Talking with George Saunders

22 Mar

George really needs no introduction —you can go to my other published conversations with him that can be found on the Internet…

George Saunders by Robert Birnbaum

George Saunders by Robert Birnbaum

George Saunders: So why the red hat?

Robert Birnbaum: Call me Red as in el Rojo. Why the red hat? I was cold. And I am Jewish*. (takes off hat)

GS: That’s a good haircut.

RB: I do it myself.

GS: Do you?

RB: I don’t want to spend $25 a month. I am a writer. You know what that’s like. Well, you don’t—you’re successful.

GS: No, no, I know.

RB: You wrote the “best book of the year.”

GS: Yeah so far. But it’s only one month in.

RB: I can’t decide whether you were a victim or a beneficiary of two pieces of press earlier this year. There was the New York Times, which asserted that your book was the “best book of the year.” And the other was a piece at Identity Theory opining that you are now repeating yourself.

GS: No I’m not. No I’m not. No I’m not. I don’t know that piece.

RB: (laughs) I didn’t read it—if had read it I wouldn’t have had time to read something else. I read the Times piece and it didn’t read like a review. It read like a press release.

GS: That was in the magazine. It wasn’t really a review as such.

RB: Oh right. It was a profile.

GS: It had a different slant.

RB: And then your publisher took out a full page ad in the Times citing that “best book of the year” quote, reminiscent of movie reviewers who write reviews with lines they hope will be quoted in ads.

GS: Sure.

RB: That was a big expenditure for a short story collection.

GS: Yeah, yeah, I though the whole thing was—


GS: Fun. At 54, at a certain point in your career it’s just nice to see action. It’s more interesting to have something energized happening than not. I kind of think, “Whatever, whatever happens” and—

RB: From where I sit the world of books, literature, and publishing, I think of you as being significant and important. But maybe from where you sit, teaching at a university in the middle of New York state plowing away at your work, you don’t think of yourself as being significant and/or important.

GS: No. Most of the time you are writing, writing the next thing. Or teaching, so it doesn’t seem…maybe if we’d had talked a year ago, before this book came out, I would have said something like “I don’t have a huge audience.” I wonder why not. I wonder if it is—

RB: (laughs)

GS: No, really. Is it something I’m doing wrong—?

RB: What is a huge audience?

GS: Well, I don’t know. I could sense with the other books that they were gaining some critical attention, but they weren’t big sellers and so at the time I wondered, “Is this possibly a result of something I am doing wrong?” In other words, is it the result of some kind of tic I’ve internalized that isn’t necessarily artistically honest but is just a tic, and that has the effect of driving certain readers away? Or am I writing the very best I can and it just so happens I am a small-audience person? So that was on my mind.

RB: That kind of thinking will make you crazy.

GS: I always thought of it as a way of making myself better as a writer. I know so many people—good, smart people, good readers—who would read my stuff and go “Yeah. It’s…interesting. But I don’t quite get it.” So I thought if there was a group of people who were good, smart readers and who, for some reason, were put off by the first three books, it wouldn’t be a sin to try to reach them. I mean, to falsify something would be wrong. But I was willing to think, ”Well, maybe there is something I have taught myself that keeps me small-audience.” And I am not talking about being a mega-seller, just that magical number between—I am not being very articulate, I’m tired.

RB: Have I kept you from your afternoon nap? (laughs)

GS: No, no. So I found myself wondering: What’s the essential difference between guys like Daniil Kharms (a strange, edgy wonderful artist) and Tolstoy (a more accessible wonderful artist)? Which camp do I rightly belong in? Which camp do I want to be in? Tolstoy was a big seller. And, for my money, there’s no greater artist than Tolstoy—not exactly Mr. Compromise. So it felt like a virtuous thing to think about how could I reach that X percentage of readers who would get it and like it if I could just open up a little bit. I thought of that as an aesthetic process—trying to open myself aesthetically.

RB: A way of saying you are trying to make yourself more accessible.

GS: Yeah. I think that’s right. Although…that word has a bad reputation, but I look at it the other way: Was I, through a kind of artistic sloth, habitually making myself inaccessible for reasons that didn’t pay off artistically? Reasons of habit, or fear? And I don’t know the answer because the reception of this book has kind of confused me. With this one, before I sent it out, I would have said: Well, here it is, a fourth weird, dark, small-selling, inaccessible collection. Then it turns out it has sold. So now I’m confused.

RB: Which is why I say, thinking about that can make you crazy.

GS: But you can feel it. I can feel it.

RB: Maybe your sensitivity is skewed?

