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.
After graduating from college and working a handful of dead-end jobs, I was offered a fellowship to the MFA program at Syracuse, the time to write, and three years to spend in the company of George. If anything, that time taught me the most important lesson for a writer, and one that George preaches often: be disciplined. Since graduating, I’ve been fortunate enough to maintain a friendship with George, follow his writing, and find places for my own stories to appear. Along with being an immensely talented writer, George is a kind, generous, and whole-hearted human being. That the two go hand in hand is probably no accident.
This is the first of a two-part interview. Check back soon for more.
Patrick Dacey It’s been a few years since I was a student of yours at Syracuse, but I always enjoyed your classes because they felt more like conversations and I remember certain things you said that have been invaluable to me as a writer. A couple have stayed with me: “The moment when things get complicated, that’s what we try to move towards.” And: “A father and son in a bedroom doesn’t mean that something sexual has to happen.” Does it seem to you that writers sometimes choose to shy away from complications by going to the extreme?
George Saunders Right—those two are kind of like bookends—although also, wow, what a terror, to be quoted so accurately at such great temporal distance. You may remember some of my other biggies, such as, “Any monkey in a story had better be a dead monkey,” and “Aunts and uncles are best construed as the heliological equivalent of small-scale weather systems,” or (the mother of all advice-quote-pairs): “The number of rooms in a fictional house should be inversely proportional to the years during which the couple living in that house enjoyed true happiness.”
The first idea (“move towards the complicated”) is, I think, best understood as a habit of mind generally worth cultivating. Basically: steer towards the rapids. Say we’re writing “Little Red Riding Hood,” and we’ve just typed: “One day, Red’s mother handed her a picnic basket and told her to go see Granny, but not to talk to any strangers along the way.” So—should we have her meet a stranger? Yes. Should that stranger be potentially dangerous, like, say, a wolf? Sounds promising. Should Red engage with the wolf? (What a drag, if, at that point, she takes Mom’s advice and ignores the wolf: story over). Should the wolf she meets be evil, or a gentle, New Age wolf, who gives her some nice poems about daughter/granddaughter relations? Looking at a familiar story like that one, it’s pretty clear: a story is a thing that is full of dozens of crossroads moments, and if we make a habit of first, noticing these, and, second, steering toward the choice that gives off incrementally more power (or light, or heat, or throws open other interesting doors, etc.), this will, over the long haul, make the story more unique, more like itself, more incendiary. (Although even as I type this, I find myself intrigued by the poem-giving wolf. . . . )
That’s where the second idea comes in: as we try to steer toward the rapids, we sometimes do so reflexively, thus overriding reality, or probability, or story-power, in a way that can seem like a tic. We often auto-choose the naughty, the verboten, the violent, the coolly uneventful, the “literary.”
For example, a few years back, in our admissions pile at Syracuse, we were getting a gazillion stories where everyone over 40 was a pedophile. Or, you know—if he/she wasn’t a pedophile, it was through sheer act of will. And I started feeling that move as sort of habitual—it was what a young writer did when he/she didn’t know what else to do: throw a pedophile in there. So that decision—which must have felt, to those writers, like “steering toward the rapids”—was actually the opposite: it had become the lazy, go-to solution—a way of avoiding complexity.
That second bit-o’-shtick you mention in your question (“A father and a son in a bedroom. . .”) might refer to a larger principle, namely: we have to know what our reader is expecting and take that into account. If, for example, we make that father a Father—i.e., a priest—and have him call that kid into the dark, secluded back room of the church—well, at this particular cultural moment, certain expectations arise. And as writers, we have to know those, and deal with them somehow. If I say: a priest summoned an altar boy into the back room of the church—well, at some level we “expect” a molestation. We just do. Maybe in 1931 we didn’t—but we do now. (And “expect” might be too strong a word. Let’s say “molestation” comes into the realm of likely narrative possibilities.) So the writer has to know this, and respond accordingly. The molestation could occur, of course, but we’d have to make it occur in a way that somehow takes into account the fact that molestation-by-priest has become a trope and a Tonight Show punch line.
