In Which We Sit Down With George Saunders To Discuss His Joycean Novel About Mexico But Mainly His New Nonfiction Collection

“It Sounds Silly Now”

interview by George Ducker

Born in 1958, George Saunders’ fiction made a name for the Amarillo-born, Chicago-raised writer. Mr. Saunders owns a B.S. in geophysical engineering and a M.A. in fiction writing from Syracuse University. He is the author of numerous short-story collections, and was kind enough to sit down with This Recording.

TR: So you’re all done with book touring for the moment?

GS: Just got back from a little touring and now I’m trying to get off the float. My friend Mary Karr, she talks a lot about how you go on a book tour and you turn into a kind of beauty queen for a few days.

TR: With the tiara?

Saunders

GS: She tells a great story about being at a bookstore and seeing a beautiful young guy walking up with this bouquet of flowers and she turns towards him, but then he goes right past her and gives them to a beautiful young girl who kisses him and they walk off together. She told me, “That’s when I knew it was time to come home.”

TR: In the story “The New Mecca,” you talked about observing one of the janitors hand-washing the stairs and then that led to thinking about how everyone has their job and their place, how you let yourself get bogged down in a near-sense of guilt. But then again, someone is always doing better than someone else all the time.

GS: It’s funny how arrogance and condescension are kind of two sides of the same coin. I think the story I wanted to write in Dubai had to do with those poor oppressed little guys and the big stinky oppressors crushing them. And that’s part of the truth, as it always is in capitalism, but then to me the most interesting thing was that anyone who’s lower than someone else is also higher than someone else, and they’re cognizant of that too. In this vast system that is world capitalism…as Jesus said, “the poor will be with us always.” But on the other hand, you don’t want to be too enthusiastic about that. You don’t want to be the kind of rich person who says “Oh they love it! They love picking my scabs, it’s great!”

“Rivers of Babylon” – Melodians: mp3

TR:You only got like what, a week or so on this particular trip? It must be a bit of a task picking through all the notes.

GS: Yeah! You come back with so many notes. These trips I took for this book were around seven to ten days. First you think “Oh my God, I don’t have anything to write about,” but then you start into it and the problem becomes “Oh shit, I’ve used half my words already.” It becomes a process of picking up the essence of the essence of the essence and then trying to write it well. It’s fun, but a little bit, I guess humbling, because you go on these great trips and it’s so much fun and your heart is overflowing, but you realize that you’re always just cutting through the data at one particular angle. I was struck more than ever that the idea of objectivity in reporting is bullshit. If I really wanted to know the truth about Dubai, I would send 7,000 decent reporters and writers at 7,000 different times. In the conglomeration of that, you’d come pretty close to the truth. But I can’t do it. I don’t have the skills.

Mary Karr

TR: Your piece on the Minutemen, “The Great Divider,” is quite close to a travel piece in the sense that you’re crossing over into a foreign land. A place where Texans say, “Oh, let’s have the liberal to dinner.”

GS: You always conceptualize these things in advance, especially if you’re insecure about screwing the assignment up. I thought, “Okay, what would be cool is if I infiltrated them!” I figured, I’m middle aged and I wear a baseball cap, so I look like they do. When I got there, all the Minutemen were just kind of goofy. They held a pre-operation meeting, and this didn’t end up in the piece, but it was at the Quality Inn in Laredo. One of the Minutewomen, she sort of slipped me the location like, “The secret meeting is at the Quality Inn, okay?” So I checked in and I’m standing there with the head of the Minutemen and this one Senator, and I think “Wow, they don’t even know who I am!” So I sidle in there, thinking myself really bold, but they don’t give a shit. They really don’t care. Finally, I got guilty and I said to them, “Oh I’m with GQ.” And they welcomed me right in. I told them as often as I could that I was the liberal dude. They didn’t care. Most of them are from Houston and Dallas. It’s like a gun club. And there’s not that many. There’s like thirty, tops.

TR: And they feel like they’re doing the right thing, ‘cleaning up the border.’

GS: They do. With a twist of the mind you can see where they’re coming from. They’re definitely patriotic people. They’re fearful people. That’s the main thing. It’s not that they’re particularly aggressive but they seem to be a little afraid of a lot. Like people who have been kind of dimly left behind—they know it and they don’t know why. They’re kind of mad and offended.

TR: And anxious.

