just fun. Maybe because of watching too much T.V. as a kid, but I can just do it lightly without the usual artistic neurosis. It’s literally like if somebody had a knack for baby names.
Jonathan Fink: So basically your children got denied and you got a story out of it?
GS: [laughing] Thanks for bringing up that painful subject! I did get the tickets finally. I think the trick is that, for most of us as writers, there are things about which we have strong opinions, things that we can do naturally, easily and joyfully. For some reason we always think that is not what we should bring to the table when writing our “serious art.” But most of the writers I love, they naturally bring the things that are fun, the things about which they have strong opinions, and you can feel that in their work. You can feel when someone is celebrating in the work, or enjoying themselves, playing around a bit, being confident.
So then the whole thing of becoming a writer is not laborious. It’s just about maybe knocking down certain scrims you’ve put up to keep your real shit from the table, which for some complicated psychological reason a lot of people do. I kept humor away from the table for a long time. Brevity. I’m kind of a fast talker, a natural fast storyteller, but I didn’t do that. All the pop culture stuff. All the stuff I learned from watching T.V. I thought that was just sort of low. So I kept it away, and of course it is like if you had a certain personality trait that was very winning, but you said, “Well that doesn’t count. It’s too easy. So therefore I will never do that,” and then suddenly you didn’t have any friends, you might want to investigate letting that thing back into the mix a little bit.
BH: Do you have any advice for unpublished writers? Is it a matter of paying attention to those preoccupations you already have?
GS: That’s the million-dollar question because it is probably different for everyone. One thing that I remember thinking very clearly was, “OK, it’s alright to consider yourself an entertainer” — “entertainer” defined broadly and deeply. It’s OK to want to compel your audience to keep listening. I find that the MFA thing—because it’s so hard to do that—we sometimes give ourselves exemptions like, “Well, of course if you want to be a lowly storyteller, go ahead, but I’m dissecting patriarchy.” At some point we all kind of know on a personal level what we do to compel someone to listen to us. You’ve been living a long time. You know when you’re in trouble what mode you go into. When you’re trying to keep someone on your side, when you’re trying to keep someone from leaving you, when you’re trying to seduce somebody, there are different things that you do. It’s hopefully more of that kind of energy than a conceptual energy. Jon actually turned me onto this quote from Robert Frost where he said, “Don’t worry, work.” Which sounds a little facile, like, “Hey, thanks, Bob.” But actually if you put in those 10,000 hours of work that Malcolm Gladwell always talking about, not only will you find out what your big problems are, you also find out what the solutions are,— I don’t think there is really any way to plan your way out of it, or think your way around it.
BH: Do you find that your writing of fiction and nonfiction functions as some form of commentary? Do you feel like you have a social obligation with your subject matter?
GS: I’d rather not feel that. To tell you the truth, the answer would be, “Yes, if it helps.” In other words, if I am feeling very irate about, say, the Iraq War, if I can use that energy to get something beautiful or compelling, then: cool. But on the other hand, if I suddenly completely turn off of politics and find I can only get stories by thinking about Chekhov, that’s fine too. The answer is that yes, a person should be concerned with things, but I also find that it is a tremendous buzzkill in terms of making good writing because if you have a political idea, first of all it is usually pretty static—you have already had the idea and you are just going to force-feed it to the reader, which is not a recipe for good art. So often if we have a political mindset there is no curiosity, and it is already done, and it becomes like, “Hey reader, shut up.” To me, so much of writing is about being in a relationship with the reader. And just as in a real relationship, if the dynamic was only going in one direction, and you were never watching your partner to see how they were responding, that would not be a good relationship. I think sometimes political arguments are like someone saying, “I know the answers. Let me give them to you.”
Audience: Is that the inspiration for “The Braindead Megaphone,” the essay itself?
GS: It was that same feeling. In that relationship we have with the big media, it’s not a relationship. It’s them dumping shit on us and making a fortune doing it. It’s disempowering to the person receiving the information.
Audience: I’m a retired newspaper editor and that essay really resonated with me. I felt like it was spot-on as far as profit motive and the little people that are worried about falling down in their careers and winding back up in Peoria. Where does this come from? Do you know journalists? What sort of research did you do?
