A Transitional State: A Conversation Between Charles Yu and George Saunders
By Charles YuDecember 21, 2023
GEORGE SAUNDERS: You know, a few years ago, I was in New York, and there was an older Polish gentleman who was driving me around. And he said at one point, “Sir, are you go to do reading?” I said yeah, and he said, “I have a little advice for you. Don’t read too much.”
[George then gives a very short reading from his work.]
Thank you so much for coming! Brian [Curran] and Kevin [MacLellan], thank you so much for your hospitality. I said this house is beautiful, but it’s also so full of warmth and it just makes a person happy to be in it. Thank you, Emily [VanKoughnett], LARB’s public programs and engagement manager, for arranging this evening so beautifully.
CHARLES YU: Hello, everyone. Thanks. I will repeat the thank yous because there’s never too many of those. Thank you, Kevin. And Brian, I’ve haven’t met you yet, but thanks for making this happen. And thanks to LARB and everyone else who made this happen as well.
George, as a 25-year-old law student who should have been studying for the bar, I became obsessed with your writing. And so, I would start by asking: How did you come to develop your voice? What is so magical about your writing is that you cut out all the words that don’t belong there. And you put in a bunch of words one wouldn’t expect, words that make it something else altogether, but they’re not the words you think they’re supposed to be. So if you wouldn’t mind sharing, how did you start?
It took me a long time to understand that writing was communication. I am from a working-class background. And so, I thought literature, based on my experience as a reader, was just that stuff that you read that didn’t make any sense. You know, it was a book where you were like, “Oh, wow, Dostoyevsky, that’s just a lot, I have no idea what he’s talking about, must be good.” And so, in my twenties, it seemed to me that the game was to be so smart that even you don’t know what you’re talking about and to be, therefore, incomprehensible, and then you get the awards. But then at some point, that approach wasn’t working for me.
So for me, now it’s kind of like: I’m rereading something I wrote, and thinking: What are we doing here? We’re laughing at a funeral [referring to the selection he just read]. Oh, good. That’s fun. Now, is there any way I can switch that energy up a little bit? Just based on my own reaction to it, I’m having a little too much fun laughing at a funeral. Because … it’s a funeral, you know? So I’m looking for moments to reverse things—to punctuate the laughs with something in another flavor.
The thing is, for me, it’s just in rereading my work. I’m trying to be a first-time reader, see where she is. If she feels like, “Okay, George, enough with the joke to the funeral!” I agree with her.
I would really love to hear about your process, Charles, because you’re one of the most vibrant, energetic writers I’ve ever read. Is that something that you do when you’re reading your work? Do you feel that impulse?
It’s something I learned from reading you. I think you have a quote in a recent book, where I’m probably going to butcher this, but a story is a mechanism or device for the transfer of energy. That says it all for me. So, the question is: How can you come in at a high-energy point and sustain that? Or how can you make a shape of, like, some kind of energetic curve?
That was a real light-bulb moment for me to say, "Oh, there’s somebody on the other side of this, who’s just as smart and kind-hearted as me (probably more).” So the writer can’t ever take that participation for granted. And you have to conceptualize it as kind of an intimate conversation with somebody you don’t know yet. That sounds very new-agey and abstract, but it’s actually a workable editing philosophy. Because if I write, you know, “The black cat stood on the table, the ebony surface, the dark planar expanse …” well, I lost you at the second phrase. You started to sense, in that second phrase, that I don’t have much respect for you, that I’m just showing off, cranking out the phrases without any thought of how they’re affecting you, my reader. So, I’m trying to make sure that the person on the other end feels valued and seen. Like, the reader is on a motorcycle with a sidecar. I’m driving the motorcycle. And if I go left, I want you to go left. And so, through revision, that’s kind of what happens. I hope.
You didn’t have a traditional path to writing. You went to the Colorado School of Mines.
That’s “Mines,” not “Mimes.” I majored in walking against the wind. The School of Mines was an oil exploration school. I got out with a degree in geophysics, and that prepares you to go work in oil exploration. So I went to work on a field crew in Indonesia.
You swam in a river—there’s a funny story in one of your graduation addresses about that.
I was dating a girl back in Colorado and she broke my heart. I thought: I’d better fly to Colorado and mend this up. But I was in Indonesia. You had to take a six-hour ferry boat ride first, and then a flight to Singapore, and then a flight to the US. So I’m waiting at the ferry boat. And I thought, This is so sad, and also kind of romantic. I should swim in that river to mark the occasion. I was also drunk, I believe. So, I jumped in this Sumatran river, and I’m feeling very, you know, into it, and I look up and there’s an oil pipeline with, like, 6,000 monkeys, all pooping into the river. I got really sick for about a year. It’s a joke now, but at the time it was like being 99 years old at 23. I had to sleep 15 hours a night or I felt hungover. And, you know, that was a blessing in a sense. It was the first time I realized that health and sanity are not guaranteed in this life.
