First Encounter with George Saunders
An Introduction to the Interview
by Josh Campbell, Assistant Editor
I distinctly remember reading the title story of George Saunders' collection Pastoralia, a story told from the perspective of a theme park employee working in a walk-through educational scene. To me, encountering this piece was one of the most liberating moments in my development as a fiction writer. To read a compelling and fresh story that felt organic, like an associative conversation between like-minded friends, was illuminating. It wasn't freighted with the big and tired usual themes and vehicles trying to elicit a poignant response. . . it was a fake caveman-actor who is having a bad day, bitching about his pain-in-the-ass "co-worker" he had to endure while working (basically) as a captive but animated prehistoric wax sculpture in a funhouse. The pure fun and musicality of language sounded like nothing I'd read before. George addresses this revelational moment of how he learned to write like him in his Our Stories interview, how he finally found his own fictional voice through humor versus trying to emulate writers he admired. This was writing, I thought? This was writing!
And, at the end of this laugh-out-loud, endearingly ridiculous and well-rendered slice-of-a-life was essence --indeed something (inexplicably) literary, not simply an entertainment. Something indeed enjoyed, something unusual that might potentially connect the reader to an experience absolutely "other" than his or her own, while perhaps granting a passage--in this unusual way--into themselves.
Here, and over and over in his other work, George gets us to do a turn--to flick _the "disarm" switch within ourselves -- and somehow allow the suspension of disbelief that we as readers are a down-on-our-luck (often suburban) character in a scarily relatable American dystopia doing humorously surreal things, to our delight. Kafka, I believe, said about fiction that if it doesn't move you when you read it--even if it's deeply disquieting--then it's not doing it's job. The reaction that George's fiction elicits is this.
While working as a small town reporter, I attended a reading and talk Saunders was giving at Colgate University in November of 2005. A snowy, nasty Syracuse-weather night, the attendance was embarrassingly small. The hour-long evening begins with George reading a story called "The End of Firpo in the World," also in Pastoralia , the seed of which came from him seeing an errant young boy walking precariously near traffic in a major Syracuse grocery market. As the protagonist, Cody, dies in the street, a stranger tells him "You are beautiful. . . .God loves you, you are beautiful in His sight," dumps us on our emotional face after a free-fall laugh ride, indeed delivering a weird kind of grace. I had my voice recorder and captured the night, and George graciously is allowing us to present it to you here, along with his interview on streaming media, at Our Stories. Listen until the end, even if you must bite it off in chunks--it is some of the most distilled wisdom about writing I've encountered.
We're proud to present to you a slice of George Saunders, modern master of the short story, along with six new stories in our third issue. At Our Stories, we nurture your work because we love fiction. If it's not ready, we send it back with comments and encourage editing and revision--and revision--until it is ready. George addresses the subject of going over and over one's work, even if it mutates, to get to its best final form in his interview. In fact, he sent us a revision of the transcript of his answers before we went to print. Walking the walk. Doing the work.
The interview questions were done byAlexis E Santi, JK Mason, Colin Thornhill and Josh Campbell and took place online with George Saunders in late January.
We really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview George. We know you're busy these days.
Considering that you have a new book out, and your MacArthur prize is still piping hot, can you give us a day in a life of George Saunders. I mean the fame, the fortune; you're not wintering in Tahiti and sipping on martinis, uhh, are you?
-- It's pretty basic: get up, help my daughter get ready for school, start writing, write all day, pause to consider going to the gym, falter, go back to writing. Then dinner. Watch TV. Consider going to the gym. Stand in the door of my writing room, wishing it was morning so I could go in and start writing again.
-- After you did your MFA at Syracuse you headed west on the thruway and landed in Rochester and worked for Radian International. I'd like to hear about these Rochester days, post-MFA at 'Cuse, what that world was like in respect to your writing life. Of course, this question is purely out of self-interest as I'm now in the post-MFA world.
