George Saunders: "I want to tell the truth about what really matters in a simple way"

How do you win a MacArthur genius grant? Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, the short-story master tells Salon

Published January 4, 2014 9:00PM (EST)

Subject: SAUNDERS George - Copyright: Basso CANNARSA/Opale - Date: 20090707-    (Basso Cannarsa/opale)
Subject: SAUNDERS George - Copyright: Basso CANNARSA/Opale - Date: 20090707- (Basso Cannarsa/opale)

George Saunders has a Guggenheim and a MacArthur, was called one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine, and was credited with changing the trajectory of American fiction by the Wall Street Journal.

But in 2013 he added an even more impressive accolade. He was named one of Salon's sexiest men.

Well, that's true, yes, but the really surprising thing about Saunders in 2013 is that he became a New York Times best-selling writer with his latest story collection, "Tenth of December." There might not have been more heartening literary news all year than the fact that one of our bravest and most essential voices found the mass audience to match. Let alone a generous, kind guy. This month, the collection arrives in paperback.

In her Salon review of "Tenth of December," Laura Miller deemed him the "bard of the wage slaves" and wrote of Saunders' stories that "Not a single line from them can even begin to work on its own, extracted from the tissue that gives it its potency. These sentences aren’t beautiful, but what they are is true — and just about the best possible rejoinder to Keats’ declaration that the two things, truth and beauty, are equivalent."

On a wintry New York afternoon, Saunders was down from Syracuse (where he teaches in the creative writing program) and we sat at a Gramercy Park hotel to talk about the collection, his approach to fiction, class, the eternal debate about irony and snark, and much more. The transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.

Let's start with a big overarching one.

This is going to be big. I can feel it.

We continue to wrestle with the right relationship to have with irony, or with what is now often dismissed as snark, both in our lives and in fiction. And yet we still live in an era when "The Daily Show" and "Colbert" do a better job than much of the media in covering things with actual honesty. So what is the right relationship …

I can answer that in more than one way, but that’s a great question.

… that we ought to have with irony? Because, yes, in some ways it can be crippling and paralyzing, and then there are ways it’s completely essential to cut through the bullshit and artifice of modern life. There’s a way to be an ironist and also to have a moral center, and you've juggled that so well.

Yeah, I think there is. Stewart and Colbert, a lot of times they’re being very honest. Now, they’re going in through a side door, but to me that kind of argument against irony dissolves if you just think about being honest -- whatever that entails -- versus being full of shit.

Now, fiction should be honest. It should honestly speak to you, speak to the guy who’s going to have a baby, the father or the husband, the poor person – it should grab you and say to you, "I know you’re there." I’m not going to discount you. I want you to be fully on board, so I’m not going to make any assumptions about you, and in fact I’m going to make a daring assumption that you and I are basically the same. So that’s honest.

My sense is that sometimes to get at the honest truth about this life we’re living, you have to use – let’s just call them other resources. Maybe the trick comes in when people look at that group of other resources and they tag it as sarcasm or irony. From the creative end, I’m pretty happy to leave that unlabeled and say I really wanted to get the essence of what it feels like to be a loving, limited person in this life. So how would I do that? At that point in the creative process, I don’t want to say, “Irony, come on down!” I want it to be a new hybrid of something.

So it’s kind of whatever will serve the emotional purposes of the story. Now, having said that, yeah, I think the irony or the humor that I like is stuff that is exactly what’s needed to drive that wedge into the truth, and the stuff that I don’t like is the superfluous kind of cleverness. I think that kind of irony in Colbert and in Stewart and in Dave Letterman’s best work – maybe in all of Dave’s work – superfluous irony is not what I hear.

People have given irony a bad name -- and the argument against it often seems so intellectually dishonest and full of straw men as to prove the very reason why we need it.

I don’t know when it was, the '70s maybe, when it seemed that we were just mocking everything. I don’t really detect that tonality so much in our contemporary discourse, not complete mockery in the way that there was the '70s, when if you had even a little bit of sincerity, you were laughed off the campus. I don’t really feel that.

But you can be ironic and also sincere -- which is what so many people miss.

Yes. I think in some ways that argument people make against irony is a bit like the “Is short fiction dead?” argument. It recurs every now and then, and it’s like, “Why have we come to this again?” I want to tell the truth about the shit that really matters in a simple way, but that just means in a way that actually involves people. And that still gives you a lot of room to try different approaches, so you don’t repeat things that have been done before, or you don’t fall into the habit of approaching a world in a habituated way.

