George Saunders’ work includes four short-story collections “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” (a PEN/Hemingway Award finalist), “Pastoralia,” “In Persuasion Nation” (a Story Prize finalist), “Tenth of December” (a National Book Award finalist and Folio Prize winner), “Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness,” and the novel “Lincoln in the Bardo.” His best-selling children’s book, “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip,” and book of essays entitled “The Braindead Megaphone,” also have won several awards. In addition, Saunders’ writing has featured in the anthologies: “O. Henry Prize Stories,” “Best American Short Stories,” “Best American Nonrequired Reading,” “Best American Travel Writing,” and “Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy.” The MacArthur Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation have all awarded him fellowships.
Interview by Marie Gethins
I’m intrigued that you worked as a technical writer (I also have this training). Do you feel your technical writing and engineering background has influenced you stylistically and/or in what details you include in your fiction?
Yes, I think so, mostly in the notion that there is an esthetic based around economy. I was writing my first book while writing tech reports (and at the same computer) and there was some very definite bleat-over – the tech reports got better with compression…there was a real and tangible pleasure in a scientific idea tightly expressed. And I started to find that same pleasure in my stories. So: this notion that a certain frugality of expression has its own type of beauty; a minimalist ethic that tends to favor low adjectival content, strong verbs, etc, and produces a related system of meaning that is concerned mostly with action and its consequences. Also, the related idea that “poetry” might consist in the avoidance of the traditionally “poetic” – might be contained in tautness and omission. And the idea that something usually considered ugly might be wrestled into a sort of beauty via extreme compression. When I had to make a list, in a tech report, of negative health effects caused by exposure to a certain chemical, that list became more (something – beautiful?) when it was efficient and concise and well-ordered
Consumerism, mass media, and corporate culture gone amuck are frequent themes in your work. Considering the reality of political and social climate in the U.S. now, is it becoming more difficult to create a tragicomic tone in fiction? Where do we go from here?
I think the tragic-comic is always going to be present in human affairs, just because our aspirations are always going to be running up against reality. We have high hopes, life often fails to cooperate. Or, another way to say it: we seem equally capable of hope and dread; of a positive view and a negative one; of kindness and cruelty. But I also think that a writer wouldn’t want to necessarily aspire to create a tragic-comic tone or, for that matter, any kind of tone. My experience is that the tone comes very naturally out of the circumstances of the story, and the best thing of all would be to stumble upon some new or hydrid tone, just as you pursued the story’s natural logic. In so many ways, authorial steering is to be avoided, just because when we steer a story, we run the risk of overriding the story’s natural energy – looking for one treasure, we walk right past a greater one.
Some of your characters are pretty low on the likability scale. How important is empathy for readers to stick with characters and see their point of view?
I think one aspect of a story that keeps a reader reading is the variability between what we initially think of a character and what we come to think of her. That is, if a story is a dynamic system (and if our pleasure in a story is related to the many forms of movement within that dynamic system) then one thing we can work with is just this question: What does the reader think of the character now? How about now? Ideally, our notions of the character will change within the story. So if a character is initially unlikeable, we can use that – we can implicate the reader, who has maybe too readily disliked or written off that character. We can cause the character to become more likeable – or less likeable. The pleasure is in the change. (To look at it another way, let’s consider a certain vista: a park, seen at dawn. In StoryWorld, that vista exists in order to change. If it just stays the same in several mentions, we feel a static quality. If it changes even a little (it rains, stops raining, becomes suddenly sun-drenched) we read this as metaphor.) In other words, I don’t worry too much about likeability but I do want to know, at any point, what, precisely, a reader is thinking about the character, if only so that I can change it. In this context, I sometimes think of a lovely Mary Gordon story called “The Deacon,” and an equally lovely Alice Munro story, “Dance of the Happy Shades.” In both of these, the motion is that the reader rather too easily dismisses a character, and aligns with the writer in looking down at the character, only to be outed at the end – to realize, with the author, that we have dismissed a complicated human being too lightly. It’s a beautiful feeling, maybe because we recognize it from having done it so often in real life.
While many of your characters seek some form of redemption, which they may or may not achieve, they often experience a moral revelation on their journey. By accompanying characters along this journey readers may gain a form of enlightenment by perhaps re-examining personal views. Does your background in Christianity and Buddhism influence this in your prose?
Well, I think so, yes, although I could just as easily say that my experience in the story form have influenced my spiritual views – that daily training in looking a little more deeply and the experience of having a story instruct me in what redemption might look like on its feet. But I did have some beautiful early Catholic experiences and teachings that first gave me the idea that everyone has God/Christ in them, no exceptions, and that attempting to see that an unlikely candidate is a spiritual experiment and a worthy aspiration. That, in a nutshell, is what a short story is: a ritualized/formalized deeper-looking.
