Transcript for George Saunders on "Tenth of December"

Jim Fleming: But first George Saunders. Dave Eggers says there's no one better, no one more essential to our national sense of self and sanity. Saunders has been getting a lot of these kinds of accolades lately. But he wasn't always a literary star. His resume includes stints as a technical writer and a geophysical engineer. Now he's widely considered one of America's great short story writers. Steve Paulson recently caught up with Saunders to talk about his new collection, "Tenth of December."

Steve Paulson: It's great to have you here and I have to ask about that recent "New York Times Magazine" cover story titled, “George Saunders has written the best book you'll read this year,” which was flattering obviously but...

Saunders: Yeah.

Paulson: ...do you feel any extra pressure now when you sit down to write because of all the raves you've been getting?

Saunders: Well, look, I haven't sat down to write since that headline. I think as long as everyone just agrees not to read for the next eleven months we'll be fine.

Paulson: So this has been all good, I mean, you've gotten really glowing reviews so far.

Saunders: Yeah, it really has been fun and, you know, I've got a certain impulse to kind of act like I'm conflicted about it but it's actually just been a riot. Been doing some traveling and meeting so many nice people. I kinda felt like that headline was kind of a ornery hyperbolic throw-down a little bit and I thought, “Alright, well, let's just see what happens,” and it's been, just been a lot of fun.

Paulson: Let me ask about this new collection of stories, "Tenth of December," which is your fourth collection and it comes--what?--seven years after your last book, "In Persuasion Nation." Do you think your writing has changed since your last book?

Saunders: I think it has been changing all along, yeah. To me it's sort of a continuum and it's been going in the direction of maybe opening up a little bit or becoming a little more, I don't know if it's gentle, I mean it's still a pretty dark book, but I know there are times in it when maybe in the last book I would've taken the swerve towards the catastrophic thing and then in this book I found myself looking a little harder to see if I could steer it away from that cliff. I'm not sure why, maybe just having steered left so many times you sort of feel like the place of maximum aesthetic interest is to try to go the other direction.

Paulson: Well, you're often described as a satirist, kind of along the lines of Kurt Vonnegut, but it strikes me that maybe you're becoming a little less satirical and, I don't know, sort of moving into new emotional territory?

Saunders: I think that's how it felt although, you know, honestly, I never really considered my fiction to be satire. I got kind of tagged with that early and, you know, when you're a young writer you're just happy to be tagged with anything so I kind of learned to take it. But I never really felt they were satire 'cause to me satire kind of means there's an object on there you know how you feel about it and you're gonna give it a kick. And the stories always felt to me, they felt funny, you know, and kind of maybe there was some irony in there but satire, there was a cheerful element so sometimes I would, under the guise of taking a poke at advertising, something would happen but for me the interesting thing was always kind of you know the traditional story form and my aim was always emotional, at least to me it was. So the satire thing I never felt totally easy with it but I think you're exactly right that the emotional core of this book is much closer to the surface, I think.

Paulson: Now, one of the things that came up in that "New York Times Magazine" profile was the question of what it means to be a writer for our time, for this particular historical moment, and I'm wondering if that's something that really weighs on you, I mean, do you think about what the demands of a creative writer are now, I mean how they're different now, than they might have been twenty or thirty years ago?

Saunders: No. It's funny because when you have a book out you end up talking about it as if you are in control of it or you had certain intentions and for me, most of the time, I'm just trying to not fall off the wall, basically. I'm walking along this brick wall, that is being interesting in a story and just trying to stay on the wall. So for me, for whatever reason, that place is more comfortable if I'm not conceptualizing too much about anything. Like, to think about my role would be, it would be paralyzing, or to think about, even to think about the story form in a more intellectual or critical way is actually really harmful for me so I've kind of developed through trial and error this approach it's fairly, there's almost nothing to it, it's kind of a process of being in close relation to your own text in revision and probably the most I could say about it is you're trying to steer this story towards a place of maximum energy, knowing that if you do that all this other stuff will happen. You'll get theme and politics and emotional content, all of that, but I won't get it unless I'm concentrating on the text as simply as I can. Paulson: I'm struck by that phrase you used, “There's almost nothing to it.” It seems like there's a lot to it. Saunders: Well, I mean there's not much to be said about it. Paulson: Okay. Saunders: I think it's a little bit, maybe, like I imagine, you know, improvising your music or playing a sport. There's physics going on and there's a lot to be said about it but in the moment of doing it you're actually doing a kind of intuitive thing. And in writing, at least my process, it's based on an intuitive instantaneous assessment of the text that you're reading, that you've also just written. And then it's sort of like a seasoning to taste. And then doing that hundreds of times in revision and then slowly the thing starts to take shape and to mean something but, in my experience, early in my writing career was when I had a plan I would have the terrible failure of exactly fulfilling that plan, which was a disappointment for everybody so now it's much more a process of kind of looking at a story with real curiosity and saying, “What do you want to do?”, you know, “Where would you like me to go?” and then trying to keep the lines clear so I can actually hear what's coming back at me from the text.