Has your thinking on this evolved as you've gotten more experienced and more skilled at using all these tools? Is there more sincerity underneath your irony?

I think if you asked me this 10 years ago, I would’ve said the same thing. It’s always kind of a ridiculously simple approach for me, which is imagine the dude or the girl in the story …

But mostly the dude!

(laughs) But mostly the dude – and have something happen to him, and try to hypnotize myself into mistaking him for real. My execution has changed, I think. I think I’m more confident now to get into the places where – maybe the sincerity is a little more on my sleeve. Maybe?

"Victory Lap," the first story in "Tenth of December," is a great example of that sincerity. Alison pauses at the top of these stairs. The entire town is in love with her.

And vice versa.

She's so full of love. "The girls from school. Loved them! Everyone was so nice. Plus the boys at her school. Plus the teachers at her school. All of them were doing their best." Then she's kidnapped -- and Kyle, the boy next door, does not know how to respond. There's a lot of struggle in this stories with goodness, people trying to figure out how to behave, what is the right thing to do.

Yes, definitely. That really interests me, because that’s what I’m doing 24/7 – trying to figure out a way to be decent.

Maybe what’s changed is that – it might just be technical, in a sense. If 10 or 15 years ago – or in grad school, for example – that’s a story I would’ve attempted about a girl trying to be seductive, but if I tried to write her scene, it wouldn’t cohere. I would use default approaches – whatever agenda I’d have would be transparent, and it wouldn’t have any zap as text.

So then to go off and do a bunch of other stories and then realize I can approach what might be sort of a realist situation, but with a resource or voice that comes from a different direction -- and, by the way, feels to me more truly realist, because I’m trying to mimic the thoughts Alison would have. It’s almost like you’re trying to play a waltz, but every time you did it sounded like tinny Muzak waltz, you know? Then you went off and you played in a punk band for a while and you brought back something else that was actually still a waltz, but you’re using different instrumentation in there.

So in this book – that story and actually the last story – I was trying to do something I always wanted to do, but I didn’t have the game for it, and suddenly I felt like I could. I used to have an approach that interested me. I used to think of it as a third-person ventriloquist voice, where you could quickly get into their head and start using their diction.

The idea was that any kind of experiment or edge or irony would have to be subsumed to the emotional purpose of the story before it was allowed in.

You've talked over the years about "letting light" into a story. Is that what you mean by light?

Yes, to me the lightness would have to do with some feeling – I want to be honest. How’s life been? It’s been a lot of things, but one thing it’s been predominantly is beautiful, pleasurable. So I want that to have a place at the table that isn’t sentimental or schmaltzy. It’s earned.

And for me, my thing with writing is, when it first started hitting a little bit, it was coming out of an energy that could be labeled, “Shit, I didn’t realize love could be so hard.” We had our first daughters and we were broke and it wasn’t that hard, really, but from there you could posit that there could be somebody in the world who loved their children very much and had no means and had made a shitty life and was bitter. You could totally imagine.

That was a revelation. Now why it was a revelation was stupid, but that was a revelation. So that makes its way into my first couple of books where mostly dark stuff was happening to good people.

I was just about to say, there’s a lot of dark stuff happening in those early stories! There are over-stretched parents with maxed-out credit cards trying to do right by their kids.

Yeah, it popped up several times. It may be the first wave of my writing life – it was sort of like, “Oh my God, capitalism sucks!” But without denying that, keeping the language alive to say, “except sometimes actually there’s pockets of beauty.”

That’s just a way to keep opening up and include every possible new experience. An impossible goal, but I could see myself often, in abandoned drafts, having a reflexive swerve towards the disastrous. You know that kind of "American life is hard and sucks." And that wasn’t squaring off with what I was seeing all the time. So then you get into another way, which is like, "There's obviously evil in the world, but there’s obviously great good in the world." How do we account for the fact that the person doing the good may also sometimes be the one doing the evil? In some ways that sounds like kind of a simplistic project, but when you winnow it down to one person in a situation then it gets kind of interesting.

So coming from that experience, how important are issues of class to you in fiction?

Well, theoretically, they’re not at all important. I try to keep a pretty clean slate about everything, thematics and all. But viscerally they’re really important in ways that I’m only just finding out about -- your deep wiring in that way and so on.

You start and there's a character. You assign some details to him, and once you assign them you can’t take them away and you can’t ignore them  -- and if one of the things you assign them to him is a certain limitedness of material possessions, then remember that and don’t gloss over it. Don’t pretend it’s not there.