GS: Well, I’ve done it myself. And I’ve seen it. I had been asked to go onto a certain big right-wing talk show when I did the Mexico essay. And I said no in principle because I didn’t like their guy, but I got talking to his assistant and she was a very nice young person from Brown, and I think she had a creative writing background, and I said, “You know, I’m just curious, do you share his politics?” and you could tell she didn’t. She said, “Well, uh, he’s a very high energy man.” I said, “That’s not what I asked you. Do you share his politics?” And she said, “Well, he is basically making waves.” As someone with two daughters, I totally understood what she was saying; she had attached herself to a rising star, and I didn’t blame her a bit.
BH: I watched your interview with Stephen Colbert where you were talking about the section from the essay where the person at the party is yelling into the megaphone, “We have more shrimp here!” Does the party still have the megaphone?
GS: Worse. The essay seems kind of quaint to me now, kind of antiquated. If I were going to rewrite that essay, the thing I notice anew is that now the left has gotten their own version, with whom I tend to sympathize more because I am on the left, but it’s the same type. And it struck me anew that those guys are making a great living doing this thing where they pit these imaginary groups called “left” and “right” against each other, and they laugh all the way to the bank. On the local level in my family I have lots of people who are Libertarian, who are Tea Party, and when it comes down to it we don’t let it get in our way. We disagree, but if it gets too far off-base we clip it off because we love each other. If you were being corny, you would say that is the national energy that we need—to say that of course there is left and right, but at the end of the day there had better be some commonality and love, which is hard to find. And that atmosphere [the media] is creating is 100% intended to make it worse, and who is benefitting? O’Reilly and Olbermann have almost identical lifestyles, I would argue. They probably live pretty close to each other. They both show up in Town Cars. It’s getting worse probably because we are so used to it now. It’s second nature.
JF: It’s interesting looking at CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which was published in 1996. A lot of the material was used to be exaggerated and farcical, like the representation of T.V. shows, and now it seems quaint compared to what is actually produced.
GS: At the beginning of one of Thomas McGuane’s books he has this beautiful quote that says something like, “Man is wondrously well made and enthusiastically lives the life that is being lived.” On one had, we can be against all this stuff, but as writers maybe our job is to get on both sides of the table and say, first, “No, this texting thing is disgusting! It’s ruining our souls” and then run off and go, “I found this. It’s unbelievable. I’m going to text my grandmother!” And both things are true. That’s the great thing about being an artist: not only can you, but you are sort of obliged to, occupy every seat around this table simultaneously.
Ashley Clark: With the consumerism we see in news media, what do you see as the ideal function of art? Does it inhabit both spaces, or create a new way—some sort of reconciliation?
GS: Jon said something earlier that struck me—this idea, I’ll paraphrase you, that the media is basically saying, “Let us simplify this for you,” and your job as the artist is to get in and refuse to take the simplification, to complicate it and accept the fact that there are many simultaneous realities at once. The way I imagine it is like in a simple story about, say, marriage. Is marriage good or bad? Ok, let’s make one marriage that’s terrible. It’s not that they are bad people, they’ve just tried their best and it didn’t work out for all the reasons it wouldn’t. Then make another couple that has a wonderful marriage for all the reasons it would be wonderful. Then put them together like this. [George tilts both hands together so that the fingers meet.] One doesn’t have to win. Put them there together almost like two walls leaning up against each other like that. The moment where they [touch] and balance perfectly is the moment in fiction that gives off the light.
I’m not good enough to do that yet. Chekhov does that all the time. I can do like a little sock puppet version. For human beings, that moment when you go, “On the other hand,” for me, that’s the sacred phrase. Fiction or poetry is a great way to instantaneously occupy both sides at once and in that process go, “Wow!” And that “Wow!” is really the point.
BH: In stories like “In Persuasion Nation” we see a satirical look at the absurd nature of advertising, which is one way to look at the story. Stories like “Jon” seem to deal with message saturation that we can’t escape being sold something all the time. What do you see as the relationship between popular culture and human experience? Is there some sort of degradation of empathy and intellect?