We all know that nice feeling that happens when we are expecting Thing A from a writer and we go, “Oh no, not that, that would be just too obvious,” and then she delivers, instead, Thing B, and Thing B evidences a bigger heart, or a wider experience, or just more attentiveness on her part, etc., etc. So: there in that back room, the priest might do or say something that suddenly reminds us that “priest” is a category that contains multitudes—from molesters (yes, sure, okay) to Merton-like spiritual beings of great kindness, like that priest at (I think it was) Auschwitz, who sacrificed himself so that some other people could live, and was then starved to death in a pit, and the others heard him singing hymns literally to the very end.
(Or, for that matter, the priest might do something that reminds us that “molester” is also a category that contains multitudes (!). That is, the molestation could go ahead and occur, at a level of detail/insight that astounds us and makes it all new again.)
I suppose what we’re really trying to develop is the ability to see, at a given moment in a story (stuck there, sick of our own prose, blinded to it by the hours we’ve already spent), all the inherent possibilities, and then choose the one that is most. . . something. I would tend to say: the one that is most uncommon, i.e., the one that would take the most time/energy/acuity of vision to come up with—the one that is farthest down the trail, so to speak. But I suppose that’s what distinguishes one writer from another: how he/she might complete that sentence: Choose the one that is most (??).
And, of course, all of the above is mere concept—we “decide” how to write by doing it over and over, all the while trying to avoid nauseating ourselves—and then we look up afterwards and maybe try to figure out what we’ve done, and what we, therefore, must “believe” about writing.
PD So building off this idea about the present and the reader’s expectations affecting that choice, is it fair to say that in fiction some sense of realism has to be apparent for a story to work?
GS I think so, yes. I’d make the case that the whole fictional thrill has to do with this idea of the reader and the writer closely tracking, if you will. Like one of those motorcycle sidecars: when the writer leans left, the reader does too. You don’t want your reader three blocks away, unaware that you are leaning. You want her right there with you, so that even an added comma makes a difference. And I think building that motorcycle has to do with that very odd moment when the writer “imagines” his reader—i.e., imagines where the reader “is” at that precise point in the story. This is more of a feeling thing than an analytical thing, but all that is good about fiction depends on this extrapolation. Which is pretty insane, when you think of it. The writer, in order to proceed, is theoretically trying to predict where his complex skein of language and image has left his reader, who he has likely never met and who is actually thousands of readers. Yikes! Better we should do something easier, like join the circus.
PD I’m thinking of the artist’s impulse to create. A few years back, Neil Young gave an interview to Charlie Rose, and he spoke about his songs as being gifts, and how he had to be open to receive those gifts, and to respect the source, be there for the source that provides him with whatever it is that gives him the ability to create. I guess I’m getting at a couple of things here. What do you think the impulse is for you to create and then give it away? And do you ever question that source or that story or line that strikes you at any given time?
GS I’m trying to read/edit as if I have no existing knowledge of the story, no investment in it, no sense of what Herculean effort went into writing page 23, no pretensions as to why the dull patch on page 4 is important for the fireworks that will happen on page 714. I’m essentially just trying to impersonate a first-time reader, who picks up the story and has to decide, at every point, whether to keep going.
As far as the “impulse to create”—what comes to mind is something like this. Say you were standing in a group of people, and nearby some guys were throwing a Frisbee around, and suddenly one of them misthrew, and here it comes now, right over your head—that impulse to jump up and catch it is similar to what I feel when I’m writing. Partly the motivation is a “because it’s there” kind of thing. You start a story and in rereading it, see a place where it could be made better. Well, why not?
