My best self
an interview with george saunders
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl and John Lachausse
Called "the writer of our time" by the New York Times, George Saunders is an award-winning American writer of short stories, essays, novellas, and children's books. He teaches in the MFA program at Syracuse University, and frequently writes for GQ and The New Yorker. His novel Lincoln in the Bardo will be released in February of 2017. Keep up with him via Facebook, and visit his website at www.georgesaundersbooks.com.
TMR: You received a Bachelor’s degree in geophysical engineering in 1981, then 7 years later received your M.A. in creative writing from Syracuse University. Can you tell us about those 7 years, and what brought you to seek out a writing degree?
GS: Well, I did a lot of traveling around. I worked in Asia for two years, in the oilfields, then got sick and came home and did a bunch of odd jobs (in both senses of the word.)
I had it in mind to be a writer but had a little trouble actually getting started. I liked the idea of having written more than I liked the actual doing of it, and I think that was because I hadn’t done enough of it yet. Seems to me that the more you write, the more you see that it's all about making certain choices in revision – but before you’ve written enough, there’s a tendency to freeze up around the blank page and the huge number of decisions you think you have to make (“How should I sound? What’s my thing? Should my stories be hopeful or dark?”).
Seems to me that the more you write, the more you see that it's all about making certain choices in revision.
But really, none of those questions can be answered outside of the text, or by any method other than revision within the text, in my experience. At some point I had published three stories in little magazines and, right at that time, heard that there was such a thing as a creative writing program, and I felt that there might be something there that I needed.
TMR: Do you feel that you could still be the kind of writer you are, without the M.A.? How did attending Syracuse for creative writing help you improve?
GS: For me, it was essential.
The main thing that happened was that I saw how hard it was and how many talented people were doing it – in other words, it made me realize how much concentrated work was going to be needed, and that it would be a whole-life and life-long challenge. This happened because I was suddenly in the presence of real writers (the faculty) and real aspiring writers (my fellow students) instead of off in isolation, flattering myself. I heard the way these people talked about writing and reading. I read writers I’d never heard of before and wouldn’t have heard of. It also helped move me in the direction of asking that essential question: “What do I have to offer?”
It was like a sort of boot camp in figuring out what made me different from other writers, and also helped me realize that some of those differences weren’t necessarily “good” – I had a particular life and trajectory and way of thinking and all of that – even the stuff I’d been trying to expunge – had to be taken into account and used. So it helped me realize that certain things I’d been trying to suppress in the writing process might be my only hope for finding my voice.
TMR: Can you remember the first story you ever wrote? The first story you were ever proud of?
GS: The first story I can remember writing was an insane little pro-war screed I wrote when I was ten or something, in which the narrator (me, basically) gets time-transported back to 1944, and goes to fight the Germans, even though he’s only ten – the war is going badly and they have to start using kids, I guess.
The first story I was ever proud of was one called “A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room” – one of those three early stories I mentioned above. And I don’t know that I was really “proud” of it, exactly, but it was the first time I ever wrote something that surprised me, and about which I didn’t know how to feel. Before that (and after, for a number of years) I tended to know what I wanted to write and how I wanted to sound and how I wanted the story to be regarded – but the voice of that one came to me in a dream and I just followed that voice for a few days, sort of playfully, and then there was this story, and my relation to it was uncertain, except I could feel, by reading it, that it had a sort of quirky power to it – it was of me, but didn’t have my approval, if you see what I mean. And that gave it some edge.
TMR: Wikipedia says that your “fiction often focuses on the absurdity of consumerism, corporate culture and the role of mass media.” Would you agree? What would you say that your common themes are, and why do you choose to write about them?
GS: Well…yes and no. I mean, I think that’s a fair and smart reading. But if I thought, as I was about to start something, “be sure and focus on the absurdity of etc etc” that would be the end of that day’s writing. My feeling is, I use those things as comic material, in order to generate situations and good prose, and then the story becomes about…something else. Something more human, I hope, and something that could only have been gotten at by that particular arrangement of words (and I didn’t know what that “something” was at the outset, and might not even be sure by the end, and to state it any other way than in the form of that particular story would be to reduce it).