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Tenth of December by George Saunders

GS: With this book, I can feel a difference. You go out and do a reading and there’s four times as many people as there were before and probably half of them are saying, you know, “I have never heard of you before but I am really enjoying this.” So that tells me that for whatever reason, before this book, I wasn’t reaching those people—and it’s not like they aren’t good readers. They get it. But yes, you would drive yourself crazy if you spent too much time thinking about it.

RB: Who knows what the size of the population is of good readers.

GS: That’s right.

RB: I have joked in the past that it’s 400,000 people, constant from generation to generation—

GS: Yeah, I bet that’s right.

RB: Every writer gets different pieces of that group. Some writers get most or all.

GS: These last two months I have been thinking a lot about all of this. But as a benefit of all of these years of writing, my hope is that when I go back next month and start working again it’s not going to be something I’ll be thinking all that much about. I feel like I have pretty good work habits. It’s even hard to know where you stand as a writer, at any give time.

RB: Aw, people like you.

GS: I have always had the nicest audiences and I have no complaints. Even last year, before all of this hoopla, I would have said that I felt like the luckiest guy around. So, at this point in my life, it’s just like—like [Raymond] Carver said, “It’s gravy.” Gravy to get this little boost in interest. And then my responsibility is to use all of this to try and do even better next time.

RB: Are you finding that people have read the book at your readings, laughing at the right places?

GS: Very much. That’s what I mean, why I have been encouraged. If I was getting bigger audiences and going out and bombing I would maybe think they’d just been lured in by the [buzz]. In fact it feels just like it used to feel, only bigger. I’ve been really happy with everything.

RB: I worked in the record business and it’s accepted that wisdom that there is no formula for a hit record. A guy I worked for listened to new records on a cheapo child’s monophonic record player, which replicated the sound of AM (of AM as opposed to FM /frequency modulaton ) radio coming through a small car speaker. He thought that was litmus test for screening hits. But still who knows what makes a hit a priori?

GS: I don’t think you could ever make a good story by thinking if it would sell. But there is some kind of intersection between trying to write as sincerely and truthfully and well as you can and then some idea that a good-hearted reader would connect. That much you can control, I think. But what you can’t control, I am noticing, is once the book is done and it either does really well or really poorly. You can’t predict that. There’s an element that you can’t predict or control. So I don’t think you can make much of it. It’s just luck.

RB: Right. There are too many variables involved in commercial success.

GS: So for me the trick has been to structure my life so that most of my time is spent in the writing room. Most of a person’s understanding of truth is happening there. This success—it’s just like you are walking down the street and at some points you smell a great meal cooking and sometimes you’ll smell a dumpster. But you took that path and you accept the smells that are coming at you and enjoy them. Or not. But you didn’t necessarily cause them.

RB: As a reader, I occasionally come across stuff that I don’t think I know what I am reading—some Faulkner is like that. I like it, but I couldn’t clearly explain what I read the last 20 pages. What is the responsibility of the writer there? And I am not a lazy reader—I don’t expect the author to make things easy.

GS: It depends on the writer. Some writers seem to live for that, it’s their method and it works, and other people—I mean even within one writer’s career you might feel like, “I love these nine books of his, but that tenth one was a little too difficult.” Or too easy. That is, I don’t think the writer has to—or even can—decide “how difficult to be.” You just do what feels urgent at the time.

RB: And maybe it’s not the text, but that you might be having a dumb day, or a headache, or some worrisome distraction.

GS: As you write book one, you write it from a certain place, and as you do that you learn certain things that then inflect you differently on book two and three and so on. So my experience has been that it all has had very little to do with intentionality. It’s more instinctual. It’s funny, when a book comes out people will say things, positive or negative, assuming that you planned it, that you meant it, or thought it out in advance or whatever. They credit the writer with some combination of intentionality and design and certainty. I feel like when you are writing it’s much more from the seat of the pants. You’re just trying to get it to cohere, and almost as soon as you conceive of the idea you realize that it’s got this defect, or defects, so you are trying to find a counter-balance. It’s like plate-spinning. And at the end, kind of in the spirit of coming out of a fight, you go, “Ha, wow, that’s done.” But it’s not like you very confidently say, “Hooray, I produced this wonderful work of art, of which I am entirely sure.” It’s more like, “Wow, shit, that was confusing.” But it’s as good as you can get it and it goes out into the world and people say things that imply that artist is in control and is making a statement. I kind of laugh because it doesn’t feel like that at all.

RB: So you listen to what people are saying?

GS: Sure. Yeah.

RB: There is no real connection.

GS: There’s not, except sometimes—again pro or con—somebody will say something and it sticks to your ribs and it helps you. There was a review a couple of books ago—somebody said “Saunders writes better from love than from anger.” At first, I was like “What are you talking about?”