As for the last question—if I’m understanding the question correctly, then yes: I think that’s part of what we’re always trying to learn: which storyline is going to prove to be a dud, which impulse is trustworthy, which is going to lead us to an eight-month editing nightmare. . . . and at least so far, whatever I’ve learned is at such a weird, subtle, sub-verbal level that I can’t really articulate it. I imagine it might be something like being a good athlete (and here I really have to imagine. . . ). What does a really good tennis player know? There is, of course, some basic conceptual knowledge—the grip, general strategies for pacing oneself over the course of a match, or whatever. . . . but what really distinguishes that player from the (lesser) player he/she was five years earlier is a series of neurological/muscle impulses and responses that he/she has “learned” in some sub-verbal place.
My feeling is that it’s similar with art. You put in thousands of hours at the writing desk and the result is some refinement of your hundred-a-day micro-decisions. I am more convinced than ever that the talking and the doing are miles apart—probably mutually helpful in some complicated way, but still, miles apart.
PD I believe that, too. I was late to writing, and, to be honest, reading. I had always wanted to be a professional football player, an offensive lineman. That was my goal up until I went to Syracuse as an undergraduate and realized I wasn’t 6-foot-4 and didn’t weigh 300-plus pounds. Then I took a class with Michael Burkard and became interested in writing, but I felt like I was so far behind, that I hadn’t read anything yet and couldn’t really explain what I was trying to write, but I was getting good feedback and beginning to write stories and I read your books and Denis Johnson’s and Raymond Carver’s and found out what books you and Johnson and Carver read, and so on. I have come to see not knowing too much as an advantage, not only in writing but in teaching.
I’m thinking about this student I had last summer when I was teaching an American Lit course. We were reading Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener and I asked the class what they thought of the story and everyone was silent, but I could see this one student wanted to say something but didn’t know how to articulate it, so I asked him just to say the first thought that came to his mind when he finished the story, and he said, “All I really know is that this Melville dude must’ve been smokin’ some of that Kush weed.” I’m pretty sure that’s the exact quote. Now among crazy things a student has said, that’s up there. But, at the same time, I found it kind of encouraging. He was later able to articulate what he meant and point out specific parts of the piece that were especially filled with “Kush weed”-induced moments. He had read the story and he was into it and into seeing how it worked and this, more than a hundred and fifty years later, was his first emotional response and it was as though it gave the story that much more power, that it could be understood in this new way. Could you discuss how you came to writing, and, maybe more importantly, how you’ve been able to sustain your career and produce work that is original and your own? In another sense, how are you able to adapt to the new thing without relying on what was successful for you in the past?
GS I like that: “the mentality of the athlete.” That seems right to me. And I noticed you thinking that way even back when you were a student—you always had this very admirable sense of “whatever it takes” with regard to your own work. I always knew that if I said “Isaac Babel” you’d come back soon having read it all.
Anyway—I came to writing sort of gradually. When I think back, I’m always kind of amazed that I didn’t see earlier that it was what I wanted to do. Or maybe I saw it and it scared me. I remember having this sense, in my early twenties, that if I actually tried to write anything, it might suck, and then the dream would be dead. I vaguely remember seeing something, when I was very young (maybe 3 or 4), about Hemingway’s death on TV. My memory is: a photo of him in that safari jacket, and the announcer sort of intoning all the cool things he’d done (“Africa! Cuba! Friends with movie stars!”). So I got this idea of a writer as someone who went out and did all these adventurous things, jotted down a few notes afterward, then got all this acclaim, world-wide attention etc., etc.—with the emphasis on the “adventuring” and not so much on the “jotting down.”
And yes—as your question intimates, one of the challenges of the writing life is to find new things to say and/or new ways to say them. And this is a paradox, because when you write your first book, you actually carve out a great deal of what you’ll end up working with for the rest of your life. And you come to it (or I did, anyway) with this sense of stumbling on a virgin landscape: it’s all new to you. You didn’t know you could sound that way and, having discovered a new way of sounding, there’s suddenly all this new material available to you, i.e., the new voice enabled, or even brought into being, all this stuff that previously you would have felt was sub-literary, or would just have been invisible to you as material. So that’s genuinely exciting. But then there’s the next 60 years to get through (!). A more mundane way of saying it: in your early work, if you’re going deep, you discover your themes, your voice, your (ugh) “concerns.” And if you did it right, you sort of plumbed your own psyche in this very intense way, and there’s no turning back. You made a legit discovery about who you are, and about what things you can do well, and the things you can’t, and maybe about your fundamental relation to the world, about what things you can make come alive, about (maybe most importantly of all) the way your mind works—its pre-inclinations, habits, prejudices, inexplicable fascinations.
