Interview: George Saunders, Author

One of my favorite literary experiences was sitting in Off Square Books, as the darkness settled outside, and hearing George Saunders read Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz. I hadn’t read his collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, yet but everyone else raved about it and after the reading, I knew why. This story is undoubtedly one of my favorite pieces of short fiction and while it often seems impossible to find a truly happy ending in serious art, this story has one. Maybe I shouldn’t say truly happy, but there is definitely a bittersweet feeling of heart, of love, and of doing the right thing.

Saunders’ career is proof that his work has impressed other people as much as that one single story impacted me. Over the course of his career, he’s also published Pastoralia and The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, he’s received a National Magazine Award three times, he’s received the O. Henry award four times, and he was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction. He currently teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University. His newest book The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil will be published on September 6.

Mr. Saunders was kind enough to talk to us about fiction at work, about how language indicates illness, and how quickly society can turn on us.

Slushpile: I believe I read, or heard, somewhere that you wrote much of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline at work. Is that true or just an apocryphal legend? Did your employers ever find out?

Saunders: I wrote nearly all of it at work. Plus some on the bus on the way home, and some very late at night. Just whenever I could squeeze in an hour or so. My bosses did finally find out, when one of the stories got in The New Yorker and then the book came out. They were suddenly very attentive, and it got harder to find the time.

Slushpile: Nowadays, with all the corporate surveillance of our email and what is saved on our hard drives, even what we’re typing at work, do you think you’d have the guts to write short stories while on the job?

Saunders: I don’t know if I would or not. I know I got busted once–I’d gotten a full-paragraph rejection from The New Yorker and in a fit of ecstasy told my boss about it. He then told me to stop using company resources to “crank out your literary thingies.” But at that time it felt like sort of a last chance. We’d just had our second child and there was a real now-or-never feeling in the air. And the truth is, I always did more than my share of the “real” work, brought it home on the weekend and all of that. I cheated a lot less than other people, who would sneak off to golf, do their taxes at work etc.

Slushpile: Like you, I used to work as a technical writer. There were some days when I actually enjoyed the challenge of working within the very strict confines of technical writing and other days when I hated it. What were your feelings towards technical writing?

Saunders: I think tech writing was key to the tone of the first book: no nonsense, no extra detail, no lit language for the sake of lit language. It taught me about the thrill of the very direct, I think, and about the power of compression.

Slushpile: You’ve said that during the time you were writing the stories in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, that you “had given up all hope of publishing anything and was just going to my job and typing a few paragraphs a day.” You actually described this as a very happy time, but what kind of experience did you have with rejections before you started to hit your stride and sell stories?

Saunders: It was a really happy time. I’d had a story accepted about 8 years before this CivilWarLand period. Then I went to grad school and got all rejections, all the time, for about 5 years. I didn’t like this, of course, but to tell the truth the opinion of the world at this time was roughly corresponding with my own. I was sending things out that I was about 70% happy with, and when they came back, I thought: Fair enough. Then when I started on the stories in CivilWarLand, I had this euphoric sense of not caring what anybody else thought – a real feeling of confidence, that if people didn’t get them, that was their problem. This was associated with a sudden leap in publishing interest – acceptances, or at least detailed, interested, rejections.

Slushpile: Can you tell us the story behind the publication of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline? Which stories did you sell first? How did you sell the collection as a whole?

Saunders: I’m a little hazy on the details but I know the first piece accepted was Downtrodden Mary?Ĵs Failed Campaign of Terror, by Quarterly West. Then I think CivilWarLand got picked up in The Kenyon Review. I got a nice rejection on, I think, The Wavemaker Falters from The New Yorker and then a few more nice rejections on some other things, and finally they took Offloading for Mrs Schwartz. After this, things got easier – I got an agent, who sent The 400-Pound CEO to Harpers. They took that, then reprinted Isabelle, and finally took Bounty when that was done. And then that was the book, and because of the relatively high profile of these publications, there were a few different places interested in publishing it.

Slushpile: Short story collections are becoming increasingly difficult to sell. Especially for first-time writers. Any words of advice for new story writers out there?

Saunders: The only advice I could give is that it seems important to place a few of the stories in some of these larger venues, like The New Yorker or Harpers or Esquire or GQ. Then the level of interest goes up. That’s hard, of course–somebody once told me it was harder to get a story in one of those places than it is to sell a novel–but the collection is then viewed as more viable.

Slushpile: You once said in an interview with NPR “in the world that I live in there’s often a kind of agenda behind words. And when the words start getting blurry and start being ungrammatical and making no sense, the agenda sort of reveals itself.” It was 1995 and you were referring to life in the corporate world, but I’m struck by the analogies to our society today. I have no idea what your personal politics are, but can you see how someone might read that sentence today, think about the current administration in the White House, and chuckle?

