It Comes From Language

A Conversation With George Saunders

by by Drew Dickerson

illustration by by Lizzie Davis


George Saunders is the man of the proverbial literary hour after the January 8 publication of his book Tenth of December—which isn’t to say that he wasn’t already well acquainted with media attention. His debut collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline was a 1996 finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and nearly all his works have fast become bookshelf fixtures. The George Saunders setting is often bizarre, the plot often fantastical, but the George Saunders sentence is without fail unimpeachable. It necessitates itself. It has a unique and matchless rhythm that paradoxically works to serve as an example of how all sentences should be written. The man behind that rhythm remains remarkably nice. We talk here about syntax and whether or not there’s such a thing as a George Saunders intellectual project.

The Independent: It seems like voice is a big preoccupation in your early career. You speak often about a turn, after which you started being able to trust your own voice. At the same time you attribute a lot of your originality as a writer to your background in science and geophysics. What role can education play in the development of a particular literary style?

George Saunders: That’s a huge question. I mean really probably a million different paths. I think maybe if you take a young person who’s got talent and interest in writing—or any art probably—whatever you put in front of them they’re going to assimilate somehow, right? So if it’s reading the classics, that’s good. A summer job at a landfill, that’s going to get in there. So I think, for me, one of the reassuring things about someone starting out in writing is that you don’t have to carefully design a career. You just have to say: “Whatever happens to me, that’s going to end up feeding my work, informing it.” And ultimately—this is kind of mysterious maybe—ultimately you’re going to become the writer you were meant to become. All these little stepping stones and obstructions and stuff are just kind of grist for the mill. So for me to take that kind of unconventional path—one thing it did for sure was give me access to a lot of unusual voices early and I don’t know if they’re unliterary but they’re literary in an unusual way. To work in the oil fields and to do a lot of the jobs I did, you heard highly organized dictions and syntactical speech that were very, very functional. But they also, to anybody else, would have been nonsense. So that made me think a little differently about what style might be or what poetry might be. You have these kinds of overflowed dictions and then say, “Okay, those are totally offbeat or out of the running for so-called literary voices” or “I’ve got to learn to hear them a little bit differently.”

Indy: Given that formation of “any background is going to serve a mature voice,” is there any danger in the increasing prevalence of the MFA workshop of a sort of meta-writerly feedback loop?

GS: I think there’s always that danger. And I think any good workshop would take that into account. That fear has been with us. It was there when I started going to a workshop in—what was it?—’85 or ’86. I think a good workshop leader understands that danger. So I don’t worry about that too much. Mostly our students, by the time they get to us, they’ve already had a lot of input. They’ve already had some life under their belts. So I know people talk about that and I don’t quite feel it as a thing, at Syracuse anyway. Part of the job is just to make sure that shit doesn’t happen. I think that means just calling yourself on your own non-sense. There is a little danger, I always call it The Best Red Headed Short Stop on the Little League Team Syndrome, which is you’ve got this closed group of people and it’s fairly easy to become a celebrity within that small group for some small thing that you do. So part of a teacher’s job is to just keep reminding everybody that there’s a bigger world out there and you might be writing the best comic, suburban novel about a dad who’s a tollbooth collector but if you look up there’s probably somebody else doing something very similar in another program. So I think that kind of falls under the responsibility of the teacher, to keep saying, “It’s not just us 12. There’s a bigger world out there.”

Indy: Maybe this is an obnoxious question, but just to return to your own work: Do you proceed from premise or language in writing a story?

GS: No, that’s a great question—not obnoxious at all. My usual answer, and I think this is the most truthful answer, is that it comes from language. I found out from about an eight year period of barking up the wrong tree that if I start from premise then I tend to just execute premise and things are not fun or exciting. So then, when I was working for an engineering company and writing that first book, and partly because of the trauma of not writing anything good for eight years but also because of the setting—I was at work, there wasn’t much time, and the time came in small blocks—I kind of just stumbled on this approach of trying to make a sentence that I could live with. I often would get one that was kind of all right and then get hauled away, come back, and try to get two more. I found that in that way you actually can generate plot and character and theme and all that stuff if you keep your eye on the idea that stories proceed linearly. They proceed a sentence at a time. That’s the way you’re going to experience a story by Tolstoy. So somehow keeping that in mind, I think when we are intellectuals and we want to do big things in a work, we tend to say, “Yeah, sure. A sentence at a time. You bet. But what are my larger themes?” And for me anyway, I’ve found that if I keep the language first, the themes will appear and they’ll be more complicated and better than I could have come up with. Now having said that, that’s an approximation of an approach and I know sometimes in the middle of a sentence or a period of language-fun a plot event will pop. You will go: “Oh, this is about class.” So then it is, conditionally. “Now let’s keep going with the sentences.” As you’re going deeper into a story, there’s your awareness of what the story would be about to a first time reader. There’s your desire to sort of puncture that or complicate it. There’s this growing sense that there’s another thing the story might be about that you don’t know yet. But I would say, to go back to your question, for me it’s always an intuitive thing rather than a cerebral thing or a conceptual thing. At my best it’s more about imagining a person in a real situation and letting it unfold and then trying to put all those concerns about politics and other things off to the side for as long as I can.

Indy: Setting aside that intuitiveness, do you think it’s a mistake to read your stories allegorically? Is a story like “Adams” an allegory? Or do you think that the temptation on the part of the reader to read a sort of code into your work is a function of your voice?