Lincoln in the Bardo is your first novel, but you play with structure and utilize a multitude of voices, moving it well out of the traditional novel. Did you approach the novel in a different way than short stories?
I don’t think I did, really. I found myself using the same approach, basically, albeit stretched over a bigger frame. It was very similar to an experience I had working on a story called “Tenth of December,” where I started with a simple, two-or-three beat outline, and then just focused in on each of those beats, to see how long it needed/wanted to be. The basic narrative unit, in the way I think about it, is basically just: create and then polish a certain beat; see what it produces (what expectations, what action, what alteration in the story’s energy); scoot up to “that which was produced” and repeat the process. It’s a little like finding yourself in a cluttered space, then tidying that space up until some trace of a sidewalk appears, then moving a few steps along that sidewalk, until it gets too cluttered to discern, at which time you start tidying again. If you enact this process awhile, a story starts to show itself. Or, to say it another way, if you do this tidying/stepping process long enough, and look behind you, you’ll see a sidewalk with a very specific shape, i.e., a story.
The pathos of everyday life permeates Lincoln in the Bardo through the living and the dead – a sense that everyone is suffering in some fashion – and Lincoln, as president, had to move past his personal tragedies for the greater good, to help others. Do writers also have some responsibility as potential influencers?
I think they do but I suppose we’d want to be cautious regarding what we do with that imperative. I don’t want to be thinking about that as I’m writing. My sense is that we just want to make the most compelling and beautiful and clean story we can, chock-full with pleasures, trusting that a story like that will, of course, do something to our readers. What? We don’t actually have to know. If someone has a beautiful singing voice and sings a good song in that voice, something will happen to anyone who hears it – but does the singer need to know what that is, as she sings? The singer’s job is to be fully in the song, I think. At least for me, it isn’t helpful to, while singing, be thinking, you know, “Have a positive influence on others!” I think that belief is inherent in the fact that one is taking the trouble to sing.
In an interview with Aidan Ryan published by ‘The White Review’, you said you discovered that ‘there was no difference…between so-called experimental writing and emotional writing. You did experiments in order to go to the wall emotionally.’ Can you elaborate?
Well, all of this stuff is really just a form of humming to oneself – that is, we formulate ideas about writing just so that we can do more of it and do it better. There’s no universal principle; there is only what helps this writer or that writer do her best. For me, it’s useful to think that there are certain baseline principles in narrative, almost like scientific principles (like gravity, conservation of energy etc) and I would say that, in fiction, these baseline principles are fundamentally realistic, i.e., the ones we associate with that mode of storytelling called realism. That is: details convince; specificity convinces; generally, some compliance with the consensus rules of the physical universe convinces. We might generally want to comply with these realistic principles (temporal linearity, plausibility, etc.) just because readers respond most energetically to these, almost by neurology (or maybe habituation). This approach, then, contains the notion that we depart from these at our own risk, and with an associate cost. (A flashback “costs,” a little, as do violations in physical law in the story, as do point-of-view changes.) We can, of course, do these things, but we have to pay a bit of a surcharge, just in terms of the reader’s attention.) So this implies that when and if we decide to do something new (in voice, in style, in form) we would want to do it for a reason. For me, the most compelling reason is a desire to do justice to the emotional power of the story. When truth is not served by convention, we opt to abandon the convention. (There is nothing holy about the convention, after all – it’s just what we’re used to). I think a reader feels that dovetailing and likes it – when the story morphs away from the normative, toward the odd, at just the moment when the story needs to do that, in order to become sufficiently big, i.e., to expand beyond the normative to accommodate some newly found emotional potential.
What is the best advice you were given as a writer?
This would be when Tobias Wolff told me, in response to some bombastic grad school revelation I was “sharing” with him, unbidden: “Well, good – just don’t lose the magic.” What this says to me is simply that there is really only one reason to make art, and that is to make magic, and that the definition of “magic” is and must always be shifting – that is what we are trying to discover with each new story: “What type of magic lives here?”
Marie Gethins’ work has featured in The Irish Times, 2014/15/16 National Flash Fiction Day Anthologies, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, NANO, Litro, The Lonely Crowd, Wales Arts Review, The Incubator, Firewords Quarterly and others. She won or placed in the British Screenwriters’ Awards, The Short Story, Tethered by Letters, Flash500, Domineer, The New Writer, Prick of the Spindle and 99fiction.net. A 2016 Frank O’Connor Mentorship recipient, Marie also is a Pushcart and Best of the Short Fictions Nominee. She has a Master of Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford and lives in Cork, Ireland.