Saunders: My political position at present is: Sick At Heart. I think you can see the idiocy of a lot of the administration’s positions by observing the level of their inarticulateness. Rumsfeld in particular is amazing. But in fairness, it should also be said that the language of the other side, Bin Laden et al is even scarier. Pure Bolshevik nonsense, pre-justifying everything with the old, “Since we are doing it, and we are without sin, what we are doing is not only without sin, it is virtuous and exalted, even those twelve kids we just blew up” crap. As Orwell taught us long ago, sickness is first indicated in language. When we start talking slop, that indicates decadence. When a person is being kind and honest, they can just say what they’re doing and the sentences will be simple and good.

Slushpile: There have been a couple of creative writing teachers who have vented recently about how torturous they think the job is and even compared it to labor camps. So tell us, is teaching creative writing as bad as being a knuckle puller?

Saunders: Teaching creative writing is one of the best jobs a person could ever have. You get time to work, exposure to some of the best young minds in the world, you get valued for what you do. What’s not to love? There is, of course, a level of potential spuriousness to it–not everyone’s students ultimately succeed, and if we do it as if only success matters, somebody’s going to get hurt. But the way I look at it is, if a person wants to dedicate three years of her life to this dream she has, then no matter how it turns out, she’s a better person for it. If nothing else, she can move on, in peace, to the next thing. But I think, when you look at the kind of complaints you mention, there’s often (to my view) an unrealistic standard being applied. All work is hard work. If we expect perfection–if we expect our jobs to somehow deliver us from ourselves, from our own neuroses, we are bound to be disappointed. That’s how I feel about it anyway. There are so many jobs that offer not a second of ease or grace, the literally beat your body into premature old age and encourage you to become a beast of burden. And this job is not one of those, thank God

Slushpile: You have also said in interviews that you “really like lean prose, stuff that just does what it’s supposed to do and get out of there.” Many new writers try to really polish and shine every sentence. They hear the critics and their teachers and their friends talking about great authors who write great lines, who craft these extraordinary sentences. One sentence from your own work that I love is “the stars are blinking like cat’s eyes and burned blood is pouring out of the slaughterhouse chimney.”

But every single sentence in a story can’t be the chili peppers, correct? You’ve got to have a lot of regular water and some meat and other stuff in order for the peppers jump out and grab you. So how do you balance the pepper sentences with the lean prose that just does what it needs to do to convey about the story and not attract attention?

Saunders: This is a great question. I can’t really answer it with any authority. It’s very personal, with each writer tackling it in a different way. But I will say that what has helped me with this issue is to think that even the most workaday, function sentence can be made ruthlessly efficient. This includes the possibility that it can be left out. Even the sentence of mine that you so kindly cite, it’s basically just efficient in describing what’s in front of the narrator. So for me the idea is, a “gem” is a sentence that does what is needed at that point, as efficiently as possible and is also actually needed there. I think it’s very hard work to get prose to sound natural and not “fancy” to make something sound vernacular is one of the hardest things there is. My prose is often more purple and bloated, more “literary” in the early drafts, and then gets simpler as I go on. (This goes back to the tech writing days and the question you asked above).

Slushpile: When you sit down to write a story, how much do you have planned out about the plot? Do you just wander around and see where the story takes you or have you already worked everything out in advance?

Saunders: I don’t have anything planned about plot, in the best case. I do the wandering around thing you describe. It’s kind of like being driven in a certain direction in the quest for tight sentences. Some false directions, plot-wise, are indicated by the fact that you can’t get the prose to shine in those sections. So style is driving plot, if you see what I mean. (As with everything, this is not general–just my experience). It’s kind of a seed-crystal approach. Start with something you like and let it grow outwards, naturally, in the direction of greatest interest (ie, greatest interest for you, the writer).

Slushpile: What types of things usually inspires you or serves as the catalyst for your stories?

Saunders: It might be a good bit of dialogue or a little conceptual thing (What’s the first thing that happens in the morning at a CivilWar theme park, say). But then I try not to cling too much to the initial idea: Let the story have its legs and see if it knows something you don’t. If you avoid the crappy sentences, then, after 9 pages, you have 9 pages of non-crap: a working definition of a story if there ever was one.

Slushpile: You’re often referred to as a comic writer or a humorous writer. And writing humor is one of the things that most challenges new authors. When you are writing, are you consciously thinking of sentences or plot twists that might be funny? Are you trying to get a laugh? Or do you just write and if the end result turns out to be hilarious, then that’s fine too?

Saunders: I don’t think of myself as funny. I try to write crisp sentences and they sometimes turn out kind of odd. But to me, they’re not like, you know, real crack-ups. It sometimes feels like I’m making a nice kind of awkward surface tension, but I don’t go for Laugh Lines–that seems to me like a recipe for a disaster. This may relate to the previous question. It seems to me that if you know too well what you’re doing, then all you can hope to do is What You Planned. And my feeling is, the essence of good writing is what happens when you inadvertently do more than you planned, more than you could have imagined when you first started out.