-- I was basically doing tech writing, and trying to get in a little writing time every day, at work mostly. Although there were lots of variations in this pattern, since that time was about 7 years long. But we have two children, who were little then, so I was just making a living, really, and trying to not totally flush my idea of being a writer. And it turned out to be a really deep time - the corporate/engineering work that I thought was just a distraction ended up being, in a distorted way, the topic of the book. I sometimes think this idea we have about needing infinite undisturbed writing time is wrong - it was for me, anyway, back then. The restriction served to focus things a little. Knowing I only had 20 minutes a day or whatever helped me to put aside a lot of wasteful ideas and habits.
--This and the following question was submitted by Collin Thornhill.
"The New Mecca" is one of the nonfiction pieces you've written. Besides the obvious answer, how does the process of writing nonfiction differ from fiction?"
-- I think the normal process is reversed. In fiction, you're kind of experimenting with language to find out what happens. In non-fiction, you know what happened, and are trying to make it interesting through language. So I find it enjoyable to have a template - a template of the actual - to work within. You sort of lay out all the things that happened during the reporting period (which in the case of the Dubai piece was about 10 days) period, and then start throwing out the stuff that doesn't write well. And it's interesting that the stuff that writes well turns out to be the 'important' stuff - that is, the stuff that affected and changed you. Kind of mysterious. Soon you can see the outline start to form, and then you start polishing that. In fiction it's much more step-wise: fart around with a scene for many days, until it sprouts something that leads you to the next thing.
-- The scene dealing with your ATM troubles provided the most tension in that piece. Was that a scene you found difficult to keep under three pages?
-- I don't remember it being difficult - I think by that time I sort of knew which incidents I had to fit in, and could back-calculate to say: Huh, so I only have 3 pages for this, so have to write it at such-and-such a pace. This is what I like about the non-fiction pieces (I've written two more since, both for GQ): It's very practical - they give me 10,000 words and I have to make it work. And you learn that, if you really have to, you can take a 4 page riff and get it down to half a page - trimming all the inessential things away.
-- This is a question from our staff, JK Mason would like to know: "Considering his short story, Adams... I would be interested in knowing how he feels about the current image of America in the world?
-- Well, I think we've shot ourselves in the foot with our hubris and our aggression. We had the world's sympathy after 9/11 and somehow couldn't imagine how to proceed from there except to ramp up the violence. My feeling is that Al Qaeda was a small, splintered group after 9/11 (see "The Looming Tower" by Lawrence Wright) and then the Iraq war, and all the excesses and mayhem we induced there, promoted Al Qaeda into a bigger, more considerable organization. This is a classic strategy of insurgency - a small, unpopular group provokes an excessive response from a more powerful entity, then basks in increased popularity afterwards. It's how Castro got hold of Cuba.
-- Back to me, gosh, I have this question in my head and I don't know quite how to ask it. Describing a particular bleak period of writing, you were quoted in the Missouri Review as saying: "This was my Hemingway-if-Hemingway-had-never-been-to-a-war-and-was-working-as-a-tech writer-and-was-actually-sort-of-a-wimp-phase." This is going to be a long question. That got me thinking about something I was reading in the NY Times today about how this generation 30-40-somethings don't know what it was like to suffer, so they're all like, cool, I'll get a 800K mortgage for a two bedroom with zero money down cause, just cause, it's all credit anyway! And how the article was saying, that this generation doesn't know what it is really like to go through hard times so we make choices like this. Then I was thinking about your line in the interview, and I don't know, something struck me, generationally about this statement. Perhaps, you are the Hemingway of this generation who had never been to war, and that maybe we all are the Hemingways that didn't go to war -or are citizens of a country that doesn't have to think about going to war but we go to war- and that our great struggle is stringing together three coherent thoughts together, but we volunteer, boy oh boy do we volunteer! I don't know where the question is here, no wait, I got it: Tell me about this generation.
-- Personally, I get suspicious when I hear the word "generation." There are too many people in that categorization to say anything true about it. In other words, in the 30-40 category you will find every type of human being, in every type of financial situation, who've suffered in many, deep ways. And of course, many people in that age group who've never been near an 800K mortgage.