RB: You got angry. (laughs)

GS: Yeah, I got angry. But when I read that, something really resonated with me. I’ve kept that in mind ever since, and it’s been helpful. So when someone writes a review, my attitude is: OK, here it comes. It washes over you and then something will stick and the only reason you want it to stick, is to help the next thing to be better. If someone says something nice and it emboldens you, good. If someone says something harsh and that pulls you out of a ditch, that’s good too.

RB: What if it puts you in a ditch?

GS: That happens. But you can come out of a ditch. And maybe it will turn out to have been a good thing.

RB: What I am hearing from you is that as you write more books you learn more about writing, but that emotionally the task of writing has the same effect it did when you started. You are not more confident today than when you began?

GS: No, I hope not. The only way I am more confident now is that I feel if I persist in a given story it will usually come through for me. Eventually. I don’t have the urge to abandon things. That state of under-confidence, for me, is really important. It means that you don’t coast. You work every piece as hard as you can, so at the end if somebody says that you’re repeating yourself, you go, ”Actually, I am not. It may seem that way to you? But I don’t think I am.” Or likewise if someone says, “…this is the most innovative thing. It’s unlike anything you’ve done before.” You can go, “Actually it’s not. But it’s fine if you think that.” All of that working time puts you into a close relationship with your own work—you understand it pretty well, from the inside, the good parts and the defects. You are working on your relationship to truth every day in your writing room and so you understand what you have done, for better or worse. There are pieces of mine where, halfway in, I knew it had a fatal flaw. Is that the end? No, it’s the beginning. That’s called craft. So then you try to make the fatal flaw work for you in some way. So at the end if someone says it has a fatal flaw, you’re like, “Uh yeaaah. I know that, that’s what I was trying to fix all this time.” It’s almost like when someone says, about another person’s personality, “Oh, he’s hardnosed.” Or, ”He’s wimpy.” That person knows that, probably. Their trajectory through life has been to try to accommodate that character flaw.

RB: Also knowing that one aspect doesn’t usually define a person—people are more complex.

GS: That’s right. And they can bring the other characteristics to bear on that one. So for me the only weird thing about the promotional part of a book is that what has been private becomes public and there’s a certain feeling that this person or that person thinks you were more in control than you actually were. They think that, by putting out a book, you are making certain aesthetic claims. Or that you are claiming something with the book that you probably weren’t. About all I would claim about any book of mine is that I did the best I could given the time, conditions, and circumstances under which I wrote it. To be pushing an aesthetic agenda or claiming total originality—I think you would have to be nuts. The process is too high-wire and scary.

RB: What happens when you teach?

GS: This semester I taught an editing class, where I just brought in some of my pieces that had been edited, and some written by friends. The purpose of that part of the class was to show that to be a writer is to be in a state of uncertainty. Not complete uncertainty, but recurring uncertainty. Everyday: “I’m not quite sure. I’m not quite sure.” And that’s ok, that’s actually part of it. And to reassure the students that their teachers absolutely are unsure. It doesn’t matter how long you have been writing, you have that feeling of vulnerability. The edits come back, you cringe, and then you embrace them, or engage with them. So I think that’s biggest thing we can teach—they are going to have their own methodology and that feeling of being insecure, feeling like you don’t know what you are doing—that’s part and parcel of the job itself. It’s not failure. It might be easier to have some schtick and dogmatize—to pretend to have some unwavering relation to some constant Truth about writing—but that’s false. That’s the road to artistic death. So one of the best things we can teach our students is that when they are working and feel like, “God, this is so hard!”—that this is precisely the right attitude.

RB: You teach at a well-regarded university with a reputedly fine writing program. Your students come with aspirations to succeed in what some people suggest is a dying enterprise. Do you feel like you need to buoy their spirits?

GS: Their spirits are pretty buoyed. This year we received 566 applications for six spots. So you pick those six people and they are buoyed. They love it and they have already decided that this is the thing they are doing. We do three fully funded years—there is no tuition and there is a stipend for everybody. It’s pretty generous. Arthur Flowers, one of my colleagues, is bringing back 14 former students in a few weeks. They are all published and all are doing pretty well. So it’s actually not that hopeless. One thing we emphasize is that it’s not a career—it’s a vocation. So if you are really going to do this thing, don’t get confused and connect it with money, status, or a job even. For three years treat it like a monastic enterprise where you are going to go as deep as you can in your own art. It might work out. It might not. That’s not a linear thing. But at least give yourself the gift of three years of really trying. So that’s a pretty pure—

RB: So they are not coming out of the program carrying crushing debt.