Slushpile: I don’t want to get you in trouble, and there’s always statutes of limitations to worry about, so feel free to limit your answer to only non-illegal items, but if you were going to “inadvertently misuse” something, like Bradley in Pastoralia, what would you misuse?

Saunders: Honestly, I was never someone who did much misusing. I was always kind of a straight-arrow. Maybe my mind is odd enough that I don’t feel much of a need to supplement. I had a brief and very modest experimental period, then not much. The occasional beer. I don’t think writing in an altered state is very good. What you need is to be in touch with your authentic mind, and you also need to have enough clarity to know just what it is that you’ve done so far. And being messed-up is often just a form of self-flattery: what is not deep, seems like it is deep, at the time…

Slushpile: Several of your stories feature basically decent guys, struggling in difficult economic circumstances, trying to do the right thing, and not always succeeding. These aren’t always the most intelligent guys in the world, they don’t have movie star smiles, and they don’t drive nice cars. I’m thinking of characters like the narrators in Sea Oak and Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz. What attracts you to these types of people?

Saunders: I think it’s because I AM that kind of guy. Not from money, always have taken the long way around etc. But also because in a sense we’re all that kind of guy, somewhere in our heart. Or another way of saying it: our culture is always threatening to reduce us to that kind of guy. Say we suddenly get inefficient, or self-doubtful, or sick–the culture turns on a person pretty quickly. So the stories could be seen as a kind of identification ritual: there but for the grace of God go I.

Slushpile: How does a writer know when to explain, or justify something, and when not to? The writer has to create a world, and make it believable even if it’s science-fiction or fantasy and he has to explain that world to the reader. But there are also times when he can just throw in odd phrases or realities of that world and not explain a thing.

For example, in Isabelle, the reader knows there is this slightly demented society, a town torn about by racial strife and economic hardship. You explain all these aspects of the story. And then, there is this bomb dropped in a paragraph with no explanation at all. “He showed it to us behind the Dumpster where Hal Flutie had lost his arm to the crushing blade.” And the narrator mentions this like it’s a totally normal thing to say and no more explanation is given to the horror of “the crushing blade.” Another writer might have talked more about the crushing blade, but you heighten the evil of it by just mentioning it and moving on. No explanation. Any suggestions for how a new writer can know when to use this kind of technique?

Saunders: Again, a great question, but I think that figuring this out is one of the things a person has to wrestle with in their own work. My feeling is, I like the economy and the insider feeling the reader senses when elaborate explanations are omitted. If you think, for example, about the way an average work day looks, to you, as narrated to yourself, you’re not saying, “Then I see Mr Blithers, who was born in Iowa and fancies himself a stock-car expert.” You sort of just know it. But again, I think there is no general rule.

What I like is when the writer gives you just enough for you to construct the reality in your mind. You take a guess as a reader, and you’re right. I give you the shortest possible version and you still get it. The reality you project, based on the too-little info I give you, is exactly the one I had in mind. Then it’s kind of like when two good friends have a sort of shorthand between them. They see a middle-aged bully and they say: Flannery. And both of them understand that they are talking about a circa-1980s cop from their hometown. There’s a deep pleasure in that: the pleasure of mutually assumed intelligence.

Slushpile: You have a new novella called The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil due out in early September. Rumor has it that this is a political fable, along the lines of Animal Farm for the new century. What can you tell us about this book?

Saunders: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a novella-length fable and to tell you the truth I don’t quite know how to describe it. It started out a kid’s book and then, following the seed-crystal approach described above, it kind of spun out of control, into a parable about genocide. It’s not really Animal Farmish That book has a more of a linear, point-for-point relation to its subject matter (ie, post-Revolutionary Russia.) Phil is more about a general human tendency, namely to divide ourselves into Us and Them and then start trying to kill Them. As I wrote it I felt myself being influenced by Bosnia and Rwanda and then 9/11 and the war on terror and Abu Ghraib etc, all these situations where human beings, for whatever reason, are too afraid to be tolerant and have faith in the essential humaness of their enemies, and so resort to the old strategy of trying to massacre a problem out of existence. Most of all, I hope it’s just a good story, that it starts from an odd place and is consistently odd in the same flavor, and in the end says something at least a little pleasurable and universal.

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?

Saunders: Keep going. Your subconscious mind is a lot smarter than you are. Just keep giving it a chance and in time it may reward you. Get out of the way a little bit, have fewer ideas about what kind of writer you are and what it is you are going to accomplish. Find out what kind of writer you are and be prepared to accept that writer, no matter how different he/she is from what you’d hoped.

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?

Saunders: I know this advice feels facile but honestly, stop worrying about getting published. Think about writing something that comes from the heart and that you would feel unashamed to show to your greatest historical writing hero. Maybe we can’t get there, but I think what every reader wants to read is someone in the act of swinging for the fences, unselfconsciously, with joy and abandon and the highest possible hopes. Who could resist that, right?

Thanks to Mr. Saunders for his time and generosity. You can pre-order his novella by clicking on the link below:

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *