Illustration by Fionn McCabe.
Preparing to interview George Saunders, I kept thinking of The Skin, in which Curzio Malaparte writes that after the Allied liberation of Naples, due to the desperate state of its people and the ‘freedom’ the United States brought with them, you could buy anything in the city – the last virgin in Europe, an American tank, a woman’s youngest child – but that when you bought something you weren’t really buying it, you were buying a slice of someone’s hunger. I can’t think of a better analogy for what the works of Saunders illustrate about the world today. Across his short story collections – CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, In Persuasion Nation and Tenth of December – he shows a present or near-future in which anything and everything has been commodified, where characters sell slices of hunger, aspiration and bare need wholesale.
We see a system of corporate greed and rampant consumerism and we see the characters stuck within it, desperate to change their situations or, in most cases, just stay afloat, holding onto the promise that if they keep going, if they work hard enough – as the narrator in ‘Exhortation’ tells his staff – “All will be well and all will be well, etc., etc.”
Saunders’ stories inhabit this etc., in part because he did. Growing up in the Midwest – Chicago, Illinois – Saunders wanted to be a writer but couldn’t see how materially one could be. Instead he worked in a meatpacking factory, as a driver for a now defunct fast-food chain, and eventually as an environmental engineer. In his late twenties he made the move to study fiction at Syracuse and afterwards, to feed his children and secure rent, worked as a technical writer. For a long time, he wrote quasi-realistic stories in the vein of Hemingway that few people wanted to read and even fewer wanted to publish. And then one day, sitting at his day job, he decided to write about the things he saw. They were strange, so strange that to properly convey them his stories had to be strange too, balanced with humour and populated by totalitarian market research surveys, reanimated corpses, and women from developing countries strung up as ornaments on upper middle-class lawns.
Since the release of his first collection in 1996, he has been asked, Where’s the novel, when’s the novel? Now, in 2017, it’s written and it’s something else. In Lincoln in the Bardo, the reader follows Abraham Lincoln as he sits vigil in front of his young son’s tomb, slowly beginning to enter the ‘bardo’, the Tibetan conception of the afterlife, both a metaphysical state and a permeable place wherein a soul lingers between this life and their next. The book includes a mixture of real historical sources grafted with Saunders’ own inventions, a chorus of ghosts, and a grief that leaks, almost gaseous, from every page.
We spoke over the phone – Saunders in LA, I in Melbourne – as he prepared to tour the novel at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre.
TLB: I don’t want to ask about Trump because you’ve spoken about Trump and when you get to Australia everyone will ask you about him, even though I feel like almost everyone already has. But I do want to ask about your The New Yorker piece, the one where you went on a road trip following Trump’s campaign rallies. More than anything, reading it felt like I had entered a George Saunders’ story, like I was in ‘Bounty’ or ‘Pastoralia’, and I don’t think that’s just your style, or your patience, or, you know, the image of a bridal party carrying puppies. It seems we’ve entered this hyperbolic and absurd time that your characters would be at home in. I want to ask, what do you think of living in this strange place and does it feel familiar?
GS: It does. Actually, I think the world has always been this way. We can sometimes fool ourselves into thinking it’s orderly or sane but, having just written this Lincoln book, you know, that was an insane time too, that was kind of a dystopian novel. It might just be the strangeness of my mind, but I feel like if I work on a story long enough it burrows its way down past the surface-level confusion, and where it ends up, it always looks like that – a kind of crazy dystopian world – because I think it actually is a crazy dystopian world. It’s a post-Fall world, and it always has been because human beings are very strange, you know, they’re very desirous and confused and they’re often very – we are all very – almost dispositionally self-centred. My experience is that every time I go out and write a non-fiction piece, if I work hard enough on it and get to the truth of it, it starts looking like a weird fiction.
TLB: At the moment, any time a new thing comes out, everyone says this is so prescient, but when I go back to your stories in particular, the characters – Downtrodden Mary, Aunt Bernie in ‘Sea Oak’, the diarist in ‘The Semplica-Girl Diaries’ or the Semplica girls themselves – it feels like they fit any time. It was all happening long before this moment we’re talking about now.