To me it's more useful to look through that telescope the other way, and consider individuals. A given 20-year-old and a given 60-year-old can have a lot more in common that that 20-year-old and the 20-year-old next to him etc etc. I used to think about this a lot, especially in reference to esthetics ("What is the next big thing? What is "my" generation's big artistic issue? And so on") but then as I get older it seems like, within any time, everything possible is going on. Kafka, Chekhov, Babel, Woolf, Tolstoy, were all on the planet at about the same time. So what was that 'generation' all about artistically? Well, you name it, right?
Maybe another way to say it: All conflicts and modes and styles are present in every single human mind, no matter what the era. And then these play out to greater or lesser extents in each person, according to his or her particular chemistry and experiences. And for anybody who wants to be an artist, I'd say the essential questions are not really about what anybody else is doing, but about what seems exciting and vital to you. (Which is not to say we should be ignorant about what's going on in the world - only that this kind of knowledge will only take us so far - will give us something to stand on, so to speak).
-- Our Stories is committed to giving writers back something for everything they submit. We give advice to those whose work isn't ready and offer words of encouragement. I guess I'd like to know your thoughts on this submission process, and your own revision process.
-- Well, I think it's good that you do that. Also good that the writers who submit to you realize that it's just your opinion. It must make writers feel good to have been read at that level. It can be very discouraging to get back an index card with the word NOPE on it...
We do a lot of manuscript reading here at Syracuse around admissions time - I think we got 300, 60-page manuscripts this year. And it's interesting how what distinguishes the Yes pile and the No pile is sometimes very hard to verbalize. So I admire what you're doing and think it's very noble.
As far as my revision process, it's really just a matter of going through the piece over and over and over, making changes as feels right each time. And with each pass, the story changes a little and hopefully gets better and feels more true and distinctive. It's literally just crossing words out and putting words in until there's enough good things going on that no more ideas occur to me - as little conceptualizing about it as possible, trying to experience it the way a first-time reader would.
-- What advice do you have for young writers?
-- Trust that whatever there is to learn, will be learned, if you just put in the time. The subconscious is very smart and all it needs is time to practice. As Robert Frost said (I think it was Robert Frost): Don't worry, work. Or maybe he said: Don't work, worry. But I'm saying: Don't worry, work.
I know I spent a lot of time internally theorizing and 'deciding' things about my writing, and maybe that was helpful - but when I look at myself now and myself 15 years ago, most of what I now 'know' is visceral and sub-verbal, and came from hours and hours of trying things, screwing things up, writing stories that dead-ended etc, as well as the opposite - occasionally having something work out, finding a decent ending etc.
-- Now these next few of questions are from Josh.
Like a good joke or cartoon, satire as a literary genre cuts to the meat of life--often serving up the substance with more sugar than medicine--bringing the truth of a story's scene or moment or an indictment of a real-life contemporary political climate, to add light via humor or fun. This illumination often appears in this way in narrative through the vehicle of the Greek tragedy's the fool-as-a-prophet or Shakespearian court jesters. Could you comment on both the purpose and general health of satire in modern literature--particularly short fiction, since that's your bag, and ours? If you don't see your fictions intentionally plural how then would you describe them? Is today's purpose of satire different than that of writers 100 years ago?
-- Honestly, I don't really think of what I do as satire. I know it gets called that a lot and I've kind of learned to go along with it. But I think my best stuff is....well, it's comic, yes. But satire, to me, implies that I know what I think and I'm going to tell you. A couple of my pieces are like that ("My Amendment" is one, maybe) but generally I think I'm just trying to tell a story, and to do that, I end up using comic materials as surface - in the same way that, say, Turgenev might use peasants and the Russian countryside, and write about these in an elegiac tone, I use pop culture and the American/suburban landscape, and write about these in a comic tone. The idea is just to show myself and the reader something about the human heart. Or, more honestly, it's to make a beautiful little self-referential machine. Either way - to make a story work, you have to keep the reader moving forward, and one way to move forward is to make a convincing and charming surface.
