"A lot of the writing process is just radically preferring something to something else." George Saunders on writing

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PHOTO BY CHLOE AFTEL
  • Photo by Chloe Aftel
In anticipation of George Saunders' reading at Duke on Tuesday, Feb. 4, we called him at his Syracuse home for this long conversation about the art of writing, the life of the modern author and the “misfires of empathy” that comprise Tenth of December. The full transcript is below. Click here to return to the story that appeared in print.

INDY: You’re known for a very recognizable, particular style. Is there anything that sets Tenth of December apart from your prior books, in terms of process or outcome?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: After my previous book, I felt a little—not exactly blank, but I didn’t have a strong idea of what I would do next, fictionally. So I took some time to write nonfiction, travel a bit and just take a breath. Twain used to talk about how between books, the well would start to fill up. So I think I made a good move in terms of letting that well fill up a bit. This book came out of a period of more concentrated effort to just be a fiction writer and let the other kinds of writing go. Also, travel writing was really enriching as a chance for a person in mid-life to go out into the world and have their perceptions tested and reworked a little bit. That was probably the biggest difference, but you know, these books take so long that the intentionality is kind of blurry. That’s part of the fun—you’re going in every day and you look up after a period and go, “Oh, so this is the book.”

This book is selling better than usual for you—do you have any inkling why that is?

The main reason is that the New York Times Magazine ran a big profile on the cover about a year ago. It had this provocative headline, “The Best Book You’ll Read All Year” or something like that. That shot it out of a cannon, and then there were four or five other good reviews. It felt really fortunate to have coverage early, and media kind of begets media, so suddenly, you’re getting more attention. I also think the book is arguably more accessible than my earlier work. If people who had never read my work picked up CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, I’m sure there’d be a few casualties along the way. [Laughs] This one, I think, makes a little bit better of a bridge. Maybe there are a few more ostensibly realist stories. But honestly, I’m not quite sure—I do know it’s sold more, and it’s been a lot of fun to have a bigger audience. I wouldn’t have predicted it if you’d called me a year ago. I didn’t expect its reception to be markedly different from the other books.

Then it’s fortuitous that it’s a good Saunders starter book.

Yeah, I think it is. I feel pretty confident giving it to people who aren’t hardcore short story readers. I think the first story, “Victory Lap,” has some tension, and once you clear the hurdle of its narrative voice, most people get right to the question of, “Will that girl be saved or not?” I hope.


“Victory Lap” is a little more daunting than others in terms of figuring out the context, so if a reader gets through that, it’s smooth sailing.

Yeah, and as a reader, when I come up against a book that’s got a technical challenge, I feel good for having surmounted it. It’s almost like the reader looks at the writer and says, “Hey, what are you doing? You’ve got to make this worth my while.” If the reader feels that the writer has, then they’re sort of bonded. “Wow, we went through that together—what’s next?” I read that story when I go on tour and it’s really fun. You get to the place where you’re drawn to that girl and then she’s put into peril. It’s a dramatic thing to read, and people, hopefully, catch on, so it’s kind of a fun game we’re playing together.

Do you enjoy giving readings as a performance art unto itself or is it more of a promotional device?

It’s both, but I like it. For contemporary writers, that’s a big part of what you can do to promote your book. Over the years, I decided to learn how to do it and enjoy it. It can be the case that a good story might not read well, and conversely, you can have a story that actually isn’t very good on the page but makes for a nice reading. As long as you keep those straight, it makes the traveling fun. I really feel like your job as a writer is to entertain; to be in a lively conversation with a reader who you assume is smart and funny and worldly. So doing readings can be a good way to see how you’re doing. Can I hold the room? What different tones am I enacting?

As you’ve embraced reading aloud, do you find yourself writing more toward it?

