Winter 2005 vol 4.1
An Interview with George Saunders
Mark Budman
GEORGE SAUNDERS is the author of two short story collections (Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline), both of which were New York Times Notable Books. In addition, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline was a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award, and was chosen by Esquire magazine as one of the top ten books of the 1990s. He is also the author of the New York Times bestselling children's book. The Very Persistent Cappers of Frip, with art by Lane Smith, which has received major children's literature awards in Italy and the Netherlands.

Saunders' work, which has been widely anthologized, and published in fifteen foreign countries has received four National Magazine Awards (the most recent in 2004) four National Magazine Awards (the most recent in 2004) and has four times been included in O. Henry Awards collections. He also served on the O'Henry judging panel in 2000. In 1999 he was chosen by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers forty and under, and in 2001 was chosen as one of Entertainment Weekly's "100 Most Creative People in Entertainment. "A recipient of a Lannen Fellowship for 2001-2002, he has recently published the introductory essay for the Modern Library's paperback edition o/Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His screenplay for CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is in development with Ben Stilier's company. Red Hour Films. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harpers, Story., and many other publications. He won the National Magazine Award in 1994 for his story The "400-pound CEO" and again in 1996far the story "Bounty." He has explored for oil in Sumatra, played guitar in a Texas bar band, and worked in a slaughterhouse. Saunders teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

Mark Budman: Your story "Adams" published in The New Yorker has no loveable or even likeable protagonists. The main characters are both bad, and one is just "badder" than the other is. We are not in the age of heroes and heroines any more, but what is the writer's leverage in making a story with an unpleasant and even repellent protagonist or anti-hero attractive to the reader?

George Saunders: I think in any story there is an additional place where readers look for likeability (or, as they say in Hollywood, "relateability")— the authorial voice and tone. There's nobody likeable in Confederacy of Dunces, but we feel an abundance of love and awareness in there, which, I think, is coming from the author. Likewise with Catch-22. The people are all nuts and unlikeable, except for one, the one who's watching and describing. So, if you buy the notion that we go to literature to get some idea of how to live (i.e., what to make of all of this chaos), then it makes sense that the authorial presence would be one place to look. In a story like "Adams," I guess the idea is that there's one sane consciousness (the authorial one, the one that created and is controlling the first-person narrator) and that's where we might look for "likeability."

   At least that's how I hope it worked.

MB: In some literary circles, the word "genre" has become anathema. Few respectable magazines would admit they publish a genre story, and if they would, they would mask it by other terms. "Slipstream" or "magic realism" comes to mind. Some of the stories you write, as it is evident from your short story collections Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline can be classified as "genre." What is your take on the thought that genre and high literature don't mix? Does your engineering background influence your dabbling in genre?

GS: My impulse is to pretend that "genre" and "literature" don't really signify anything essential. I've always felt that what makes literature "literature" is not so much the plot or tone or verisimilitude or any of those sorts of things, but its intent. What makes high literature is simply what we perceive to be the question at its heart. I think what I'm doing is using the outer form of genre to get at what I hope are the usual questions of literature: What is this life all about? Why are we so cruel? Is there any hope and, if so, where does it reside, and what are the costs of indulging in it? Etc.

I also think that, given the narrative sophistication of our times, it makes sense that, in order to get at these questions in a new and interesting way, nothing can be off-limits. We can not only use genre forms for sophisticated ends, we can even satirize genre forms, or use exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek distortions of genre forms. . . . We can get inside that genre form and wink at it, as it were, use the conventions, use the fact that we all know the conventions. In my view, as long as we keep our eye on the real heart of the matter—Faulkner's dictum that fiction should show "the human heart in conflict with itself"—then anything's game.

MB: Talking about being an engineer. Nothing wrong with that (I have an engineering degree myself)—but didn't the absence of a Master's in Fine Arts degree hinder you in any way? And I mean networking, as well as education.

GS: Actually I got an MA in English about six years after I got my engineering degree. It was an MA with a Creative Writing emphasis, but was basically an MFA. Having said that, I don't think the MFA did much in terms of networking. It was great to meet working writers and see how hard they worked. But my first "break" came when I had a story accepted over the transom from The New Yorker—no networking. In some ways I think the networking thing is over-rated. It's very possible to network one's way into publication, but it seems to me that, having done that, if the work isn't as good as it should be, it just fades away. So I think the main benefit to the MFA is working with other writers, having deep friendships with them, being challenged over and over to go to your highest ground. Also, for me, it was essential to see the way my mentors lived. I went to grad school never having been around writers. I assumed that one had to be drunk or addicted or crazy, just from the conventional wisdom. I studied with Tobias Wolff and it came as a great relief to see how wonderful and kind and sane he was, what a great husband and father. And to see how hard he worked on his writing, day in and day out, how much he honored the lineage, the craft, etc. The part of me that really didn't want to be a drunk or an addict or a lunatic was greatly relieved.

MB: How does teaching creative writing relate to your own writing career? Does it help you to develop it, or is this just a job that pays the bills while you are writing the next War and Peace!

GS: I think it helps my writing, in that it keeps me honest, or at least more honest. It's an honor to be surrounded by such talented and intense young people. It's also useful, I think, to always be trying to articulate what you believe about fiction. The main reason for this is so you are constantly being reminded that there are no easily articulated rules. The whole job is to write yourself into confusion and humility. Somehow teaching keeps all of this fresh for me, reminds me that it is a worthwhile task that nobody has ever truly mastered—because "mastering" it means an end to the necessary exploration one has to do to make a story happen.