Having said all that - I think one reason the comic tradition (or the satirical tradition, whatever) is strong and important is that it's essentially true - some part of us recognizes that people and their Big Ideas and romance and ego and pomp are kind of pathetic and loveable but ultimately silly. We all end up in the grave, and our ideals go with us, even if they're good ideals. Which is, you know....funny. So what comic writing can do is poke fun at the falseness within ourselves, which might move us incrementally closer to truth (and kindness, humility, a sense of proportion etc).
-- I've heard you refer to how blocked you felt trying to write like Hemingway and other writers whom you admired, as young writers often do, and how that technique didn't really work for you. You cite that going to Syracuse's MFA program (the one in which you now teach) for fiction helped you to find your own style and voice, indeed, what worked for you, your strengths. How does a young writer do this--and, do they need to be in an MFA program to do it?
-- You don't need to be in an MFA program, no. I think what you need to do is work hard and eventually you'll start to react in disgust to your own imitative tendencies - in other words, you'll feel a disjunct between the way you feel about the world and the way you're writing about it, especially since, when we're starting out, we tend to write about it while trying to sound like someone else. So, like constantly dating the wrong type of person, this eventually gets old, and we rebel, and relax into a tone and style that feels more like us. This can happen in or out of an MFA program. In my case, it actually happened just after, partly because, while in the MFA, I was imitating everyone in sight and feeling the frustration of that.
-- You mention this in the Q&A after the reading we have on the site, but could you expand on your rock-candy-string theory please: the seed or catalyst being the string dipped in sugar that will eventually become something yet to be seen by the author?
-- Well, that's just a metaphor I use to talk about this way I have of sometimes approaching a story. I'll just start with some small and non-literary bit - a sentence or a few lines of dialogue or some dumb self-challenge. But the point is that it not be 'smart' or thematic or clever or Literary, and that I not really know what I think about it. Just a little nothing. And then, by modifying it or adding to it - by answering the questions the little fragment implies - you start to grow it outwards. So, say you start with: "Once there were two frogs, one smart and one dumb." Instantly, there are questions: How smart is the smart one? How dumb is the dumb one? Prove that the dumb one is dumb, i.e., give me an example. What is the cost of his stupidity? How do their parents feel about it? Is the smart one arrogant or humble? Is the dumb one better-looking than the smart one? Etc etc. This way, the story builds out naturally, per actual human curiosity, instead of some Idea that the writer has for our edification.
-- Okay, I'll close the interview, thanks Josh. George we really appreciate your thoughts on everything but we have one last question. Josh and I are fellow upstate New Yorkers and well, we'd like to know your opinion of Syracuse's Dinosaur Barbeque. And, I'd like to offer to take you out for the D-BBQ next time you're in New York City, did you know that one opened up in NYC? Yup, it's true. Would you like to muse on BBQ for a second, and uhh, if you're a vegetarian then this is going to get really awkward. You could muse on bean sprouts or something and I'll take you out to a vegan place.
-- I like the Dinosaur. They recently closed it briefly for health code violations. But now it's open again. This illustrates the beautiful circularity of life.
George Saunders was born December 2, 1958 and raised on the south side of Chicago. In 1981 he received a B.S. in Geophysical Engineering from Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. He worked at Radian International, an environmental engineering firm in Rochester, NY as a technical writer and geophysical engineer from 1989 to 1996. George Saunders has published two collections of stories, Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (Riverhead Books) and a children's story, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (Random House). His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Story, and many other publications.
He won the National Magazine Award in 1994 for his story "The 400-pound CEO" and again in 1996 for the story "Bounty." In April, he was named a 2006 Guggenheim Fellow and, in October, a MacArthur fellow. He has explored for oil in Sumatra, played guitar in a Texas bar band, and worked in a slaughterhouse.
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