Paulson: Well, I think anyone who reads your fiction will recognize a very distinct Saunders aesthetic, I mean, I certainly do and I was struck by one of the reviews of your book in "Harper's" by Tom Bissell, who wrote, “The Saunders secret appears to be beginning with the hide-bound conventions of more traditionally sleepy literary fiction and injecting 50cc's of absurdist sci-fi.” \

Saunders: That was a nice line.

Paulson: Do you think he got that right? Saunders: He did get it right, although the way that that actually happens is a little less deliberate. I mean, it's mostly, you're writing along, the story's doing something, but you start to feel discontent with whatever it's doing. You feel like somehow it's stayed static for too long or the reader knows what's coming next and what you had planned to give is just that and suddenly you're in danger of being a bore. So it's just somehow you're looking for a means to shake up the language and keep it fresh. For me, that often means, you know, put in the theme park or, in this book, there's a couple of stories where I just made up these drugs to give the characters so that their diction would go into a different register. But again, for me that all falls under the rubric of trying to keep the prose kind of zingy, you know, trying to keep some energy in the prose with the confidence that if you do that all the other good things will happen on their own.

Paulson: Well, I have to ask you about one of the stories, the longest story in your book, “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” which would certainly seem to fit this bill of absurdist sci-fi. Tell me about the story.

Saunders: Well, that one was kind of unusual because the whole thing came out of a dream that I had. The Semplica Girls are kind of, I don't know if I should give it away, but they're basically this kind of freaky lawn ornament and I dreamed them. I could see them clearly in the back yard of our house in Syracuse and it's a very disturbing image but in the dream, the person I was was just kind of grateful. It felt like, “Ah, finally we arrived.” We could put these lawn ornaments in our yard but the kids will be so happy. So, waking up from that dream you're kind of like, “Wow, what the heck was that about?”

Paulson: We should describe what these lawn ornaments are in your story, I mean, they are actually, they are real people. \

Saunders: Yeah, in they dream they're four, four women that in the dream logic I understood to be third-world women, alive, perfectly happy, wearing these matching beautiful white sort of gowns or smocks. All had long flowing black hair and there was a wire that went, you know, like, into the left side of their head and out the right side so the four of them were all suspended on this string kind of like paper dolls. And they were sort of on this swing set-type apparatus and it was all flowers growing around it and a little waterfall and it was just this feeling of, “Oh, finally, we got ours.” Paulson: Because everyone else, all the neighbors, the more well-to-do neighbors had their Semplica Girls and finally this one family gets their own so they can... Saunders: That's right.

Paulson: ...they don't have to feel embarrassed.

Saunders: The kids were mildly embarrassed to go to school because they didn't...so, but it was such a complete dream it was the emotional content was all there and the visual image was there, so.... I remember reading somewhere that Faulkner had written, I think, The Sound and the Fury, he'd driven by a house and he saw this older boy helping a girl into a tree and he had his hand kind of on her panties and Faulkner wrote the book trying to figure out what that image meant or who the people were. So it's kind of the same thing. I just had this dream that I tried to deny it but I just kept thinking about it so then you kind of consent to it and go, “All right, let's figure out how this world happens.”

Paulson: Don't you wonder where that dream came from?

Saunders: Oh, yeah. It's really intriguing 'cause it was a very smart dream. It had a lot of complications in it and I could never in a million years think that up. I wouldn't want to think it up. I'd be kind of ashamed if I'd thought it up, but there it was, just fully intact. And then, when I unpacked it, which took me twelve years, you know, you find that it's actually intimately related to the life that I was leading at that time which was full of that kind of struggle for money and slight feelings of class anxiety for the family and the whole thing. So it's really, it's really intriguing.

Paulson: It took you twelve years to write this story?

Saunders: It did, yeah.

Paulson: Wow. Why did it take so long?

Saunders: Uh, I don't know. I mean, it was partly just that when you hear that image, I think most people would think, “Oh, that's a story about oppression of the third world,” which it is. So I think part of the challenge was if that's what the story ended up being, then it's not enough, somehow, so it's kind of like a lecture or something. So part of the theme was to say, “Okay, yeah, of course it's about that,” you know, any story with that image in it is going to have that component. But then saying, “Well, what else is it about?” And hopefully that thing isn't reducible. You know, the story becomes an object in the world rather than a lesson. So that was a part of it and then also just, practically, I kind of got to a certain point in the story where I just wasn't quite sure who the hero was. The father of the story is a pretty good guy. He kind of thinks, I would say, pretty much correctly about the world except he's got this blind spot, as does the rest of the culture about these girls. So, it was just kind of trying to see where's this story going to go, and of course lots of pages of writing back story to find out how do these girls arrive, where do they stay, what's the economic set-up, is there a warranty, you know, all that kind of stuff. So....

Paulson: Could you read an excerpt from this story?

Saunders: Sure. It's in diary form, so that's a little minimalistic and this is just a description of the birthday party.

