The George Saunders Interview

September 5 , 2003

Today is the day to draw an extremely flattering picture of yourself.

I know who should be the next governor of California. Read about it on the Black Table.

Well, all you aspiring writers, or lovers of literature, today is quite the interview. Today's interviewee makes the ha-ha in The New Yorker a good deal, which makes me happy in and of itself. He has published two short collections of stories, Pastoralia and Civilwarland in Bad Decline , plus a children's story as well. He also teaches creative writing at my alma mater's sworn enemy, Syracuse University, but we won't hold that against him, because as you will see, he is a really great guy.

The George Saunders Interview: Slightly Less Than Twenty Questions

Garrison Keillor has referred to you as "a brilliant new satirist bursting out of the gate in full stride." What do you think of the state of satire today? Is it in decline or fuller force than before?
I don't know if it's in better shape than before or worse, but I do think we need it more now than ever before. Or maybe we need it to be fiercer, since the stupid aggressive people have stepped up the level of their stupidity and aggression. I think of satire as this obnoxious persistent voice saying: It could be otherwise, you know. Or, as Thomas Moore once put it: "For the love of God man, think it possible you may be mistaken." So many people in the world seem so sure of themselves. So there is much to be done by those of us who are sure of nothing, and wish to export this feeling. I think. But I'm not sure. I'm not even sure that I'm not sure.

You used to be a geophysical engineer, which is a phrase I'm still not totally sure I understand. Have your left-brained activities and past influenced your writing much?
I think so. For one, I had different orthodoxies crammed down my throat than I would have if I'd been an English major. It also gave me a chance to travel in a technical capacity, which gave me an interesting slant on the whole Mercantile American Oppressor thing, since I was one. Finally, working as an engineer gives you a particular feeling for language, namely, that it should be efficient and get out of the way. I also am not charmed by technology. I feel about technology and all of its associated mock-authority and mystery, the way Chekhov felt about writers who glamorized the Russian peasantry: My grandfather was a serf, and I am not easily dazzled by peasant virtues.

What are the most valuable things a person can learn by continuing their education in creative writing?
Openness. Continual openness, and frequent humbling. A craft by which to live the rest of their lives, regardless of success, publication etc.

What's your children's book about? What inspired you to write it?
It's called The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip and I guess it's about the tendency we human beings have to assume that, if things are going well, it's because we earned it and deserve it. The other side of this, is the assumption that, if things are going poorly for you, it's your problem, since you probably deserve it. I wrote it for my daughters, basically, and for the fun of it.

What's different about writing for children than writing for adults?
I haven't figured that out, which is why, I'm guessing, my kid's book didn't sell very well.

It seems like every celebrity right now has written a children's book. Even Madonna has one coming out. Why is this the new fad?
The generous part of me thinks that people write kid's books because they loved kid's books when they were kids. The grouchy part of me thinks people write kid's books because they figure that, since kids are smaller and know fewer words, writing for them might be easier, and because they have latent savior complexes.

You're from Chicago originally. Do you miss anything about it?
I miss everything about it. The food, the loud sarcastic shouting, the abbreviated "th" dipthong, the White Sox, the food, driving by the scenes of childhood memories, the food, the small ping-pong-table-dominated basements, the plastic couch coverings, commercials that call it "Chicagoland," the food - just, you know, everything. The only thing I don't miss is Frank "Roundhead" Doblosky, who used to steal my lunch, all the way up until I was 30 years old.

What's the last thing that's made you laugh out loud?
I overheard a girl last night at the New York State Fair say, in this clipped Upstate accent: "So they got this chicken in this like box and you play against him in tic-tac-toe." She said it in this aggrieved tone of voice, as if she had played the chicken and lost.

Do you think most humorous writers feel that deep down they're still not writing "real" literature? Why is that?
I think they do until they get over it. My feeling is - and of course I can't defend this, but I do feel it - that much so-called "serious" writing fails to take into account the real insanity of the world: the fact that we can't control it, and all of our attempts at control - in our lives, in our thoughts, in our imagination of the world around us - are basically little denials of the real complexity and terror and beauty around us. Or to put it another way, I try not to make a distinction between "humorous" writing and "serious" writing. A better one, I think, is between "intense, honest, heartfelt" writing and "lame, denying, posing" writing.

Do you think it's more difficult to write humorous fiction than humorous nonfiction?
I don't know. In my fiction I'm not trying overtly to be funny. It's kind of a side benefit of the way I really see the world. My guess is, if you're going for pure laughs, it might be a little easier to get them via non-fiction, since, in that mode, you can more easily dispense with the twin horrors of fiction, Plot and Velocity.

