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George Saunders: The Powells.com Interview

George Saunders fans have long been stalwart champions of his work, recommending CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia to anyone who would listen, pushing copies of In Persuasion Nation and The Braindead Megaphone into the hands of the unconverted. He's always had critical praise, from no less than Thomas Pynchon ("An astoundingly tuned voice — graceful, dark, authentic, and funny") and Tobias Wolff ("Scary, hilarious, and unforgettable....George Saunders is a writer of arresting brilliance and originality"). He's also won a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. But with the publication of his first collection of short stories in six years, Tenth of December, Saunders has produced a most unlikely work: a wildly popular short story collection.

Jennifer Egan says, "Tenth of December shows George Saunders at his most subversive, hilarious, and emotionally piercing. Few writers can encompass that range of adjectives, but Saunders is a true original — restlessly inventive, yet deeply humane." And Dave Eggers raves, "You want stories that are actually about something — stories that again and again get to the meat of matters of life and death and justice and country? Saunders. There is no one better, no one more essential to our national sense of self and sanity." Tenth of December has been at the top of our bestseller list since it came out (and it's #13 on the New York Times list), and on Friday Saunders read at our store to a devoted crowd of 450 fans. If you haven't caught on to his particular brand of dark, hilarious, extraordinary prose yet, you're about to be behind the times.

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Jill Owens: In an interview with us years ago, you said, "There's something about those theme parks. If I stick to one of those I tend to write more interesting prose than if I'm trying to write about something more quotidian. If I try to write realism, the energy of the prose goes down." But I'd say some of the stories in the new volume come a lot closer to realism, including the title story. Have you found other ways to find that energy in prose?

George Saunders: You can hear in that quote that I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that tendency. I was aware of it, but I was wondering, Why is that? I think that statement was true at the time. There were some things I could write about where the prose would come alive, but for other things I would resort to a kind of habituated way of writing realism. And that second way wasn't good, that kind of out-of-the-box realism.

Then I stumbled on this way of writing that I think of as third-person ventriloquistI stumbled on this way of writing that I think of as third-person ventriloquist. The first time I did it was in a story called "The Falls," which is in Pastoralia. It's a way of approaching ostensibly realist material from the inside of someone's head. It differs from traditional stream of consciousness in that you're really mindful about trying to use their diction, and that in turn means that you're kind of honoring their psychological affirmations.

So that was a way to make the prose funnier and faster, that one little mental construct — I'm going to go into Jim's head and I'm going to think like Jim. Suddenly, that was doing the same thing for me that the theme park constraint was doing before.

Jill: What makes a collection hang together for you? Is it theme, or rhythm? How do you know when it's complete? I ask this in part because my advance reader's copy of Tenth of December didn't have the story "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" in it, which is in the finished book, and it made me think about the ways the book would be different in each of those incarnations.

Saunders: That decision about what gets in, in what order, is intuitive. I'll get a bunch of index cards when the stories are all done and put the first and the last lines of each of the stories on the cards and just kind of move them around. The idea would be that something would please you about the first story enough to make you go to the second one, and so on. The ordering is important there because sometimes the lengths between stories are… if you don't do it right, they're not appealing, somehow. And you don't want story eight to be too much like story nine. All those kind of gut feelings go into it.

As for the "Semplica-Girl" story, I started it in 1998, and I got really stuck on it for all these years. I liked it, and I'd come back to it, but I couldn't get it finished. So I thought, Oh, this obviously doesn't want to go in there, so I'll just leave it out. I put the book together in the order that the advance reader is in and really liked it. In fact, for a long time I was worried that if I put that additional story in there, it might be too long; it might slow the momentum. But then I got on a roll towards the end of this process and I had more time for it, and I finished the story.

I just felt like it was a major, substantial book with that story included in it. It also seemed like there's a lot of cross talking going on between that story and the other ones.