GS: Again, it’s yes and no. This whole process of watching Jersey Shore and forgetting to be ironic about it, which happens—suddenly you’re very concerned for Snooki—is an interesting phenomenon. On the other hand, as I get older, I think human beings are fine. They’re going to be fine. We’re fucked up and fine both. It’s kind of fun to be alarmist, and maybe it’s justified. So simultaneously, yes, consumerism degrades our humanity. That’s absolutely true. Also, our humanity is pretty resilient. And the fact that we are having this conversation is an indication that human beings as organisms are not stupid. There are lots of resistant mechanisms that come up sort of spontaneously. I kind of go back to my first answer; when I critique consumerism, I’m really not. I’m kind of doing it for fun. It’s a way of getting the energy going. Your job as a writer is to compel that person to keep going after page one. That’s really it. So you use whatever means you have.
I’m not someone like Turgenev who could write about a forest and make it come alive in your mind. But if you let me do commercials, I can get enough forward traction that somewhere in there I might be able to invent something that looks kind of like a real human situation. Like in “Jon,” to me that’s just a love story, plain and simple. It’s about my wife, actually. But I know I don’t have the chops to tell the story of my wife and me in a straightforward way. But if I make up this world of commercials—I know I can create easily four commercials a minute. I don’t have any problem with that. So then that makes this sort of conveyor belt on which the story is going to take place, and I know that at some level it is making fun of those [commercials]. It is critiquing them, but if that were all it was doing, I would feel like it is kind of a failure. The same way with “In Persuasion Nation.” It’s kind of a silly story, lots of commercials, but for me the moment of truth is when the polar bear realizes he is in this weird world and that to me was like all of the stuff about being alive in Bush America—the fact that you could be in this thing and feel the whole culture move in new direction of massive hypnosis and try to vainly fight against it. Or maybe we might have that feeling in all kinds of circumstances – that feeling that the world is shifting beneath us in a way we can’t believe. That was the central action of the story for me more than the commercials.
AC: I loved The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, and I was wondering what your goal was and who was your target audience? In some ways it seems as applicable for adults?
GS: It was really just my kids. I had been telling them stories, inventing stories, at night. I’m such an anal-retentive writer. It takes me months and months of revising. I’m so obsessive that it was nice to just say, “Ok, here’s this little girl and tonight we are going to make up a story about her. I got to know what they liked and didn’t like. They are also really good readers. So I figured they could handle it. I kind of had Seuss in mind because he is someone who anyone can read with pleasure. I was also writing toward the idea of an illustrated book. I thought, “Oh, that would be a nice picture, and that would be a nice picture.”
JF: I remember you saying once that when you were writing children’s literature that your focus was more on encouraging a child than admonishing an adult.
GS: That’s right. Thank you for reminding me I said that. That was very smart of you [laughing]. At least with the first few books, I had been kind of shocked to find out that life could be harsh. I hadn’t planned for that. My wife had two very difficult pregnancies, and we were broke. You could see where life could have really gone sour for us easily, through no fault of our own. So I was sort of newly awakened to the idea that most of us assume good fortune, but the wolf of bad fortune is just on the other side of the thing. So those first few books came out of that energy. As Chekhov says: every happy man should have an unhappy man in his closet with a hammer to remind him by the constant tapping that not everyone is happy. But then with the kids’ book I thought, “Man, I don’t want to tell that to kids.” It is like that old cliché that art can comfort the oppressed or oppress the comfortable. So with the kids’ book it was more like allowing a happy ending—putting in enough trouble to make it interesting, but everyone knows that in the end it is going to be all right.
BH: I had my students read “Nostalgia” and one of my students said that he “LOLed.”
GS: I thought you said, “Loathed.”
BH: No, like [“Laughed Out Load”]. People appreciate satire. They appreciate being able to laugh at serious subject matter. One of my students said, “I liked hearing the stuff he talked about in a funny way rather than if someone was preaching to me about these things. I wouldn’t listen to him [if he were preaching].” Where do you think you developed your sense of humor?