Yeah. My first book didn’t read that well, and I would go on the road like, “Oh god, I have to get through this 15-minute reading.” When I wrote the second book, part of me was saying, “Hey, could you write something that we could read?” Which actually isn’t much different than saying, “Could you write with the reader more in mind?” If you think about, like, Henry James—that would be a drag of a reading. But it’s great stuff, and the reader is capable of saying, “This writer is pitching me at this level, so I’m going to put on my heavy coat and deal with it.” With that struggle, there is some really wonderful world accreting around you. And it’s part of the contemporary writing experience that you’re expected to promote your work. Some people don’t: I don’t think Cormac McCarthy has ever given a reading. But it’s become much more natural for young writers to consent to the marketing part of it; to readings and being accessible. I’ve noticed there’s a new trend where young writers are expected to get their own blurbs, before they even get agents, which I think is a little unseemly. That doesn’t seem fair to young writers. But that’s how you realize you’re becoming a codger, when things start seeming outrageous to you.

The title story in Tenth of December deals with a suicidal cancer patient who has this pivotal encounter with a boy. What makes that the conceptual center of the book, if that’s even why it was selected as the title story?

I think it’s the best story. It’s the most recent and the one that’s closest to doing what I aspire to do in fiction. Also, I just like the sound of it. I almost called the book Escape From Spiderhead, but that would have made it sound like more of a sci-fi book than it is. Maybe this is my guilty secret, but a lot of the writing process for me is just radically preferring something to something else. You don’t necessarily have to articulate why it’s better; you just have to feel like it is, because ostensibly, you’re relating to this story with all senses. It’s your logic, but also your instinct and emotion. Having said that, I think you could read the book like this: It’s full of attempts at empathy between people. Some of them fail miserably and some don’t even get made. “Tenth of December,” I think, is one where the people in the story, facing some challenges, feel twinges of empathy they’re able to capitalize on despite some missteps, and the result is happier than it would have been otherwise. You could make the case that the stories are misfires of empathy and the 10th one gets it right—something like that.

Empathy seems to be an important general theme in your writing. There’s this recurring anxiety about love and connection and community being absorbed into brand names, drug names, capitalized concepts. Does being a writer make you more aware and wary of language’s capacity to diminish things?

Oh, I think so. You could have a scene you write in certain language that has a kind of brittleness to it; a puppeteering aspect. And going to back to revisit it, you can improve it; make the relations between characters more authentic. You’re always intensely aware of how the way that you utter something changes the reality itself. If you say it a certain way, allow yourself certain jokes, your worldview is one way, but if you just alter it slightly, the worldview changes. That’s part of the fun for me—as you come back to a story again and again, you find out more accurately who you are. In an early draft, maybe you’re kind of mocking somebody and taking cheap shots, steering toward some easy, reductive drama. As your satisfaction exerts itself, you start to move up the emotional register. Suddenly, there’s actually a hard decision to be made, and even if the person makes the right decision, there’s fallout and repercussions. That, to me, is like training in being a person. If you take those skills and go out into the world, you can find yourself in a situation that seems a certain way to you, but by reimagining it, you can change it a little bit.

You also seem to write with a heightened awareness of clichés. You’ll deploy them but then trail off into “etc. etc.” for instance. If clichés are usually stumbling blocks for writers, is this a way to renew their narrative function?

Right. If I say “fit as a fiddle,” you notice the cliché; I’m aware of the cliché. It’s still a narrative moment we can do something with. I’m a big fan of speech as it is. Like, when people use the “Like” construction to ask a question? Even though it’s a statement? That’s real, so therefore, it’s interesting. If you’re writing a story and something shows up, in order to validate it, all you have to do is let it in the house. If you find a character about to say a cliché, you could choose to not let him say it, and sometimes that’s the better thing. But let’s say a character is prone to be cliché-ridden; that’s actually a character trait. When someone says, “I’m fit as a fiddle and right as rain,” you’re like, “Hmm, okay, you just told me something about yourself.” It also makes a kind of poetry, in the sense that somebody struggling with language is basically poetry. We’re used to a poet being someone struggling at a very high level with very refined concepts. But I would argue that some drunk guy trying to proclaim his love is basically playing the same game.

Your authorial voice tends to have a very commenting relationship to the narrative. Did you come to this style by instinct or design?