GS: Exactly right. That keeps it a very pure thing. They come in, they give us three years, we give them a stipend. That’s fair enough. If somebody were leaving with $80 k in debt you’d feel guilty. It would put a weird spin on the teaching. So this is a pretty generous thing in both directions.

RB: You’ve there how long?

George Saunders by Robert Birnbaum (circa 2006)

George Saunders by Robert Birnbaum (circa 2006)

GS: Since ‘96, ‘97.

RB: So that’s about 100 grads. How many have you kept in touch with?

GS: A lot.

RB: How many, relatively speaking, are satisfied with what they’ve done?

GS: Most. They are a pretty high-achieving, happy—I would imagine about the same as the general population. I think so, yeah. The people we meet tend to be real high-functioning and pretty pragmatic. Not too much drama, really. What I really like is that you can take the students seriously as people. You are not trying to avoid them. They are there for three years and you’re friends and so it’s a kind of teaching that doesn’t feel costly.

RB: What is the vetting/admissions process like to get six out of over 500?

GS: We just read the work. Until a few years ago we would each read every application. But the last few years, maybe because of the financial crunch, our applications doubled. So now we are dividing them into fours.

RB: The financial crunch doubled the applications.

GS: Yeah. That was the year it happened. I got the sense it was people who said, “Well, I am not working anyway so I might as well try this thing.” So that’s hard. This year my share of it was 180—I read 180. Honestly, I would have loved to have worked with the top 30 that I picked. But I am only contributing two out of that. There are just a lot of talented people. In the end, what you have to say is, this isn’t about who is the best writer. It’s about trying to find six people who we would be excited to work with. Are we willing to dedicate three years of our lives to them? And vice versa.

RB: You can tell that from reading their work?

GS: I think so. It’s just a feeling of enthusiasm that I get while reading certain of the applications. Almost a feeling like: “Wow, am I ever happy to know this person, through their work.” Some people you are reading and you say, “Damn that’s good. But I don’t know if I’d want to read 100 pages of it.” Not that I wouldn’t want to read it but—I can tick off the six that we accepted by naming the delightful things in each of their stories, things that got me laughing or moved me. In those final six, the person comes through, the human being on the other end. And it’s very exciting.

RB: Is there an introductory bio statement?

GS: They write a personal statement. Which we often—I often don’t read them. If they write a great personal statement and the story isn’t up to snuff, the personal statement isn’t getting them in. Or if the personal statement is dumb and the story rocks, we’re going to let that person in. Sometimes we’ll go back and look at the personal statements just to try to get a little extra something. To try to understand a certain frequency in the work or something. This year, the ones we picked, their stories were good and seemed to have a lot of heart and a command of technical means. So you see it and you go, “Well, it might not be perfect, but I know I could work with this person. I could say this, this, and this, and the story would already be a lot better.”

RB: When you say that you are in your writing room and there is some kind of truth that you are looking for—something true or Truth?

GS: I don’t know. Either one. What I mean is, when you are working on a story and you are deep into it, there is some kind of work that you are doing that is really low bullshit. Uh, I don’t know how to describe it. It’s low concept. You are not looking at the outside world. Or worrying about the eventual reception of the piece. You are not indulging in some artistic theory. You have a character in a room—what language can you use to make that person come more alive? For me, there’s something about that, that’s primary. If I can get three or four hours a day of that, everything gets clarified. I don’t mean true, as in big truth. Just relative truth within the bounds of a story. You have the character say or do a certain thing and you think, for example, “That seems weird. That line’s not great. It seems like my agenda for him is exerting itself. He might want to say or do something different. Something that results in a better, more lively sentence.” And you take another shot at it. And suddenly the character blurts something out that you hadn’t expected. I think what I would say is, you’re being in a certain honest, receptive relation to the piece you are writing—you’re trying to be a pure conduit for whatever the story is telling you. And there is something about being that pure conduit that’s really grounding. Stuart Dybek says the story is always talking to you, and your job is to listen. And there is something about that state that I am kind of addicted to—where you are not thinking about theme or content or politics or what this story will do to you or for your career. You are really just trying to listen to the energy coming off of the story.

RB: Dybek is teaching at Northwestern now.

GS: Dybek changed my writing life before I ever met him. I read that story “Hot Ice” when I was really young and kind of lost. I wasn’t reading anything contemporary. And I read that piece and it blew the top of my head off. I had never seen my world represented in fiction before. And I thought, “Ah, OK, that’s what it would feel like to have a contemporary vignette.”

RB: You’re both from the South Side of Chicago.

GS: My dad went to the same high school as Dybek, but then we moved out to the south suburbs. He was more of a city guy and my dad was more of a city guy. All that street slang and descriptions of the shop windows were completely familiar.

