Hunting Down Repositories: A Conversation with George Saunders

By Sean HooksFebruary 5, 2021

Hunting Down Repositories: A Conversation with George Saunders
GEORGE SAUNDERS, now in his early 60s, is a long-standing professor in the MFA Creative Writing program at Syracuse University’s College of Arts & Sciences. Widely recognized as one of the great living practitioners of the short story form, Saunders is a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and a winner of the Booker Prize for his first novel, 2017’s Lincoln in the Bardo. I conducted this interview at the end of 2020 in preparation for the release of his first nonfiction standalone title, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, an eclectic and engrossing text that condenses the experience of workshopping with a master writer well-versed in instruction and invested in the continued development of his own reading acumen. I emailed George the questions, and he replied with alacrity, composing his answers in what I like to think of as the Nabokovian Strong Opinions mode.


SEAN HOOKS: A Swim in the Pond in the Rain (subtitled “In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life”) consists of your introductory remarks, seven short stories (Chekhov/Turgenev/Chekhov/Tolstoy/Gogol/Chekhov/Tolstoy), the earliest dating to 1836 and the latest to 1905 but not presented chronologically (or reverse chronologically), your teacherly commentary interspersed after each, except for the first one, where it’s inserted during the story, and then an “Afterthought” postscript to each commentary. Lastly, there are a closing statement and a trio of appendices containing exercises for aspiring writers. Why this organizational scheme? Were there outtakes? And when did you first come across these stories yourself?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Well, I guess I was kind of demonstrating a principle I describe in the book — the value of iteration. I just kept trying different approaches and then … seeing what felt wrong about that approach — what it stopped me from doing fully. Another, more optimistic way of saying it: I kept blundering toward (what felt to me like) the light. (Asking, “What else do I need to say and what form will do that most gracefully?”) I knew I wanted the source texts in there, and wanted the reader to have a sort of “clean shot” at them — reading them, first, in his or her own way. And then would come my essay, in which I’d take a run at the story, in the spirit of, “Well, here’s how I read it; let’s see if and where we might agree.” The Afterthought sections evolved out of an interest in keeping those response essays shapely; I wanted them to stay concerned with the story we’d just read and not go too far afield. So, if I had something beyond that to say — about my own process, for example — it felt more graceful to put them in those “Afterthought” sections.

For the first story (“In the Cart,” by Chekhov) I made an immediate exception to my own structure, and gave the reader the story a page at a time, interrupted by my thoughts on just that page. I did this because, over the years of teaching these stories, this has proven to be a great way to start the semester. It teaches the class how to get in the habit of reading the stories in a really granular way, line by line, continually asking, “How am I deciding whether I like this? Why am I opting to keep reading? What’s at play, so far?” Or: “Why am I suddenly not buying this? At what phrase or sentence did that happen, and why?”

For me, the subtext of the book is (came to be) the value of the intuitive or suprarational in art; the notion that there’s a part of the mind we don’t normally credit in intellectual work, or don’t credit enough — the world of the split-second preference, the decision that cannot be defended, the instinct that you follow just because it’s fun — and that one’s abilities in that realm really determine how powerful a writer one is — that realm is where the magic happens, or doesn’t. So we can feel our way (revise our way) toward greater truth and beauty and clarity — that this is actually how it’s done.

And meanwhile, in the book, I’m looking at the stories rather logically, I guess — analyzing their structures and the way they create and then exploit a sense of expectation in the reader — on the assumption that doing this hard work will somehow move the stories from our heads down into what we might call our “artistic bodies” and be available for use — sort of like the step where a musician learns the chord changes for a song that has really knocked her out. First, she listens and is moved — and then she studies, which is a way of really declaring one’s love for the form and one’s commitment to it. We don’t have to believe that a story was made per rigorous logic to analyze it on that basis. (We don’t know how the human body was designed, or by whom, but we learn something by figuring out how it breathes and walks and dies and so on.)

You’ve published your first novel (Lincoln in the Bardo, 2017) and now your first full-length nonfiction text (A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, 2021) relatively later in life. Both are esoteric and nontraditional, but is there a major methodological lesson you learned as you put together these two larger books after a bibliography dominated by inimitable short story collections? Or, to put it another way, what strategy for writing short fiction or what piece of advice dispensed in your workshops and in your new book doesn’t work for a longer text?

Oh, what an interesting question. Well, in fiction, my mantra is something like, “A line at a time.” I try not to worry about the story’s arc or theme or ending or any of that. Just keep walking ahead (to modify Styron’s idea) into my own flashlight beam, trusting that if I like each sentence, and each sentence is in relation to the previous and the next … then an arc and a theme and an ending will naturally appear.

