In a cover story just before its release, The New York Times Magazine described Tenth of December by George Saunders as “the best book you will read this year.” Saunders, the winner of a McArthur Genius Grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship, is no stranger to success. However, Tenth of December, his fourth collection of stories and seventh book overall, represents something of a watershed moment in his career. He has appeared on Charlie Rose and The Colbert Report in support of the collection. In one bookstore I visited, two cashiers argued heatedly about the merits of the book. It’s not unusual for a story collection to win critical acclaim; it is unusual for it to sell so well.
Though he has written two novellas and a collection of essays, Saunders is widely recognized for his mastery of the short story. His admirers included the late David Foster Wallace. His writing has been compared to Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut. Like those two great American satirists, Saunders writes in a plain-spoken style and uses absurdity and humor to bring out the tragedy of ordinary people. His writing is bizarre but always heartfelt. This has never been truer than in his latest work.
Raul Clement: Obviously, you’re a writer who trucks in absurdity and surrealism. At what point does absurdity limit readerly (and maybe writerly) compassion for your characters? How do you recognize that tipping point?
George Saunders: I think the answer is: you know it when you see it. Or you hope you do, anyway. Most of these types of decisions, for me anyway, are very line-to-line. Kind of like in chem lab, when you do a titration. The water is yellow, yellow—and then suddenly blue. And that tipping point might be a certain sentence that just…goes too far. So, no big overarching principles or approaches. Each story has its own set of internal rules. Which is the pisser—you never get to go on auto-pilot.
Or another angle on it: if we did away with the notions of “absurdism” and “compassion,” and the idea that one is at war with the other—and tried to get involved in our given fictive situation in such a way as to, say, transfer the maximum amount of energy from us to our reader…then the opposition is undone, if you see what I mean. Because if you dwell in that opposition—if you accept the reality of it, and work from that position of worry—that can be a trap. You’re always thinking: “Should I go with absurdism? Or compassion?” It’s a potentially false opposition—maybe the whole reason that such a thing as absurdism (or surrealism, or dark comedy, or realism, or “the conventional story” or whatever) exists in the first place—i.e., was invented—was exactly to evoke more compassion (or power, or intensity)—it was a means to an end.
RC: Kind of playing off that, there’s less absurdism in your new book. There are pieces that you could call traditional “George Saunders stories”—I’m thinking most of “Escape from Spiderhead” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” But then there are a few that seem to represent something new, something a little softer and more “realist.” Two-part question: How do you account for the change, and how conscious are you of not wanting to repeat yourself?
GS: Honestly, I’m not sure I can account for the change—although God knows I’ve been trying, as I’ve been traveling around. I mean—I think what you’re saying is true. But you can see it another way, which is that stories like “Victory Lap,” and “Al Roosten,” and “Tenth of December”—the more “realistic” stories—are coming right out of stories in Pastoralia (like “The Falls” or “Winky”). Or that stories like the two you mention above are trying to be emotionally moving, by any means necessary. So honestly, I don’t know. I’ve answered this in a lot of different ways and none of them have felt exactly right yet. And I think partly it’s because that sort of long-range change or evolution is beyond the writer’s control—it’s not intentional. And tonight it occurs to me that, in a certain sense, a writer wouldn’t/shouldn’t really have any reason to try to “account for” the change—there’s no need for him to and I’m not sure how it helps him to do so—he just has to have come by such a change (if it is a change!) honestly, and then stand by it. You might even say that to think too much in these terms—i.e., noticing and accounting for and understanding and rationalizing the various directions in one’s work—might actually impede one’s progress—you’d be putting the conscious mind in the middle of the road that your subconscious mind is trying to sprint down.
As for not wanting to repeat myself—yes, sure, that’s really important. That might be a pretty good working definition of an artist: Someone who tries not to repeat himself. Or: Someone who, though working from a limited pool of talent, tries not to repeat himself too overtly. If there has been any progress in my work over the years, it’s come out of, probably, increased life experience, increased maturity, and a desire to wiggle away from the too-familiar—from doing again those things I’ve already done. But on the other side, there’s the fact that, if a person has really pushed himself to his edge in one book, then it would be pretty weird if none of that flavor, or those “issues,” were present in the next book; it would be weird if certain story structures or tropes or fascinations didn’t recur. So it’s a continual struggle between those two forces: wanting to be new, but not wanting to be merely new. Or: wanting to be new, but not at the cost of being trivial, i.e., by turning away from the things that are really deep for you, and that—no surprise—keep showing up in your work when you have really pushed yourself.
RC: Perhaps the three most conventional stories in the collection are the title story, “Puppy,” and “Victory Lap.” They seem of a piece structurally as well. They involve multiple points of view, and we see how those points of view intersect, at times failing to connect (like in “Puppy”), and at others connecting with deep meaning. I can’t help but think the decision to have two of these stories bookend the collection was deliberate. Were you aware of those structural similarities as you were arranging the collection? How much of that do you think about when putting together a collection? Or do you view it as more of a “compilation?”
GS: I think a lot about the ordering of the stories and of which ones to include, yes. I mean—the order of the whole book is very deliberate. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best order, once I’d figured out which stories were going in. But it’s “deliberate” in the sense that I kept moving things around, and seeing how that particular order felt, and trying to imagine starting with the first story and how it might feel for me, as a first-time reader, were I encountering the stories in that order, how the transitions felt and all of that—that is, it’s more intuitive than rational or planned.
So I think I dimly knew that the first and last stories both involved rescues, for example, and young boys and girls, etc. etc. But mostly, I just felt: if I picked up the book and read the first few pages of “Victory Lap,” I think I’d keep going. And: if I made it to the last story, and had in my head all of the different things that had been put into motion by the previous stories, I think I’d be moved by the last story and feel a sense of satisfaction at the way it had sort of brought all of those things home. But I’m not sure I could even articulate what “those things” are.
