A Long, Weird, Slightly Self-Serving Chat with George Saunders, Who's in Dallas Tonight
"If part of your goal is to find the great love of your life, and you went on a date holding a list of attributes that you wanted, and you had the whole night scripted, that's not going to work," says George Saunders, from his self-proclaimed writers' compound in the Catskills. "There's no spontaneity. It's going to die where it is."
For a few moments I marinate in that sentiment, pretending that the author of Tenth of December, The Braindead Megaphone Essays, and Pastorialia is counseling me in romance and its composite dark matter.
He isn't. He is describing his ideal writing process, which begins with an extremely loose concept or joke and ends with natural coagulation of characters, situations and metrically appealing, downright jazzy prose. He takes very little credit for the way it all jells, placing blame instead on a "weird brain" and mysterious, artful magic.
He's a master of the roundabout, drawing parallels from a verbal oversoul. You feel, while talking with him, that the world we occupy is rich and dense and good. It's a midwestern selflessness fueled by philosophical optimism, and while you're dipped in it you forgot about the positively horrific situations that ensnare his characters. The perilous scenes they stumble through would make Flannery O'Connor convulse.
I think that's why writers like David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell and the late David Foster Wallace have been such champions of his books, often citing him publicly as their inspiration. Saunders has figured it out. He grows characters into believable humans: people that think too highly of themselves or fart when they shouldn't. They're living organisms, coded by letters, conceived in the rapid fire Big Bang igniting in Saunders' cerebral ooze.
Saunders in town tonight, reading at the DMA, so I pestered him and asked him a bunch of questions about writing. It's a very self-serving conversation, but it's also cheaper than applying for his grad program at Syracuse. Sue me.
You didn't take a formal path to writing. You started off as an engineer.
It was the opposite of a formal path. I mean now it looks goofy, but I didn't really know I wanted to be a writer until pretty late in the game which was partly because I didn't know that was a job. I didn't know any other writers, so I had a secret part of myself that held a desire for that but I never took the steps. I was kind of afraid to start.
I think actually starting to write can be terrifying.
It's downright terrifying. So I farted around: My geography teacher got me into school. I thought "OK, I'll be a geologist or geolophysicist and use that to travel around for a few years. You know.
A short-term geophysicist?
It was kinda like that. Two years into it, I quit. It's kind of like where somebody asks "How did you go broke? Gradually, then all at once." Well, "How did you become a writer? Gradually, then all at once." It took a while edging toward the door for a bit.
What was the tipping point?
I got sick when I was in Asia, I swam in this monkey shit polluted river and I quit the job, which was sort of a passive-aggressive self-sabotage. I knew that once I quit that job it would be hard to get another one like it. Another reason was I was living in Chicago, just kind of drifting to the bottom of the tank. A little bit lost, in that late, mid-20s way. And that same teacher who got me into college called me up and said "You look like you're struggling. You've always wanted to write. Why don't you come and stay with us? We have a really nice finished attic and you'll just work for a couple of months and see how you like it, with no pressure."
They didn't charge me a penny, and they fed me.
That was a real do or die moment where I discovered that I could actually spend four or five hours a day doing that, it was a real turning point. There's lots of turning points though, if you really look at it. It's like a curve made our of a series of lines.
You discussed finding your voice in an interview. You pointed to this moment where you realized you have these authentic assets that you could bring to the table, like a point of view, humor, and your upbringing. When you started putting those into your work it was like you discovered you'd been writing with one arm tied behind your back and someone had finally cut the rope.
I think as young writers we believe that fancy talk trumps real language, which you address in your "Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra" story. Why do you think that is: Do you think that over-reading and overwriting and other forms of inauthenticity come from a lack of humility? Or are we just afraid others won't connect to us?
That's a good question. For me I think it had to do with being a little undereducated. If something was a little bit impenetrable I'd think, "Well, that must be good and smart." I don't know the answer but I see it all the time: Most people will push off from something they can actually do and into something they can't. For me it was a lack of intellectual confidence, and then what I found out was that all of the things you have to do with High Language, you have to do with Low Language as well. So if you're trying to write some big Faulknerian thing that's out of your league, you have to edit. And the same is true if you're trying to imitate someone lower than yourself. It's always a process of getting a language to do exactly what it is you need it to do. What do you think?
I'm not sure? I wonder if maybe it's a way to insert distance from a topic? Or, sometimes I think it can be ego.
Well, you know when I was younger I thought good guitar players where the fast ones.
Yes. I understood it was a technical practice, therefore speed was everything. But it takes a lot more taste to then play slowly and softly. So I think when you first declare yourself a writer, you think you should have some kind of technical mastery and maybe that could correlate with overwriting. It's like saying "I don't have the resources, I need to look elsewhere to find them." I don't know why that is, but it's such a nice analog for life itself because you can put on somebody else's clothes or try to be like somebody else in personality, but eventually, it wears thin.
In your new book, Tenth of December, I felt like you allowed for all of these unlikely heroes. Did you intend to let your characters succeed when you were starting them off or did they wind up surprising you?
I really don't do a lot of "intending" at the beginning, my dream story is one where I just start with some kind of language that's funny or some image that's kind of well done and just set it down and let it kinda stew in its own juices a while and try to improve it. After a while it'll just kind of spit out the next thing. The worst case is trying to base something around a theme.