MB: More on the subject of teaching. According to a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) survey released in July 2004, there are 14 million or so people in America today who dabble in creative writing. That doesn't count other parts of the world that traditionally produced some pretty good writers as well. Do you encourage your students to add to that number in spite of the actual number of readers steadily declining and in spite of the obvious inability of even a good writer to support himself or herself by writing in today's multimedia world?

GS: I maybe come at it a different way. My feeling is: If a person wants to study writing so much that they are willing to put their 'real' life aside, and sacrifice their earning potential, and possibly earn the scorn of their parents and peers, and if they are talented enough to get into our program (which typically gets 150-200 fiction applications and only accepts six)— then the process of getting those three years, and trying their very best to break through, find their own voice, etc, is ennobling and important and necessary. They'll never regret having tried it. Will they all "make it?" No way. But I think someone possessed of that strong a desire should try. Otherwise you take that unrequited feeling with you into the rest of your life.

At Syracuse we make a point of never claiming that any of our students will have "careers." We also don't claim that they will be able to "support themselves" with writing. They come because they can't help it—they love writing and desperately want to try and go as far artistically as they can. Also, what I notice in our program is that the writers make, and take with them, very strong friendships—I mean really deep, complex, risk-taking friendships. And with my vast 46-year-old worldly wisdom, I think: Well, there are worse things that can happen to you in your late twenties than to make a bunch of great loyal friends and indulge your wildest dream for a few years.

MB: Today, more than ever, people are into instant gratification. They want fast food, on the spot news, love at first sight, and immediate success. In this environment, the genre of flash (short-short or sudden fiction) thrives. A reader can finish reading a flash, in, well, in a flash, and have some time left for coffee or sex. What is your take on sudden fiction? Can it have enough meat to survive the rigors of time or is it just a passing fad?

GS: I don't think the length of a work of fiction would stop it from enduring. People have been writing really short stories for as long as there have been stories (Tolstoy, for example, wrote some beauties—"Alyosha the Pot" is one). It's a very difficult form and in some ways the most truthful one. I think, as with any artistic form, the thrill is in working within a constraint. The reader responds to how well the writer has worked within the self-imposed limit of brevity. I'm also not entirely sure I accept the premise that our reading life is linked with the pace of our "other" lives —people still take time to read War and Peace, still take time to deeply study a certain topic, spend   weeks mastering a X-Box game. . . so although I agree that the pace of life is frantic, I have a feeling that people who read, are going to make a certain time for that, and lose themselves in it the way people have always done.

MB: Bringing up the subject of sex. Consciously or unconsciously, writers have brought marketing devices like sex, war and intrigue to their works from the dawn of time. From Kamasutra to How To Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale, from Iliad to Catch 22, from Macbeth to Da Vinci Code. Readers expect that and would probably get upset if the work of literature doesn't have them. Is it possible to write an enduring work without having established expectations—those of readers or those of publishers—in mind?

GS: Well, it seems you're asking two questions here. One is: Isn't it the case that writers have always used sex, war, and intrigue to hook their readers? To which I would say yes, and good for them. Because whether it's in the world or in a book, sex and war and intrigue are, you know, interesting. And hooking a reader is what it's all about. It's honorable and desirable and very difficult to hook a reader, because hooking a reader means you've respected that person enough to make a real connection, to give generously of yourself. It means you've gone forward on the assumption that what is true and moving to you, will be true and moving to someone you've never even met yet—this beautiful assumption of commonality. What you are calling 'marketing' in this sense might also be called "being vital" or something like that. I have no problem at all with a writer trying to put everything that's in the world into her book. It may be an unintended consequence of all these MFA programs that this approach—the "entertaining" approach—gets discredited. Boldness is considered a little gauche or something. But I think it's important that literature be big and thrilling and robust, that it not rule anything out, or operate in rarefied air. (The reason for this reaction against Bigness, I'm guessing, is the fifteen tons of schlocky books that exist and sell like hotcakes, and are only about sex and intrigue, and about a form of sex/ intrigue that doesn't actually exist in the real world—this kind of existential pornography that makes up ninety percent of TV—"CSI: The All-Severed-Arms Episode!" etc.) But especially in harrowing times like ours, I think it's essential that writers, especially serious literary writers, refuse to ghettoize themselves by flinching away from big or universal topics—or any topics, for that matter. This is the way that art becomes decadent, and irrelevant.

As for your second question, about writing an enduring work without having "established expectations" in mind—I'm not sure why one would want to write an enduring work without factoring in a reader's expectations. Expectations are necessary for a work of art to function. That's how we judge it: Did it do what we expected/wanted it to do? If I write, "Once there was a beautiful widow who swore she'd never love again,"—the reader gets expectations. And then the rest of the story becomes about the way I'm using those. You could say that this is what a story is: An engendered expectation, and then an attempt not to squander it. So a writer has to do two things: 1) Make an expectation, and 2) exploit it in an interesting way, that is both foreseeable (i.e., non-random) and surprising. Or another way of saying it: Originality consists of honoring expectations, but in a new way. A book moves us, and is original, when it uses a methodology we previously didn't know could move us, to move us.

As for publishers—my experience has been along the lines of, "If you build it, they will come." I've felt there's a rough kind of justice in the literary publishing world: if a book is good, it will find someone to support it. The ultimate "hook" is sincerity, and a drive on the writer's part to get to the bottom of something deeply personal, without respect to marketing, etc. Or at least I think we have to start with this assumption. It would be a useless and impossible enterprise to try and outguess, or anticipate, the industry.