GS: Yeah! So It’s a very Barney Fife kind of thing. After all that time with them you think, well I could just relax into my cliché version: that they’re fascists and that they’re all White Power. But really, they weren’t. They weren’t racist in a simple way. They were racist in an extremely complicated way. So it’s really just confusion plus, as you said, anxiety. So I felt like the Minutemen weren’t that scary, but I wouldn’t want to be in a stadium full of them.

Barney Fife

TR: How long have you been working on nonfiction pieces? Your books have been fiction up until now.

GS: The Huck Finn piece was in ’98 I believe, or ’99. The GQ pieces were all in the last two years.

TR: The Huck Finn introduction was the first commissioned piece that you got?

GS: I think so. Certainly in this book it was. On principle I wasn’t interested in nonfiction. Maybe I thought it was a less pure form. I thought I’d be less good at it. I thought it might get in the way of fiction. I started doing a little more after 9-11, and it was just that feeling of being involved in a national trauma and thinking well…In my generation there was this sense that it was unsavory to be political. Somehow in the‘70s there was a sort of shift that artists should just stay away from that crap and not get involved.

TR: That they should stay on their creative side of the fence? Like there’s one yard with two sides labeled Cultural and Political?

GS: Right! I basically bought into that. It’s so easy to stand on your side, writing fictional stories and mocking the politicians, but after 9-11, I thought those of us that are over here (other writers that I’d met, and other readers—the people you meet at bookstores) I thought, They’re smart! They’re really smart! Also, they’re also more engaged, so if indeed a fence like you’re saying existed, then it better come down. Because since the Iraq war…well, I think you saw what happened when people on the other side get to call the shots. There’s minimal consideration of ethical concerns or historical, religious concerns. But all of this is just a fancy way of saying I got a Sterno pot lit under my ass by 9-11. Remember that period of two or three days where you were like Holy Shit?

We all want to be memoirists

TR: A few days of zombification. Every time you heard a siren you’d freak out…

GS: Yeah. It sounds silly now, but at the time I thought, “Well, maybe this whole system of ours really can be brought to its knees and America as we know it could be done.” Just getting this inkling that, “Yes, yes it could.” It made me feel rather like, well, I might not like Married with Children or, you know, whatever…but Al Qaida, how dare you! And then when we, in my view, had a sort of misstep into Iraq. That made it even worse. All of these events just gave me a desire to be a little more direct in the communication that I was doing. Fiction, I think, is deeper. I think I’m better at it, I think there’s more fire there.

TR: The ability to maintain a kind of directed ambiguity.

GS: You can hold up multiple truths at once and just let them resonate. There was also the coincidence that I suddenly had a lot more time. I can only write fiction for about three hours a day and really keep an edge. So then I had a couple of off-semesters or a leave, but I had five hours left in the day and I would think now here’s a good time for an essay or a comic sketch or something. In my case fiction takes so many revisions it’s ridiculous. With fiction writing, you have to find the room that is your unique set of talents. And that’s hard. And once you find it, you’ve gotta get out of it because, stay there too long, and you become self-imitative. All this other kind of work: nonfiction, essays and that kind of stuff, seems to me to be a way to keep pushing at the walls of the fiction room to make sure they keep getting bigger.

TR: To expand your reach.

GS: For me at least, you get a little bit of a readership and suddenly people are telling you what it is that you do. One of the dangers is that you just might just do that. It’s just a matter of trying not to ossify and not get too reverent about whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing. When I wrote the first book [CivilWarLand in Bad Decline] I no fucking idea what I was doing. Just goofing. Trying to keep that spirit, you know? One of the things you see younger, beginning writers do is: I want to tell you who I am. They want to put themselves in this Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor—whatever, some certain lineage. And as you say, they are putting up big fences so they don’t get off their own path. That is almost, really, the definition of conventionality.

Faulkner in Paris.

TR: I saw you read at Skylight for In Persuasion Nation. And I remember you told a story about staying up late nights drinking coffee between teaching classes, trying to write these dark, spare Raymond Carver kinds of stories. And that it just wasn’t working.

GS: There were a number of phases of self-delusion on my part, doing Hemingway and then Carver. I just spent a long time resisting my actual personality. Because my heroes were just more classical than me. Carver, Hemingway. I didn’t really see myself as a funny person. I thought that was sort of less noble than being an earnest person. Most of the effects that I loved in fiction were sort of realist effects. So then, after many years of hitting your head against the wall, you suddenly realize, “There’s a doorway right there!” But it’s a doorway that leads into a room I’m not so sure I want to go into. It’s the room of stripped back effects and fast prose and funny prose and futuristic, quasi-sci-fi stuff. I didn’t really know that I liked these things. I mean, I didn’t like them, but somehow that was the thing I could do. So it’s a little bit like a woman who’s all her life looking for her dream man, and she thinks he looks like Brad Pitt. When he shows up he’s 4’8 and red-haired. But she loves him. Even when she’s out with Brad Pitt she thinks, “Oh I’m not myself when I’m with Brad Pitt.”

