an interview with george saunders

by dolan morgan

Dolan Morgan: How has your day been so far, and how do you expect it to turn out before bedtime?

George Saunders: So far, so good. It’s 9:35 and I’ve walked the dogs and done a bunch of business-ish stuff and am just getting ready to write. After that – it’s anybody’s guess what might happen. 

This interview was conducted with George Saunders for our first issue, published in February 2013.

This interview was conducted with George Saunders for our first issue, published in February 2013.

DM: What ambitions have you realized with your new collection [Tenth of December; Random House, January 2013], and what continues to elude you as a writer?

GS: I think this book is a little more open-hearted or expansive – it more readily admits the possibility that sometimes things turn out well. It’s still pretty dark but at a couple of key points I felt the stories opening outward, or maybe upward.

DM: You’ve mentioned that to preserve a sense of mystery and spontaneity, you don’t outline stories. You’ve said thematic premeditation should be avoided, lest preconceptions render work prescriptive or stilted. You are also a notorious proponent of liberal cutting in revision, scrapping whole pages in search of more succinct sentences. I’m wondering how you balance these two habits. How do you “strike out” theme when cutting things to their essence? How do you get to the core of a work without prescribing it? Is mystery abandoned at this point in process, or does revision reveal unexpected magic for you as well?

GS: First, let me say that all of the above is true for me – I have no idea that those ideas are more widely applicable. A writer has to figure out what works for him/her and sometimes that bag of tricks is just that: a small bag, full of specially developed tricks that, even as he/she pronounces them (as one is called upon to do when teaching, in interviews, etc) seem crazy or overspecialized or dictatorial. That said – I learned early on that I tend to be very conceptual and theme-obsessed when thinking about writing. My early stories, the ones that never got published, were crippled by this – the reader saw Theme coming like a big-ass train, and then it came, and ran over them, and it was dull. So, I developed that bag to combat this tendency in myself. It’s basically just trying to see the story in the smallest fragments possible, and then working to refine those. So most of what I do in a given day is on the line-level – trying to make a sentence or series of sentences more charming/powerful/undeniable (with the definition of those adjectives purposely left blurry and visceral and private). And the hope is that, if I make the small units charming/powerful/undeniable, the larger units also will be those things, and that my tendency to write reductive stories that “prove” something will be undercut. But for me it’s all about close attention to the small fragments, and the faith that (my) subconscious mind is smarter than (my) conscious mind.

DM: What in your own work makes you the saddest? In others’ work?

GS: Really, the only thing that makes me sad, per se, is when my work is failing to be good. I don’t get “sad” if a story is sad – on the contrary, if a sad story is beautifully told, it makes me happy. Take “The Overcoat,” for example, by N. Gogol. One of the saddest stories ever told.  But I always come away from it inspired and happy.

DM: Your stories are entertaining. They are also political. Embedded in the absurd scenarios are moral implications for human responsibility. I’m wondering how you balance entertainment against contributions to broader dialogues of social interest, and if one calling drives you more than the other. Are moral dilemmas fuel for narrative, or is literature a vehicle for justice? Do you find yourself hitting the brakes or the gas when the work starts to map onto social or political terrain?

GS: For me the key is to try and not think along that axis, if you see what I mean. It’s kind of like that old SNL sketch, where Chevy Chase, in the guise of a TV announcer, is standing between two angry women, and he says, “Hold it, hold it, you two! You’re both right! It’s a dessert topping AND a floor wax.” So in the case of entertainment vs. justice issues and so on – I’d argue that if a person sets up that dichotomy, the best he could do is choose one or the other, or crap out some half-ass hybrid. But if he posited a third axis, he could maybe get above the whole dilemma. For me, manufacturing that third axis has something to do with the notion that what we call, say, “a feeling for justice” might not be incompatible with “a desire to entertain.” That is – there’s something entertaining (or delighting, or compelling) about a story that looks directly at questions that we might think of as “political” but that, when we look closer, are actually just human questions, the questions that, actually, obsess us every day: Why are we here? How should we live? How is it that, knowing that kindness and empathy and selflessness are important, we so often screw-up and are big assholes? What is the essence of love? Can we/should we count on it? Am I making a big mistake in my manner of living? Will I be ready to die when it’s my time? Etc. etc .

DM: You have a background as an engineer. I am intrigued by the intersection of mathematics and literature. Some mathematicians align themselves more with artists than with scientists, making overtures to symmetry, beauty and unbridled curiosity. Whether through underlying science or overarching institutions, how has engineering influenced your work?   

GS: I think the biggest influence has been this sense that effort and result are not necessarily related. I was a pretty poor engineering student, so learned early that I could study for 1000 hrs and still get a D, and the D was still a D. No whining, no excuses. So that helped when I was approaching revision. You could do 1000 drafts but that didn’t promise that draft 1000 would be good. I learned, also, the tremendous capacity we have for working and re-working – our ability to endure goes way past what we might imagine at the beginning of a task. 

I guess I learned to be what we used to call in the corporate world “results-oriented.” (Or, as some of us sometimes called it, “results-orientated.”) If what you’re doing is working, accept it. If it’s not, go back and do it again. The more important a task is, the greater your patience (and your real alertness to success/failure) has to be.

The other, larger thing that life gave me was travel. Well, not only travel – but access to specialized worlds. First, the oilfield life in Asia and then, later, the corporate world back in the US. I’ve learned since, from some reporting work, that a reporter can be the victim of a journalistic version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: the process of observing a subatomic particle changes its behavior. So to be in an oilcamp or a corporate setting as part of the team was really interesting, and invaluable in starting to understand how things (capitalism, say) actually work behind the curtain.

DM: Roberto Bolaño posits the crime scene as the definitive image of the 20th century. What do you think? What will be the defining imagery of the coming century? Millennium? All of human history?

GS: Oh boy. Clowns? Clowns crowding into a clown car? And because of global warming, the clowns are sweating? While being harassed by fundamentalists of various religions? And then, because of global warming, the car and the clowns and the fundamentalists all melt?

I have no idea. 

Well, maybe I have a small idea. The real story here on earth, I think, is that we each got infused at birth with the delusion that we are separate and permanent and central and pre-eminent. Then you live awhile and see that this is all wrong.