An Interview with George Saunders

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

George Saunders is kind. He gave a beautiful speech about kindness at the Syracuse University commencement in 2013. Random House published the speech in a book, Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. It was a New York Times best seller in less than one month.

Saunders grew up in a southwest suburb of Chicago, called Oak Forest. I grew up in a neighborhood on the southwest edge of the city, called Beverly. The Southside is made up of a sort of Catholic parish-based tribal system. So when Sandi Wisenberg, director of the Northwestern University MA/MFA creative writing program, assigned our class to interview a writer about the role of research in his or her writing, this famous kindness plus South Side-ness made me think that Saunders—the much-lauded, much-loved author—might actually talk to me. So I emailed him. He agreed to talk. “Sure,” he said. “I mean, you had me at ‘Beverly.’”

Despite my Southside-style shamelessness, I was surprised. After all, Mary Karr called him the Best. “For more than a decade, George Saunders has been the best short-story writer in English — not ‘one of,’ not ‘arguably,’ but the Best.” Capital B. That was in the “100 Most Influential People” issue of Time.

Starting with the story “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz,” published in the New Yorker in 1992, Saunders has been prolific, authoring two novellas, two books of non-fiction essays, children’s books, two screenplays, plays, a musical, and four short-fiction collections.

I only discovered Saunders’s work relatively recently. I read “Victory Lap” for the first time last summer in a fiction workshop. It shook me up in a way that only my Grandpa’s tall-tale-type, old-neighborhood stories had before. “Victory Lap” was formally interesting, powerful, and, most surprisingly, it was funny. Really funny. Our instructor Shauna Seliy told us an anecdote that Saunders echoed when I spoke with him on the phone in February.

Saunders said that, early in his writing career, he tried to write what he thought was serious literature. And he thought serious couldn’t be funny.

“Finally, when I let [humor] in, that’s when my first book got published,” Saunders said. That book was CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, published in February 1997.

It worked that way because, he said, he was always just a funny guy. He finally let himself into his work and gained a new control of his craft in the process.

Saunders was born in Amarillo, Texas, grew up in Oak Forest, has had every job I’ve ever heard of, and some I hadn’t, like knuckle-puller. He earned his MFA at Syracuse in 1988. He met his wife, Paula, there, and, less than three years later, they were married with two daughters.

Now, Saunders teaches at Syracuse, lives in the Catskills, and says hello.

He is kind. And very funny.

What follows is an edited transcript of our telephone interview, held on February 24, 2014.

TriQuarterly: What role does research play in your fiction?

George Saunders: I feel like living is the main research. Just getting a bunch of different kinds of data in your head with no agenda. Just, you know, living. And observing. And if something sticks in your craw, then you carry it around with you, like it or not. But I’ve never in my productive writing life, fiction life, looked up anything that I can think of. Every so often I’ll look up a word, or some small concept, but nothing extensive. I just started working on something that has a little more of a research component. You almost imagine it as a big hopper and you just put different kinds of information in it.

Everything in a short story should be doing some causal work. This section causes the next, which causes the next. So mostly what I’m doing is trying to figure out the work underneath it. What’s the causal arc? And then if I need something, I just open the hatch on that hopper and let something drop in. So if it becomes apparent that I need a character to be taken down a notch, then I scan my memory for stuff that has happened to me or that I’ve heard of happening, and sometimes a perfect thing will come up or sometimes not, but I’m never researching explicitly. Only because it seems to get the cart before the horse a little bit. To me, a perfect short story is just a perfect little machine of cause and effect. And when you go to fill in the specifics, you want exactly the right specifics. And you don’t want to be swayed by the thing you happened to have written down in your notebook that you wanted to get into a story. I know there’s a lot of different ways, but that’s how I do it.

My colleague at Syracuse, Dana Spiotta, she taught a class on research. She’s a big researcher. And she’s a terrific, imaginative, crazy fiction writer. So I think it’s really for the individual to kind of feel around and see what’s productive for him or her. There’s not any one way. Whatever gets the prose energy to rise. That’s your approach.

TQ: Do you use research differently in non-fiction?

GS: You go out knowing you have kind of a model for the story, you think you know what it’s going to be about, and then the research is just going out and letting the world kick your ass and strip away your original idea and repurpose it. So in that mode, which I really love, I just feel like I’m 24/7 on this job. I’m writing down everything that I notice. I’m stealing menus. And taking pictures. And recording stuff on the sly. Just trying to accrue as much data as I can, because I don’t know what I’ll need when I actually go to write it.

