"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
For a writer who takes a bleak (if hilarious) view of the human condition, George Saunders is remarkably cheerful. He does have the disconcerting and inexplicable habit of referring to himself as a “moron,” but he’s patently happy — a devoted family man (he and his wife have two daughters) delighted to be teaching creative writing at Syracuse University.
So where does the savage satirical vision of Saunders’ fiction come from? To the writer himself, the very fact that his work causes critics to use such words is somewhat puzzling. “They’d say, ‘Oh, yes, very dark,’ and I’d think, ‘Hmm. I just thought they were funny.’” And, it turns out, Saunders’ stories only seem exaggerated in their depiction of a merciless, downsized, corporatized and theme-parked America if you haven’t walked in the author’s shoes. The more Saunders told Salon about his employment history, the less fanciful his fiction seemed.
Tell me about your background.
I was raised in Chicago, in a lower-middle-class family. It wasn’t the kind of environment where anyone was a writer or had the idea that you could be one. I read a lot, though. Kahlil Gibran. I liked Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand seems like a strange writer for someone like you, with your keen identification with the world’s underdogs, to admire.
It was a teenage thing. I was kind of a nerdy guy and I liked the idea of being that kind of hero. I loved the extremes of it. One of the reasons why I went to the Colorado School of Mines is that I thought I had to be like Howard Roark. I wasn’t scientifically minded though, so I had to work really hard.
Were you writing?
I was trying to write about things like convenience stores in the style of writers like Thomas Wolfe. There were a lot of “Os” in what I wrote then.
As in “O, the convenience store”?
Yeah. My daughter found a poem I wrote back then to some girl, written exactly like “The Prophet.” And it was so hackneyed, so bad. Oh, God. But I loved that, loved those writers, but I couldn’t make it work with the stuff around me.
And after you graduated?
I got a job working for the petroleum industry in Sumatra for a couple of years. The stuff I wrote about that was in the style of [Joseph] Conrad.
Working in Asia must have changed your perspective on how the world works.
Yeah. They had a big construction site on one of the streets there, Orchard Road, and the laborers were all these old women, lifting big rocks in their saris. Simultaneously I learned that there was oppression, but I also realized that my place back home was not exactly on the top either. It was one of those jobs where if I had kept my nose down I could have made a lot of money. But I read [Jack] Kerouac and so I decided that what I was doing, working for a big company, was selling out. And I got sick after swimming in a river so I had to go home. The petroleum market collapsed right after that.
You had a variety of jobs for a while then.
Yeah, I was a doorman in Beverly Hills, but at a cheapo condo that was kind of at the bottom rung of that sort of building. If there was a problem we were supposed to run up, unarmed, open the door and shout, “Security!” Kind of like “Shoot me!” And I worked in a slaughterhouse. I was knuckle-puller.
A knuckle, I think, is part of a leg. Literally, it looked like a big chicken leg — I couldn’t see what part of a cow it could be. But there wasn’t much time to look at it — it was usually moving. There was one guy who’d been there for a while and he got the job where he’d sit on a stool all day, and he’d take this thing and put it on this hook that was on a conveyer belt. Then it would be moving around the room and you had to make cuts in it, and you have to do this while you’re walking cross-legged. There was one part where you had to put a hook in and drop your whole weight on it. It was like wrestling all day. And it never stopped moving. If you were a little slow, the other guys would have to come and help you out. There were guys there who were very proud that they could do this really fast because they’d been doing it for 30 years, running around this room.
Eventually you applied to the creative writing program at Syracuse and got in.
That was really great. That’s where I met my wife. We got married and had our first daughter, and I had to get a job.
You worked for a pharmaceutical company that sounds like something out of one of your stories.
Yeah, I was in the office. We were upstairs and my job was to write up these reports on the data the scientists would get. But then on the way out I’d have to walk through the lab. They had rats and to test the effect of these drugs, they put their paws in a sort of vise with wooden blocks and they’d apply pressure to it. The results would be a range, from things like “writhing” to “writhing with vocalization.” We’d have to rewrite their reports, which were thousands of pages long about this kind of stuff. The animals would go all the way up to dogs and monkeys. In one test, they had all these beagles and they needed them to be really calm, so they suspended them from slings. I’d walk through the lab and see eight beagles there in the air.
