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George Saunders Interview: Tenth of December

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Tim Knox
Tim Knox

2013-02-27-George_Saunders.jpg

Author George Saunders. Portrait by Tim Knox.

"You're welcome to come in," says George Saunders, smiling slightly, "but I'd like to see your ID first." Sitting in Tavern restaurant in Los Angeles, Saunders is about to share a multi-prong idea about how he achieves his best writing. A beam of light falls directly on his glasses, revealing light blue eyes which, despite their fierce intelligence, are gentle. Saunders is wearing leather motorcycle boots, jeans, a white pressed shirt and a tie, with longish hair and a goatee.

A rock star, dressed by a professor.

Saunders is riding a wave of adulation of which most writers can only dream. Tenth of December, published by Random House, was proclaimed by the New York Times as the best book of 2013 -- in January. And subsequent reviews have only grown more breathless, culminating in a public consensus that this book signals Saunders's arrival as A Writer for Our Time.

For Saunders, the best writing comes from a consciousness of who he is when he sits down to write. He wants to see identification, not from his lunch companion, but from himself. "It's a self-awareness exercise where you're saying, 'You the writer have a thousand different selves that manifest differently every day.' If you're feeling really bad or negatively about what you're doing, okay, that's the only self we have to work with, but be warned: We're watching you and we don't trust you. But likewise, if you're feeling exuberant, and like a brilliant person: Okay, but we're watching you too, and we don't entirely trust you. But what we maybe trust is the cumulative effect of all those thousands of people coming in and staying a little while and leaving, and then slowly the piece begins to move into something. What I love about it is that it's a self-examining kind of profession. The job is to be in honest relation with yourself."

Saunders is a kind of literary guide, taking us on a tour of the human condition. In his previous three collections of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and In Persuasion Nation, he has outlined for us the cage built from capitalism and longing from which none of us is free. But in his latest collection, Tenth of December, there is hope at last that these bars might have the capacity to bend. Or that one could find redemption even from within them. Saunders's compassion for humanity infuses the darkest and most dehumanizing societal truths with laughter and a shared understanding. And buoyed by this new promise, a much larger audience has come.

Five years ago, George Saunders was on tour for his book of nonfiction, The Braindead Megaphone, and giving a reading at the Beverly Hills Library. He had already won the 2006 "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation, and in the audience were mostly literary-looking young men. Now, at a reading for ALOUD at the Los Angeles Public Library, fans of every age, sex and ethnicity pack the hall, their faces shine with recognition and connection, and two lines of people stream out into the hallways hoping for a seat. How does Saunders think that one literary voice can speak for so many?

"I think our brains basically came off the same assembly line, and that this is maybe one of the ways that fiction does what it does, even though we are all different people, different genders, with different backgrounds. Whatever it is that happens, for example, when you remember your first love is similar in our brains. So if I can, by some artificial machine, induce you to think about first love by describing my character's first love, then that thing lights up in your brain. And in this other reader's brain. I find it really hopeful. It's almost exploiting a physical characteristic of our construction. To say: 'Brain? Fresh cut grass on summer day.' And we both say: 'Ah.' It's a connection, a way of connecting, and in some way it's hopeful, that such disparate people can be connected by the same filament."

After graduating from the School of Mines, Saunders was a geophysicist in Sumatra. He returned to the States, and began to realize that his true calling was as a writer. In a devastating essay about his youthful struggles published in the New Yorker called "Chicago Christmas 1984," Saunders wrote, "Finally, in terms of money, I got it: money forestalled disgrace." It is this period of time and the spiritual ache, which Saunders says "never really goes away," that features largely in his fiction.

Saunders was in L.A. working as a doorman in the '80s, and he would wake up, every day, flinching a little bit. Despite his education, he had to keep that job, which wasn't easy, even though it paid so little. "So there you are: you're young, you're pretty healthy, and yet it seemed like life was full of degradations. You'd go to your job at the condo, and two or three people would insult you every day, in some way. And it seemed to be because you are a doorman. Because of money, you're beholden to your boss, and if you're not beholden to him, you're going to be beholden to someone else."

