In this multi-part web-exclusive interview for BOMBlog, George Saunders and Patrick Dacey discuss the writing process, storytelling technique (“Any monkey in a story had better be a dead monkey”), and how the mind is like the trash compactor from Star Wars.
I met George Saunders in the fall of 2000 when I was a junior at Syracuse University. I had never read his stories (had never read much fiction at all outside of what was assigned in high school), and took his writing workshop to meet a humanities requirement and because I thought it would be easy. I ended up suffering over some long, melodramatic piece about a narrator’s dead brother coming back to the beach where he had drowned and speaking from the beyond. There was no denying how terrible it was, but something happened for me in writing that piece, some kind of opening. It might have been knowing that George took an interest in my writing, though he’s such a generous teacher and writer that I can’t imagine he takes less time with any of his students. It was during this time that I read George’s first book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. There are stories in that book—“Isabelle,” “The 400-Pound CEO”—that have the capacity to make you laugh and weep in the time it takes to read them. George’s writing does what it seems to me all great writing is supposed to do, which is to garner an emotional response. In Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation, his second and third collections of stories, the voice of each character creates a narrative that lives in arm’s reach of us. Secretly, we believe these worlds exist. It is not that George opens our eyes to something we may not have considered, but that he breaks through intellectual apathy and allows us to see, hear, and feel what is inside us.
In this multi-part web-exclusive interview for BOMBlog, George Saunders and Patrick Dacey discuss growth as a writer, the place of the writing workshop (including a visit from a drunken Hemingway), and whether a man can ever really experience true happiness without an icicle impaling him through the head.
This is the second part of a two-part interview. Read part 1 here.
Patrick Dacey I’ve been thinking lately about the impulse new writers have to imitate their heroes—they know they want to write, and they know what resonates with them as readers, so they fall into a kind of trap where they write toward a preconceived ideal, taking whatever ideas they have and fitting them into someone else’s structure and style. My wife, Tara, taught a fiction class recently where two of her more promising students were Miranda July hopefuls who wrote stories full of non-sequiturs and quirky sweaters and neurotic inner monologues about mismatched shoelaces and Spam. What are your thoughts about the tendency among new writers to lean toward “what works” rather than pursuing a vision of their own? Is this maybe a necessary step for any artist, like the way a child learns to do things through observation and imitation before he becomes his own strange, self-motivated person? It also seems likely that by now there are more than a few George Saunders hopefuls out there who are trying to work versions of your characters or aspects of your style into their own stories. How does it affect you as a writer and reader when you come across this sort of thing, both among students and in published work?
George Saunders I definitely think this imitation phase is a good and necessary thing—or at least an unavoidable thing. I went through it in a big way, several times. I think what happens is that, as you get older, and start having more undeniably valid and costly life experiences, you start acutely feeling the distance between the prose you are imitating and your own life. It’s painful, actually, that disjunct. It grates.
BOMBlog’s Page Break is an ongoing Friday series that embraces long-form writing on the web by showcasing original works of fiction by emerging literary talents. The inaugural post features “Travelers” by Patrick Dacey.
Some years ago, near the top of a steep road in San Francisco, I pulled the parking brake on my car and sat there at a deathly angle, scared out of my mind. A group of bicyclists flew past on the cross street. Dressed in yellow and black, they looked like a storm of giant bees. One after another passed by and it kept going like that for a few minutes. A car horn beeped and in the rearview mirror, I could see a woman flipping her hand forward for me to get on. But, I couldn’t move. She let her car go down the hill a way and then punched the gas and sped past me in the other lane. We looked at each other for a moment. Her face was pink with anger, but I could tell she saw the terror in my eyes and knew what that terror felt like. “Don’t be afraid,” her eyes said. I pushed down the parking brake and did as she had, easing the car down the hill and then up over the crest onto level ground.
That night, I found a cheap hostel where the owner gave me a towel, a coin and a bar of soap. He let me into a room where there were two bunk beds and clothes spread out on three of the mattresses. The room smelled like mop water. I looked at the owner. “What did you expect?” he said. I was on the bottom bunk near the window, which had been left slightly open. There was a flat roof outside and I perched there and smoked and listened to the horns and whistles on the street below.