RB: For a while you were doing some glossy-magazine journalism.

GS: Yeah.

RB: Are you still doing that?

GS: No.

RB: Because?

GS: Ah, well there was a time about four years ago when I just had a hunch if I stopped doing all this other kind of writing my fiction would improve. So I stopped. I had been writing some humor, some screenplays, some travel pieces. All that was to get—sometimes you gotta kick the nest a little. So I did that to get reinvigorated for fiction. And then I stopped all of it. And this book came out of that period. I just wasn’t doing anything else. The metaphor that came to mind was, if you had five streams that were medium deep, when you stopped four of them the one got deeper. For the immediate future I am going to try to stick with that: fiction only. Fiction is really where my heart is. I am somebody, probably like a lot of writers—I like attention. That’s probably why I got into this, at least partly. And I noticed that if I say, to myself, “Ok, you can have attention but only for this one thing—now go write a short story,” the work gets a lot deeper.

RB: I took it as a sign of your increasing popularity—magazine editors like the idea of using well-known fiction authors.

GS: The way it happened was Jim Nelson and Andy Ward at GQ put their heads together and hired me to do that Dubai piece. And that was kind of a flyer. I had never written a travel piece before.

RB: And then you did a piece from Afghanistan?

GS: Nepal. About a boy who was meditating without food or water for six months. I drove the Mexican border and I went to live in a homeless camp for a week in Fresno, kind of incognito. And then I went with [Bill] Clinton to Africa. So it was a great kind of midlife rejuvenation. You know: I know what I think, but what does the world think? So that was good. I would do that periodically, but it takes me a long time to write a book of fiction and I’ve got a lot of stuff I want to do yet. So I am trying to keep the discipline of just doing fiction.

RB: Is it an adjustment, going from the sedentary professorial life to the jetting around?

GS: Yeah. And that’s why I like it.

RB: It’s harder to travel these days?

GS: Yeah and—hell, those are hard trips. The beginning is a 30-hour flight and also…every one of those pieces, not by design, really got me out of my comfort zone. It’s the nature of that kind of writing. You have some preconceptions about the piece. And then the actual experience overturns those almost immediately. That one in Fresno—you fly out there. You are a professor; a nice guy, kind of coddled and soft, and then you go put up a tent in this crack house, basically. Things get really uncomfortable, really fast. Deeply anxiety-producing. So it’s very uncomfortable at the time, but I think that’s good. One of the dangers of being at all successful is that you are always surrounded by this bubble of approval. Your students like you. You go on tour, you go to bookstores. They like you. And just as a middle-aged person, you know, you’re a known and respectable quantity. People in stores see you and go: “Oh, he’s an old dude, he has a credit card, no problem.” So to go into a place where you are being perceived differently than you are used to being perceived is terrific.

RB: How were you perceived?

GS: In the homeless camp? As just some old disreputable dude who had presumably fallen on hard times, I guess.

RB: Did you wear dirty, disheveled clothing?

GS: I just wore the same clothes for a week. Jeans and a shirt and a fleece jacket. That all got grosser and grosser. Actually, the people there were dressed like we all dress, kind of reasonably, but dirtier, I guess. It’s a hard place to live. What you find out—and this was maybe one of the saddest parts—was that they are under so much stress that they are not really looking at you. They are just reduced to looking at you, and at everything, in order to perceive threat, and if they don’t perceive threat you’re sort of invisible, or neutral. And also they’re looking a little to see if you can be victimized. I was right in the middle there—I wasn’t a threat and I wasn’t going to be victimized. So I think after a few days even people who I had told I was a writer, those people stopped seeing me. That was incredible—to blend. I heard some outrageous things. And saw some outrageous things. Some things that I don’t think I would have heard or seen if I was just dropping in. But to have a tent there and be there 5 or 6 days…

RB: Do you feel any conflict about the presence of a story about a homeless camp in a glossy consumer magazine like GQ?

GS: Sure. Maybe. But on the other hand, where else is it going to go? Or where better for it to go? They gave me 12,000 words and four months to write it, sent a great photographer, gave it a nice pride of place in a huge magazine. I am not sure about this but it’s a good question—because I have been doing some TV lately and it’s kind of the same thing: To what extent are you willing to consent to the inevitable constraints of any media that is going to reach a big audience? My take on it is there is nothing de facto wrong with any glossy magazine or a big TV thing. But as the content provider you have to keep yourself honest and make sure you do the best job you can, within whatever format you are working in. Stay honest, say whatever needs to be said. To me, it’s fantastic that there could be a piece about a homeless camp in GQ, because it gets out to millions of people. And it was a real leap of faith on the editor’s part to let me do it.

