Interview with George Saunders

Posted by Goodreads on January 2, 2013
George Saunders writes about the many dehumanizing and threatening aspects of modern life—and somehow he makes it all hilarious. Best known for his short story collections, including Pastoralia and Civilwarland in Bad Decline, Saunders explores an America very much like the one we live in now that is exaggerated in subtle and often horrifying ways. The characters in his latest collection, Tenth of December, face emotional quandaries: a janitor must keep silent about a terrible sexual assault to gain a promotion, a soldier returns home from the Middle East to his troubled family, a potential kidnapping is told from three different perspectives. Saunders sat down with Goodreads to discuss his writerly crush on theme parks, life in Upstate New York, and the role of the writer in contemporary American life.

Goodreads: Many of your stories take place in horrible theme parks—including "My Chivalric Fiasco" in Tenth of December, which is set at a medieval-themed park where the employees are drugged to enhance their performance as knights and kings and queens. What draws you back to these environments? What do you think the theme park tells us about other workplaces where people toil every day?

George Saunders: The truth is, I started writing theme park stories not out of thematic or political interest. I was just trying to divest myself of a certain tendency that I had, which was to be a stodgy, Hemingway-esque realist. I really loved Hemingway, so I wrote a lot of stuff in grad school that was kind of like Hemingway transplanted into my life, but somehow it didn't work. I noticed as a device if I set the story in a strange place, the language got a little more oomph in it. At first it was a way to keep myself honest, to keep me from falling back into this reactionary realist mode that I couldn't pull off. And at the time that I was working on the first book, I was also working at a company that was kind of squeezing the life out of me. It was one of those artistic accidents where I thought I was just doing something to be pragmatic, and then when I did it I could see all the political ramifications. So now I'm actually trying not to do those stories as much, but every so often one will hit me and it will seem like so much fun. It's a step up into that kind of weird fiction that's irresistible.

GR: How tired are you of answering questions about theme parks at this point?

GS: Well, it's nice to have something that you're known for.

GR: If I had to pick one emotion that seems to flow throughout Tenth of December it would be humiliation or shame.

GS: How dare you say that. I'm ashamed. [laughs]

GR: What makes this emotional territory so compelling to you?

GS: I don't know. I love this quote by Flannery O'Connor. She says, "A writer can choose what he writes, but he can't choose what he makes live." So for me that particular little area has always been kind of rich. Getting near it I can feel the heat coming off of it, and I know what to do with it. I used to love those Charlie Brown specials, because that emotion was in there, and Charlie Brown would be humiliated for the 15th time. I think if you are writing about life in our time, one way you can tell that story is that there are a bunch of people in our country desperately trying not to be forced down into that territory of humiliation; not to lose their jobs, not to dishonor themselves in some way. In that sense there is a political overtone that the worst thing that can happen in a capitalist enterprise is that you can get shot out the back door and end up not doing very well. In my life there were a number of times when I came close to that or crossed that line, and so I flinch a little about that topic. When I get near it in fiction, I can feel my interest start to perk up a bit.

GR: Speaking of writing about contemporary America, the story "Home" feels a bit different from the rest of the collection in that it explicitly engages with a contemporary societal problem—the soldier returning home from these twin wars. You write very directly about social issues a lot in your nonfiction, but it felt different to see it tackled in your fiction. Did any of your nonfiction work influence the writing of that story?

GS: I think the pieces I did for GQ [a series about various social issues, including life along the U.S.-Mexico border and a report from a homeless camp or "tent city"] have affected my writing because they were kind of a free pass or permission slip to move a little closer to the reader. It gave me permission to do a little bit more direct address. Those are the kind of things that I avoided in fiction: taking on issues that are right in front of you. I think the nonfiction opened up some doors for me. The funny thing is that story started out as the farthest thing from contemporary. I had read Heracles, and I thought that would be a great war story, and then I put it away and forgot about it. At one point I thought I might write a play or something like a contemporization of that. Years passed and I remembered Heracles, and I thought it had something to do with taking his family out of their house, which it doesn't. What's beautiful about it is that classical structure—that moment when he's supposed to be going into kill this hostile king, and he does, but in the process he gets worked up and kills his wife and kids as well. I thought that was right out of the newspapers. It was the joining of the contemporary setting with that really ancient story.

