10 Questions with George Saunders
I have a dubious history with the short story collections of George Saunders.
In 1997 I was living in Flagstaff, AZ. For those of you not familiar with Flagstaff, it’s your typical college town, meaning if you’re not living there to go to or teach at the school, you’re basically living hand-to-mouth. In ’97, I was the very definition of hand-to-mouth, spending most of my days occasionally filling out job applications and shuttling between the public library and Flagstaff’s two bookstores: Bookman’s and a soon to fail chain superstore called Hastings. I hated Hastings. It was large, impersonal, and specialized in selling airport literature, but at least they were easy to steal from. They virtually had no security except the weary eyes of minimum wage employees who were probably stealing from them more than I was. (Albeit my five-finger discounts were relegated to the CD section, largely because the local used record store paid $5 for new, unwrapped CD’s.)
But one winter morning I was cruising the stacks and I came across a slim book of stories called, CivilWarland in Bad Decline. The black and white cover featured a young guy dressed in a coonskin hat and faux buckskin leaning against a graffiti covered wall. But what drew my eye other than the cover were the blurbs on the back from writers such as Tobias Wolff, Jay Mcinerney, and Pynchon. (Freaking Pynchon!) I cracked the book, read the title story and was spellbound. Instead of pocketing some horrible rap disc, (a disc that would buy my only meal of the day) I grabbed the book and down in my underwear it went.
I still have the same copy of CivilWarland in Bad Decline, and between my time of petty thievery and the now of my comfortable suburban existence, Saunders has gone on to become one of the most critically lauded short story writers in North America, producing three volumes of short fiction (CivilWarland in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, In Persuasion Nation), a novella (The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil), a children’s book (The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip), and a collection of essays (The Braindead Megaphone). He has also been awarded the MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, and The World Fantasy Award. The release of of his fourth volume of short fiction, Tenth of December, is sure to be one of the true literary events of 2013.
What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
Well, depends how far back you want to go. I had a childhood story that contained the immortal, bloodthirsty line, “He had killed an amazing 39 Krauts!” But after that… there were a series of corny ones I wrote while in the oil business in Asia that were all basically the same story: Old man, in rest home, reminisces about… his time as a young man in Asia. This was essentially a way to recast my travel journal into short stories. But they weren’t really stories. Nothing happened. The old guy just kept lying there, remembering. Every now and then he’d take a drink of water or something. So nothing happened with those “stories” at all – I never sent them out. I had at least that much good taste.
When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?
I don’t remember, to be honest. I sold three in two months when I was 26 or so, then had a long drought. When I sold one at the end of that period (this was after grad school) my wife and I went out for a steak dinner, I remember, thereby blowing all of the income from the story, and then some. I also remember, somewhere around that period, sitting late at night by the Erie Canal, thinking: OK, thank God, things are starting to happen, finally, maybe.
Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, human blood when the moon is full... how do you write?
It’s always changing but lately I write on the computer and then print out at the end of the day, so I can have something on paper to edit in the morning. That’s about the only fixed thing. I have to take the time when I can get it because this year I’m doing a lot of traveling and I commute back and forth to Syracuse to teach. The one thing I’m pretty sure about is that it’s best to edit on paper, rather than on the screen – I think the brain processes text better that way.
What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
Well, not to be too New Age about it, but I’m not sure you can look at it that way. I mean, I wish I had been more productive earlier, and gotten rid of certain bad habits and obscurations sooner, and I wish writing novels came naturally to me – but that is all part of the process. And if there’s anything a person likes about his current mode of production, then he has to be grateful for all of that earlier inefficiency and his current limitations – which aren’t separable from what he likes about his work, if you see what I mean. As the Steve Martin character says in The Jerk: “I’m just happy to be in there somewhere.”
It is kind of amazing, though – once you get to a place where you like what you’re doing, you look back and go: “Shit, why didn’t I get here sooner?” The way always seems pretty clear from the current vantage point.