Did you make it back to that girl?
Yeah, and she just wasn’t that into it.
Speaking of that graduation address, you gave one at Syracuse a few years ago, which you turned into the book Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness (2014)—can I read a little bit?
[W]hat we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving. […]
One thing in our favor: Some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: As we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish—how illogical, really. We come to love certain other people and are thereby counterinstructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now).
I’m going to stop because I will start crying. Michelle, my wife—Michelle’s here, and she read this to our kids aloud this week. And she started crying in front of them. And they started feeling weird about their mom crying in our kitchen during dinner while reading this book by some guy. You wrote this in 2013. A few things happened in America since 2013. Do you still believe that kindness is enough?
Actually, our daughter is here. I first gave this talk when she was graduating from middle school. And then I kind of retrofitted it for Syracuse. When the book version came out, and I went around on book tour, talking about kindness, I realized that, you know, in America, we have some misunderstandings about kindness. We think it’s exactly equal to niceness. You know, somebody drives a spike through your head, and you say, “Oh, thank you for the coat rack.” In the Eastern traditions, kindness is much more complicated and is often a gateway to other things. Kindness doesn’t always mean being a sweetie pie. It might mean being direct and firm.
Having a book on kindness drove me to think, “Well, what does ‘being kind’ actually mean?” For example, if you go into a coffee shop, and you notice that the barista has been crying … okay, put on your kindness cape, you know? But how to do that? How to be kind in that situation? Well, it might be that just being quiet and getting out of there would be the kindest thing—maybe she doesn’t want to talk about it. But then again, it might be that if you said just the right thing, it would be transformative and helpful for her. How do you know? Well, awareness. If you are in that moment intensely enough, you might actually be able to read that moment, to know what the right thing to do might be. Now, I can’t do that. So, knowing myself, in those situations, I tend to think, “George, you tend to have a savior complex, so … shut up.”
But so that speech was interesting, just because it led to so many deeper questions about what kindness might actually look like on its feet, especially in relation to, say, politics. We all intuitively know that rage doesn’t seem to help. But then what’s the exact flavor of kindness that would keep your grace intact and might actually do something? That’s a tough one.
You mentioned Eastern traditions. Just now, Lori had a great question that came up at dinner, which was about your book Lincoln in the Bardo (2017). And the bardo is a concept, a part of the Buddhist religion. You have spoken about your own Buddhist practice. Can you share with us a little bit about how that book came to be? And how your personal beliefs may or may not have influenced the writing of the book?
Yeah, in the Tibetan tradition, there’s this idea of “the bardo.” And I mean, we’re in a bardo right now: that is, a “transitional state.” We’re in a transitional state between birth and death. But the one people usually mean when they say “bardo” is the one between death and the next thing. So, I wanted to write about Lincoln, in a graveyard alone at night, and I thought, I’m going to need some help. Help from some ghosts or something. (There had to be someone other than just Lincoln out there.) There were all these things about the bardo that were really interesting. Like, one thing is—and I’m probably going to get this wrong, because I’m kind of a baby Buddhist—but the idea is that whatever your mind is doing when you die, it’s going to keep doing that afterward. Which is terrifying. And they say the mind is like a wild horse. In life, that wild horse is tied to a stake. When you die, the rope comes off, and the mind goes wild. On one level, that’s an amazing way to think about what these ghostly beings might be experiencing. And it gave me a way to populate that place. Because the idea in the book is, if you were obsessed with the NFL all your life, to the exclusion of everything else, you’re going to show up to the afterlife in a football uniform. So that’s why the state of our minds right now is so important.
What if the thing you’re doing in your mind is refreshing Deadline.com every five minutes to see if the strike has ended? Not that I’m doing that.
The mind is a habit machine. We had a really good friend back in Upstate New York, a really wise man, and every time you brought him a difficult, deep problem, he would say, “It’s just your mind, man.” And so, for me, the great blessing of doing some spiritual practice is just the idea that everything— your depression, your happiness, your anxiety—it’s all happening in your mind. The world was mapping onto it, but you have an extraordinary degree of control over that. And so that was the idea of “bardo”—that people would die with some kind of mental affliction intact. And then it’s something like the Catholic purgatory: you go there and wait. But in my bardo, there’s a chance you could reason or feel your way out of it—you could get clear of your affliction.
It’s just your mind, your mind, you’re not your mind. I’m going to continue my pattern of reading something at you. And then asking you to just talk about it!
It’s working for me.