I think if you do it right, a book can tell a kind of uber-story, in addition to the ones being told by the individual stories. And my experience has been that once you figure out which stories are in the book, there is an optimal order—or at least a good order—that will serve to make that uber-story more clear, and to make the book more than the sum of its parts—in other words, the book can be saying and doing things you couldn’t have predicted or planned at the outset. And it can be saying and doing things that, even when the book is done, you can’t quite specify or enumerate. That would be the goal I think: an irreducible language object.
RC: You’ve been teaching at Syracuse since 1997. What, besides a steady income, has teaching provided you?
GS: Constant exposure to new ideas and books and, most of all, to some of the most talented young writers in America. That is huge. The best part is being re-convinced every day that talent is not generation-specific. There are brilliant thinkers and writers in every generation—that is a good way to fight off cynicism.
RC: While you do have a degree in creative writing from Syracuse, you didn’t follow the path so many writers follow these days—B.A. in English, M.F.A in creative writing, and then directly into a teaching job. What, if anything, did you gain from your background in geophysics and your years working jobs outside of academia? Is that experience something you’d recommend?
GS: I think I got my ass kicked by the world, which gave me something to write about, basically. Not that that’s the only thing to write about—but it was good for me. All of the work and travel also put the first seeds of a certain idea in my head, an idea that now seems more true to me than ever: there is your projection of the world, and there’s the world itself, and the former is always comically smaller than the latter. So the point of living, and of art, is to remind yourself, over and over, of that.
As far as recommending that approach—no. It would really depend so much on the individual. And I think any talented writer is going to self-coach along the way, and make the life she needs– she’ll intuitively put together the kind of life that will urge her talent upward. Or maybe a more truthful way to say it: if a person has talent, any life she leads will give her just what she needs.
I think, especially in this MFA-intensive period, it’s also good to remember that art is mysterious and ornery and elusive and will not be pinned down by any method, or give itself up easily just because someone has walked the “correct” career-path. All kinds of paths lead to the castle, so to speak. And I can’t believe I just used a castle metaphor. Alas and alack. ‘Tis a puzzlement.
RC: You’ve said in other interviews that the compression of your stories is the result of heavy editing. I’m wondering what your writing process is like. Does it vary from story to story? Do you start with an idea, a character, an image, a bit of language? Do you do any planning along the way? You’ve said about “Sea Oak” that you wrote 300 pages to get a final draft. Do all your stories require this kind of method?
GS: It absolutely varies with every story. The only constant is that I try to read whatever I have written so far with “first-reader mind;” just asking myself (viscerally, not intellectually): “How would I be doing with this, if I’d never read it before, and had the option of putting it down?” I’ve had some stories (“Home,” in this collection, for example) that I basically finished in a night and then polished for three months, and some like “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” which I worked on for 14 years. Sometimes I have a little structural idea from the outset and other times I am just farting around with paragraphs, trying to get something to happen. So it’s hard to say, really. And of course, in a certain sense, it doesn’t matter—as with the earlier question, I guess it might be reasonable, in response to a question about process, to ask in response: “Why do you ask?” That is: since every writer is really just cobbling together a bag of tricks for herself, for use in luring the subconscious out and making it dance, what does it matter what this writer did, or that writer said? Now, the answer (I think) is: It’s about permission-giving. That is, if I hear a writer whose work I like talking about her process, something in me might go: “Hey, I’ve felt that too!” And thereby that idea—which was about eighty percent there already—gets all the way validated. So I think that’s a good thing, and that’s why we talk about process. But for me, the thinking and talking about process (which I really enjoy) and the doing of the thing, are very, very different activities—I love that moment when I get to stop talking and go back to doing things that I can’t quite articulate or explain, and don’t need to—it’s a great feeling of sudden freedom.
RC: Speaking of validation, was there a moment when you felt like you truly were a writer? When you felt, “Hey, maybe I can do this after all?” Or was it more of a gradual accretion?
GS: I had a really crazy burst way back around 1984 or so, in Amarillo, Texas. I had just bailed out of a pretty serious relationship and was working as a groundsman at an apartment complex – kind of a low moment. I felt irresponsible and too old to be doing what I was doing, kind of. But that also gave me a feeling of real freedom, and in that sort of not-giving-a-shit moment I wrote three stories that got published almost immediately – this burst came in Sept-Oct and they were all accepted by Christmas. So that was the first time I felt I’d turned a certain corner, almost like I went from “typing with aspiration” to actually “writing.” Then, of course, I froze up for the next six years. But that’s another story…
RC: What writers are you currently most impressed by? Is there anyone we might not have heard of? Someone we should keep an eye out for?
GS: My reading life has been pretty limited over the last three months but luckily I have a good friend/former student who keeps throwing names at me—so, on his advice, I’ve been reading Horatio Moya (“Senselessness” and “Dance with Snakes”) and Patrick Ourednik (“Europeana”) and right now am reading “I Served the King of England,” by Bohumil Hrabal. One of the things I’m trying to do in my work is to be more physical and expansive. To this end, I’ve really been loving this book I’m reading in galleys: “The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese,” by Michael Paterniti. For my money, Paterniti is one of the most expansive and joyful writers around—big-hearted and humane and funny. And this book is a really wild and amazing ride.
RC: What do you do when not writing or teaching? Any hobbies? Secret passions?
GS: The one thing I really love, and have loved for a long time, is music—I’ve played guitar since I was in grade school and recently got Logic Express on my computer. So I can multi-track and orchestrate and so on—all of which has just proved to me that I was right to choose writing all of those years ago.