And in our life we had a lot of -- in a world scale, nothing tragic, but we had a low ceiling, low limitations, and when we had a family that became more pronounced and more painful and more potentially consequential. So yeah, I really feel those things and let ‘em in when I can, but partly because how it feels to me. And this is amateur, but when I get around issues of paucity, there’s a certain energy that comes in. If I could get the same energy writing about someone who rides on a yacht, I would do it, but I don’t know that, so … (laughs)

I love that Flannery O’Connor bit about how a writer can choose what he writes but he can’t choose what he is able to make live. So you find out that you write well about leprechauns. Well, guess what? You’re the leprechaun guy. You probably didn’t want to be, but if that’s the only thing that has energy, well, there you go.

Do you rail against that box? Do you feel that there is a George Saunders box?

Not really. People seem to feel there is, but I really don’t. Or, sometimes you can use it to push up against. You can start something and you will start to bore yourself with your shtick. And when you do, then that’s great, because then you can – I’ll give you an example. There’s a story called “CommComm” in "In Persuasion Nation," and I was starting to write this story, and lo and behold, there was a guy living with his mother. I’d done it so many times. So I wrote a draft where he was living with his wife and kids. That I couldn’t pull off. I came back and now it’s “OK, he is living with his parents. But they’re ghosts.” That's really just a way of saying I’ve done that, this is starting to bore me, it’s starting to bore you. How can you shake it up without totally disavowing it?

People might be surprised that with the genius awards and everything else, you're still starting a story from scratch so many times, just trying to make it work!

Well, that’s how you get the awards! (laughs) No, it just gets harder. But I noticed there is – I’m sure you’ve noticed this – after you’ve been doing this for awhile, your body knows how to do it.

Muscle memory.

Yeah, muscle memory. And there’s something in this book where a couple times – and for sure the first and last story – where I could feel a kind of structural outline. That was kind of a new position. So that got me started. I’d be kind of writing line to line, for language, sound. And then plot develops and sometimes I get stuck for a really long time trying to figure out, “How do I get this story to the next level?” And that was really frustrating. So in the first and last story, I found my deeper brain circumventing the problem by giving myself some almost mild forces, some simple events. And that was kind of interesting. You can still keep an eye on the language, but you have a force to work to while you’re doing it. You kind of know why you’re doing it. It was a different approach to be working with.

It's not easy to make people laugh out loud on the page. But "Victory Lap" and "Tenth of December" are just two of the new stories that pull that off brilliantly. How does humor serve the bigger picture of a story for you? How do you know when something is funny as you're writing?

It’s fun. It’s really fun. What’s not fun for me is to say, “Let’s just make a joke.” But when I’m writing a story and I’m imagining you over here, I love that moment when with a little incremental frankness we lean into each other. I tell you something that maybe you’d forbid or discourage, I say it anyway and mean it, because maybe you have done something similar.

So you could see that as humor, but you could see it as a small part of a larger program, which is to get you to lean in. It's the three of us. It’s you, me and the character. We all become one entity -- and then suddenly there’s a tiger. We’re gonna get eaten by a tiger! It goes back to the irony thing. If the goal is to get you to lean in, then that’s a kind of a respect.

First of all, I’m not condescending to the reader. I’m not dropping some fiction on you. You and I are going to enter this thing together and I’m going to assume that what I felt, you have felt, and start telling the story. And there’s a bunch of ways you can communicate that respect. That kind of humor we’re talking about is one way. The honesty of saying, “I’m not going to pretend – I’m going to admit that there’s four or five things in my life that are really important to me. I’m guessing it’s the same for you. Can we talk about it?”

And on a mind-to-mind level. I’m a pretty OCD editor and I do a lot of it. But if I can take a 12-word sentence and make it eight, and it has lost meaning, I have disrespected you by four words. So that kind of thinking, where instead of seeing the reader as an enemy or, God forbid, a judging nun or something, then you kind of know how to make respect.

I conceptualize all that stuff under this awning -- and then it's by any means necessary. A story that will start off in a certain direction might cause you to push away from it a little bit. So I’m saying, “Oh, OK, I’m gonna have to do that, now I have to do something to get ‘em back.” So it’s just better mechanically, if something has got a lot of straight stuff in it – I can tell myself I can feel where you are. You’re pulling away a little bit, I gotta get you back. Cut. Humor. So it’s very of-the-moment, but it means you have to read it as if you hadn’t written it, basically, with this generous vision of the reader in mind.