One day, while on a slightly better job of packing up boxes for movers, the geophysicist experienced his own seismic shift while dealing with the boss's assistant. "He was hectoring me and he was really after me, just because he could be. So, I was driving him one day, and he was doing this really pissy thing of saying, 'Speed up' and 'Slow down'. I remember the moment of feeling, 'Just be quiet, don't offend him.' But something in me just said, 'fuck it.' And I said, 'You shut the fuck up'. And I was bigger than him, and he kind of reared back and I said again, 'You've gotta shut the fuck up!' And he sat back. That was the moment, the platonic capitalist moment. But there are so many other moments when you don't do that."

Something that may have helped Saunders during these challenging years was a childhood he wholeheartedly describes as "euphoric." "My mom was incredibly generous with me, always. If I did something wrong, I would always feel comfortable confessing to her, and she would do a double-edged thing where she would let me know that, yes, I had done something wrong, but that my fundamental nature was good and that she was just as enthusiastic as ever. And so I would say that when I went out into the world, I could feel some trace of that. If something would appear to be a hardship, or somebody would appear to be an enemy. From her, I could feel my internalized mom kind of saying, 'Just hang on, it'll be all right.' Or, 'That guy doesn't seem to like you, but maybe he would, or could. Maybe you don't have to reject him just yet.' It's a kind of confidence that if you're in a situation that's not very good, if you abide, it could change. There's a Tillie Olsen story, Tell Me a Riddle. It's one of the most beautiful stories ever. It's a woman talking about her daughter in her mind and she says, and the whole time she's ironing, 'Make it so there is cause for her to believe that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.' In my childhood, I always felt empowered and loved. And then, as an artist you go out and you think, 'All right, I can endure and I can abide, because I've done it. And I've had it done for me.'"

Hearing this, the myth that "all great writers must be tortured" probably sighed, then went out for a scotch on the rocks.

Saunders's stories are part science-fiction, part hyper-realism, and it is through this microscope that he shows us who we are in modern life with unflinching clarity. This particular way of writing that sets him apart came to him in a unique way. He was working in Amarillo, Texas as a groundsman for an apartment complex and emotionally he felt, "I've got to do something that gives me power; I'm going to try to write fiction." And then he had a dream. In it, he was an attendant of a theme park, and he overlooked a gravity suspension exhibit. It was very beautiful, but its sole purpose was to make money; a tourist trap. A couple came in, and they were entranced by the whole thing and incredibly sweet, but the husband touched something and it was Saunders's job to yell at him. "So I woke up from that, and you know how sometimes you dream in a language? It had a very specific temporary sound that I had never heard before. So I just got up and typed a little bit. When I got home that day, I thought, 'Just for one day, I'm going to try this.' I had a kind of aversion to sci-fi or contemporary stuff; anything trendy. So I spent two or three nights goofing around with this idea, and it was like a homecoming. The whole set of rules were different and I knew exactly how to do it."

This was a life-changing moment. But once the piece was published, Saunders disavowed the whole approach thinking that he would now, "have to learn to be a real writer." "Unfortunately, I didn't have the self possession or maturity to believe in what I had found. I just didn't trust it. It didn't feel classic enough. But really, it was deeper than anything else I had written."

Saunders eventually took a job as a technical writer for the Radian Corporation, in Rochester, New York, supporting his wife and children while publishing his stories one by one. His devotion to his family -- they are only ever ten words away from any topic -- also inspired him. A newly minted feminist after the birth of his two daughters, Saunders found himself seething at a barber who checked out women in front of his shop, aggressively and relentlessly. Saunders thought to himself, "What an irritating asshole... I'm going to write and nail that guy", but over the course of a year the story stalled. "And then the voice of the story spoke: Write as much as you like, but I'm not moving until you use a little sympathy." And the story took a new turn: "The barber was now a pervert, jerk, and he didn't have any toes." The story became "The Barber's Unhappiness," first published in the New Yorker in 1999, and then again in the story collection Pastoralia. The moral? "The story is always talking to you, you just have to listen."