GS: I think you’re right. There’s a fundamental American weirdness, or maybe it’s a human weirdness that I sometimes feel like I have a special angle on just because of who I am as a person, you know, my life and so on. But I don’t think anything that is happening now is entirely new. I think that a certain tendency in American life, in American thought, and in the American character, just got a little bit bigger than usual.
I keep going back to the Civil War because I’ve been thinking about it for five years, but you can kick up all the same strains then. If you read sort of below the history and the correspondence and the newspapers, you can see a slight rearrangement of the same polarity we’re seeing now.
It’s a very exhausting time to be a writer or to be a thinker because the Trump stuff changes every day and it really catches your resources. I’m trying to think of it now not as current events, breaking news, but as old, almost biblical manifestations of some very fundamental tendencies that aren’t just American actually, but human. That protects me from my intellectual exhaustion a little bit.
TLB: Let’s talk about the Lincoln book. I remember an interview you gave years ago with one of your former students, Patrick Dacey, where you mentioned that perhaps every book a writer writes after their first is just a deeper or more specific foray into the first one. You used the trash compactor scene from Star Wars as a metaphor, the same material just compressed and compressed. And yet, though I do see the connections to your earlier work, Lincoln in the Bardo feels so different. It feels expansive. The register of language is different, the time period is different, the endeavour, the form at times almost like a play, just alternating bars of dialogue and white space. How do you situate it?
GS: A lot of the time with questions about books I can only answer them by describing how they came to be. So in this one, you know, I felt like my work was clustered in a certain area. If you read one book and the next, you can be like, “Yeah, this is the same guy.” And then this idea presented itself twenty years ago and I kept feeling like I wanted to write it and then feeling, if I write it, this book is not going to be clustered with the other ones. For a while, that was a deal-breaker. Like, I don’t want to do that.
I think it’s because I thought, well, it would be less. It would be more serious. I would lose a lot of the sparkle I had in the other books. Then, at some point around 2012, it occurred to me that it wouldn’t necessarily have to be less. I started to get enthusiastic about the idea you just said, that it’s maybe just an expansion. So I think it was a matter of being an artist at a certain age who felt if I don’t at least try this, I’m going to be shut down in a certain way. If I don’t try this book it’s gonna haunt me for twenty years ’cos I’m gonna really think less of myself as an artist and to have thereby confined myself to be a repetition artist.
Having finished it, I think it’s kind of thrilling actually. You know how they say humans only use a tiny fraction of our brains, I think that’s also true of our artistic capacity, especially when you’re young. You’re trying to get published and to make a career for yourself, so it’s easy to get stuck in one corner of the room. For me, this is a very exciting thing to be able to knock down a wall and see that whatever this thing that we call our talent is, it can manifest in amazingly unimaginable ways. I can’t make a lot of sense of it, working this in the continuum and so on, but I think that’s actually the job, to try and confuse yourself so you can’t quite make that connection, and then to just keep confusing yourself until you’re eighty, ninety-seven years old, and you die. The idea of a continually expanding idea of who you are, that’s kind of what this whole thing is about.
TLB: It’s funny, I’m at my desk with beat-up copies of your books and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is staring up at me – you know, the confederate soldiers on the cover. The title story, one of your first big ones, it’s about the Civil War, and it’s a ghost story too.
GS: Yeah, I guess that’s right. It’s almost like, what do you call it, an oxymoron, you can’t literally burst out of yourself. I can tell you another place where I felt it in the writing. There were about six months where the early drafts of the book were much straighter than they are now, more subdued, and properly respectful of the history and so on. And that draft was scaring me a little bit. It felt a little dull, like it didn’t connect to those other books at all. It felt like somebody who had disavowed their whole artistic approach and done something else. So those two things were connected, that it felt dull and that actually I had denied my prior strengths. There was a frenzied period of figuring out how to connect the dots so to speak, and really that amounted to just slightly reconfiguring my idea of what humour was. Because one of the things that early boring draft had was it wasn’t funny at all. So then I went through a period where I just dropped some jokes in, but that had the effect of injuring the emotional power of it. So then I started understanding that actually humour is a subcategory of wit and, in this sense, wit just means remembering everything the book has already told you and exploiting it. So at that point, I thought, “Oh yeah, all these ghosts look weird,” and that became a source of humour and that humour changed the book in my mind and let me see it as connected to my earlier work. Now I’m kind of talking smartypants.