RB: I recall seeing a piece (“Life on the Border” by Jim Harrison) about the Arizona-Mexico border in Men’s Journal, one of those laddie magazines dedicated to six-pack abs and avoiding erectile dysfunction. It was a magnificent survey of the history of the border including the Gadsden Purchase, which most people don’t know anything about.

GS: What I find, mostly—as an example, in a big magazine like GQ, Jim Nelson and Andy Ward (when he was still there) were such fighters for literature. They were fighting to get 12,000 words on something like this homeless piece. So I think that is kind of heroic. And there was never anything but encouragement to go deeper, be more fierce, more literary. So those of us who talk about media—I feel like it’s important to figure out how these things actually work. From the inside. And you see that these entities have people really fighting for literature. So I feel like it’s OK to help, you know? To try writing a really good entertaining piece that is also a little dark and a little edgy. They were always supportive of that. It’s easy to see these places as just, you know, “big entities.” But the more interesting way is to look at the big thing and see that it’s actually a number of smaller entities working together in a certain way. People within the magazine or TV station or whatever agreeing to do this more populist thing if it makes it possible to do this more literary thing, and so on. If there is a great interview or short story in Playboy, it’s a great interview or short story. The magazine itself—or the TV show, or whatever—is a delivery system, and delivery systems can work in complicated and multivalent ways.

RB: GQ doesn’t strike me as the go-to venue for hard-hitting journalism.

GS: I disagree. If you look at the last nine years there’s always a big story—Richard Powers has been in in there, John Sullivan, Mike Paterniti. So I don’t know.

RB: GQ has William Giraldi doing offbeat sports stories.

GS: It’s the same conundrum everyone is in—and it’s a choice. If you want to reach a million people, then you write for venues that reach a lot of people. On the other hand, if you just care about a few hundred people then you can choose to do that. I have a kind of optimism about the uses of literature. You think of Dickens, you think of Tolstoy. Those guys were not shy about wanting to reach people. If it starts to become a niche thing sort of like MFA land, so that only those of us who get the code can read it, then I find that not so interesting. I find it a little sad. Most people get into writing for bigger-hearted reasons than that, I think. They don’t want to be marginalized. They don’t want to be part of a niche enterprise. They want to reach a lot of people and be great artists and they also want to give people pleasure—so I think it’s all right.

RB: What is life like living in a smalltown America—are there ghettos?

GS: Yeah sure. I don’t know if they are called ghettos anymore. There are rough neighborhoods.

RB: Crack houses?

GS: Yeah, sure. I guess so. I don’t know where they are. (laughs)

RB: What is Syracuse lacking?

GS: I think it has pretty much everything. I really like it—it’s not a big city and it’s not a small town. One thing I have loved about living there is that if the well gets a little dry, you can take a walk or drive around town. It seems about the right size. You can get in anywhere and meet anybody. We moved recently, out to the Catskills, so we don’t live in Syracuse anymore. But same deal, small town. At this point I don’t need a whole lot. I have a lot of ideas and a lot of stuff, so if I can get in a reasonably good mood in the morning that’s all I need to do.

RB: You said you have a lot to get done. Is that an abstraction or—

GS: No, it’s an abstraction. There is a certain tone I would like to hit, a tone that would have to do with detail and humor and tenderness but also texture. It’s not a list of books to finish and it’s not a page count. I don’t know, I can’t explain it. I would just like to feel, before I die, that I had got on paper the way I actually feel about life. That would be nice.

RB: How close are you to that goal?

GS: Not that close. Actually, not at all close. I have to keep working. There are little hints sometimes. I can sort of hear or feel what it would be like. It’s going to take some time. But what else are you going to do?

RB: I had this great question that I now can’t remember, does that happen to you?

George Saunders by Robert Birnbaum

George Saunders by Robert Birnbaum

GS: Yeah, but it always comes back. If it really wants to be there.

RB: You think you will know when you get it right?

GS: I don’t think you ever—

RB: What a conundrum.

GS: It’s a good one. A pleasant loop: I aspire, I try, I fail, I fail. I die.

RB: An upward spiral?

GS: I think so. I hope so. I suppose it’s like eating. You know that you are going to eat until the end of your life. So you might as well enjoy it—although not too much. And you know the moment that your heart stops, you will either have just eaten or be just about to eat. You’re never going to get to the place where you go, “Aha, at last, I have eaten perfectly, and never have to do it again!” Same way with art—what would be great is if I could stay as interested in it forever as I am right now. That would be really deep. Maybe I won’t.

RB: I am fascinated by your fiction—I rarely can get what your starting point is. You bend grammar and punctuation and use words at some kind of oblique angle. I was looking at your story in Fakes, that anthology of fiction that Davis Shields edited. You seem to be able to turn anything into a story.