GS: Well, it’s okay to read it however. This method, hopefully, will afford a lot of pleasures for readers. The approach might be intuitive, but at the end of the day I’m in charge. In [“Adams”] in particular, that one was definitely conceived of as a half-assed allegory. It was just an experiment. I think I was feeling a lot of frustration about the war. And it was written maybe right before the war was really savage and it was still possible that there would be wea-pons of mass destruction found. And there was this liberal paranoia or split, to say, “We shouldn’t be doing this but if they do find a full warehouse of mustard gas, maybe we should’ve.” So I was really confused about that and in that confusion I thought: “Well, I’ll make a little scale mode.” And of course the hope is that in the process it becomes more than that—that, at the very least, your short story shows you moral-ethical places that you hadn’t considered. And that one, I think it spins off to be something more general about violence and about being afraid. That was maybe the one time in my writing career where I set out to make an allegory.

Indy: Do you think your work implies a politics?

GS: From the kind of questions I get, I think the answer is yes. But my hope is that, if taken as a whole—and I think this new book is going to help with this—I’d rather have it not imply a politics but a kind of… I don’t know. I was going to say a moral stance but that always ends up sounding preachy. I think it implies a relation to the world, maybe, but I’m not sure what that is. I hope that if I write another ten books that relation to the world will continue to change and refine and stuff. When a person writes a lot, the things that come out are always a little bit misshapen. In other words, you think you have this intention to be this kind of writer. But your talent, such as it is, might not always cooperate. So you go to do Thing A and Thing B comes out. And, for me, I have this thing about intuitiveness and Chekhovian open-heartedness but I know that my stories are doing something a little freakier than that. They just do. And I would have a whole shtick for you about how politics is not fiction’s job and yet I know that my stories seem to advocate a kind of liberal-humanist something-or-other.

Indy: So there is a Saunders project, but it’s more a trajectory at the moment than anything else.

GS: Yeah, and I hope that I won’t know what it is ever. The project is to be as deeply engaged in whatever story I’m working on at that time and keep pushing and pushing and see if it’ll yield a little more than I thought it would. At some point you take 12 of those or whatever and put them in a book. There’s some selection there but that selection is pretty intuitive, like assembling an album. You just want it to work as a functional unit. So the project is really kind of, within my head, to try to hurry up and be the best writer I can be—which is not unrelated to being the best person I can be. Because I feel like, as I go through these books, my writing self is finally starting to get somewhat close to the person I feel I am in terms of an expansiveness and kindness and a patient narrative position. I always felt that way as a person, but you have to get your chops up to speed, so now, at 54, I’m finally starting to get in the ballpark where I think I could represent almost any human being with a certain amount of sympathy. I can make these big crashing situations, but it’s taken me longer than I thought. So I’m really just kind of in a race to keep ascending this ladder of my own potential. Not so much in terms of success as in getting the person that I feel I am at heart on the page somehow.

Indy: Right. You seem to have this ethic of extemporaneousness and then you also talk a lot about your incubation period as an early writer or a non-writer.

GS: Yeah. And also, in those stories, the aim is to make them seem spontaneous, but it takes a lot of time and a lot of rewriting to do that. So my early drafts often seem really stiff and written. But over the hundreds of drafts it comes to be loose enough to feel a little bit more like a spoken thing. I think there’s a lot of—I always heard this when I was younger and I didn’t really get it—this trope of a writer’s working while he’s sitting and looking out the window. And I was sort of like: “Yeah, he’s not working—he’s looking out the window.” But now I can see there’s a lot of subconscious activity going on and you can’t rush it and it presents itself. You just have to see it. It might have taken you a year off or some really disappointing failure in a book or in a period of your life to get that. And the second part is to get that confidence to say “Okay, somehow I just wrote three good pages. That’s never happened before. I’ll take it.”

Indy: You’re talking about stories and sentences as these discrete chunks. It seems to me that funny writers—their process seems to lend itself to a sort of atomism. You hear about notecards with Nabokov. There’s that story about Wodehouse where he would have pages on his wall that he would move towards the ceiling as they got better and better. Does that compartmentalization lend itself to humorous writing? Or maybe vice versa.

GS: There’s a similar story about Isaak Babel. His mistress said she didn’t really know what he was doing, but he had this table with a bunch of different pages on there. He would walk around the house and as he walked he would dart in and write something on one of the pages and it seemed to matter which page he wrote it on. She couldn’t figure out the details. I mean, for me, maybe it’s not even restricted to humor writing because there’s something in my way of thinking where prose is like rhetorical nuggets. A true paragraph block belongs together. It does a certain work. So, in a way, you can just concentrate on that true paragraph block, make it do whatever it wants to do, and then later you can figure out where it optimally goes. So it’s the idea that the section would have to work line-to-line, but also that it would be needed somewhere. That kind of double functionality is what I think really causes prose to light up. It’s almost like that old Lite-Brite game. If you put the peg in, it lights up. So that atomism’s a good way of putting it. Sometimes you’re best to think of a bit of prose as just being in and of itself and you don’t know quite what it does yet. I’ve even had it where I’ll have a really nice section that I really like and I go, “You know what? You’re good but you don’t belong in this story that I’m writing.” You pop it out and you put it on the side and it starts to kind of vibrate on its own and it generates its own story.