15 Questions with George Saunders
George Saunders’s “Tenth of December,” his latest short story collection, was hailed as “the best thing you’ll read this year” on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. His agent has agreed to give FM a strict 30 minutes of his time, but Saunders, with his Chicago accent and self-described “Pollyanna-ish” familiarity, isn’t a stickler; we’re pushing 90 when he requests a two-minute break to chase his runaway dog.
1. Fifteen Minutes: In many of the stories in “Tenth of December,” you place your characters in moral dilemmas and watch as they puzzle through them. How do you embed explicit moral structures without condescending?
George Saunders: The thing is to come up with a dilemma that’s really complicated, so the reader goes, “Hmm, I don’t know what I would do.” Then just let the story be one answer to the question. The technical difficulty lies in posing a moral question that’s really interesting. So you come up with this idea that there’s a couple named Romeo and Juliet, and they’re really hot for each other. That’s not a story yet. But then you see yourself looking for an obstacle or an obstruction because that’s where the interest lies. If you claim that this couple is in love, for me it goes, “Oh, really? Then prove it.” Then you go, “Oh, I can prove it, I’ll make it difficult for them.” Their families hate each other. That’s how what people call the moralizing element gets in there.
2. FM: Did you always write that way?
GS: Yeah. When I was younger, I used to make more of an attempt to have more of a conceptual underpinning for what I was doing. But then I got into a fix where nothing I was writing was any good. I wasn’t even interested in it. I came around to this more radical way of thinking: The way to get your best self into a piece of fiction is to really really concentrate on the line-by-line charm of your prose. The whole world is contained in your first sentence, and that’s a little bit too much pressure, but it’s true. Everything you’re going to bring to a story as a writer, the only way you’re going to do it is a sentence at a time.
3. FM: Do you have a favorite first sentence from your writing?
GS: Not really. I’m big on functionality, so in the first sentence all I’m trying to do is get you to take one step into the room. The only way anyone ever reads a story is a sentence at a time. It’s like a linear, temporal experience. So you just try to keep the reader feeling honored and continuing to read, and that approach for me contained everything that there was—all the politics, all the themes.
4. FM: Politics are central to much of your work. Why?
GS: I’m a pretty straight up liberal and so I’ll have all the usual reactions to Republicans, but at some point you get bored with that and wonder, is there a more sophisticated answer? I’m trying to get to the more human aspect of it. Opinions are what we do to assure ourselves that we are alive.
5. FM: So how do you try and understand other opinions?
GS: I think that’s fiction. Let’s put these people in stories. Al Rooster is a guy like that in “Tenth of December.” I wouldn’t like him naturally, but then I got to be inside his head for a year. You start digging around and seeing the ways that you are similar, which is not surprising because you are inventing him. Even liberals have conservative impulses. Let’s say you are a liberal person and you meet a girl at a party who’s had nine abortions and is like, “I don’t give a shit.” You’re going to respond like, “what!?” Part of you even wants to abolish abortion so that someone like that can’t live that way. That’s a conservative impulse. You just think “Oh I’m George, and I’m a liberal, so when I have a conservative thought I squash it.” But as a fiction writer you have the incredible liberty to not have to do that.