(READING) “September 21st. Lily b-day. There are days so perfect you feel 'this is what life about.' When old, will feel whole life worth it because I got to experience this perfect day. Today that kind of day. Me be too excited to tell in order plus tired after a long great day but will try. In morning, kids go off to school per usual. Greenway comes at ten. Nice guys. Big guys. One with mohawk. Yard done by two. Roses in, fountain in, pathway in, SG truck arrives at three, SG's exit truck stands shyly near fence while rack installed. Rack nice. Opted for Lexington, mid-range in terms of price. Bronze uprights with colonial caps, easy release levers. SGs already in white smocks. Microline already strung through. SGs holding microline slack in hands like mountain climbers holding rope, only no mountain. One squatting, other standing polite, nervous, one sniffing new roses. She gives timid wave. Other says something to her like saying, 'Hey, not supposed to wave!' But I wave back like saying, 'In this household is okay to wave.' Doctor monitors installation by law. So young. Looks like should be working at Wendy's. Says we can watch hoist or not. Gives me meaningful look, cuts eyes at Pam as in, 'Wife squeamish?' Pam somewhat squeamish, sometimes does not like to handle raw chicken. I say, 'Let's go inside, put candles on cake.' Soon, knock on door. Doctor says, 'Hoist all done.' Me: 'So, can we have a look?' Him: 'Totally.' We step out. SGs up now, approximately 3 feet off ground, smiling, swaying in slight breeze. Order, left to right, Kami - Laos, Gwen - Moldova, Lisa - Somalia, Betty – Philippines. Effect amazing. Having so often seen similar configurations in yards of others more affluent makes own yard seem suddenly affluent. You feel different about self, as if at last you are in step with peers and time in which living. Pond great, roses great, path, hot tub great, everything set. Could not believe we had pulled this off. Picked Lily up early at school. Lily all hang-dog because her b-day and no one said 'happy b-day' at breakfast and no party and no gifts so far plus now has to go to doctor for shot, because that was ruse. In car, pretended to be lost. Lily, discouraged, 'Daddy, how can you be lost when Hunnikey our doctor forever?' Pam worked this out in advance with nurse who, when I finally found office, came out, said the doctor was sick, too sick to give shot. The first of series of super surprises for Lily. Meanwhile at home, Pam, Thomas, Eva, scrambled to decorate. Food delivered, barbecue from Snakey's. Friends arrive, so when Lily gets out of car, what does she see but whole new yard full of all friends from school sitting at new picnic table, near new hot tub... (Note to self: write note praising kids for admirable restraint keeping secret.) ...and new line of four SGs and Lily literally burst into tears of happiness.”

Paulson: Wow, that is such a great passage because you're doing so much there. In some ways it's this utterly prosaic thing of, you know, this guy just writing in his diary. Although in kind of this clipped form of the diary it would seem to be kind of a mundane thing and then you incorporate this whole bizarre detail of these live women being strung up as lawn ornaments. And somehow putting it all together.

Saunders: Well, I think that was one of the things that took some time was, when you first have an idea like that, you're always explaining it in the text-cum-to yourself, but then, given the fact that it's a diary and given the fact that in his culture these things aren't unusual at all, then you have to kind of dial back the references. It's like if we were writing a contemporary story that had a TV in it, you wouldn't have the aside where, you know, it says, “Bill turned on the TV, which was a device that broadcast shows from all over the country.” You know, you would just say, “TV.” So part of the challenge was to kinda keep the reader leaning in trying to figure out what these things were but at the same time be true to the conceit that, for him, these things are second nature.

Paulson: So what do you think makes a really great story? Not just a good story, but a great story, whether talking about one of yours or someone else's.

Saunders: This will be kind of a dull answer but I think there's a quality of efficiency where everything in the story is doing work, and where, in a perfect world, every motion of the story is increasing the energy. So I think of a story like "Indian Camp" by Hemingway, which is, if you study it closely, which we do at Syracuse, that thing never stops moving. It never stops morphing, even paragraph to paragraph. So that's a huge thing. And then, maybe, though, at the very highest levels, I think there's something that, you could never will this into a story, but there's a sense of love, of kind of a, a godlike mind at work who's kind of regarding his creations with a lot of love. So I think of "The Overcoat" by Nikolai Gogol which is just, you know, obnoxious, funny, wild, really, really unpredictable story. But at the heart of it you can really feel God, like, shining through Gogol, but not in this kind of holy, boring, luminous way. You know, you can see the fibers in the coat and you can see the sweat on foreheads. I mean, I always feel like I'm looking for some person who can regard these characters in the book the way that, maybe, God does, you know, with that much acceptance and that sort of acuity of vision and that much forgiveness. And I, you know, so I think of Gogol or Dickens, Shakespeare, the way that there would be, everything was permitted on the stage that they were making and nothing was missed but everything was sort of, you know, had a sort of glow about it. And I think that's what we really, that's what I really yearn for in stories.

Fleming: George Saunders is the author of Tenth of December. He spoke with Steve Paulson. Have you read any good short stories lately, or would you rather be reading novels? We'd love to know what you think. You can get in touch with us through Facebook or Twitter, or send us an e-mail through our website, TTBook.org.

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