An Interview with George Saunders
Two winters ago, George Saunders came to my town. His visit was a surprise, mostly because this part of New York State is not a hotbed of literary life. We have quite a few cows, to begin with, and they are generally not a great source of word-related inspiration. Ditto apple trees and alpaca farms. We also, however, have a lot of students and a couple of colleges to put them in, which means that speaking engagements from Real World “stars,” former Saved by the Bell principals and porn stars turn up routinely. But it wasn’t where I expected to find Saunders, simply because he strikes me as a real writer’s writer, one whose audience would be small outside of urban areas. And, yet, here he was.
At the time, I wasn’t a huge fan. I’d read The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip and enjoyed it well enough. But other books always distracted me with their shiny wares, despite the fact that every other reader in my target demographic (read: mostly college educated and geekish book-lovers who also lean toward McSweeney’s and Sarah Vowell) kept enthusing about both Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. Still, I never got around to them.
After I heard him read that night two winters ago, in a room that was almost steamy from the collected fans, I suddenly understood why Saunders is developing a less-aggressive-but-still-Palahniukesque following. It’s not so much that Saunders is a dynamic speaker. He is fun to listen to, certainly, and knows how to fill a room with his voice but he comes across as more confident than charismatic. He exudes ease rather than magnetism. In his day job, Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, which explains both his ease in front of an academic audience and his willingness to come to this nearby town.
What hooked me was how much Saunders enjoyed words. It wasn’t just the pleasure of what they looked like on the page, all strung together and nicely typeset, but the pleasure of what they feel like in your mouth. Which isn’t to say that his writing is only for the ear. More like his writing is about the pleasures of experiencing the text through whichever senses are convenient. His undeniable humor and casual whimsy draw you in to both his readings and his work. But there is more going on beneath his bonhomie, including a sharp examination of all of modern culture’s discontents. His much lauded novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil has been called by Details magazine “vintage Vonnegut with a dash of Dr. Seuss, this tale of an absurdist border war captures the aggrieved jingoism of Bush’s America without ever preaching,” which proves that for one shining moment, Details didn’t have the wrong end of the stick.
Saunders’s newest collection In Persuasion Nation treads familiar and surreal Saundersian landscapes without every failing to feel fresh and vital. The book’s site is perhaps its best advertisement. Not only does it give a great sense of the range of the work, it also provides a moment of pop culture greatness -- an MP3 of Tony Danza reading “The Barber’s Unhappiness.”
I'd imagine by now that you're a little talked out about Phil. Is there anything that you feel that you've always wanted to say about the story but haven't been asked?
I guess I've always wanted to say, "Wow, Phil was just optioned by Brad Pitt, who will play Phil in the lucrative movie!"
No -- I guess I just would like to say how much I enjoyed writing it. There was a lot of talk when it came out about the political/satirical aspects of the book, but what was fun about it at the time was the level of pure invention the story afforded - a chance to make up talking objects and then give them neuroses.
Phil, CivilWarLand and Pastoralia have all achieved a cult-like readership. Do you have any sense as to why? Who do you think is the average Saunders fan? Or is it easier to not think about who is reading your books?
I really don't know who my reader is. But I do try to shoot high. That is, I try to write to a higher version of myself -- assuming a high level of intelligence and subtlety. And the sense I get is that there are a lot of readers who don't mind working a little and who seem to feel, like I do, that the newness of the world -- I mean the constant, everyday, newness -- may demand a different kind of fictional representation. That sounds a little like a mission statement -- what I mean to say is, it is really gratifying to feel that I can stretch myself as a writer and still find readers who will go along with me. I don't know who they are, exactly, but I appreciate them very much.
Last winter, I had the pleasure to hear you read at SUNY-Oneonta. You appeared to be having a wonderful time. Has this always been the case? Or has teaching at Syracuse helped you to develop as a speaker? How about as a writer?
I think starting to do readings caused me to write a little differently -- with a little more emphasis on the verbal element. There are limits to that, of course, and I still write stories that I'd probably never read. But I do enjoy the performance part of it.
Teaching has helped me accept and enjoy a lot of parts of the writing life that I initially might have not been so interested in -- working with stories and with young writers, talking about the classic stories, i.e., the more public elements of the intellectual life. I am always trying to be a bigger writer, to be more entertaining and communicative, without dumbing myself down, and I think teaching helps to some extent, because it reminds me that all of this writing and talking about writing is essentially about one person communicating with another person. Teaching also reminds me again and again of how many great writers there have been in the world and how much they sacrificed just to get a few good stories down, and how noble that pursuit is, and how much it can ring the bell of someone reading even a hundred or three hundred years down the line to hear that voice from the past, concerned with the same things they are concerned with.
Did you always intend to teach? What is the most gratifying aspect of teaching? The least?
Originally, no -- I didn't really know that writers taught and so on. I thought they just went to bullfights, then came home to a bunch of royalty checks. And then I felt, well, okay, I guess this is how we make a living. And then gradually it became this real joy, something I am really deeply invested in. What I like is the feeling that, although a person can never know if their writing matters, or is going to continue to matter, you can be pretty sure that being kind to another, younger, person is going to bear fruit. Because you can see it happening. And when I say "kind," I mean taking that person and his/her work and aspirations seriously, accepting that the person is not really different from you and that real communication is possible. That is very rewarding. The only downside that I can see is that ultimately a person's story is his/her story and you can only go so far down their road. And your own road, meanwhile, is back there waiting for you, feeling neglected.
But writing ultimately is about the question: How should we live? I mean, it's indirectly about that question, but I don't think a person can be a good or exciting writer without taking on that, and other, big questions. So that is part of the fun too: to stand alongside a younger person and look at those questions together. What could be better than that?
What books are on your syllabus?
Well, I teach a lot of different classes but I always try to teach Isaac Babel's stories. I really like the Russians, especially Chekhov and Tolstoy and Gogol.
What books have you always wanted to assign but are afraid that the students would never, ever read?
My students will read anything -- there's nothing I'd be afraid to assign to them at all. We've done Bely's "Petersburg," and all kind of obscure Russian stuff. We've done everything from watching "City Lights" to looking at local histories and medical histories of the foot to try and steal tonal things. If it works, we'll read it. No fear.
Who have you always wanted as a guest instructor?
We've had some great ones here - Brian Evenson, Mary Caponegro, Gary Lutz, Diane Williams, J. Robert Lennon, Robert O'Connor, Mary Gaitskill (who now teaches with us full-time) etc etc.
I'd love to have Jhumpa Lahiri. I think she's a great writer. Jonathan Franzen, Ben Marcus, William Vollman. We'd love to have Tobias Wolff come back. He is the master. Alice Munro? How's that for dreaming big? There are so many...
Another of those most/least questions: What has surprised you most about writing for a living? Least?
It's been surprising to see how many people live for writing and reading and really love it. I mean, I knew it meant the world to me, but didn't realize how many gonzo readers there were, or what interesting and wonderful people they would be.
What has not surprised me is how gratifying it is to make up stories. I think I always knew that it would be, and I was right.