In an interview with The Atlantic, you discuss modern vernacular language, like, you know, the overuse of the term "like." Are there any modern uses of language that have you going all: "Stop that. That's annoying and stupid."?
No, I love any vernacular, even if it is annoying and stupid, because I try to see it as another thrilling manifestion of who we are as a culture. Just like, say, fashion: Whatever someone is wearing, I like to see it. It's all display. It's interesting to ask why a particular verbal tic develops. What are we hiding/denying/leaning into when, for example, we obsessively use "like?" Or when certain phrases ("regime," "for the good of the Iraqi people") keep showing up?

In the same interview, you say that you've worked in some 'really cruddy jobs.' Can you give us some examples?
I worked as a knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse, a convenience store clerk, a bar-back, a doorman in a Beverly Hills condo, a roofer in Chicago, a mover in L.A. etc etc. Continuing this downward spiral, I was hoping to become a "Crap Classification Specialist," but luckily I got into grad school.

What's the most recent example of pop culture that you've used in a story or piece?
I like the idea of being "punked." It's so mean. Mean and easy. And I like how it's gone into the Bachelor-type shows, so now they get someone to fall in love with someone who is secretly HIV-positive or something. Again, mean. What does that say about us? I think it says, on some deep level, that we are mean. I also like this thing that happens on AOL when you first log in on a slow computer, and their little news logo gets all wonky. Like today it says: "Entertainment Rocks Holy City, Top Cleric Killed," over a photo of P Diddy.

What attracts you to short form writing? Will you be working on anything longer in the future?
What attracts me to stories is just that I seem to know what to do in that medium. That is, if I'm writing something short and compressed, I have strong tastes. Which makes it easier to proceed. As long as I can cut the prose down and try to get in and out as fast as possible, I'm able to stay confident and excited, convinced that I can actually finish. In longer works that are more slowly or judiciously paced, I tend to flounder. Who wants to spend their life floundering? That is word I have always loved. It always makes me think of someone waltzing with a fish.

Can you tell when you've written something really good, or is it what other people tell you?
I can tell but only after months of working on it. Some parts of it will persist. You keep on not cutting a certain section and at some point it becomes critical to what happens next. It gets woven into the real spine of the story and then it stays. I think that the idea of wanting someone else to validate what you're doing is natural in something as amorphous as fiction writing, but I also think a writer should wait and wait before showing stuff, at least at a certain point in their career. Because regardless of what anyone tells you, if it sucks and it goes out, it will suck, and it will be out. And your name will be on it. What a nightmare.

You and I have/had something in common: writing at the office, when you should be doing your job. Now that you work in the realm of literature, has your writing routine changed greatly?
It has changed a little, in that I have the luxury (sometimes) of setting aside a certain part of the day as "writing time." I kind of miss the urgency and secrecy of writing at work, but then again, it can cramp your style, that working thing. I'm glad I have the time but lately I've been artificially shortening my time-at-desk, just to get the intensity level up. My next step is going to be to start yelling at myself in my former boss's voice, while wearing a toupee like he wore and obsessively digging at my rear the way he used to do. Ah, the memories!

You teach at Syracuse University. What is an Orangeman?
An Orangeman is someone who has eaten too much citrus and turned orange and swollen up to about six times their normal size. And, if they then choose to go to sea on a ship, that is what's known as a "navel Orangeman." The sad thing is, at graduation, you'll walk around on campus and they'll be like crates and crates of Orange peels, surrounded by weeping parents. Always a difficult time of year.

Actually, it has to do with William of Orange, who was, I think, this really excellent 17th century basketball player.

Can you teach somebody to be a good writer? Or if they've got it, they've got it and if they don't…well, you can at least teach them good grammar?
I think you can take a talented young writer and speed them along, by exposing them to other writers and a high level of expectation and great literature. I think of it this way: the young writer is plodding through a dense forest, on ice skates. If a writing program does what it should, a frozen pond magically appears, and the writer moves forward more quickly for the following three years. And sometimes there are outright miraculous leaps forward.

How does it feel to be the 72nd person interviewed for

Well, it hurts. Why did it take so long? Who were the other 71? What did they have that I didn't? Was it because they were richer? More beautiful? You just can't imagine the agony I've endured over the last few years, as I sat by the phone, waiting and waiting for you to call, and then remembered that that phone had been disconnected, and that I didn't know of your existence and you didn't know of mine. And all that time, running through my head, was the painful mantra: There are 71 people in the world someone named Claire Zulkey finds more compelling and interesting than you, George, you big disappointing dullard.

But now I feel better.