An alumnus of the graduate writing program at Syracuse University, Saunders has taught there for 16 years. This year, there were only six spots for 566 applicants. Initially, he thought, "I'm going to teach them to edit like I edit." And then he realized, "First, I have to listen for a year." These students have been chosen for a special quality that is unique only to them, and the trick is to harness that particular talent. One of the things Saunders likes to do is to hand them Hemingway's short story "Indian Camp." It's an eight-page story. But here's the fascinating twist: Saunders hands it to them only two pages at a time. He hands them the first two, and they discuss them. Then he hands them the next two. By this point the students are experiencing a kind of politely enraged impatience. And Saunders says to them, "This is one of the greatest short stories ever. Is it a masterpiece yet? What would he need to do in the next page and a half?" He's sharing his experience of the piece, which is that every single paragraph elevates the story to higher and higher levels.

One of George Saunders's great talents lies in paring words down to utilize them to their maximum effect. This enables him to talk about bleak subjects while simultaneously injecting them with enormous gusts of humor. "I think of it more in terms of rhythm and the sound, the sound of prose. There are times when I'll be writing something, re-reading it and it just doesn't sound right. It doesn't feel right. So then, it's a matter of working with it. At one point they asked Van Halen how he knew when to take was good and they could stop recording. And he said, 'I don't know, man, it's just the brown sound.' And that rang a bell with me. When you're looking at prose, you often talk about it in terms of theme or content or intention. But in my experience, it's mostly aural. The fascinating thing is that if I have a paragraph that isn't quite doing it for me, and I start poking at it, it starts sounding better and in the process it kicks out meaning. You sense that it needs a fourth beat, you supply it, and it's 'onion.' Well, suddenly you have an onion in the story. My feeling is, your attention to the sonic quality of the prose produces everything else."

Saunders currently writes in a finished toolshed, outside of internet reach, steps from his house. This, of course, leaves his family to affectionately call him, "the only tool in the tool shed." Saunders and his wife of 26 years, Paula, went to graduate school together. A writer herself, Paula is his first reader and the litmus test of whether a piece is working. Saunders says, "Either she's moved, or it doesn't work." Once, after reading his latest work she left him a single Post-it note with one word, in all caps: "TEARS."

Written over the course of 14 years, his haunting parable, "The Semplica-Girl Diaries," holds a great deal of importance and weight for Saunders in terms of our larger picture. "Ideally, the story becomes about the fact that we're sitting here, two lovable liberals, who try hard to be good and to be present in the world. One hundred years from now, they're going to look at us and say, 'Oh Wow, they were missing the big thing.' Now, what is it? I've been reading slave narratives and in those times even the abolitionists had fucked up ideas about slavery. Some of them, not all of them. Or that Victor Klemperer book about the Holocaust. It's a diary, so he's mostly talking about his wife and his health and his house and then suddenly he'll mention something about Hitler. But he doesn't know it's the Holocaust. I love the question of whatever it is that our time is missing. It's almost like saying, 'I'm going to examine my unconscious.' Well, you can't examine your unconscious, that's why it's the unconscious."

At lunch, and after his filled-to-capacity ALOUD reading, George Saunders shows a shining tenderness for people everywhere. He beams up at his patient readers who have waited on a mile-long line as he signs their books, putting each person at ease, making them thrilled that they came, before going on to the next. It's a very rare gift that he has, both on the page and in person. In his story, Escape from Spiderhead, due to a new drug they're testing, our hero experiences something he's never felt before. "It was that impossible thing: happiness that does not wilt to reveal the thin shoots of some new desire rising from within it." Even though it's 'impossible', it's hard not to hope that Saunders feels that kind of happiness, during this time of collective joy and unity surrounding his writing; even if only for a moment.

Tenth of December, Published by Random House: http://www.randomhouse.com/book/221295/tenth-of-december-by-george-saunders