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Original Essays

Under the Influence

by Jeff Garigliano
 
  1. Dogface

    Dogface

    Jeff Garigliano
    "[A] harrowing story about resilience, redemption and the will to survive. Garigliano excels with this sinister, superlative debut." Publishers Weekly (starred review)
For a long time I tried to write short stories that looked and sounded like the stories George Saunders writes. The big difference was that his appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, and the Atlantic, and mine appeared exclusively on the hard drive of my laptop. When I sent them out they invariably triggered rejection letters — some that were mildly encouraging; others that were less so. Only over time did I realize these stories would probably never be published, because they weren't really mine, and they weren't as good as anything George Saunders was writing, either.

Saunders, for those who don't know his work (and by that I mean those who need to temporarily click over to the "literature" tab and put one or two of his collections into their shopping cart, right now) creates fictional worlds that are somehow funny and bleak and uplifting at the same time. The word that comes up a lot in his reviews is "dystopic," in that the settings are occasionally futuristic, often in some prefabricated environment — like theme parks — that is supposed to be controlled and more pleasant than real life but, because people are flawed creatures, ends up being worse. The style is so distinctive that if you lined up a hundred stories by random authors with no names attached, you could spot his after just a few paragraphs. He won a MacArthur "genius grant" for his work in 2006, and if I sat on the secretive body that hands out those awards, I'd give him another two or three.

I first started taking my writing seriously about ten years ago, just as George Saunders was becoming popular, and whenever he published a new story I would tear through it like a kid eating a sundae and then sit back, slightly dazed, and say, "That. That's how I want to write." All authors have to deal with influences (Saunders himself cites Kurt Vonnegut as one of his). Most of us get into this business because we've had a strong reaction to things we've read, and we want to re-create that experience for others. So it's understandable that the writers who cause the strongest reaction in us are the ones whose styles we covet the most.

But in my case an appreciation started to cross over into something less healthy. I talked up George Saunders to friends, shoving photocopied stories into their hands with the zeal of a missionary. Some of his sentences became imprinted in my memory without conscious effort. And everything I wrote sounded like him. Not as good, but nakedly, unashamedly derivative — stories that took place in weird jobs, with amplified conflicts and violent, aggressive bosses. I could never get the dialogue right (I still can't write lines as good as his, which have the kind of grammatical imprecisions that make them seem utterly authentic and observed, instead of merely imagined, but I take solace in the fact that no one else can either).

And as the rejections for these stories piled up, I realized I needed to make some changes. Unfortunately there's no twelve-step program to wean yourself off an unhealthy infatuation with a writer, but I'm here to tell you it can be done. Here's the regimen I put together:

Forcible Detox

Eventually I stopped looking at anything new that Saunders published. I even went a step further, adopting the kind of adolescent disdain that marks a true obsession. When friends would mention a story of his that had just appeared in some magazine, I'd say, straining for nonchalance, "Him? Is he still around? I don't really read him anymore." And then I'd add possibly the most pretentious thing someone can say about a writer (or a film director, or a band, etc.), that I liked his early stuff much better.

The Flushing Out

I forced myself to read other authors who were stylistically a universe away, just to reduce the overall impact of any of them and remind myself that there are a thousand ways to produce good fiction. That meant a varied diet of Jane Austen and Elmore Leonard, Nicholson Baker and T. C. Boyle, Edith Wharton and Joseph Heller. I also read novels more or less exclusively, given that G. S., outside of one novella (predictably brilliant, infuriatingly funny), only writes short stories. Which leads to...

Change Formats

I moved away from short stories and started a novel. It was terrifying to try something with such a larger scope — especially when I hadn't yet successfully written anything of a smaller scope — but the switch meant I could stop trying to create new characters all the time and come up with a really good one, someone I felt I could spend a few years with. The last, unpublished story I'd written had a teenage protagonist, and after a lot of failed attempts I had managed to find the voice of a person that age, with the right mix of bravado and naivete. (This is probably the place to admit that I really like teenagers. Not to be around, necessarily — they can be loathsome at times — but to listen to and watch. They're like lion cubs, earnest and gangly and boastful and inept. And even their most unappealing traits are understandable, given how vulnerable everyone feels at that point in their lives.)

So I kept the voice and tweaked that character a bit, and ended up with Loren, a fourteen-year-old who became the protagonist of my first novel, Dogface. Loren was fascinated with the military and had a distracted mom who dated lots of men. It occurred to me that Loren would probably use his self-taught guerilla tactics to trash the personal belongings of his mom's various boyfriends, a premise that I thought had some comic potential. Chapter one, a nighttime operation in which Loren sets fire to the golf course where the current boyfriend works, came relatively quickly, which gave me enough optimism to keep going. And the more I immersed myself in Loren, spending time with him and listening to him, the less I thought about George Saunders — or any other writer. It was a kind of turning point, where the external influences fell away and the work (not the finished product but the process of creating it) became propelled forward by its own momentum.

Log the Hours

Probably the most important thing I did was write a lot, which is the only way to figure out your own style and voice. Once you tune out all the distractions and really listen to your subconscious, you realize that you can't pick a style — even one that you've read elsewhere and love — any more than you can pick your hair color or your height. It's hardwired into you, and the best you can do is listen clearly and express it without artifice.

In the end I'm at peace with my obsession. Saunders still publishes regularly, and some of the stories are so good they make me want to give up writing — just throw my laptop off a high roof and take up tennis instead. He recently put out a book of essays about the media and even appeared on David Letterman to promote it. But on the whole I'm less neurotic about him and about the work of other authors. I try to fight the good fight, read widely, and make it to the desk each morning to put in my hours, and I think with Dogface I've reached a goal that's more significant than getting published for the first time — I've created a work of work of fiction that is purely my own.

Near the end of the process, when I was done with revisions and had started sending the manuscript out to agents, I asked a friend to read it. He liked the story and the characters and said he laughed a lot, but he also paid me what I still consider a higher compliment. "It sounds just like you," he said.

÷ ÷ ÷

After a career in the military, Jeff Garigliano is now a magazine editor in New York City. Dogface is his first novel. spacer

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