GS: Just at home. My family is really funny—actually both sides of my family. Funny is what we do in a pinch. If there is a tense moment somebody will make a joke, or if there is a serious moment or at a funeral. There is a kind of South Side Chicago thing where—I never really thought about it until recently—[being funny] is a way of really being present in life. If things got so unbearably fill-in-the-blank—“scary,” “beautiful,” etc—humor was kind of the default. And it wasn’t always nice. It could be very cutting. It could be very dark. I remember my dad coming home one time from a funeral and he was laughing so hard and I said, “What’s funny?” and he said, “Well, I got there…” This was a neighbor of ours we didn’t know very well. This woman’s mother had died at like 98. So my dad is there as a courtesy. And my dad says to her, “Well, you know, she’s had a very long life and she seemed to have good health” and the woman said, “Yeah, that’s the sickest she’s ever been.” [Laughing] My dad said he felt like saying, “No shit!” But he came home kind of full of sadness and joy at this funeral because it was such an amazing, funny moment.
I think a lot of the humor just comes very naturally from the way things always have been in our family. Which goes back to this idea earlier that sometimes you overlook the most basic parts of yourself, the things that you just take for granted and assume that, because they are so natural to you, they can’t be art with a capital “A.” They must be forbidden.
Audience: How do you balance using humor and satire while not coming off sounding too preachy or dismissive?
GS: That’s a great question. That’s the kind of thing where it’s a line-by-line negotiation. Like in those New Yorker pieces, the first draft will often be way too sure of itself. And then on the revision you just kind of feel it. You go along a line at a time and for me the whole thing is to be able to read it as if you hadn’t read it, to go into it kind of blank. If I write that version on Thursday, I’ll go into it on Friday and I’ll get into about the second or third sentence and go, “Uh, I’m not convinced here.” You just feel it. You say, “Ah, smarty pants” or “OK, wise guy,” having that reaction to my earlier self. So then you just cut those lines out and re-feel it again.
So I think your question is right on the money. It’s like titrating in chemistry. I suppose that part of the answer too would be that even on a satire piece you have to engineer in a load of their curiosity on your end, which mechanically means you have to represent your enemy at his or her best self. In other words, if you are arguing against Thing A, you have to take Thing A at its highest version and argue with that. I think what a cheap-shot writer does is take the stupidest, dumbest version of the counterargument and kicks it, and that feels bullying. But I think if you said, “OK, let me really think about people who would be against gay marriage,” for example. Let me imagine them at their highest form and with their most sophisticated argument, and let me take that argument on. And then you are almost forced to bring you’re A game.
JF: That was a great satire piece against “Sameish-Sex Marriages.”
GS: That was a piece where I got a couple of angry letters for genociding gays. It was interesting because the person who wrote that letter had read it out of context online. So they didn’t know it was in The New Yorker in the “Shouts and Murmurs” section. And then I got a letter back about five minutes later saying, “Sorry, my friend just told me you were kidding, that you’re not really Hitler.” As in so many things in writing, we like—when we talk like this, when we discuss these craft issues—to sort of have a conceptual idea, but so much of it is just line-to-line negotiation. It’s sort of like riding a bike. How do you ride a bike? You go left to right and in real time you are adjusting all the time” —so that then the only real litmus test that I know of is to train yourself to read your work in an uninflected way, where you are not attached to what you wrote yesterday, and you can try as much as you can to read it like the guy on the bus in Omaha would read it, and then edit it accordingly.
JF: One of the things I notice students ask about more and more as I teach, and one of the things I feel less and less demonstrative in answering, is about genre. What makes a genre? What are the differences between genres? The moment you say, “Don’t write science fiction,” students say, “What about all these Saunders stories? They have science fiction.” Or I might say, “Don’t have didactic components, or teaching components,” and the students will say, “But what about these Saunders stories? They have teaching components.” Instead of thinking about genre as the specific “rules” of a piece, I’ve started to think about “genre” as the shortcuts one takes to circumvent the full complexity of material. What are your thoughts on genre?
GS: I’ll give you an answer that is a little stupid, really, but my feeling is that in this age we’ve all sampled so broadly—everybody in this room has such a wide range of influences, from Jane Austen to South Park—that it seems to me one of the first things to say is that we accept all of that. We’re not excluding any of that as possible influences. To the extent that we can, we should know all those forms from the inside out so that at the moment of truth, when you are trying to do a short story, you can bring in all of that stuff as needed. I feel like the job of a short story is to do everything. I tend not to think about genre or not. I tend to think, “Zombies! I can use that” or “Didactic, yeah, it is, but I am going to undercut it.” So, in other words, culture is like this vast toolbar of shit you can use and not be too picky about what tool comes to hand when you need it. In that way I think you kind of Jujitsu the whole question of genre.