In the end, it was like three or four days of being at the optometrist — Is this better or this better? [Laughter] My editor, Andy Ward, really helped me. I trust him with my life, and he said, "It's definitely better with it in. Let's do it." So that was good.

Jill: I agree with him.

Saunders: I do too. The first version was faster in a way, but it was a little slight. It was only 170, 180 pages or so, and I felt that this gave it a little more heft. Of course, if I hadn't been able to really nail the story, I wouldn't have wanted it in there, but I had a lucky surge of energy at the end there where I felt like I got it right.

Jill: "Puppy" freaking made me cry. So did "Tenth of December."

Saunders: I'm sorry. [Laughter] But yay!

Jill: It's so rare; I was very self-conscious about it while it was happening. I thought, I never cry from fiction! I think it's because there does seem to be, in this new book, at least the possibility of redemption on occasion, or for things not to go terribly wrong all the time... [Laughter]

Saunders: That's exactly right. The funny thing is, I don't think I've changed that much in my feelings about life since my very first book. Technically, it can be hard to get positive valences in there without being sappy. I was very emotionally involved in all my stories, in the stories from CivilWarLand. They seemed to me very emotionally involving as a writer, and so I assumed they would be to a reader as well. And I can sort of see now that there's a baseline assumption you make about where your reader will meet you. That might be one big difference between a vision that's a little warmer or a little colder. As I get older, I'm more confident to come a little bit into the surf to meet my reader, you know? Maybe I think a reader should be having an emotional reaction at this level, but maybe I should go a little further just to make sure — that kind of thinking.

I'm also more confident that the basic stuff that has been important to me over these 54 years is probably also important to you as a reader. If we could just sort of huddle around them a little bit and look at them, we could be moved.

There's a part in "Tenth of December," which is my favorite part of the book, where I really had my wife in mind. It's the part at the very end where the character is thinking about his relationship with his wife, and he says, "She's someone who knows you, someone who's seen the worst parts of you and still loves you," or something like that; I can't remember exactly. I would have been very scared to put that in a book when I was 32. I don't know why, really. I think I knew those things then, but I didn't see them as being fair game for literature. I don't know why, because they certainly are. Now I feel like, Geez, man, I'm 54. [Laughter] If the things that have mattered to me aren't somewhat universal, then I must be out of my mind.

Jill: It seemed to me that compared to some of your earlier works, there were more kids in this book and more pieces of stories told from kids' perceptions. Why were you interested in writing from that perspective, and do you think it changed the tone at all? It seemed like their imaginations weren't quite as squashed yet.

Saunders: [Laughter] I never thought of it that way, but you're right about that. If you actually look at the world honestly from the point of view of a kid, it's fairly optimistic. "Sticks" was written in 1994, and "Semplica-Girl" was started in 1998, but most of the stories are from 2005 to 2006 onward. We have two daughters, and during that time they were in high school and then off to college, so I think without any plan in mind, my being was very much taken up with that transition. They're wonderful kids, and we had gotten through that phase of life very happily. So I think that naturally comes in.

When I think about the moral and ethical components of my life, from what I have experienced, the kids are it. That's the one thing where you can really make a difference, positive or negative.

If I'm looking for a moral handle on a story, something to make it important, I think I naturally go to kids. Whether it's from a kid's point of view or the parent's point of view, that's the place that my eye gravitates to.

Jill: "Exhortation" is such a brilliant, creepy story; the way that the "cleaning the shelf" metaphor transforms by the end of the piece is so incredibly sinister. How do you think about metaphor, generally?

Saunders: When I was a kid, I never could think of a metaphor, but I think from teaching, it's become natural. One thing that emboldened me to be a metaphor maker was that even if you make a fucked-up metaphor, it can be really funny. If you start in one place and it goes far afield, it can be crazy. It's a tendency of mine that's increased over the years and I kind of enjoy it.

What was the metaphor you asked me about? The metaphor ability grows but the memory goes away. [Laughter]

Jill: The shelf in "Exhortation."

