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. FM sat down for 15 questions with him about writing and fiction.
By Rebecca M. Panovka

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.

6. FM: You wrote a “Shouts and Murmurs” humor piece for the New Yorker earlier this year from the perspective of Ayn Rand’s former lover. You mentioned in an interview that before you took to mocking her, you were a fan. How did your politics evolve? Is Rand still an influence in any way?

GS: No, I can’t stand her. I was trying to decide whether to go to college through Atlas Shrugged. That was the first novel I’d read in many years, and I really loved it. That was very intoxicating stuff—that following your own impulses was the most holy thing in the world. What 18-year-old doesn’t want to hear that? I was just a working-class boy, and I hadn’t done very well in high school so my options for college were very limited. It was nice to hear that I was right all along after all. I’m grateful because I wouldn’t have gone to college if I hadn’t read that book. I was just sort of re-energized the way I thought about myself. I thought, “I, Me, George, could be on a college campus with friends!” So even though it was kind of a hateful book, I think, and completely, completely wrongheaded, it came to me at the right moment and made a big difference.

7. FM: “Tenth of December” has been called more mature and less zany than a lot of your earlier work. Do you think that’s accurate?

GS: I’m a little less zany than I used to be. I think it’s more like focused zaniness. You go to a party, and you have 12 beers, and you say something stupid. Then, at the next party, on beer eight, you go, “Huh, I remember that 12 was a bad decision; maybe I should stop.” I think art is like that. You write four or five books, and every time you’re wearing out certain approaches and trying out new ones and refining those.

8. FM: You use a lot of ready-made structures—list form, letter form, journal entries. How do you think they help you tell stories?

GS: Fiction thrives on constraint. If someone says to me, “Write a story from the point of view of a kitten at a waste dump,” I go “Ooh” and get excited about it. Whereas someone says, “Write a story that describes your relation to life,” and I go “Oh, God, that sounds impossible.” That it’ll-be-fun feeling is really key to me doing anything. Partly, it’s just a matter of learning to put yourself in a box. I did an exercise in my MFA class where I found 15 examples of genuinely weird writing, like wanted ads, or a really cryptic diary, or medical instructions. I just told them to write a story in the voice of one of the pieces of writing. It’s amazing—the students responded really well to that. Just giving them a little restraint verbally is a little exciting. I just do that to myself basically just to get things going.

9. FM: What other types of exercises do you use with your students?

GS: I have one that’s really weird: The assignment is to write a 200-word story. It can’t be 199, and it can’t be 201, and you’re only allowed to use 50 different words to do it. I give that assignment in class with pretty tight time constraints, letting them know that they’re all going to read them out loud at the end, so there’s this weird performance pressure. People always write wonderful little pieces during that exercise. Often, they end up overcoming whatever their big writing issue is.

10. FM: Do you make a point of making your fiction accessible to the general reader? Is that the point of that exercise?

GS: I’ve always thought that fiction should be pretty accessible. I never had any problem with that idea so long as you aren’t being sloppy or sentimental or stupid. It’s a strange, fairly recent idea in postmodernism that if art is good it has to be hard. I’m all for communication. The idea that the profundity of a piece of art is not necessarily the height of the wall that you build between writer and reader. I try to not have too many preconceptions about difficulty. Sometimes it will be difficult, sometimes it will be easy, and sometimes it will be easy to read but difficult to bear. I’m pretty much open to however it comes out.

11. FM: I’ve noticed you write in shorthand a lot, truncating sentences to create a rushed or informal feel. What are you trying to do there?

GS: We think good writing is eloquent and uplifting and big, but you could have a totally different poetics, which says efficiency and speed is desirable. The idea that all the language you hear naturally at work is totally unliterary seems nuts to me. You get people walking around an office all day talking in that truncated corporate diction, and even when they want to communicate something profound, they’re in a hurry. It just seems beautiful to me. It’s the constraint. There’s some deeper truth in there about the fact that none of us are 100 percent communicative. Here we are talking, and I’m doing my best to communicate but I’m somehow not doing it as well as I want to. That’s very human, this idea that we’re beautiful, beautiful creatures with these clogged openings.

12. FM: You begin “Victory Lap” in the voice of an 14-year-old girl, and you have sentences like “Sorry, no way, down he went, he was definitely not {special one}”. I’d never seen curly brackets used that way before. How did you decide to use them?

GS: I’m a pioneer of the curly brackets, for sure. I remember I imagined that to be almost like an echo: “that special oneoneoneone”—and how do I convey that? You know, it reads differently when I say “the special one.” That’s no weird punctuation. Or you could capitalize the S and the O, so, Special One—that’s not bad, but I do that too much. You could italicize it—that’s okay. You can bold it—meh. I just ran through those possibilities in my head and somehow those brackets just said, “Hey! Use Me!” When you’re reading it, you see those curly brackets, and you go, “What the fuck’s that?” And it’s almost like you go on full alert, like, what do you mean by that, and then, when you read the rest of the phrase you go “Oh! I see what you mean!”

13. FM: Do you ever make some sort of stylistic innovation and feel like you’re being heavy-handed and tone it down, or do your best bits start out sounding natural?

GS: I think you’re always feeling heavy-handed. That’s part of the process: have an impulse, try it, look at it and go, “Do I want that to stand or not?” So much of it is intuition. It’s hard to teach, and it’s hard to talk about it, but most of the writers I admire are always doing something like that. Like David Foster Wallace has all these strange little innovations that you can’t quite defend, but you feel him enjoying it. Part of the reason we turn to art is for those little spontaneous expressions of fun that aren’t exactly rationally defensible.

14. FM: You knew Wallace, right? Do you see your type of fiction as related to his work?

GS: I can’t speak for him, but my sense was that we both basically agreed about the kind of work we thought fiction should do, and both probably were a little bit shy about saying it because it sounds so corny. What we talked about was that we did think emotion was important in writing, but that it wasn’t a given how you would get more emotion in.

15. FM: What’s the thing fiction is supposed to do that “sounds so corny?”

GS: It’s supposed to move you. When you read it, even though you’re a young woman and I’m an old dude, it’s supposed to dignify you by saying, “Yes, dear reader, we are living in the same world and we’re having a lot of the same experiences and they’re not all easy, but some of them are beautiful.”

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