A GEORGE SAUNDERS STORY compresses the absurdities we face every day into manageable, cathartic barbs aimed at aspects of contemporary American society. A George Saunders story ennobles the seemingly futile attempts of flawed human beings to find pleasure in a life that may not offer it up willingly. A George Saunders story is filled with numerous ideas, all of them working beautifully in concert to paint a picture of American life at once fanciful, recognizable, and illuminating. George Saunders knows how to be funny, and he knows that isn’t enough. Although his stories have always been flavored with uproarious comedy, they are propelled by characters so rich with human feelings and faults as to emotionally engage a reader as few other contemporary writers are capable of doing. That emotional engagement marks Saunders’s new book of stories, Tenth of December, even more distinctly than his previous collections.
Saunders recently spoke to LARB about the themes and ideas that animate his stories, and in so doing, provides us with a master class on the craft of the short story.
Casey Burchby: Although the stories in Tenth of December are not without humor, the tone of this collection is more somber than that of your previous collections. Was this a conscious choice when putting this collection together, or have you noted an overall tonal shift in your work?
George Saunders: It wasn’t conscious, really, no. I try not to make any big decisions like that outside the context of an individual story. So at some point near the end of the book I might read it all at once and notice some things about the tone and so forth. But to me, a book is a collection of thousands of micro-decisions that you make on the fly, on the basis of taste. And then you keep coming back in revision and remaking or reversing those decisions. So over time the story starts to get shaped in ways you couldn’t have anticipated, and the ideas and themes and so on get produced almost inadvertently — and yet tend to mirror what’s actually going on with you. The hope is that the finished product would outstrip any sort of aspiration or plan for it you might be able to make at the outset — that it might become more than the sum of its parts and — in a weird way — more “like you” — more reflective of your preoccupations and state of mind and so on.
CB: Many of your stories take place in suburban settings. In what ways has suburbia shaped your thinking about the world and the kinds of stories you tell?
GS: To make any kind of sense, or get any momentum going, a writer has to have a language that can be sort of overfilled and made joyous. And, weirdly, that may have little to do with his idea of what literature is or his intention or any of that — it just turns out that your prime generative language is about this or that. So — Turgenev could really get it going on when writing about Russian forests and villages; Vonnegut could make magic out of vaguely sci-fi scenarios rendered in short, tight sentences; Flannery O’Connor came alive around the topic of hubris. I am kind of in love with contemporary American landscape — the muffler store next to the pioneer graveyard and so on — and I do tend to place stories there — but by default rather than design. Or, more precisely: I am following or sniffing after some kind of lively or edgy language and then suddenly find that a setting is being generated.
CB: In a number of these (and your previous) stories, characters find themselves grappling with strange technological “innovations.” Does technology disturb you? Do you avoid computers and gadgets?
GS: No, not at all. I like technology. I just think it’s complicated and funny, I guess — the way our basic neuroses are always seeking a home, and whenever we invent something new, our neuroses rush over there and get writ large. Before there were cellphones and Twitter and Facebook were people narcissistic? Ha. But those are beautiful ways of heightening our narcissism and putting a big old spotlight on it. And really — as above — my experience has been that I don’t choose a topic or theme or anything like that, but just sort of wade in and see if I can get any magic going on the sentence level — and then “story” comes out of that, as do “meaning” and “theme” and all of that, and occasionally a weird new technology. The main job is to make some forward momentum and language-level engagement, I think — and then the rest of the stuff, meaning, theme, etc., has to — and will – take care of itself.
Or to put it another way: if the writer comes up with some strange device, and then lets people play with it, we are going to find out about people. If we have a device that lets us look into other people’s thoughts, we are going to find out about, say, humans’ need for attention and their pride and so on. “What does she think when she first catches sight of me? What? A big nose? I do not have a big nose!” So that story isn’t really about that device, or about technology — but about, say, pride, or self-regard. So the technology or sci-fi aspects are, I guess, means to an (old, classic, traditional) end: hold a mirror up to human foibles and tendencies.
CB: Several stories in the book — “The Semplica Girl Diaries” and “Escape from Spiderhead” particularly — revolve around forms of technology that characters aren’t able or willing to engage because of moral or other ramifications. Does technological gimmickry start to endanger people beyond a certain point?
GS: That’s a big question, and I guess I’d just have to say sure it does, sometimes. (Witness the atom bomb or that 1970s craze of “Asbestos Underwear.”) But as I mentioned above — the devices used in those stories are there mostly as tools — tools to get the moral-ethical wheels turning a bit and turn up the volume. And to be a degree more honest — on “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the whole thing came out of a dream I had. And when I woke up the dream didn’t seem insane, but weirdly charged — and I felt excited to try and flesh that world out. And the basic weird tech idea in the story was in the dream. So whatever was happening, it was my sub-conscious supplying the root material. And the only thing I “decided” was to go ahead and try it and see if I could make it stand up on its feet as a story. Very mysterious, really — I think sometimes we forget that art is really coming from somewhere other than our intention or decisions — it’s a gift from somewhere kind of unknown to us, except in glimpses…
CB: Much has been made of your skill as a satirist, but it seems to me that your approach to satire is rooted in behavior. Are you a “people-watcher”? I ask this because I detect the echo of overheard conversations at shopping malls and coffee shops in many of your stories.
GS: That’s an effect I work hard to get. I find that most overheard conversations, when written down, sound false. I think of dialogue in a story as being a form of poetry — it should feel like conversation but be more compressed and hyper-efficient.
CB: Relationships between parents and children are at the forefront of many of these stories, particularly in terms of thwarted expectations or failed responsibilities on the part of one generation toward another. Has your own parenting been a source of particular anxiety in this respect: that fear of falling short?
GS: Oh boy. Yes. I think that might serve as a definition of parenting: “That state in which, because of the existence of great love, an individual feels that he or she has failed, or is failing, or will soon fail.” But then, with luck — you get to the point where my wife and I are now — with two grown, excellent, marvelous, loving daughters — and you think: “Well, we somehow did okay.” Or: “They did okay in spite of us.”
CB: How does your work as a teacher dovetail with your writing? Or do the two things remain very separate for you?
GS: I just love them both, honestly. We got 520 apps at Syracuse last year and accepted six. So the students are beyond great, and also tend to be fantastically interesting and generous people. Teaching them is genuinely inspiring and always sends me home feeling renewed about writing — they really believe in the power of fiction and that helps me continue to believe too.
CB: What is it about the form of the short story that has kept you both engaged and productive over the years?
GS: Well… it’s impossible. It’s such a beautiful form, and I always feel that there’s a better story waiting around the corner — one that is more true to the way I see things. Also, the more you write them, the more you see how infinite they are — they can get into any space and speak to any person, and offer consolation and hope and all of that. And writing them expands your sense of the world and at times, I think, can even make you more patient and generous with other people. So that’s pretty appealing.