And when I go to write it, it’s kind of the same. The piece ends up being a structure that will accommodate all the bits that turn out to write pretty well. So you get home from a week-long trip, and you have probably 40-45 bullet points you think might be in the story, and when you go to write them, they just turn to sand and aren’t that interesting, so those go away. And then whatever is left, that’s what we call plot. So you line those up in order and hope that there’s the same kind of cause and effect there.

So there the research is much more experiential. And when I go on those trips, I don’t try to do a lot of research before I go, because the stance is always kind of “idiot goes to Fresno” or “idiot goes to Dubai,” so whatever my layman’s knowledge of the place is good enough to start. And then off you go. So basically I’m just a lazy son of a bitch.

TQ: It sounds like a lot of it (both fiction and non-fiction) is knowing how a story works and knowing it when you see it, trying to find those pieces to line up into a plot.

GS: Right. I always liken it to trying to design a really great amusement park ride where you’re a riverboat pilot or a rafting guide. And you’re just trying to steer the boat toward the wildest water. So that’s the first priority. And basically, that’s structure. But I’m always discovering as I go. That’s maybe the one thing that I’m pretty sure of. You always hear that cliché: “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I think that’s true for me.

TQ: I guess it’s even a different interpretation of the word research.

GS: Right. For me, the danger is, I go out and find something interesting, and then I have that thing in my hand, and I want to find a story to put it in. But then it might distort the story I want to put it in. It’s like you’re having a really good conversation with a friend, but you made a mental to note to talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger at some point. You could do it, but it would be a buzz kill.

And then the larger research is really trying to be open to all kinds of experiences. Which means trying to make sure your life is varied. So if you get a chance to hang out with some really rich people, you do. And if you get the chance to hang out with some really poor people, you do. Anything you can do to broaden your experience is good. But I think also, coupled with an effort to keep your judgment quiet when you’re researching. So in other words, if you go into a house full of mega-rich people and your mind is going, “Oh, these pompous assholes. These oppressors!” Then you’re not really seeing and hearing everything that you could because your sensory faculties are being made passive by your thinking. It’s like: if you go into a conversation with someone and you know you don’t like them, then you don’t really hear what they say. So part of that research for me, if you want to call it that, is to keep my judging faculties quiet when I’m out in the world. Just so that all the data can get in, and then I can decide what to do with it later. It’s surprising how often you’ll miss a fact or an interesting quote just because it doesn’t fit your pre-existing idea of things.

TQ: How does humor fit into that process? How do you use it in your work?

GS: Some people do beautiful nature descriptions. They write great dialogue. They do a really intense neurotic voice. There’s a million different skills that people might turn out to have. So I think part of it is to write enough when you’re young to figure out what your set of two or three things is. Or maybe you have more. And I think of those like a three- or four-year-old who’s in a bad mood. And you’re trying to distract the kid so she doesn’t start screaming. And you’ve got four or five different toys, and you’ve got a hand puppet here, and, over here, you’ve got a talking horse. That’s kind of what the fiction writer is like. You’re just trying to get the reader to buy into this made-up thing that you’re inventing. And to do that, you’ve just got to keep swapping in your different charms. So, for me, humor is a big one. For better or worse, that’s my default: to find something funny in a situation.

It was something I kept out of my work for many years. Because I didn’t think it was serious. And finally when I let it in, that’s when my first book got published.

So, for me, it’s like it’s just oxygen. I don’t really think about it that much anymore. But this thing I’m writing right now is a little more serious, I guess, or not quite as funny, but I’ve noticed that humor in that setting has become a way for the story to comment on itself. Like: if you’re writing something and it’s getting too ponderous, then you might have somebody fart. So in that sense, humor can be a kind of meta-awareness or intelligence. I don’t know if I’m answering your question or not. I just like being funny. And maybe, that’s the great unstated thing about art. It’s mostly a person really enjoying themselves in some way. And we like watching that. We like watching somebody overflow their own boundaries a little bit. Whether it’s music or acting or writing, you’re trying to find a way to put yourself in a space where you’re just having a heck of a lot of fun. That might have something to do with who you are as a writer.

Also, growing up in Chicago, I noticed in our family, our circle, if a person’s getting too earnest or too dramatic or too emotional, somebody would take them down a little bit. And I found that part of Chicago [Southside] to be a wonderful place to grow up because the people were very emotional, very sentimental, but also very stoic and kind of sarcastic. So I think that in the same way my friends and neighbors and I would use that kind of humor to keep things real, there’s some of that in the way I use humor.