For a long time I thought that's what art was. I think the magic is when you start out doing Thing A, and somewhere in the process, you mysteriously wind up with Thing B coming up from underneath and it actually takes the story away from you, in spite of yourself. That's a wonderful, mysterious thing where you're not driving the car anymore, the car is driving you. I think that's the aspiration, So for me the key is to keep the initial intention very, very minimal to maybe "I'm just trying to get this guy out of the room."
If part of your goal in life is to find the great love of your life, and you went on a date and you had a list of attributes that you wanted and you had the whole night scripted, that's not going to work. There's no spontaneity. You're over-managing to the point where it's going to die where it is. To me, that's the idea of predirecting a story. It's true that unlikely heroes is a common theme, and it might have to do with another thing I noticed, which is when you write long enough you find your mind produces common patterns. That your mind only has four or five little riffs.
So much of your work is fiction, but I really enjoy this human approach you take to tackling reality. Like in Braindead Megaphone Essays you do travel-based reports; how have those altered your world view in a way that fiction couldn't?
Those were really big for me, mainly because they reminded me how beautiful the world is. I'd gotten to some pretty rarefied space in my fiction, like In Persuasion Nation. Then when you go to Dubai, you sorta have to describe the hotel. You just have to. And I remembered when I was younger how much I enjoyed that. And somewhere in my stories I had started cutting that stuff out, what I'd considered sort of banal, physical descriptions, so it became beautiful to be reminded how wonderful that connection is. I think it might have moved me back to realism again, reminded me how I got into this, through Steinbeck and Hemingway, and Faulkner.
Suddenly, it was like the door had been thrown open and there was so much more to write about than there was before those trips. There was this one that led me to a camp in Fresno, and I was in this train yard and I'd walk through this vacant lot and there was so much shit on the ground, literal shit, and also just garbage, you know? And I started thinking "Man, you could make a beautiful three paragraph swath by just describing every piece of garbage right here." You walk out of there and there's this woman in a wheelchair who's set up camp outside this mission, who'd sort of appointed herself the town scribe. She'd tell you all of these crazy stories of the history of the homeless camp -- she was out of her mind, but I could see that being a beautiful chapter in a book. So it sort of relayed a bunch of 20-, 21-year-old ideals of what writing might be. I'm still trying to work through that now.
When you get those moments of inspiration to elongating things and interpret the world as chapters, does it make you fantasize about moving out of short work and into more marathon length stuff?
Praise on the cover of the NY Times Magazine: "The best book you'll read this year is George Saunders' Tenth of December"
When this book came out, I did a lot of press and one of the questions that always came up was "Why short form?" And I'm not going to defend it, but more importantly the idea that a writer chooses? It seems like a piece of writing, if you're in it for a while, ought to tell you how long it should be. There's a certain DNA that tells you "Yeah, you can make it 40 pages, but it's going to suck. Now, if you go 25 you might be able to pull it off."
Remember there was a time in athletics where they'd talk about half twitch and full twitch muscles, some people are natural sprinters and some are natural long distance runners? I think neurologically or narratively some people have a natural frequency, and for me -- I talk really fast and I skip over the central connective tissue, but I definitely have that [long-distance] fantasy.
Oh, it's daunting to me. I can't even wrap my brain around constructing a book. I don't understand how to set that up or what's required. Much less how to make something that long, interesting.
See! If it's daunting or kind of a drag, why would you wanna? But I also think maybe there's a different way of looking at it, which is to say: Maybe a long thing is just a bunch of short things, arranged cleverly?
Shit. That's true.
Lately I've been thinking about that. It seemed like such a "duh" moment, but that's what As I Lay Dying is, basically.
Still, rather than think about form, it's good to think about intent. In this last book there were a few places where I felt able to access some parts of myself that I'd kept out of the room, previously. Things that were a little more honest. More personal. Maybe a little more friendly towards my reader?
So maybe there are places where you can have more faith in 1) your own perceptions and experiences in the world, and 2) that your readers perceptions and experiences might be similar to yours.
I thought it would be pretty much on the level of the other three books, but it was received so much more warmly. Now rather than think about length, I'm more concerned with being more open and communicative.
Another element of the success could be this snowball of your momentum. At some point people have to notice that so many writers are recommending you. Then we read the older stuff and see articles pop up in the New Yorker or GQ, but we've had seven years to pine for the next collection. There's a traction there.
It did feel that way to me too. The crowds have gotten gradually bigger over the last few years. So it might just be that after all that time plugging away, that all of these glasses that were almost full finally became full. It's nice that way, I was able to work without too much fuss. That's a blessing. My experience has been that I'd get enough attention to be taken seriously, but never so much that I'd get distracted.
If you had one piece of advice for young writers, what you leave them with?
Put in the hours. If you could imagine someone who wanted to be a guitar player or a tennis player, the tacit advice is "keep your elbow straight," or "play scales everyday." But when someone reaches their potential as a writer it usually means they've outfoxed themselves.
They've figured out what their problems are, they've figured out innovative solutions, and all kinds of judo-type ways to take those problems and make them assets. It's a long process of paying attention to oneself, as oneself is manifested through prose. So there's little advice that fits everybody except: Get in there in a room with yourself for a certain amount of hours every day for many, many years. You'll discover what your issues are, you'll come up with many solutions to those and maybe you'll conquer them. The creative mind is so smart, it's like an incredible fluid: It's so powerful.