With the novel and with this book, there’s a level more of (light) advance planning — I sort of make a structure on which to hang the improvisation. That is, I “allow” myself that. So, with the novel, that structure was this: 1) Lincoln goes to the crypt, holds his son’s body, eventually leaves the graveyard, and 2) Meanwhile, Willie, his son, who is not supposed to be lingering here in the afterlife, continues to do so, at his own peril, and then finally either stays or goes. That was the “outline.” With this book, the main thing was to figure out which stories to include (in the “real” class, we cover maybe 40 and here there was only going to be room for a fraction of that), and in what order they would be presented (the goal being that the accompanying essays would form a coherent and non-repetitive narrative of its own, when all was said and done). So … I guess I’d say that with the longer works, I allow myself to decide upon, or (more accurately) move toward/discover a coherent superstructure, so that all of those improvisatory moments will, in the end, add up to something that feels escalatory.

I want to ask about Syracuse, where you’ve lived for over 30 years, in particular the darkness and the cold and the early-coming winters. Upstate New York and 19th-century Russia strike me as brethren. I’m originally from New Jersey and made the drive north to “The ’Cuse” back in the pre-cell-phone 1990s. I recall a lightless three-hour stretch on Route 81 that felt like driving into a tenebrific hole, an American Goya painting. The insistent snowfall and high instance of seasonal depression up there always seemed very much like a breeding ground for first-class Russophilia. Thoughts?

You are correct. It is still like that, except for one fleeting week in late May, when everything quickly blooms and dies again and the snow again begins to fall.

I love this part of the world. We’ve recently been living mostly out in California (this book was written there, in Corralitos, near Santa Cruz) but we’ve been back here in NYS since August and I’m falling in love with it all over again. One of the sales pitches I give to prospective students goes something like, “Well, yes, the weather is terrible and it’s a pretty beat-up town and there’s not much to do.” I mean — for an aspiring writer, that actually is a decent sales pitch. You are going to be brought face-to-face with your writing issues in a town like Syracuse.

I also love Syracuse because, within it, you can find slices of every kind of America there is — affluent McMansion suburbs and decaying 1930s city streets and strip mall entrenchments and so on. I’ve always found it strangely beautiful and inspiring.

It was interesting, as I was writing this book, how many little nostalgia fragments got knocked loose every day, just from reading these texts that I’ve taught intermittently over the last 20 years at Syracuse. Memories of the different rooms where I’ve taught these stories, and the different students I’ve taught them to … there’s one room in particular, high up in what is called the Hall of Languages, and from that room, the campus looks like Europe, and now and then there’s a little window that sometimes blows open. Really, some of the deepest experiences of life have been while teaching — that lovely thing that happens when a class is really on the hunt together and individuals vanish and we become just one big, happy, thinking/seeking machine: bliss.

The year 2020 was one to endure: an absurdist presidential race, the roilings of identity politics, the aftermath of peaceful protests and violent riots, the expansion of the surveillance state, and hypocritical figures in government shutting down whole states, regions, and industries via Soviet-style diktat. The classic Russian short stories in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain arise from your teaching them many times now to collegians and grad students; do you plan on continuing to use them, and do you expect them to resonate with the unsettling events of this extraordinary year?

Yes, I plan to continue to teach them as long as I can still talk. (Note that I didn’t say “talk coherently.”) I think the beauty and value of fiction is that it deals with the underbelly of all current events — the basic failure-to-connect that keeps people separate and divided and the occasional happy sundering of that division. It’s just … made-up people, injected with real human tendencies, and then we let the experiment (the scale model) run its course. So any story that’s good is political in the ultimate sense, and is political in any time and place. For example, there’s a Chekhov story called “Grief” (not in the book), in which a guy mourns the death (earlier that day) of his son. But the guy’s a cabbie and no one wants to hear it. At the end of the day, he whispers, to his horse, “I had a son…” Now, on one level, that’s about loneliness and grief, but it’s also wildly political. What sort of world/culture is this, in which a guy has to be out working on the day of his son’s death, and in which he is considered too “lowly” to get any sympathy? The seeds of the Russian Revolution are in that story.

But it doesn’t tell the reader what to do with that knowledge — it just hands that knowledge over, in the form of what is just one degree away from an actual lived experience, and then the reader “has” that, informing her forever about loneliness and grief so much better than a mere concept about those things could ever do.

In a sense, in a story, we’re asking, “How does this little machine we call a human being work in a vacuum? What are its essential tendencies and habits and so on?” So that’s of value, always (since human tendencies are always the only thing happening in this world). We might say that politics — the temporary politics of any moment — get draped over the bucking horse that is perpetual human tendency. In any historical moment, certain of those tendencies are being highlighted by circumstance (“doubting truth” is one that is having a moment these days; ditto “conspiratorial thinking” and “anti-democratic power-grabbing” and “resentment of the elite”) but those tendencies are always there, in any era.