TMR: Do you do any research at all when you delve into a story?
GS: No. The only exception was this novel I have coming out in February, which is set in 1862, on one particular night, and has Abe Lincoln in it. For that, I did a bunch of reading, but mostly just so that the stuff I ended up inventing wouldn’t be insane.
For my short fiction, I usually just try to find a voice that is fun to do, and wait for that voice to produce some meaningful situation.
TMR: Give us the timeline of a story’s life. Do you conjure up an idea, then go straight to writing? Do you mull it over for a bit? Do you outline? Simply: how do you go about writing?
GS: Well, it’s different every time. As I mentioned above, the happiest circumstance for me is when there’s a voice that is occurring strongly to me. Or sometimes there’s some very general idea of something I’d like to do, and then a voice arrives to focus that intention.
the happiest circumstance for me is when there's a voice that is occurring strongly to me.
So my most recent story is called “Mother’s Day” and that one started with a story I’d heard about this old lady in an Upstate town we used to live in, who was this very elegantly dressed hoarder – used to roam around town all dressed-up, digging through people’s trash. So I thought, “Oh, that might be fun.” And then this voice arrived, which was that of a sort of cranky, working-class woman. So that didn’t quite fit with the idea I’d had of her, but I could hear it really strongly, so I went with it and she changed – became an entirely different woman over the years of working on the story.
So in general I am trying to steer toward a suite of things like fun/power/urgency/strong notions, and away from another, stiffer, suite that might include: control, thematic notions, rationality, and any notion that readerly delight will be obtained by “teaching” her something, or talking down to her.
TMR: What is the ideal environment for you to get your best writing done? Absolute silence, white noise?
GS: At this point it doesn’t seem to matter much, although I prefer to start early, before real life has taken over, and really love it when the day is wide-open – no appointments or commitments. But I try not to get too particular about it.
TMR: Do you write best (though the term may be subjective) when you’re in a certain mood? If so, why?
I write best when I'm happy, and I think that's because even a very sad story is meant to be a form of celebration.
GS: I write best when I’m happy, and I think that’s because even a very sad story is meant to be a form of celebration.
TMR: Some people write because they feel that they have to, to answer questions about themselves and the world. Others write because it’s what they’re good at, and they get praise for it. There are countless reasons why a person might write; why do you?
GS: Because I’m good at it – but that answer contains other answers too. If you are “good at” something it means you occupy a higher version of yourself while doing it – very pleasurable. If you get praised for something, that usually means you are managing, while doing that thing, to make other people happy – that’s nice.
Mostly I think I write because, in being good at it (and trying to be better at it) I feel like my best self – smarter, funnier, more patient, more loving.
TMR: In “My Writing Education: A Time Line” you mention losing the magic and “somehow [becoming] a plodding, timid, bad realist.” Tell us about this. Why, do you think, did you lose the magic and go towards conventional realism?
GS: I think this was a case of trying to over-control the process. I wanted to 1) know what I was supposed to do and 2) then, simply, do it. But that isn’t art, sadly.
TMR: What caused you to break out of that “Nick Adams” mode and write a good story?
GS: Impatience, and the humiliation that comes with doing your life’s work tepidly. I’d just had enough of going at half-speed and something almost biological took over and made me start writing in a more honest and funny mode.
TMR: Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get published for the first time?
GS: Don’t worry about the mere fact of getting published. There are so many places to “be published” now that that, in itself, isn’t all that meaningful. Read the journals in which you wish to appear. Read the great writers and aspire to write really great stuff, assuming that the rest will take care of itself. Try to get published in the very best venues.
TMR: Do you have any advice on how to deal with writer’s block?
GS: Say to yourself: there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Remember what David Foster Wallace said about it – writer’s block is just a case of holding too high a standard.
Just type some crap. Then revise that crap. And just like that: you're writing again.
In other words, if you are “blocked” you are being too hard on yourself. Just type some crap. Then revise that crap. And just like that: you’re writing again.