Probably by instinct, with each story presenting different challenges. My whole revising technique is really just: You write something, you print it out, the next day you come back with a red pen and a little bit of both generosity and severity, and you start editing on the fly. Not thinking, “Do I need this or that?” But just feeling, “Is there an extra phrase here? Do I like the way the rhythm of this sentence presents itself?” I keep doing it over and over for many days, almost without thinking about theme or voice or my intention, just trying to make the surface as sparkly as I can. If you keep your eyes off of that stuff, the story will slowly start to have everything you want: momentum, theme, a distinctive voice. But it’s very instinctive and iterative.

Your voice often wanders off the narrative path and into the characters’ imaginations; what you describe in “Escape From Spiderhead” as “non-narrative mind scenery.” What does a story gain by exploring these imaginative trapdoors?

It’s fun to let somebody think and follow a couple steps behind him to see where his mind goes. It’s interesting when somebody is suddenly thinking in a way that’s human or funny. But the other thing he’s doing is revealing character to you. Under the guise of just being lively prose, it’s the person telling you who he is. It’s like when you sit on an airplane next to someone who’s nervous, so they talk a lot: Somewhere in that 20-minute monologue, you can discern the essence of who that person is. What I tend to do is let the character I inhabit talk for four or five pages, and a lot of that is going to be chaff. You don’t need it. But if you let him really free-associate, he’s going to dump something in your lap that you didn’t know was there: A habit of thinking, something he’s avoiding, the clichés you mentioned earlier. That gives you the character, but it also indirectly gives you plot. If somebody says, “I will never go to Montana,” you’re like, “hmm, okay, let’s see about that.” Or if somebody says, “I just can’t stand Jennifer; she’s really messing with me,” then you know that Jennifer’s now in the story, one way or another. I think these things work better when you don’t know in advance what they are, which can make them a little too tidy. If you let someone talk, trying to discover their diction, invariably they’ll say something surprising to you. In “Victory Lap,” there was a part where the young girl—I was having a lot of fun with her voice, partly because she’s basically me at 15 and I was remembering my moral mindset at that age—said something I would have said: “To do good, you just have to decide to do good. You have to be brave.” I was always running around like, “What’s with all these divorced drunk people? They need to stay married and stop drinking; they’re so inferior!”—that arrogance of youth. As soon as she said that, I started to get the plot. As an author, you say, “hmm, really? Let’s find out if that’s true or not.”

So it’s the “give them enough rope” school of characterization?

Exactly right. Because otherwise, where are you going to get it? You’re going to get it from your plan for the story, which to me is always the kiss of death. If you plan it out at the beginning and then make it happen, that’s kind of a one-sided discussion. If you can get somebody to blurt something out, suddenly it feels organic.

“Escape From Spiderhead” is my favorite story in the volume. On the surface, it expresses a lot of anxiety about the pharmaceutical age. But underneath that, it seems like a parable about how we fall in and out of love forever, as if being punished for some obscure crime. When you write a story like that, are you aware of writing it at multiple levels, or do you write one and discover the other as you go along?

Well actually, you’re kind of writing on a third level, which is, “this actually happened.” Once you set the parameters in place—that there are drugs that cause you to fall in love with whoever you see—you’re dimly aware that you’re writing in the realm of pharmaceuticals. But the way to get the most levels going at once is almost like you’re playing with dolls. There they are, on the table in front of you. You set these conditions, so you can’t violate those, and in fact, you have to exploit whatever conditions you started with. Pretend that everybody in that story is you and try to live by that. Try to make them behave rationally, as if they don’t know what story they’re in. If they know they’re in a story about pharmaceuticals, then I’m aware that the boss character is a stand-in for big pharm, and suddenly, he’s not a person anymore. I’ve taken his autonomy away to serve my purposes. I think that as a reader, you feel that and kind of want to throw a flag. So the trick is to set up some interesting parameters—now, how you do that is another story—and really respect them. As you’re writing, you become aware that certain levels are being sounded. But you’re almost steering away from those. If the story starts with a drum beating against pharmaceuticals, you kind of want to move away from that lest it become only that. What is the comic potential of the parameters, the high-energy places you could go? At the end, you look up and say, “Well, you could read it this way, you could read it that way, the more the merrier.” For me, that story is also a little bit about how a person’s mind state is alterable by the external introduction of chemicals. My thought is, that’s always what’s happening to us. Right now I have a cold. I’m a little groggy and inarticulate. That’s kind of like being on a drug called “cold.” When you actually fall in real love, same thing. And aging is a hell of a pharmaceutical. In a sense, this idea that we’re individuals is true, except it’s not, because we’re individuals constantly washed over by these pharmaceutical mixes produced by our environment or whatever else.