GR: What do you think the role of the writer is? Is it your responsibility to engage the contemporary world that your readers are living in? For instance, Martin Amis told Goodreads in an interview that he really didn't have a good definition of what satire was but that he wasn't actually out to change anything with his writing—that wasn't the goal of his work. What do you think is the goal of your writing?

GS: That's a great question. I think about that a lot. The most unadorned, honest answer that I can come up with is, the very first responsibility I have is to not be boring. One way to say it is to keep the relationship between me and the reader at a very high, noncondescending level, as if I'm having an intimate conversation with somebody. If you can't interest the person, then theme is nothing. I spend 99 percent of my time in that room just trying to take whatever I'm working on interesting. I think that goal encompasses everything because to keep it interesting means to be taking on big themes, not to be kind of snarky shallow. I try not to think of responsibilities beyond that because when I was younger, I would think I'm going to write a political story and it would be so obviously agenda laced that nobody would go past the first page. I really tend to stay in that first area.

GR: If you're not approaching the story with a theme in mind, are you often approaching it from the perspective of voice? It feels as if voice is what's driving a lot of these stories—the unique voice of the character. Is that what comes to you first?

GS: It is, yes.

GR: How do you build a unique voice from a borrowed language of corporate memo like you do in "Exhortation"?

GS: Again another boring answer, but the truth is, it's an intuitive thing. It's like stand-up or improv. When we were kids in Chicago, we would be goofing around and imitate a teacher, and we'd get some of the speech mannerisms right, but the goal is to take it to an exaggerated level. It's inhabiting and expanding the persona. That's what kicks in when I'm writing. A lot of the times the first draft doesn't sound precisely like any voice, and then I go through it and say, "Let's get rid of that stuff. But let's keep that. That nugget right here sounds pretty cool." If it gets overextended, you cut it back. The voice teaches you how to do it. For me the revision is a key thing. Again, it's pretty intuitive.

GR: In this collection it seems like a lot of the inflection you're putting on the characters is versions of the self. There's the self that the character sees projected out into the world and then the self that they wish they were able to project. Whether that's the teenage girl Alison Pope wishing she could see her special someone in "Victory Lap" or Robin in "Tenth of December" imagining himself a heroic figure when in fact he's a character of ridicule. Do you start with the imagined self and say this person is actually a different person than they are surfacing or showing us?

GS: That's an interesting observation. Again, I think for me it's done a little more on the fly. One of the deep pleasures of that type of voice is like a ventriloquist, where you are outside the person but you're slowly lowering yourself into him or her in taking on the diction they would use. One of the pleasures of that is, you get double vision. Who do they think they are? Who does the world think they are? A lot of that stuff occurs on the fly. You know, like Allison, she's in her house and she's walking around having this fantasy and of course, as for anybody, the fantasy life tells you a lot about the person. That's kind of an exploration where I just let her start talking. For that one I had a bit of a voice from Chekhov's story "Before the Opera," I think it's called. Some of Allison is a 16-year-old quirky girl and some of her is a bit of a Valley girl and then a bit of her is me as a 14-year-old boy, only obsessed with hockey instead of ballet. I kind of feel silly, but at first it's just listening. It's sitting around trying to get that voice in your head to come up with funny things. The magic part is, as you're doing that the character reveals herself. I didn't know that she had all those ideas about good and evil, but she had them all of a sudden, and I could see that the character was manifesting.

GR: Earlier you mentioned drawing inspiration from stand-up comedy and improv. Goodreads member Jeung Min asks, "Is stand-up comedy something you look to for inspiration for your work?"

GS: Not so much. If I come across something new that I like, then I will take it. I think I was formed more by Bill Cosby and Monty Python and Steve Martin. Those are still strong for me. These days I don't actively go out and look for too much. If it comes across the doorstep, I will look at it. A lot of patterns in a person get made by an early love. I guess I'm still running on that 1970s comedy energy.

GR: Goodreads member Phil McAndrew asks, "You've lived and taught in my hometown of Syracuse, NY, for a while now. Has being in that area informed your writing in any way? Have your experiences as a teacher informed your writing?"