Saunders: Oh yes! Sometimes you just hit things at speed. That story was part of a four-monologue piece that I published in McSweeney's called "Four Institutional Monologues." I was playing around with this idea: What would genocide look like in the United States? Because you know that we wouldn't say, "Hey, let's have a genocide!" It would be some kind of spontaneous eruption of a thing that had been dormant, and we would use our rhetoric to dress it up so we wouldn't feel so badly about it, just like the Germans did. So one of the monologues is about animal testing and one of them is about a facility where they have an execution chamber. "Exhortation," believe it or not, is the most comic of the four.

It was just this idea, having worked in corporations, if your corporation was in charge of some sort of nefarious thing (which in America there certainly are already, like those mercenaries — the private military companies), you would manage that thing with jovial memos. So that was the premise; I don't exactly remember how the shelf and the whale metaphors came up. There's something about being on a roll where I can be really inventive and these things just roll out. That's maybe the one unspoken truth about writing: sometimes it's just a riff, you know? That's maybe the one unspoken truth about writing: sometimes it's just a riff, you know?

Jill: I love the whale in that story too because it's one of those desperate, painful "personal" touches that the bosses frequently have in your stories, and those are very effective. There's the dead whale as the highlight of the memo-writer's vacation in "Exhortation," but really in any story with a boss, the narrator knows something sad and/or trite and mundane about the boss which doesn't really matter but does because he or she is the one in power.

Saunders: I love that because I remember working for a company in a time when... I was raised in a generation where you almost couldn't say the word "corporation" without sneering. But then I found myself working for one, and I was so happy to be because we had kids, so now we had insurance. It was a very familial kind of small office. You'd have a guy who was your boss, and every once in a while he'd take a kick at you just to remind you that he was the boss, and yet you knew something about him that was a little bit softening, like maybe he went every Sunday to visit his mom.

I also love that moment when someone is trying to present the corporate face, whatever the corporate face might be, but the truth is bursting out around the seams a little bit. It's like in The Office, when Michael Scott will be saying something unreasonable, and you can see in his eyes that he doesn't like it. It's a very 21st century stance.

Jill: Do you enjoy creating the new vocabularies that go along with your stories? I was thinking of the drug names in "Escape from Spiderhead," but there are invented vocabularies in a ton of your stories, particularly the theme park ones.

Saunders: I love that part of it. I think the reason I love it is because it's intuitive. It doesn't involve a lot of thinking; it's just like, Ah, that's a good name. Another thing I like about it — and this might be overintellectualizing it, but... I'm in Los Angeles right now. I've been here a hundred times. But it looks so crazy and new, so beautiful with so many unexpected vistas and weird businesses and people walking along the street doing strange things. So I would say that part of our experience every day in the world is to be peripherally amazed by the constant novelty that we see everywhere. If you think about your mindstream, that's one of the qualities of being in a place, a sort of Oh, look at that! Maybe to mimic that in the language of a story is fun, to have a little overflow on the edges.

In the '80s there was a movement towards Kmart realism, where in order to "be authentic," you would list a bunch of brand names. That never did it for me because, for example, when you're at a picnic in a beautiful place, and somebody busts out a bag of Cheetos, there's a little error, a visual incongruity that's interesting there. You're in a pine grove, and there's this bright orange bag with a cheetah on it. But to simulate that in prose, as soon as you use "Cheetos," you imagine that brand in a way that isn't properly conveying the surprise of that moment.

Whereas if you call it Turdfire — "Turdfire, the snack that will get your mouth stinking!" [laughter] — you make something up, so that thing's new! So I think that's closer to seeing a bag of Cheetos in the woods than the version that said, "You saw a bag of Cheetos in the woods." It's a way to get the newness of stuff into prose, and what you're really doing is that, as in a cartoon, you're making an exaggerated version of reality so as to convey some of the actual frisson of reality.