I don’t actually like science fiction very much, but when I say “science fiction” I’m talking about typical bad, average science fiction. Now the great science fiction I like very much. I think the thing is to sort of dis-encode it in a way. I know all this stuff so therefore I am happy to use it. It’s like in music. If someone said, “I’ll never use a synthetic instrument,” you are like, “Really? Never? Ok, so you are kind of a musical Luddite, and you’ve become sort of a tight ass.” So rather you will say, “I will use whatever I want.” But it is a complicated question because oftentimes people who do use genre are using it as you’re saying—as kind of a cheap escape, so then it becomes tricky.
Audience: What’s your approach when you go into the field. For example, when you went to Dubai, when you wrote about the Buddha Boy? Did you hit the ground running on an assignment, or did you come up with those ideas separately?
GS: Those were all assignments from GQ. The Mexico one [from The Braindead Megaphone] was one that I thought of (or actually my wife thought of), but all the others were assignments. And they have people who just sit around thinking those things up. I had never heard of the Buddha Boy. I feel like my approach is, “An Idiot Goes to Fill-in-the-Blank.” I do minimal research. I do enough research so that I am not spending time in the field learning about this stuff, and I do enough of that reading, and then I just go. I go, usually, for ten days, and my motto is kind of “Lenses Open.” Every minute of the day is for the piece, and I assume that I don’t know what the story of the piece is going to be. So I record everything. I write everything. If this were in the piece [the room in which the interview is taking place] I would linger after and write down all these paintings, get some titles of the books, inventory what was on the table, try to remember each one of you guys, quick, quick, quick, and write all that down as quickly as I could and put it away on the thinking that once I get home I’m going to actually find out that the story isn’t what I thought it was, based on what writes well.
You might say, “Oh, damn it, that interview was a real critical turning point, and I don’t have anything to say about it because I didn’t take any notes.” So I will basically try to open up as wide as I can and talk to everybody, talk to anybody, try to get in trouble if there is some kind of way to get into an unusual spot.
In that “Buddha Boy” story I was really tired before that long night out at the site started, and I felt like I already had a lot, and I was thinking about the hotel back in town and the guy who was my translator said, “Perhaps it would be best to spend the night.” And I was like, “Uh, you bastard.” But he was completely right. So in that way you want to always say yes. Really the process is just taking in as much data as possible knowing that you are going to have to go home. Then I just type up everything I have—all tapes and notes which will take about three or four days—and get it all in one document, which will be like one hundred single-spaced pages, so it’s a book-length thing, and then you say, “Ok, this is 110,000 words, and the piece is 12,000 words.” So then suddenly your whole sense of scale changes, and all those nice observations about the paintings in the conference room changes, and you know they’re going away. But it depends, because you come out of it knowing that usually there are four or five instances say that you know are going to be in there. You can just feel it. So you start writing those, and then suddenly this one is 7,000 words. So that’s no good. The hardest thing is to go one hundred percent for this piece for the next ten days. If I wake up in the middle of the night and I hear something outside of the hotel room I am going to go out there and get involved in it. Or if I wake up and feel like I really don’t want to go out for breakfast, I will say, “No, I’m going out for breakfast,” and, once I’m down there, I sit next to that guy I don’t really want to—because you never know. And that’s the thrill of it—because as a person I’m not like that at all. But when you put on that reporter cap, then suddenly you can.
BH: It’s like an immersion experiment.
GS: It really is. It is so wonderful because it teaches you about possibilities. You didn’t think you would ever use this material, but it turns out you do. There was one I did on Dubai where I was so tired. I had probably done 30,000 words worth of work that day, and I thought, “That’s it,” and it was 11:00, and I went to bed, and I was looking at a guidebook and it said, “This hotel (where I was staying) has the most famous pick-up bar in Dubai.”