GS: I think so. You can take any little mode of communication and exaggerate it and overstuff it and make it yield meaning. Like earlier when we were looking at that stock market report on the TV—you could do a great comic film on that. You put in twice as many things on the screen. Make it itself, but more so. Exploit the innate comic potential of the form. For me, it’s giving yourself an assignment and then exploiting the inherent potential of the constraint. When you say, “Write a story in the form of a memo,” that gets me excited. If you say, “Hey write a story about the universe, no rules,” I go, “Oh my god.”

RB: That’s the story about the manager exhorting his employees to have positive attitudes.

GS: Maybe that’s heart of short fiction, you start with some constraint—like a hobble. You are not writing the story of the whole universe. That, to me, is when the art comes in. You have a hobble on and you’re told to dance. “But I have a hobble on.” “Dance!” So then you are dancing with the hobble and that’s where you see what you are really made of. If somebody would lay down 10 constraints for me—I would love to write that book.

RB: “Escape from Spiderhead” was the most ethereal story I have read by you.

GS: What writing is—if you look over a career, I think writing is a way of self-wriggling out of boredom. You find new things to do because you’ve played out a certain terrain already and can’t stay there. For example—let’s say somebody said to us, “You are going to have this conversation for three years. You can’t move from this table for three years.”

RB: (laughs)

GS: At first, we talk like we are talking now. And then we burn through that first level. Then for the next week you tell me all your childhood stories—basically what you are doing in that situation is veering away from boredom. The only way to go is deep. Or, at least—different. You are veering away from what’s been done before. Same thing with writing. You write 10 stories, 20 stories, 30 stories and you become familiar with your own habits and your own proclivities. And then you have to squirm away so you don’t do the same thing again. Which leads you to some new ground. But at the same time the room that is your talent, is, in my case, pretty small. So with that story “Spiderhead,” I had written a lot of stories in a diction than was maybe 20% less articulate than I actually am. A little halting and minimalist. On purpose, for comic effect, but then I started feeling, “Oh god, I just want to write smart. I want to write something that’s at the top of my game.” And somehow to just write a story like that, I can’t quite do it. But in that one, where I started with the low diction and made up that drug to go into higher diction, I felt like I found a little corner of my room that I hadn’t been in before. It was sort of a joke I was having with myself. How can I excuse extreme voiceiness? Well, more drugs.

Our drugs are so clumsy now that we can see it’s generally not a good idea to be doing drugs all the time—we can see that the transformation drugs occasion in a person is fleeting and fake and costly. But in that story I thought: what if the drugs were incredibly good? That is, what if they made these alternative states that were really wonderful? If you could imagine yourself on the day in your life when you were at your most precise and articulate, now let’s take that and ramp it up 20%. And if you wanted to, you could take a pill and have that feeling every day of your life. There are no side effects. That’s just you now: that more precise and articulate person. Would you take that deal or not? My natural impulse is to say no, but I bet once you were in that state you might feel differently. Because who would choose to be dumber and less articulate? Or we could ask, OK, I will give you a drug that will make you more loving and kind and expansive as you’ve ever been. You will be a great force for good. People will come away positively changed from every interaction with you. What do you say to that? I don’t think there will ever be that drug and if there, it will have most likely have side effects…but what if?

RB: Side effects—every drug seems to have the same possible side effects—diarrhea, vomiting, dizziness ad naseaum. What are you reading these days?

GS: I’m reading Gogol. Rereading all of Gogol. He’s my hero, Gogol, for some reason. I love him but I don’ t understand him yet.

RB: This is a current enthusiasm?

GS: Current, yeah, for the last 10 years. He is somebody I can always come back to. I think it’s because—he’s kind of a role model for me. I didn’t know this about him, but there is a great introduction to, I think it might be Dead Souls—there’s a couple named Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and they did a great translation of Dead Souls—

RB: How do you know? (laughs)

GS: Well, it’s a great book, a great read. In the introduction they were talking about how Gogol had come from the provinces. He was a contemporary of Pushkin’s. There was a part in [the intro] that said, “Gogol sensed he couldn’t do what Pushkin did.” Pushkin was, you know, beautifully educated, his work was very high literary. And Gogol was a kid from the back woods. But then there is a great description of what he did with bureaucratese and how he understood that if could take the diction of the provinces and use it to comic effect, that could be expansive. So I have been thinking about that a lot—I am naturally inarticulate but I’ve found that I can control it, somewhat, and make it funny. I love the idea of a great American book that is all in crummy English. Or defective degraded English. I know you don’t pick it all up in the English because apparently the Russians have frequencies that we don’t hear. With Russian, they do a lot of sound things that are just not translatable.