Raymond Carver at his desk.

TR: You said you realized that one of the stories that you had written was veering towards the right track because you heard your wife laughing as she read it.

GS: It wasn’t even a story. I was at work on this conference call and just out of sheer boredom I was writing these kind of Dr. Seuss-ian poems on one side of the page and drawing pictures to go with it. Because I had to sort of pretend to pay attention to the call, I was just only writing stupid little rhymes half-consciously. By the time the call was done, there was like, ten or fifteen pages. It ended up on the kitchen table that night and I heard my wife laughing. She’d read all my work, and God bless her. She’d read all of those fake Carver stories. She read this big Joycean novel about Mexico that didn’t make any damn sense because I’d basically left all the verbs out. But she’d read all that, and she’s a very honest person. So to just hear honest pleasure coming from something that I’d written, it was part of a number of things that took place over a three or four day period where I went, “Oh yeah, I’ll just try doing this thing that might be more obvious but it something that I’m not yet comfortable with.” Because the story isn’t you. It’s a manifestation of you. And it’s one of many that you make in your life. And in the end you’re gonna die. And no one’s gonna care that much. So instead of being so self-important about my wooork, I just began thinking more or less, How can I say something that’s not full of shit?

Ernest Hemingway in 1918.

“Pressure Drop” – The Maytals: mp3

“Soulful I” – The Upsetters: mp3

“Many Rivers to Cross” – Jimmy Cliff: mp3

TR: Do you approach nonfiction pieces with a fair share of fear, still?

GS: Totally. Maybe even more so, because the magazine is paying you and you’re on an expense account.

TR: And you’ve gotta produce.

GS: People are much more frank about criticizing nonfiction. I think they feel more comfortable with it. If I say, here I took a trip to Dubai. People can look at it factually and say “Oh that’s full of shit,” or “Oh you missed that part there.” The door of criticism, I feel, is much wider with non-fiction, so I had a lot of fear about that. I’m having it now for this new piece I’m working on. I just got back and I have about 49 pages, but I’ve got to get them down to 20, 24 or something. I’m aware that if I do it the right way, it’s something that will be good. And if I do it wrong, it’ll be lame. And it’s not entirely clear which is which.

TR: Better to have more than less, I’d imagine.

GS: For sure.

TR: It’s tough to kill your babies.

GS: Yeah, for me that’s the most important thing to learn. I don’t even see them as my babies anymore. Or, they’re all my babies and I really don’t care who dies. It’s fun. I enjoy it because there’s some kind of wisdom in going through your own work and saying “All the stuff in here is a 6.2, if I pull all the 6.2 stuff out of the piece and leave everything else at 8, then wow! It looks different, it’s shaped different! It’s smarter. Weirdly, it’s more you than the other version.

TR: You do a lot of revisions on your fiction as well. Do the stories start off big and get smaller?

GS: It’s always pretty different. I think generally, a story sort of moves forward gradually, then it backs up. I get two sections done, three four five, then I go eww and I cut it back to two and-a-half. Start revising that, and out of that revision there’ll be some little clue. Somehow with fiction, the revision is telling me which event comes next. You write a scene and you polish it, and at some point it spits out a clue as to what the next movement is. When I get too far ahead of that, then I start making mistakes. I’ll crank out stuff seven or eight sections ahead, that turn out to be not really relevant. When you’re taking a basketball down the court, you’ve gotta keep your eye on the ten foot perimeter. If you start looking at the net, then suddenly you’re out of the moment.

George Ducker is a writer living in the Los Angeles-based area. We are all based somewhere now.

Saunders fansite

Buy George Saunders’ latest, The Braindead Megaphone.

The Braindead Megaphone

PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING

Experience the fullness of George here:

George vs. George

Sports Corner: Colossus

The First Sports Corner

George interviews Craig Zobel.

Conclusions:Comparisons

George in The Believer.

Just Out of Reach

They Call It Football. Also:

We dueled with our Italian counterparts.

We discussed our childhood.

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