So these big questions -- funny vs. earnest, sentimental vs. serious, ironic vs. realist, are playing out in large thematic ways, but also line by line.

Exactly! And you can’t play it large unless you play it small. And you also can’t eradicate one or the other. An amateur eradicates one or the other. A real writer would say, “No, both exist. Of course they do. Serious and funny. Hunger and satiation, they exist.” In a certain sense, you just have to see where you are in that cycle, and the story is an entity and response to itself.

The complexity is in saying, “Oh, this story is so funny. Is it a little too funny? Is it too silly?” And the writer goes, “Maybe.” Boom! And then something really significant happens, and the reader goes, “Oh, I misjudged you.” That’s a wonderful artistic feeling, when you’ve said to the artist, “I’m sorry, I misjudged you.” And he says, “I know, it’s OK. Come on back by me.” (laughs) With students, I always use the dating metaphor. You’re on a date, and you can’t roll the date backwards, but you can see where you are. And if you just talk about yourself for 12 hours, you can go, “Oooh! I better change the dynamic –“

Time to stop talking about myself and ask about you.

Exactly. But on the other hand, if you go on a date with a bunch of index cards, "ask about her at 7:56," then you’re also off the reservation. Unfortunately, it’s a real-time analysis of how you’re doing with the reader. (laughs)

I want to come back to characters and class and the kind of characters in your story. While many of your characters are struggling with how to be good, there’s also a lot of them simply finding out how hard life can be, how brutal the economy can be, how brutal jobs can be, bosses. There’s a wrestling going on in both of those areas, in stories like “The 400 Pound CEO” where you find a way to bring us face-to-face with people we’d perhaps not otherwise meet. How important is the idea of empathy, of making us look at people, in your work?

For me, the key is to say that artistically, they actually aren’t somebody out there I’m shedding a light on. There’s somebody in here I’m shedding a light on. So you put some objective relevance on them to sort of underscore their difference, but actually their emotions are the same.

Because certainly, what else could it be? Even if you set out to write the most realistic novel in history, you really don’t know what the guy’s thinking, and you can’t. But there’s a complicated projection of how you would feel if you were that person.

I feel the need to touch on this, because it’s difficult in simple conversation to account for the level of mystery that actually happens in a good piece of fiction, or for the complicated way by which you arrive at something that’s pretty good. But things you’re talking about, the concerns in fiction, I’m really thinking about it all the time -- so it’s not surprising that it would somehow map out, even if it’s all mangled, on the actual work.

Would you take us through "Victory Lap"? There's this moment where we recognize this perfect, idyllic suburban scene.  And then you introduce the terror, and really it’s two terrors. It’s the terror of the abduction, but also the terror of Kyle, who’s perhaps as afraid as Alison. His parents give him actual points for doing the right thing, but the right thing in this situation -- leaving the house, trying to rescue her -- he’s afraid he wouldn’t get any points for.

I know where the idea started. I read this Chekhov story called “After the Opera.” I wrote a four- or five-page sketch about a young girl who comes home from her first social event and she’s thinking about these different suitors, basically, and it’s so beautiful. It’s so joyful. Talk about non-ironic. A young girl and you could sort of see the woman she’ll become, but she’s not there yet, and she’s both brazenly egotistical but also kind of sweet. Let me see what I would do with the same voice.

I remember reading the opening page when it appeared in the New Yorker and thinking "Wait, I thought there was a George Saunders story this week!" It begins with a very different voice.

Yeah. That’s good. And that’s the reaction you want – unless you want to calcify. But in the process of doing that, after a certain point, my story was not enough.  Somehow Chekhov had something else – he had a bigger spirit, I think, so he could find the narrative arc in that. I couldn’t. So I kept working with it, and at some point she’d made that little speech, “To do good, all you have to do is be good.” And I thought both "I totally agree with you, because that was me at 15, and I totally disagree with you at the same time."

So that was part of it. It was hard to make the transition between her voice and Kyle's, because they had to be different but I didn’t really have a shtick for him until I came to the swearing thing. That was kind of like – sometimes you build a voice around a little bit of a comedy bit, you know?

