The comic heir of Mark Twain filtered through a baroque postmodern voice, George Saunders has long been a household name among the rare households where ambitious, at times difficult short stories are read.
His best-kept-secret status was blown when the New York Times Magazine declared his new collection, Tenth of December, "the best book you'll read this year." Now Saunders is exposing a larger audience to his singular blend of emotional realism and speculative fiction. In anticipation of his reading at Duke on Tuesday, Feb. 4, we called him for this long conversation about the art of writing, the life of the modern author and the "misfires of empathy" that compose Tenth of December.
A short version of the interview, edited for print, is below. Click here for the unedited version.
INDY: This book is selling better than usual for you—do you have any inkling why that is?
GEORGE SAUNDERS: [The New York Times Magazine feature] 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]
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 tenth one gets it right—something like that.
Your voice often wanders off the narrative path and into the characters' imaginations; what you describe in "Escape From Spiderhead" as "nonnarrative 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, OK, 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.
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.
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 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. That's kind of a cop-out answer. [laughs]
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mind scenery."