With the monkeys they would keep cranking up the volume on the drugs. They were testing for cancer, and it was all described in this deadpan language. There was this one monkey that no matter how much they gave him, it had no effect on him whatsoever. He was the Christ monkey. He had a certain dignity. Of course in the end, no matter what, they always kill them. But it was an incredibly moving narrative.
How was your writing developing during this time? You write about some of the subject matter that was really popular during the reign of Raymond Carver-esque minimalism — working people in desperate straits — but your approach is entirely different. Still you had a tendency to fall under the spell of a series of writers: Rand, Wolfe, Kerouac. Did you feel the pull to be a Carver-style writer?
Yes, in fact, when I first came out [to Syracuse] it was on a pretty good story, but I decided I needed to get “serious” and that meant realism. So I spent four or five years trying to do not Carver exactly, but the idea was that it should be directly from life with no exaggeration. That was really an unfortunate choice because I had no skill whatsoever in that, and no spontaneous attraction to that kind of writing. In a way it was like going to engineering school because I had the sense that I should do this, that there was something weak about honoring my natural inclinations. I couldn’t get it through my head that the one story that had been pretty good was funny, it was goofy.
So when did you get back on track?
It was at work, during a three-hour conference call. I wrote some silly little Dr. Seuss poems, not using my conscious mind at all, and that was a breakthrough. I was just trying to be entertaining, and those seemed to have more life in them than anything I’d written in the previous five years. You know Junot Diaz has this theory about how writers come out of a background where language is power? In his case, as an immigrant who could speak English, that was the powerful thing. In my neighborhood back in Chicago it was humor. If you could be sarcastic and funny and quick, that was a way of holding the floor.
So you came into your innate funniness, but you were still working at this job …
By then I was at this environmental firm. We’d had our second daughter and that really put the Sterno under my ass. I just knew I had something to say, but I hadn’t been able to do it. The stuff I’d been writing looked like it was written by somebody else. So I took the gloves off and decided to do everything I could to do something that wasn’t derivative and hackneyed. I had so much fun with that, and I couldn’t deny that there was something in it, more energy and honesty than anything I’d written in years.
So you were writing at work?
Yeah, I had my desk set up so I had five or six seconds of time to hit that Shift-F3 and get the other document up and I had this whole drill of facial expressions — you know, look tense and clench my face and look as constipated as possible. It took me about five years to write ["CivilWarLand in Bad Decline"]. We had no money and our car broke down and I had to ride my bike along the Erie Canal, which turns up in that book a lot. Or I would take the bus. I had a routine where I’d have the story and mark it up and bring it to work and whatever time I would have I would put in the changes. It wasn’t the quickest way, but I got a little bit done every day.
And were you publishing?
In some small publications. I thought it would take me about 10 years. We had our kids and the job was OK and I figured if it turns out I’m someone who gets out one book by the time I’m 50, so be it. Better than none. It was a really good time because my head was on straight. It’s a clichi, but I was really doing it for the love of it. It was really fun.
Then I sent a story to the New Yorker and they said they were going to think about it. I had to go out of town for work. Three weeks away from the family, which is unheard of for me. We had to wear hip waders and we were putting groundwater wells into this swamp. Someone had spilt some paint there 10 years before, and this was a confirmation study where you’re making sure there are no residual effects. But to get there we had to run these big plows through this wetland. That was written in the plan so we had to do it.
Meanwhile, there’s this simulated war going on over us, with warthogs doing strafing runs right over us and tanks. Every night I would go back to the microtel and wait for a phone message. It was torturous. Then I did hear from the New Yorker and they did take the story.
On the scientific end of things, three or four months later and a hundred or two hundred thousand taxpayer dollars, we found there was no trace of paint, but there were trace amounts of hydrocarbons, which of course were from this plow which was dropping oil. That was really great.
Did the people at your job know what you were doing?
Yeah, after that I was outed. One guy told me to stop using the corporate resources for my “literary productions.” Once they realized it was serious, paradoxically they started to crack down even more. I was really lucky to get my current job.
A lot of your stories are set in offices, some obviously based on the ones you’ve worked in. Did your co-workers recognize themselves?
No. I didn’t either at the time. People don’t recognize the negative things about themselves. They only recognize the positive stuff, sometimes when it isn’t even about them to begin with.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)