What the hell does frisson mean? It's probably a snack food in France. [Laughter]

Jill: This speaks to what you were talking about, the newness in the world, a little bit, but also the fact that people frequently refer to your stories as being so full of empathy. I think they really did make me notice the world more and possibly become, briefly, more empathetic. After finishing the new collection, I drove by an elderly woman with purple hair dragging two dogs behind her, with a sort of painful grimace on her face. I honestly think I wouldn't even have looked at her most days, but I found myself trying to imagine her story, because of the frame of mind your stories had created in my head.

Saunders: That's terrific to hear. Thank you so much for saying that. Things like that, the woman with the hair — of course we can't know what she thinks, but we could play with it, you know? And that, to me, is so exciting. To go back to your first question, when I first started thinking of things that way, that had the theme park effect. I can't know who she is, but she can be an occasion for verbal play on my part. She's going to have a specific voice going on in her head, and the only clues we have are the purple hair and the dogs. That's a lot of fun. It's almost like an artistic assignment, a constraint assignment: write two paragraphs on a woman with two dogs and purple hair. You think, Damn, I don't know enough, but of course you kind of do, because then you bring forth your own shit, your inner woman with purple hair and two dogs. [Laughter]

So of course you're not getting her right, but you're getting some corollary that's coming from your mind. And then the thing that really amazes me is that when you start that, or at least when I start it, it's often got a slightly mocking tone. I'd think, She must be an old hippie, and her dogs must slightly resent her because she's not really a good owner. And of course the dogs' names are Lennon and McCartney. [Laughter] You start doing that, but then as you do that — and this is the interesting part for me — because I take a long time to write a story, I do a lot of revisions. And at some point, you're like, You know, I'm really mocking the shit out of that woman. And the story is suffering for it; the energy's going down. Then you start leaning in to her, and you start looking for reasons to love her a little bit. That's when it really gets interesting, because now you're taking someone who you invented, and at first you invented them condescendingly, and then because of the formal demands of the story, you're having to bring forth a part of yourself that's more empathetic.

And, lo and behold, you can do it. You can actually find things in this invented person that you like; for example, she loved her father dearly. He was the only person who really saw her, because she was kind of weirdly skinny as a kid, a little freakish looking, but he got her. But he died on her 17th birthday, and things have not been good since then. So, suddenly, she starts to come out of the mist a little bit.

I just love that as a kind of exercise in training oneself to the higher ground, you know?

Jill: I'm finding myself wanting to hear the rest of this story. [Laughter]

Saunders: Then you also, of course, need something to happen. What interests me is that in the three or four weeks I would need to flesh out the stuff we just talked about with this character, I would sort of see what needed to happen to get the rest of the picture. Like in "Tenth of December," the fact that a guy wants to go kill himself in the woods is kind of interesting, or it was to me. But that's not a story yet. A guy who wants to do something isn't a story. But maybe a guy trying to do that and getting interrupted is a story. And then you think, Well, now I need a suitable interruption. It's funny how you get all kinds of leads; if you start with that basic notion of trying to imagine being somebody else, it's almost like a stone that starts rolling downhill that produces the whole story, in time.

Jill: Why did you choose "Tenth of December" to be the title story of the new collection?

Saunders: I just really like that story. I had such a good time writing it, and it felt to me like the most advanced story in the book, in terms of the way the story pushes you ahead a little bit. It seemed to me like the best one, like the one that was the most mature. I did make the title before "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" was done, but still, I would stick with that title. I like the simplicity of "Tenth of December" as the title. Also, since "Semplica-Girl" was started way back in 1998, it seemed to me at the time that its artistic intentions were earlier. "Tenth of December" was the last thing I finished in the book, and it feels like that's kind of where I'm at.

Jill: There are these tiny, amazing details that pop up in your stories — in "Home," the kids all standing perfectly still on the back of the couch seen through the window, and Mike remembering Evan in an Indian headdress racing down the hall. My favorite might be in "Tenth of December," where the house smells "like a library where sweaty men went to cook spaghetti." [Laughter]

I read somewhere — I can't remember if it was in one of your essays or in an interview — that you're looking for the surprising direction when you're thinking about your options, and I was wondering if these kinds of details were examples of that.