I think of it like this: let’s say, for example, that you were a really high-end maître d' at a really fancy restaurant and your whole skill set had to do with managing these people who came in and making them feel like they had a wonderful evening. And then suddenly you find yourself on a really trashy cruise ship, you know, with the same job. Okay, could you still do it? Yeah, I think you could, but you would have to invent or sort of retrofit a bunch of skills for the new job. And I think that’s true book to book. You’ve got a certain set of talents or skills that you know about and then your job is to put yourself on that cruise ship, put yourself in a new confusing situation so that you won’t get too complacent about those skills that you have. So you’re always kind of kicking their cage, going, “Okay you guys I’ve got a new job for you to do.”
TLB: I’m interested in the cruise ship, the maître d' running around. When I hear people talk about you, I hear things like “Oh, George Saunders is so imaginative, so creative, he gets his stories from dreams,” etc. But your work has a real structural intensity, which maybe most readers don’t necessarily pick up – they don’t need to – but it’s part of what makes the pace and the urgency so incredible. Rebecca Curtis has a really great essay on ‘Sea Oak’ where she talks about the structure of that story actually being quite classical, almost Shakespearean, so I’m interested in this in relation to Lincoln in the Bardo and the stories too. They seem obsessively drafted but with an ease – the reading is effortless. What does it feel like when you’re inside successive drafts, kicking the cage?
GS: I do a lot. One of the things with the early drafts is that they don’t feel fun or effortless. They’re a little cluttered, you know, they feel like anybody could have written them. They’re a little obvious, the jokes get hit three times, that kind of thing. So a lot of it is just taking unnecessary things out. I love that Rebecca Curtis essay, but to me, the big revelation of my writing period was that all those characteristics – you know, velocity and even structure – they actually result from revision and the purpose of that revision is very micro. It’s on the level of making better sentences, cleaner logic, eliminating contradictions, but I’m talking almost dental-tool level changes. In some mysterious way that I almost don’t like to think about because it might jinx it, that makes the qualities that you’re talking about.
That was a revelation to me because it meant you didn’t really have to worry about structure too much. If you can convince yourself pretty early that structural inevitability, you might call it, or clarity comes from the attention to the small things, and if you are lucky enough to have a strong opinion about the small things, which I usually do, then you’re so lucky because you can just forget about those bigger issues that include, you know, the mother lode like character, moral ethical stance, all the stuff that when you’re a young writer you walk around the neighbourhood obsessing over. All those things will take care of themselves if you can occupy yourself on the sentence level.
TLB: How much do you feel when you’re occupied on the sentence level? Everyone talks about your stories in terms of what they make them feel, the degree of empathy.
GS: It oscillates, and actually I think that feeling of compassion or what you’re talking about has to do directly with that line-to-line concentration because if you have been over a sentence fifteen times – with whatever intention in mind; for me it has something to do with clarity, truthfulness and also a sense that’s pithy and original – it’s a way of paying increased attention to a character which means you’re also paying an increased attention to a reader. I think that’s what people feel when they talk about compassion. I will sometimes have an emotional feeling when I’m reading. At times in the Lincoln book I was editing closely and then maybe on the third or fourth day I would take a clean read through it – sometimes at that point something will hit you and feel like “Oh wow, that’s sad,” but, again, I tend to think if you do the line-to-line work the emotion is a result of that level of care.
I don’t think you can pre-engineer it and say, “Oh, maybe this section is a section that will be filled with pathos.” But as you’re cleaning it up it kind of tells you, “I’m the section that’s filled with pathos,” and you go, “Oh yeah, I notice that now, I’ll honour that,” but I didn’t design it to be that way.
TLB: There’s an interview with Rebecca Lee where she says that she sits at her desk every morning and meditates with her characters and that’s her work. For a while I did that, just try to sit there, but it became disconcerting. At a certain point, it was just me in front of my keyboard not doing anything for three months. It just felt sad.