In our family, if someone was feeling really affectionate for you, they’d kind of kick you. But you could feel that they were paying attention to you, which meant they loved you.

I feel like in fiction, you could have a narrator or character that was a full human being inside but was having a little trouble getting that out. I like to have a little fun with people who are of limited verbal ability. I think that’s a real Southside thing, too. And I know that particular quality of the Southside, that very sentimental, very emotional, very nostalgic quality, but also vulnerable, to the point that you’re always clipping that tendency off, whether that’s in you or in somebody else.

And if you want to talk humor, if you drive from where you lived [Beverly] to where I lived [Oak Forest] down Cicero Avenue, that is a very strange environment. It’s not a ghetto at all. It’s perfectly middle-class. But it’s so strange looking. It’s not a beautiful environment, but, if you’re like me, you live out your youth, your teenage years in all that loneliness and all that drama in that strange physical setting. I remember my first date at the Bremen Hall, which was torn down and replaced by the Brementown Mall. But still, you had depth of feeling, and all the romance and the tragedy that anybody would have. There’s something about that that I’ve learned in my work: you don’t have to be standing in a field of roses with stars overhead to fall in love. There’s something, I think, particularly American about that. And it’s funny.

TQ: Right. Like how the alley between Hamilton and Hoyne can be a place where something really true and honest can happen.

GS: And when you’re a kid, those alleys and gangways are so multi-dimensional. They’re very rich. There’s a great part in Stuart Dybek’s work where he talks about being a kid and going around inventorying all the different shop windows, and that’s really beautiful, I think.

[“We were speeding past scorched brick walls, gray windows, back porches outlined in sun, roofs and treetops—the landscape of ‘L’ I’d memorized from subway windows over a lifetime of rides: the podiatrist’s foot sign past Fullerton; the bright pennants of Wrigley Field, at Addison; ancient hotels with TRANSIENTS WELCOME signs on their flaking back walls; peeling and graffiti-smudged billboards; the old cemetery just before Wilson Avenue. Even without looking, I knew almost exactly where we were.” From “Pet Milk,” New Yorker, 13 August 1984.]

That idea that deep human emotions are not dependent on outward settings, so anything can happen anywhere. I think the pleasure of comedy comes from that subtle reminder. We all know, when we read something funny, that anything can happen anywhere. I think that’s why I like to write about theme parks. It’s such a weird kind of kitschy setting, so when you put something human in there, there’s a weird dissonance that’s kind of pleasurable.

My dad owned a restaurant at 159th and Cicero. A chicken restaurant, a franchise. Chicken Unlimited in Oak Forest.

TQ: My Aunt Mary worked at the Chicken Unlimited on 79th Street, in Chicago.

GS: It was such a crazy time. And all these crazy people coming in, these kind of Southside lunatics, you know. And I tried to write a story about it. It was deep, very deep, but somehow it was just too literal. It didn’t have the magic that the actual experience did. So for me that meant, do you want to recount the experience or do you want to make the magic? And for me, the magic was the answer. So that meant having to a hard decision to make an alternate world that had the same kind of American weirdness [as the real world]. And that was a big decision. But that’s when I first started getting published. When I decided to leave the theatrical behind, hopefully just extract the essence of the experience and put it into some kind of crazy, totally made-up thing.

TQ: In some cases, you’re writing about the same worlds as Dybek but reinvented. Because the realness of his work is so beautiful and perfect. And he already did it.

GS: Right. He did it. And he knew it better than I did. When I tried to do it, it just wasn’t the right thing.

We just got our submissions for our grad program [at Syracuse] and we got 600 this year for 6 spots. And I read 165 of those. And it’s so interesting. Everybody has a beautiful life. And everybody has an intense childhood. And everybody has, I think, some ability to be moved by literature. But then you see 165 people stepping forward to try to make that magic on their own, and it’s not a given. You can be a really smart, really well read, really well intentioned person, but somehow the thing you’re writing doesn’t come alive. Every year we do this, I’m kind of stunned by how many people are writing and also how well, and also how few of those people really get into the zone of speaking to me or speaking to another human being at the heart level. It’s kind of a mysterious thing. It’s kind of terrifying.

TQ: But being scared is good.

GS: I think it is. That’s one of the things: when you read this many manuscripts, you come away thinking, “Ok, don’t do the easiest thing. Don’t do what everyone else is doing.” A story is an object, and you’re trying to make a really unique object out of words, and that requires some distortion and some compression and some real hard choices. As opposed to just typing up something that occurs to you and just goofing with it. It takes a lot of boldness, I think.