Saunders: Yes. Sometimes in a story, there is a place to pause and look out at the world a little bit, whether it's a memory or a physical thing. At that moment there will be a first order or group of things that you think to say. For example, we're walking through a park, and the first thing that comes to mind is a swing set. I think maybe my assumption is, if that image came to me that easily, it came to everyone easily. Something about taking a very first-order thing, your first thought, seems anti-life or anti-art, somehow.

You either have to make it a very specific swing set — one that has a short leg and every time the kid on there swings, it makes a little thump. That's a little better. Or maybe, aside from the swing set, what's another thing it could have? What just came to my mind was a park in Albany where there are some nature trails, and there's a sign that announces the nature trail in a very corporate way. And here is where I recognize an opportunity. I don't know what it actually says, but I could do a riff on what it actually says, which would be like, "Arbor View. A nature immersion experience for you and your family." [Laughter]

In a certain way, you have in the story a place for a detail, and what I feel like a lot of writers do is just take the first one. A lot of beginning writers — and I did when I was younger — take the first thing that comes to mind. I remember there was a terrific writer who came to Syracuse when I was a student, and she said, "As a rule of thumb, go for the third thing that you think of." She used the example of a story that starts off with a guy who pulls into a gas station (this would be an old-school story, because there was a gas-station attendant). The gas-station attendant comes across the guy's field of vision and the attendant is crying. She'd ask, "Why is he crying?" And everyone would say he just broke up with his wife. She'd say, "That's a good reason not to use it, because you're all saying that." Then the next thing everyone would say is that his dog just died.

Now, I'm not sure I totally agree with her on that because we could all say his wife died — that's what we expect — but we're still waiting for the next surprise. But anyway, as a general principle, every sentence, every phrase in a story is an opportunityas a general principle, every sentence, every phrase in a story is an opportunity for something. Like in "Home," the character is walking, and he makes the statement that we're going from the rich neighborhood to the poor neighborhood. Since he's given some examples of the rich houses, you're waiting; you're expecting that example of a poor house. So now I have that moment where I can say, Aha, now I get to do an example of a poor house. Which one?

When I was young, I worked in Asia. I didn't write very much, but I kept a journal as I'd go to Bangkok or wherever. I'd sit somewhere and look around and see what was worth describing. I remember that sort of writing 101 — you're looking at a storefront where there's some meat hanging up, and you're trying to get that in one sentence. A sentence that somehow conveys the reality through compression. So instead of, "I'm sitting in a cafe, and across the street there's this place and there's a lot of meat" [laughter], you'd have to pick out one detail from the meat store that would sort of explode it. That's a skill I still find myself using in stories.

Jill: In "The Braindead Megaphone," you ask where our "sense of agonized wondering, of real doubt" was after 9/11, and it occurred to me that that sense is pervasive in your stories, that you frequently capture those kinds of thoughts perfectly.

Saunders: I don't remember that phrase offhand, but yes, I think that's a pretty good description.

One of the things that I think art can do is what you described earlier. There's the world; it's everywhere, but we only notice 40 percent of it. We notice it 40 percent because we've already decided so much about it. We already know, That's a homeless dude. Or, That's a Portuguese! Oh my God, those guys. I think one of the desperate ratios we engage in as we get older is to make that happen slower, because by the time we're really old, we've got everything down. We know the answer to everything! Fiction, I think, can be a little bit of a prologue to get in and go, Hold on a second! You think you know X. Let's look at it from inside, and we'll see if we can open it up. That's really important.

Politically — I've cooled a little on the political stuff because I think I'm a better nonfiction writer when I'm writing from a place of affection rather than anger. A critic wrote that in a review a couple of years ago, and I find that to be true. I do think that we're better off when we look like we're less hysterical and more thoughtful, and basically that whole bit — I think I say somewhere else in "The Braindead Megaphone" that it's a failure of literary imagination, because if you can imagine Baghdad, you would be very hesitant to bomb it because you know there are people there. I'm looking out on LA right now at all these people driving to work, and it's the same thing.