GS: Well, this is the thing, you know, ’cos I can talk a bunch of shit about writing and I love doing it, but I always try to remind whatever audience I’m in that it’s just me, and any writer’s journey is to figure out what set of activities and tricks and self-delusions and self-gaming works for her. I have a friend who said that for him it was really important to remember that the time sitting by the window is writing time, you know, your mind is doing what it’s doing. For me, if I think outside of the story too much I’m kind of a lame-brain. But if I’m working from the inside of it, on the sentence level, the story always gets to a place where it’s clearer than I could have ever imagined. That’s the work I really like, when I get to not be such a dummy. And not because I will myself to be smarter, but because the work on the sentence is actually producing something that’s smarter than me.
TLB: When you’re on that sentence level, do you ever laugh when you’re writing? Sorry, it’s a personal question.
GS: I think I kind of virtually laugh, you know? It’s not like I’m sitting there bursting out laughing. It’s more like this commercial we used to have in the States where this guy, this actor who had a TV show where he was a doctor, comes on and says, “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV.” That’s kind of what it is for me when I’m reading something of mine; I’m not really laughing but I’m kind of noting that someone would be laughing. I can simulate your experience, and it’s not, it’s not analytical, but I don’t have a real deep or immediate emotional reaction to what I’m writing when I’m writing it. It’s more workmanlike than I wish it was.
More often, what I’m doing is putting abruptness into the prose. If you eliminate a lot of the usual padding, especially stuff that’s supposed to be humorous, there’s a kind of a density. Really, I’m seeking that more than I’m seeking humour but they come to be co-enabling. If I take a passage I’ve written that’s fairly conventional and I start trimming away at it, it tends to get funnier, or at least, more comic.
TLB: How does reading affect you? I mean, what are you reading at the moment?
GS: I just read a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets because I’d never read them all together and that was pretty interesting. Because I enjoyed that so much I went out and got the collected e e cummings. I haven’t written fiction in a while so I’m trying to get my language centres to pep up a little bit and wake up so I’m just reading some poetry.
TLB: Lincoln in the Bardo feels quite poetic. Maybe more so than your usual work.
GS: Yeah, but the only thing that messed me up is it’s also, well, it had that kind of obligation to write in nineteenth-century diction, or something like it. It was so weird, when I was writing it I spent so much time doing that, I kind of lost touch with contemporary language. What was surprising was I then lost interest in the contemporary world. It didn’t seem beautiful to me anymore. It kind of seemed boring because it wasn’t 1862. So now I’m trying to work it around the other way and reading contemporary language and wait for the world to light up again. It’s starting to happen so I feel good about that.
TLB: Once you’re back what do you think might be next?
GS: I don’t know, I mean anything I say would just be bullshit. I really am going to find it when I get there. The only thing I know for sure is I want to write it in contemporary language as opposed to anything from the nineteenth century. I found that if you kind of hold back on the reins of the wild horses they get wilder, so for me that means don’t think about it too much in advance, don’t plan it. I’m going to refuse to do anything until some idea comes forward and propels me. I know from experience that I almost shouldn’t try anything. Trying isn’t what I succeed at. I just have to wait and wait and wait until the idea is undeniable and then I’ll be okay.
TLB: You’re waiting for critical mass.
GS: Yeah, and this will sound a little bit insane, but it’s almost like if you were a guy sitting at the front gate of a factory, and every so often a new product from the basement is brought out for you and you go, “Oh, that’s a nice one to put out in the world,” and then everyone comes up to you, the guy at the front gate, and says, “Oh, that’s really good, that last one. What are you going to do next?”
The truth is the work is being done off-camera somewhere by forces that are quite invisible, even to the guy at the gate. Sometimes it’s terrifying, but I feel like I’ve been doing this for a long time and that the guys in the basement are really starting to gel. So, essentially, my job is to just stay out of the way and trust that when I go back to work it will keep being interesting, because whatever is going on in the basement that produced the last two books is still working, you know, even though I’m not right now. I take a lot of comfort in that, in that all I have to do, when it’s ready, is to show up and be really, really energetic.
Paul Dalla Rosa is a writer based in Melbourne. He is a former Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow and was a 2016 Next Wave Writer-in-Residence.
Fionn McCabe has a weird name so it’s easy to find him online. Google translate those Russian blog posts about him, they’re pretty funny.