So I went out, and there was no picking-up going on, but there was a guy from Aramco there—an American guy who had worked in Saudi Arabia for forty years—and he told me some amazing shit about Saudi Arabia. He told me how to read Dubai against Saudi Arabia in a way that only somebody who had been there for forty years could have done it. And I wouldn’t have had that if I hadn’t gone up there. So that’s fun. You can’t live your life that way, but you can live ten days of your life that way.
BH: You have such an interesting background. It seems indicative of the ways you engage some of these pieces. When I was preparing for the interview, I Googled you and stumbled across a “George Saunders” at IMDB.com who had been a dancer in the San Francisco ballet. Because I knew you have done so many things, I had to read the rest of it. But when I noticed this guy wrote something called, Cobra Marine, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t you. What do you think you would have done if you hadn’t become a writer?
GS: I like music a lot, and if I had more skill at it I would have loved to be a composer. In a certain way I think life does kind of funnel you. When I look at my youth, I was least likely to be a writer. I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t even know it was a profession. But I can see now that I was always doing pretty fun things or pretty interesting things and feeling vaguely dissatisfied because I wasn’t that good at them. I was an engineer, and I was good enough to graduate from the Colorado School of Mines, which is a good school. I got a job in Asia and worked there. But I always felt like a klutz. I couldn’t quite do it. Only when I was reading did I feel euphoric. I felt happy and in touch with beauty in a certain way. So I think that life does sort of lead you to where you are supposed to be.
JF: I always appreciated your story where you told the people at work that you published your first story in The New Yorker and they responded by telling you to stop using the photocopier and stapler.
GS: Actually, it was even before that. It was when I received a good rejection letter, and I went to my boss, and I had this argument with myself that I shouldn’t tell him, and then I thought, “You have to tell him. He’ll be so pleased!” And I showed him this little one-paged rejection, and he said, “GeorgeMan.” It may have been the first use of that phrase. He said, “GeorgeMan, it has come to our attention that you are using our corporate resources to produce your literary thingies, and that’s gotta stop.”
Audience: I always feel like there is way more I would like to write than there are hours in the day. Other than the stories you’ve been given to write, how do you pick the piece you are going to work on next? Something that is fun or something that will sell, or…?
GS: Something that is fun. If you think about something that will sell, you’ll just fall right down. There is no way to predict that. And then you may find yourself writing something you hate that you thought would sell and didn’t. So I would say that if you write what is fun eventually it will sell. I have been doing this since about 1988, and I have three or four stories in progress, and they are just on the table or on the table in my mind. When I get up in the morning, I kind of just look and really just see if that one fills me with dread. That one seems a little, ehh. If that one seems marginally more fun, I go to that one. It is probably different for everyone, but for me creativity has to do with fun, play. It is also like a ball floating in water and this side is “fear” and this side is “play” and if the “fear” side comes up I think you’re screwed. I think you can write well with some fear, but not without some modicum of enjoyment. It’s helpful if you can somehow get that ball to flip over and say, “It’s just for fun.”
JF: I’ve always enjoyed the story about how your story “Bohemians” took so long to write until you had a breakthrough?
GS: [laughing] You have a good memory for my stories, Jon. You should come live at our house. I’m having some trouble remembering… No, that was an eight-year thing. I had started the story back when I was writing the first book, and I really liked it. The first two or three pages I liked. The story is about these two Eastern European women who have both been through something during the Holocaust and end up living in the same neighborhood in Chicago. At the time, my operating thing was that one of the women had been through an awful experience, but she is really a sweetheart, and the other had been through something minor, but she was a total bitch. And somehow that was interesting. Intellectually, it was like, “Oh, wow, you can be really nice and have been through a lot.” Duh. But I got stuck there, and I had a paragraph I had written to be a summary of the nice woman’s experience in the war, and she had been through so much. I love the writer Isaac Babel, who is Russian, so I kind of agreed with myself to do a kind of imitation of him in this one paragraph. But every time I would get to that paragraph I would go, “Ehhh, you’re imitating Isaac Babel badly. You’ve never been to Eastern Europe. That’s kind of corny.”