So I think that was a big rhetorical mess led by big media, which encouraged us to underthink a really complicated thing. Why? Because we didn't want to look wimpy. Or something, I don't know. We didn't want to be inactive. So you get this literal catastrophe and death caused by words, caused by sloppy writing. And the sloppy writing was being broadcast through. Not "should we invade Iraq?" but "how?"

Jill: Are you writing nonfiction now?

Saunders: No. The last piece I did was about living in a homeless camp in Fresno for a week. That was really fun. It was a scary experience, but it was a really enjoyable writing experience. Then I just decided to take a break from everything but fiction, and honestly that's when this book [Tenth of December] really kicked into high gear. "Spiderhead" and "Home" and "Tenth of December" — those stories all came after that.

I think what I'm figuring out about myself is that I... if you could construe your being as a river, mine works better for me if I keep it one deep stream as opposed to four diffuse onesif you could construe your being as a river, mine works better for me if I keep it one deep stream as opposed to four diffuse ones. So I'm trying to stay away from anything but fiction for now. I'm 54, and I really feel that there are a lot of things to say, and for the first time I think I can say them. I'm feeling a little more bold, and so I'm hoping to stay off everything but fiction for the foreseeable future.

Jill: Well, that will probably make a lot of people happy, though I really like your nonfiction too.

Saunders: I love doing it. It's really enjoyable. And I think those stories really cracked open my thinking and led to this book — being out in the world and having to describe things. So in my mind, I'm thinking, If I ever get a little bit sedentary in my fiction, then I'll definitely take one of those trips, because it busts open the world and makes things seem fresh again.

Jill: Here at Powell's, you've had lots of die-hard fans for years, but I was talking to two different people in publishing last night about you who said, "Where did he come from?" They hadn't heard of you until this last book. How does it feel to suddenly be topping bestseller lists?

Saunders: Well, Powell's has always been so good to me, since the very, very beginning, so I hope to convey some of that appreciation when I come out there. But it's been a really interesting month, basically, since the book came out. I don't quite get it. [Laughter] It's really fun, and I'm thinking about it, for sure. Probably too much, but I don't really understand what happened.

I mean, that New York Times piece was so incredible, with that headline that was such an ornery throwdown. That was great. But my wife thought that if you look at it as a line, maybe one end is dark, edgy, weird, and the other is the opposite of that. She thought maybe the culture moved towards acceptance of weird, dark, edgy, and I maybe moved a little bit in the other direction — a little more accessible, a little less hesitant to be realistic. So maybe there's some kind of happy moment where those things crossed.

But I'm really enjoying it and trying to treat it a little bit like a science experiment, like: What is it like to actually get more attention? It's very interesting when you think about the fact that most of the people in our country who run shit are people who have had 10 times more attention for a long, long time — our politicians and musicians and actors and directors. They operate in a zone that's a much more exaggerated version of this all the time. That's interesting anthropologically because what I'm noticing, just in my baby way here, is that when you get a lot of attention, your mind does this thing. It turns towards you and your phenomenon. Whereas a fiction writer's mind should be turned outward. It's kind of like a birthday syndrome. On your birthday, you're so happy because everyone's bringing you cake and stuff. And then the next day, you're like, Hey! Where's the fucking cake? [Laughter]

So I'm taking this as a hopefully brief opportunity to see how the other half lives and maybe write some stories about it. I understand narcissism better than I did a month ago. It's almost a natural human tendency if you're getting approval that you want more, and you become a little full of shit. It's like if you eat a lot of beans, you're going to get farty. [Laughter] It's not a character flaw; it's just what your body does in the presence of too many beans. But it's been a lot of fun so far.

[I spoke to George Saunders by phone on February 6, 2013.]

 

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