Also, when we read and analyze a story, we’re engaged in a kind of essential human activity: we’re having a reaction, noticing that we had a reaction, and then attempting to articulate that reaction. And this is all … heartwarming, I guess I’d say — or … encouraging, to know that we can do that and can learn to do it better. And that skill applies beyond fiction. You look at the state of our politics, or you go to a demonstration, or a Trump rally and … you have a reaction. You notice, and then bless, that reaction, and you try to articulate it so that someone else can understand it. Or, you meet someone, like or dislike them, note that reaction, control or suppress it or lean into it. That’s power; that’s being a powerful person. (If we have the reaction but don’t face it and/or can’t articulate it, that is frustration, which leads to irrational action.) And as we get better at that process, we become more confident and, therefore, more tolerant and generous.

That’s the theory anyway.

I think what we’re suffering from these days is the sense that other people, especially people who are ostensibly our “opponents,” are irredeemably different from, and less than, ourselves. Fiction will often put one such person (someone not us, and apparently less, i.e., with some “issue”) in front of us and then, over the course of the story, that person will come to seem more considerable — more like us, more worthy of consideration. And that is, of course, exactly what we should aspire to in real life — the gradual undoing of our initial, reductive, vaguely suspicious projections about other people. Or, we might say, we are trying to take the capitalizations out of “The Other,” and make it just “the other” and then finally do away with that separation all together, and come to think of that person as “me, on a different day, stuck in a different life.”

So reading can be a sort of compassion training, I guess you could say — a way to get better at it, when the stakes aren’t so high, and the self isn’t being habitually protected.

Your short story “Escape from Spiderhead” is being adapted into a major motion picture. You’ve dabbled in filmed media as screenwriter for the short film Sea Oak, produced by Amazon and based on your story of the same title. The audiobook for Lincoln in the Bardo features a cornucopic “cast” of A-list talent. And your children’s book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (with illustrator Lane Smith) recently had its 20th anniversary. I say all this as preamble to your penchant for collaborative work and to ask about a specific term in the artistic lexicon — “show runner.” The helmer of a serial narrative artwork differs from a film director/auteur. Some writers have basically said, “No thanks, too busy writing,” e.g., Jonathan Franzen’s disinterest in show running HBO’s attempted adaptation of The Corrections, while others, like David Benioff (Game of Thrones), have moved away from novels and short stories to work full-time as a show runner. Is this a position you’d attempt, and what’s your take on this relatively new appellation in the creative sphere?

I’m moving more in the opposite direction — I’ve resolved to just write fiction. Really, just because I love it and (therefore) am better at it than I am at any other sort of writing. I love collaborating, and the Sea Oak pilot was an unforgettable and thrilling artistic experience but somehow, having tried my hand at TV and screenwriting has had the effect of making me see my own, limited, gifts more clearly. At 62, I want to do what I can do really well, and nothing else.

It’s sort of obvious, but writing prose and writing scripts are really quite different forms and, if one has some respect for what it takes to do something on the highest level, one shouldn’t be mistaken for the other. The two forms work on entirely different bases. I really love sentences and that close tracking that the reader and writer do in a story, that mutual leaning-in over the words, that simultaneous creation of meaning. I find prose to be the subtlest and most intimate form of communication human beings have ever come up with — capable of indicating different meanings simultaneously, a great repository for ambiguity, and so on.

So, at this stage of life, I feel like doubling down on the word and the word alone.

A trio of quick ones, let’s call it a serving of literary blinis, to conclude this Q-and-A.

  • Coolest foreign book jacket on a George Saunders title.

I like this Italian cover for Lincoln in the Bardo

And this British one for “Fox 8” —

And this one, from what I think is a Japanese version of Congratulations, by the Way: Thoughts on Kindness

  • An underappreciated contemporary American short story that you consider every bit as teachable and destined for posterity as the ones in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.

Here are several, in my humble opinion. Not sure about “underappreciated” except that, for my money, all short stories are underappreciated:

“Hot Ice” by Stuart Dybek, “Dance of the Happy Shades” by Alice Munro, “Don’t Erase Me” by Carolyn Ferrell, “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, “Alive” by Ha Jin, “Helping” by Robert Stone, “Gorilla, My Love” by Toni Cade Bambara, “Roy Spivey,” by Miranda July.

  • Your favorite Russian film.

It’s a tie, between Leviathan, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, and Burnt by the Sun, by Nikita Mikhalkov. I also had a powerful experience with Man with a Movie Camera, directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife, Yelizaveta Svilova. Although, in a spirit of transparency, I should also say that these may be the only three Russian films I’ve ever seen.


Sean Hooks is a writer living in Los Angeles.


Banner image: "Hall of Languages" by Gary Dee is licensed under CC BY 2.o.

LARB Contributor

Sean Hooks has been an English professor in North Texas since growing up in working-class New Jersey and perambulating west through stints in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. His writings have been published in a variety of venues, and he continues to look for both inspiration and succor in human art.


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