GS: Yes. I find Syracuse to be very Chicago-esque in its mind-set. When I first moved here, I felt at home. I felt that South Chicago vibe. We've been out here now since 1985. One thing I like about Upstate New York is, you get the feeling of a big city and you get the rural communities. It feels like a compressed version of everything you would find in America. The teaching has been incredibly and surprisingly rewarding. It's been rewarding to have a community of people who are interested in writing and being able to mentor and nurture these amazing young writers. Last year we got 520 applications for six spots. I don't know if it directly helps my writing per se, but it makes me happy.

GR: Goodreads member Robert Quinlivan asks, "In previous interviews you stated that you found it difficult to write longer works because the voice is difficult to sustain in a novel. Do you feel your work has changed in the last decade where you may take on a novel-length project in the future?"

GS: I think so. I'm taking one on right now. Whether I'll complete it or not I'm not sure. It wasn't so much that the problem of voice got solved. I started thinking about it in terms of my limited gift: How could I trick those gifts into fitting 280 pages? In a certain way that is what structure and form always is. It's an accommodation of your defects. I'm starting to think that maybe since I can't sustain one voice for an entire book, maybe I can make up a book of 100 little voices.

GR: Briefly describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

GS: At this point I really don't. I have a little writing shed for the first time in my life. It's about 100 feet from the house. On a perfect day I walk the dogs, get a cup of coffee, and go over there and just stay for seven or eight hours. I just wait to see what happens. There's no particular superstition. I wrote my first book and a half in an office, kind of stealing the time. That kind of purged me of any need for ritual. The only thing I need is to be happy. If I'm a little bit happy, then I can come up with something. Maybe part of the ritual is that if I'm not happy, I might do downtown, fart around, or go take a walk. If there is a little feeling of "happy to be alive" vibe, then I'm good to go. It doesn't have to be in the writing shed. I could be on an airplane, hotel, or wherever.

GR: What writers, books, or ideas have most influenced you?

GS: So many. Chekhov, I know everyone says Chekhov, but he continues to be a real source of inspiration. Whenever I start to doubt fiction, I read him and I think, "Yeah, it's important." Gogol is someone else. I don't laugh at his stories. I don't know what I love about them, but whenever I read Dead Souls, I get inspired to do more. And Tobias Wolff, who I've studied with. Every year I go back and read his stories, and they always seem better and better to me. I think they are kind of wonderful models of power, compression, and subtlety. He's a writer who is really important to me. I could list about a million, but those three are pretty huge for me.

GR: What are you reading now?

GS: I just finished The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus, which was amazing. I also just got a book called The Stench of Honolulu by Jack Handey, who I think is just the funniest writer in America. He did "Deep Thoughts" on Saturday Night Live for years. I can't wait to dive into that. When he gets going, I think it's just pure language. It just builds and builds. I just get transported to this happy, giggly zone. I'm looking forward to that.

GR: Thanks so much for your time.

GS: My pleasure, and if any of my answers are too long and rambling, feel free to just put in whatever Martin Amis said instead.

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Matt (new)

Matt Hiebert Looking forward to this book. I've only read a couple Saunders' stories but they were wonderful. May grab CivilWarLand so I don't have to wait.

message 2: by Leah (new)

Leah Polcar Matt wrote: "Looking forward to this book. I've only read a couple Saunders' stories but they were wonderful. May grab CivilWarLand so I don't have to wait."

Do it, it is one of my favorite books ever. :)

message 3: by Mary (new)

Mary Looking forward to reading these stories.

message 4: by Louis (new)

Louis An intelligent interview well written.

message 5: by Louis (new)

Louis Lou wrote: "An intelligent interview well written."

message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

Lovely interview!! This morning, I happened across a beautiful NYT article about him/his work (see link below).

message 7: by S (new)

S Very excited! I randomly picked up The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil in a little covert bookstore in San Francisco about 4-5 years ago- and instantly was intrigued! I also read the NYT article and was reminded of how much I want to read more by Saunders.

message 8: by Michael (new)

Michael Morris Read and reviewed this book recently. Love it. Thanks for these thoughts.

message 9: by Felix (new)

Felix lovely interview.

message 10: by Thy (new)

Thy Love it thanks for these idea

message 11: by Denis (new)

Denis Bwire Time precisely utilized.

message 12: by Azar (new)

Azar G Aftimos Nice interview. Thanks a lot.

message 13: by Via (new)

message 14: by Naeem (new)

Naeem very well indeed, good ever read!

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