RB: Do you know of a writer named Charlie Yu?

GS: I’ve met him. I know his work. He is really good.

RB: In his reviews it’s suggested that he comes out of your camp of whatever people are labeling your fiction. Speculative fiction?

GS: I don’t know. Some of them are. This sounds like such a ‘70s songwriter thing to say but to me, the labeling is dangerous from the writer’s point of view. Because as soon as you say, “Oh I’m a guy who does speculative fiction,” then you start ruling things out. As they come to you, you go, “Oh no, that wouldn’t be speculative fiction, so I can’t do it.” And that would be terrible artistically. Some great off-ramp presents itself and you refuse to get off your highway because of some ideological loyalty? Big trouble. It’s better to keep the box open and see what you do and not worry about it. Take the most interesting path, always. The way I find myself thinking about writing now is, if you have been living in the world awhile, the truth starts to sneak up on you. Which is: our time here is not very long. And even though every day seems as if your time is long, it’s not. We are in a cycle of slow decay. And all these blessings that we have are slowly fading.

RB: (laughs)

GS: I am always looking for some acknowledgement of that in writing. It can come in genre. It can come in whatever. But something that says, “OK, let’s face one thing: we are not here very long. And everything we do has to be seen through that lens.” Then it’s interesting, and it doesn’t matter if it’s realism or whatever.

RB: Something most people are ready to do. Well, thanks very much. See you again, in a few years.

GS It’s always a pleasure. Is this our third, fourth, fifth?

George Saunders with Rosie by Robert Birnbaum

George Saunders with Rosie by Robert Birnbaum

*In medieval Venice, Jews were required to wear red hats, or other distinguishing clothing, such as a yellow circle or scarfwhen outside of the Geto or trading area.

Currently reading The Son by Phillip Meyer (Ecco)

11 Responses to “Talking with George Saunders”

  1. michaelnoll1 March 26, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

    Great interview. I didn’t realize you had your own site. I used to read your work at Identity Theory.

    If you’re interested, I’ve created a writing exercise based on George Saunders’ story “Tenth of December.” You can find it at my website:

  2. robertbirnbaum April 4, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

    “Robert Birnbaum is a great guy, an incisive interviewer, and a true dog-lover, whose only defect lies in rooting for the wrong baseball team.”


    • hdinin April 4, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

      George. We knew that. For years. And now the timeless Birnbaum conversations come to roost in a better, at least a more appropriate, place. About time.

      Read them all. Start anywhere. [This assumes Robert will get on the stick and give us some links…] Doing so will pay big dividends. Literati will be enthralled. Izzy [Robert is merely his nom d’émigré] will feel even more important (and more significantly will get that frisson he so seldom gets, as when he’s accorded respect) because someone paid attention. But most importantly, saying all this will help keep Izzy off my back, and make him continue to owe me big time.

      There are a lot of conversations, silently (well, I speak figuratively), slowly accreted into a different sort of literary treasure, ready to be re-re-discovered, again and again.

      You may end up thinking, “Robert Birnbaum spreads himself too thin.” But there’s a lot of him to spread. I speak, of course, literarily and culturally: I’ll withhold judgment on the intellectual, until he shows a little more serious intent with the copy editing. There’s always more of what we love Robert for—never shutting up. Hail to a major repository of the national cultural treasure of his 25+ years worth of conversations with noteworthy authors. As a conversationalist, James Lipton, of a different era and cultural medium, has nothing on Robert—and Robert is younger, cuter, and available.

      Go Cubs.

    • Brian Doyle April 10, 2013 at 7:51 pm #

      Me personally I think Our Man in Boston is better than a stick in the eye. There’s just no question about this, I feel. I think people who think Our Man in Boston is not as good as a stick in the eye are not reading Our Man in Boston at all, or have what we call in the Catholic world a fecking enormous beam of timber in the old orbital socket. Trust me on this one. I have read a lot of muck in my lifetime – I mean, I read all of Jerzy Kosinsky, before I recovered – and Our Man in Boston is just not, no matter what anyone says, muck. Trust me.
      Brian Doyle, author of Bin Laden’s Bald Spot

  3. George Scialabba April 9, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

    An interviewer with personality, curiosity, and no fear — clearly Birnbaum will never make it in the big time. Glad he’s on my radar screen, though.

  4. Richard Russo April 12, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    Whenever I talk with Robert Birnbaum I get the feeling that he sees me more clearly than just about anybody. Astonishingly, he doesn’t appear to blame me for an of it, which is why he’s My Man in Boston. If you love books, he should be yours, too.


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