I’m a one-trick pony:
In surrendering our mass storytelling function to entities whose first priority is profit, we make a dangerous concession. “Tell us,” we say in effect, “as much truth as you can, while still making money.” This is not the same as asking: “Tell us the truth.”
A culture’s ability to understand the world and itself is critical to its survival. But today we are led into the arena of public debate by seers whose main gift is their ability to compel people to continue to watch them.
That was published in your book The Braindead Megaphone, which was 2007, which feels a bit early to me, but you were ahead of the curve as usual. You write about how we live in an age of the megaphone. You talked with Ezra Klein at length about this in a really in-depth interview—everyone please go listen to it if you haven’t— reflecting on this and what’s happened in the intervening years. What do you think now?
I’m going to talk about your work a second, because I’ve been rereading it this week. And I thought: What is it that I’m loving about this work? And it had to do with feeling an intelligence that wasn’t my own, asking me to rise to it. You would go into these beautiful loops, and I was right with you. I could feel this beautiful, exploratory mind working in front of me. When I closed the book, or the next day when I was walking, I thought, This thing happening here isn’t happening in isolation. It’s reassuring that there are people out there [like Charles Yu] who have the same thoughts. And there was something well, of course, participatory about it, because you, the writer, are leading the way, by making up a scenario. And I’m following you. And that’s a meaningful connection, mind to mind. And I would contrast that with that stuff that happens 90 percent of the time, when you’re watching TV or on the internet, which is made by somebody far away with an agenda. Your only agenda, as you wrote your book, was to go, via language, into your highest register, and you trusted that I could join you there. It’s crazily reassuring to have another human being saying, “Of course we can go into these strange, nuanced places together, and we can come out still being affectionate with one another.” And we’re the better for that process. That’s a different message than I’m getting most of the time from our culture. And I think it has to do with materialism: basically, money helps me depersonalize you; meaning, it helps us depersonalize the Other.
I don’t know if you’ll feel comfortable answering this, but did you like dinner?
I loved those tomatoes. And I want to I want to thank Emily again, because I wouldn’t be here unless Emily asked me, and that’s incredible. Emily, you did a great job. I didn’t know this was happening until Emily brought me into the fold. So, thank you.
I did want to ask you: What is your favorite AI? Have you played around with it?
I have. Yeah, I did. I did just once. And it was ridiculous. I know it’ll become better. But someone told it, “Write a page of George Saunders.” It wasn’t even close. I mean, I would have had to line-edit the heck out of it.
This may be very naive, but my feeling is … okay, when I was young, I loved Hemingway so much—the whole thing, the language, the view of life, all that. And I think what I was loving was the idea that there was this kid from Oak Park, Illinois, Ernest Hemingway, who had a particular mind, and he went to Italy, and he got blown up, and blah, blah, blah, there was something about the fact that the person writing that stuff had been centrally present in the world, and now was telling me what he thought of it. What he thought of it—the intersection of his mind with the world as it was at that moment. A totally original intersectional moment. You aren’t ever going to get that with AI. You are always getting AI regurgitating or rearranging someone else’s original intersectional moment. Now we get to the place where a reader can’t tell the difference. But my contention is, that will only happen if readers get worse at reading—that is, if reading degrades to the point where we can no longer sense that original intersectional moment between World and Individual Mind. And this is part of the reason why LARB—and all of the support those of us here tonight are giving it—is important. Because we’re essentially holding the line, recognizing when something is human-created and nuanced versus when it’s machine-based and bullshit. But we can’t do that without the kind of ongoing training that reading something like the Los Angeles Review of Books gives us. I’m a big believer that analyzing fiction makes us more perceptive readers of it, and protects the human part of us. I don’t think AI is going to be a problem for those of us who love great books. But it might be a problem because there’s an increasingly large number of people who don’t read that closely. And reading expert analysis and criticism of literature is one of the ways we train ourselves in close reading.
First of all, thank you for saying that. And I could not agree more. If you’re talking about paying very close attention to art and to words, you might pay closer attention to reality. My question is, how do we do that? Should we just feed the computers? Like, really bad books? Just keep them in the dark? Like, how do we hold the mind and lead the charge against AI right now?
I think just the fact that we’re having this conversation is part of that process of resisting the machine. The second thing is … well, I think we want to gently connect the rise of AI to other things that are going on. And I don’t want to offend anybody, but, I mean, we’re having a writers strike for similar reasons. There are corporate and material forces suddenly getting into the business of saying that creativity is only to be monetized, seeing art as merely “content,” negating the fact that art is valuable exactly because it’s the product of the human mind. And that has value. It’s a fight across the culture. I don’t think AI is going to go away. And so, we have to be really clever. And human.
George Saunders is the author of 12 books, including the recent collection of short stories Liberation Day (2022) and the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize. He teaches at Syracuse University.
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