As we touched on in discussing “Victory Lap,” you don’t fear making the reader work quite hard sometimes. Do you perceive yourself to be writing difficulty?

I really don’t. Having read Joyce and James and Virginia Woolf, I really don’t think it’s that difficult. Having said that, I’m aware that when I go out and read, there are people who say that they really had to struggle with it. I guess my thing is, “Is it worth people’s while? Could it be done more directly without losing anything?” I always go for the simpler or more direct thing if possible. It’s not nice to be difficult for the sake of being difficult, to show off. But often, I’ll have a version of a passage that’s more accessible, and when I look at the one that’s more quote-unquote “difficult,” I see that it’s smarter and more precise and gives you more. When I sent “Victory Lap” to The New Yorker, the first paragraph was missing. They basically said, “We’ve got like a million readers coming through here, and with that opening you’re going to lose some high percentage of them. Can you give us a little bit of a gentle in?” So I added the bit about her name and age. Let me put it this way: There was a time in my life when I prided myself on writing really difficult prose, kind of Joycean—in other words, always had to say something in an uncommon way. I couldn’t get any traction with you that. Nobody would publish it, and I didn’t like to go back and revise it because it was a pain in the ass to read. Now I want to get it just right, somewhere between being banal or accessible and too difficult or inaccessible. [Laughs] That’s kind of a cop-out answer.

In your essay in this new MFA vs. NYC anthology from n+1, you defend creative writing programs against some of the canards that circulate about them. Can you imagine how your writing or career might be different if you hadn’t gotten your M.A. in creative writing at Syracuse, where you now teach?

I don’t think I would have a career, because I was stuck. When I applied, I had published three stories, two of which were kind of standard realist stuff and one that was more like what I’m doing now. But I couldn’t figure out how to take that stranger mode and expand it beyond two or three pages. In retrospect, I can see that I just hadn’t read enough contemporary fiction, and also, I wasn’t working systematically enough. At Syracuse, I found a bunch of people working really hard all the time. And just getting pitched into that conversation, where suddenly you heard Barry Hannah’s name, Henry Green, Isaac Babel—that was huge, to see that not only was I way behind on contemporary work, but also 20th-century work. In grad school, I was really floundering and didn’t do much good work, partly because I was swamped with all these new styles. But in some ways, that feeling of being a little bit publicly lost—I was submitting stories I didn’t have much feeling for—was great. If you find yourself in a job you really hate, you know to stay away from that, and so I learned to stay away from writing in ways that didn’t cause strong feelings for me. The feeling of coming to people you really respected and not knowing if you were any good was just nauseating. So after graduate school, I started living by the dictum that whatever I’m writing, I want to steer it in a direction about which I’m very passionate. If that means choosing radical voices, cutting radically, throwing something away and starting over, fine—anything to avoid that nauseating feeling of uncertainty about what you’ve produced. So who knows? I had a pretty strong desire to get better, but I can imagine a scenario where I just would have stayed in Texas writing on my own for a few years before giving up. There’s another possible scenario where someone said, “Get thee to a bookstore and do a little reading,” but that two years at Syracuse was like hyper-speed. And I met my wife there, so that was a whole other good thing.

George Saunders reads in the FHI Garage in Bay 4 of Smith Warehouse (114 S. Buchanan Ave.) on Tuesday, February 4, at 7 p.m. Sponsored by the Duke English Department, the reading is free and open to the public. 

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