Sometimes when you’re writing you become aware that you stepped into a lineage. In this story for me it was “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates, and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and the third one is a John Barth story. I can’t remember the name, but it’s the end of the story, where there’s a serial rapist in the neighborhood, and there’s a couple – a wonderful, beautiful, young, happy couple – and they just found out that the husband has cancer. And you can see that they’re trying to figure out a way to deal with it. The rapist is there, and somewhere in the text Barth introduces the idea that this is going to be rape number three, and it will happen that night. You think, “Oh my God, I can’t believe he’s going to have this guy rape the wife. That’s so cruel.” And then, a neighbor is introduced, a single mom. And you find yourself rooting for the guy to –

For it to happen to her instead?

Yeah, and it’s sort of a meta-fictional thing, where Barth is pointing the finger at you, the reader. Anyway, those three stories were on my mind, and I just thought that it seemed artistically repugnant, and also just repugnant, to have the abduction occur, but I know enough to say, “You might. You might have to. Just see how it goes.”

There is an ongoing debate about the ways in which fiction by men and fiction by women is perceived, published, promoted and reviewed.

I think the numbers show that there is a difference.

A gender divide?

Yeah. I mean, as a scientist, if I was performing a study, you'd have to look at all the numbers all along the way.

Including applications to creative writing programs like yours.

Applications to the programs, who’s reading, who’s going to college for what, when does that divide start happening. Because if there is a real problem – which there is – then if you diagnose it, then you’ll find out what it is, and where it is. I mean, in reading the debate, the one thing that’s missing is that kind of hard analysis, because I don’t think you can argue the numbers.

No. The VIDA numbers are really clear.

And it’s disgusting. But you can do a close analysis of the statistics and figure out at what point this systemic bias is manifesting itself, and then you would note that here are some things you can do about it.

Do you have any clues, as both a writer and a professor and someone admitting MFA students into a prestigious program?

When we are doing applications, we almost always have four women and two men, or five women and one man. At that application level, the women are writing – I don’t think better, but if I could generalize, it seems to me a little less role model-dependent. Like you see a lot of young male writers, who are clearly inspired by David Foster Wallace, or Barry Hannah. The women, to me – again generalizing like crazy – feel more tacked into life as they’ve actually lived it. In men it takes – and I was no exception to this – it takes a few more years for you to go, “Oh, I have to step up from under this influence and embrace my own phenomenon,” but the women seem to get that sooner.

What happens after that, I don’t really know. But as a father of two daughters, it concerns me and really pisses me off.

I also wanted to ask about the "Braindead Megaphone." The conclusion of that essay puts its finger on our current situation …

Our clusterfuck!

… as well as it has been identified. "We're in an hour of special danger, if only because our technology has become so loud, slick and seductive, its powers of self-critique so insufficient and glacial. The era of the jackboot is over: the forces that come for our decency, humor and freedom will be extolling, in beautiful smooth voices, the virtue of decency, humor and freedom."

And then you point the finger at the reader, at all of us, at our responsibility to to fight dogma and bullies and banality. So how responsible are we for the kind of information we get, for the culture we consume? There’s a great line in the essay where you talk about how we have surrendered news and culture to entities whose No. 1 goal is profit. But have we surrendered it, or has it simply been taken over?

It’s a great question, and I think things have changed since that year -- and they’ve gotten worse. But I guess I ... my sense there is to parse the pronouns a little bit, because the we is a little problematic. I think about the “I,” then I can start thinking, “OK, I do have some control over what I take in.” And we’ve lived in the country with no cable news, with no TV, and it’s amazing how when I get up there, I just feel better. I read more and I’m less antagonized, you know?

So it’s like Civics 101. But I know one of the ways I can control my situation is to restrict. I just kind of joyfully restrict this shit, I don’t want this shit in my head. I want less shit than there is now.

When I do come out of seclusion and start watching cable, it’s just kind of shocking, the tonality of everything. I just don’t know the answer. Dave Wallace told me about that essay, “Your ending is a copout.” I said, “Yeah, I know, but I don’t have the answers.” And at one point I tried to ramp up some big solutions and I thought, “Actually, I don’t know what they are.” I sometimes think it’d be interesting: I’d love to do a piece of journalism, I’d love to go inside Fox News or MSNBC and just see mechanically how some of these decisions get made.

When I wrote that book, it was the time of the Iraq War. It was an angry time, and a scary time. And I had that feeling then that there are so many dumbasses shooting their mouths off on the right, and I thought, “Well, for crying out loud, I can say something.” Now I’m feeling no less angry or crestfallen or confused, but a little more – well, maybe a spirit of self-preservation. I don’t function well on antagonism, and I also don’t function well on big, general ideas. I will never make it as a pundit. I get my feelings hurt.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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