But when I would cut it, the whole story would fall apart. So I left it there and year after year I would come back and read it and feel, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” and then get to that paragraph and go, “Ehhh, okay, well I’ll put it away for now.” I took a really long break, maybe a two-year break, read it, had exactly the same reaction, and I went in the shower and had one of these internal monologues I’m sure you all have, like, “Why am I such an idiot? You’re supposed to be a professional writer, and you can’t finish a stupid story?” And at some point I said, “And in that last paragraph, what are you doing? Why would you lie like that? Why would you fabricate about something you’ve never done? Why are you such a liar?” And this little responsive voice said, “I’m not. She is.”
And suddenly it became clear that this woman was making up this stuff about being in the Holocaust, which was why she “wrote about it” so badly. And then I finished the story in about two days. It was there all along for all those years. It’s an interesting idea that you could actually never be stuck on a story. Einstein said, “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.” So if you are stuck, it is that you are not looking deep enough. You are not agreeing to go as deep as your subconscious wants you to go. So that is an exciting prospect. But having said that I am now stuck on another one that I have been working on since 1998.
JF: It’s like Carver used to say—that a writer is someone who is willing to sit and stare at something longer than anyone else.
GS: I never understood that until recently, and I think that is exactly right. You can will yourself to go deeper, but that is not the same as spontaneously getting sucked under. And that just takes hours. The “Bohemians” thing, part of the reason it worked was because I was so disgusted with myself. I joke about it now, but I was genuinely disgusted with myself, and that energy of disgust basically took me to the cliff and pushed me over. If I had been sort of moderate, I don’t think I would have gotten that far.
Audience: How do you know when a piece is finished? Just like a piece of artwork, pretty soon it is overworked.
GS: Eddie Van Halen one time was asked in an interview, “When do you know if a recording is right?” and he said, “I don’t know, man. It’s just like the brown sound.” When I am revising a story I read it so many times that after a while you really can feel every comma. I think it is a kind of self-hypnosis where you are so close to it that by the end of it you really do feel like you have painted yourself out of a room. The whole floor is painted, then the doorway – and you’re out. I think it’s hypnosis because when you come back to it a year later it might not feel that way. It might feel a little jangly. A little rough in places. In other places, it might not sound like “you” anymore. I’ve found that there’s a certain point where the plot falls into place naturally, then the language kind of does too, and I’ll polish, polish, polish…until you get to a point where you’re about to take out something essential. You’re about to cut into the bone. That’s an interesting psychological moment because it is the perfectionist agreeing to step aside: “You’ve got a life to live, don’t you? You’d like to write another story?” “I really would.” And then the perfection will step out saying, “You’ve done quite well. Not perfect, but pretty good.”
So like everything else we do, it’s a matter of learning to work with your own psychology in those micro ways and discovering for yourself how to end the story. I heard a very well-known writer say one time that he just doesn’t revise. He writes three or four hundred words a day, and he does it every day, and he just doesn’t look back. And I thought, “Oh, really?” And then an editor friend of mine confirmed this. This person is a wonderful writer, and he has a schedule when he will deliver these stories, and he delivers them right on time. It’s a big mansion and there are many rooms in it. The journey becomes to say to your mentors, “Thank you, motherfucker, leave the room,” to really say, “I honor you, thank you, Mr. Hemingway. You’ve helped me very much. Now get out or I’m going to kill you.” You have to at some point move into your own thing where you know your process so well that you can really roll with it.
JF: You mentioned earlier that the tools change as you get older, that there are different proportions. I heard a writer say once that when you are writing you want all your horses running at once. When you are younger, your enthusiasm is up and the skills are lower, but those might shift over the course of a career.
GS: That’s a nice metaphor. What I am finding is that you get to a certain place and there is a feeling of familiarity. Now you have permission to write a whole page because something just clicked, and you can do it. I don’t have nearly the drive, I think, although it is a more mannered, managed drive. When I was younger, I would stay up until four in the morning then get up at six, no problem. Now, not only am I too tired, but I also can sense my own inefficiency when I do that. I think I work much harder with a much higher confidence of success now. Even if it is a dark period, I am pretty sure something will come out in the end. And then maybe there is a danger of knowing too well what you do. And the question is, “Do I work out the rest of my life with what I already know, or do I throw all that aside and try to become an eighteen-year-old again and start afresh?” That’s kind of something I am thinking about lately.