What kind of catharsis did you achieve from your latest work?
Hmm, I’m not sure. It may just be the pleasure of having started something and then managing to finish it. One thing that I learned from writing that particular set of stories, maybe, was to have a little more confidence in basic storytelling – I found ways of getting narrative and stylistic velocity that I hadn’t know about before – or hadn’t known I could do. So it emboldened me to feel, sort of like: Well, if it feels important to your real life, you might be able to use it in fiction. Something like that. But I guess the main catharsis is just the satisfaction of inventing a situation, abiding with it, and then feeling like you’ve shepherded it into the best version of itself – that feeling of having unearthed some non-random surprises in the process.
Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
Well, Huck Finn, except he’s underage. Anna Karenina – I’d like to see if she’s her exact mode of prettiness. Jake Barnes in A Farewell to Arms. I’d like to do some Monty Python routines for him and see how he reacts. I’d also like to ask him about his wound. I’d like to meet Akaky Akakievich from "The Overcoat," at the precise moment when he reels out of the office of the Important Personage, so I could (a) buy him a new coat (a nice warm Patagonia) and then (b) storm back in and bitch out the Important Personage, freaking him out with my advance knowledge of the coming Russian Revolution, and then, to really finish him off, I would produce my iPod and play him some Stravinsky.
Where do you buy your books?
At a store called The Green Toad, in Oneonta, NY. It’s a beautiful independent that has bucked the trend everyone is always bemoaning: it opened fresh a few years ago and weathered the recession and continued to thrive even after the Borders in town closed. It’s beautifully fun and friendly – a real gathering place for the community.
How do you handle a bad review of your work?
Well, it stings. But then I try to see if there’s anything in there I need to hear. Actually this happens pretty naturally – the useful bits just sort of stick around and get taken in. And you can even feel grateful.
Usually, a bad review isn’t telling you anything you didn’t already know anyway. A writer knows the problems with a piece as she’s working on it, I think. That’s what she’s doing in that writing room for all of those hours: trying to figure out how to minimize the inborn defects of the fictional construct. So let’s say you decide to write a novel in an exaggerated dialect. Well, that creates both problems and opportunities – you are always trying to circumvent the problems and exploit the opportunities. And you are very well aware of that fact. You could say that you are trying to be good enough at exploiting the opportunities that you induce the reader to overlook the defects - or, in the best case, the defect actually converts into something good.
What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
I can’t think of any specific piece of bad advice. But maybe the most harmful thing any of us advising writers ever does is give a young writer the impression that there is one correct and irrefutable methodology: a right way and a wrong way. Or (a related idea) that there are those with the goods and those without, and that we, the elders, can tell who is who. I don’t believe any of this. Writing is too wonderful and mysterious a thing. It won’t be predicted. So my take on writing pedagogy is that it does the young writer a lot of good to hear a lot of contradictory takes on how to write – so that she can (a) accept whatever seems to suit her (ie, via a form of “permission-giving") and (b) can eventually get some sense that whatever works for her, is correct – that is, having heard all of these versions of “how to write,” she’ll realize that the only thing she can do is go find her own way – but with more ferocity and certainty.
With so many short stories under your belt, is there any particular character(s) from one of your stories that you'd like to revisit and expand on?
No – I think my talent, such as it is, isn’t really an “expanding” type of animal. Most of what I know/feel about aesthetics has to do with speed – getting a character on-stage and making one definitive thing happen to him. I think this may just be a neurological equivalent of that fast-twitch/slow-twitch muscle thing in sports. I am, in my interest and natural taste, more of a sprinter, I think. The only reason I sometimes get a desire to go back is that I might like a certain voice. For example, I really enjoyed writing in that on-Verbaluce voice in “Escape from Spiderhead,” or the barber’s voice in “The Barber’s Unhappiness.” And there are only so many voices a person can do….but so far, no plans to go back, no. Still a lot of new things to try in the time remaining.
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