Now, the hope would be that you’d have this virgin-landscape feeling for every book, but I’m not sure that’s the way the brain is set up. We’d have to see the further books as deeper and more specific forays into that same landscape—so this model suggests, depressingly enough, a gradually shrinking field of play for the writer—a room which is getting smaller and smaller—sort of like that garbage dump scene in Star Wars. My experience of writing is that I had to work very hard to discover a tiny little wedge of talent, and almost immediately became aware that there were certain things I just couldn’t do. So then the challenge became something like: get through the rest of my life while running back and forth on that little wedge of talent, without blatantly repeating myself. (While periodically trying, again, to do those things “I just couldn’t do,” to make sure I still couldn’t do them, just in case). For me, that has meant working pretty slowly, doing a ton of revision, only producing one or two stories a year, walking this fine line between becoming so OCD that I blocked right up vs. writing nice and loose but then producing stuff that wasn’t sufficiently original and had to be thrown away. But, maybe paradoxically, I’m also finding that this tiny wedge o’ talent, or gradually shrinking Star Wars garbage dump (or now I’ll shift metaphors and call it a “ledge of talent”—a ledge which is, let’s say, usually thinning/crumbling away, because much of what you feel inclined to do, you’ve already done) to be a deliriously interesting place to be. Much more interesting then, say, being granted an entirely new mind, and being allowed to write “another” first book.
PD I never thought of your short stories as criticisms of American life or signs of what’s to come, though—especially in In Persuasion Nation—the stories are topical; we can see them existing today, as some kind of reality. Do you approach each story with a subject in mind and then work through that story with that voice you’re talking about, that way of seeing things?
GS No, regrettably it’s a lot more scattershot than that. Really I am just trying to find some little interesting (to me) thing to start out with: something small, even trivial. Preferably something that doesn’t have a lot of thematic or political baggage—that is, a little crumb that is interesting but I’m not sure why, exactly. (As soon as I feel Theme looming, I know I’m in trouble.) Sometimes that crumb might be just a few lines in a certain voice, sometimes it’s a bit of dialogue, or something more conceptual that feels like it would be fun to riff around—that story CivilWarLand in Bad Decline was like that. I think I have to use this approach exactly because I’m so prone to being political and didactic and reductive—this approach is a way of confounding that part of myself, throwing it off the scent a bit.
PD Is this the same approach you take to your non-fiction writing?
GS No—with that kind of writing (and what a relief) I feel like I’m confined and driven by what actually happened. That makes the “plot,” so to speak. So it’s a process of getting all of my notes typed up, then scanning through the notes, trying to extract or find certain vignettes that seem like they might write well—that might have a potential for good energy, shape, etc., etc. And then at some point I start stringing these together, keeping an eye on the word count. It’s amazing how severe you have to be to represent a ten-day trip in 12,000 words.
The one thing the two genres have in common for me is that sense of trying to get the sentences to be minimal but at the same time be a little overfull—to encourage them to do a kind of poetic work. And I know you know all about this, Pat. That’s one thing I love about your work: this sense of poetic compression—the way that omission and close, loving attention at the sentence level make something that is both of the world but somehow floating above it too—a kind of fabulist feeling that has a real sense of awe and open-heartedness about it.
PD Everything moving forward quickly and purposefully. That seems to be the toughest part. Most of my undergraduate students think they need to tell the entire life story of their character (or their entire life story if it’s a personal narrative piece). But it’s unnecessary if you can do it with action and voice. I like to read to them the first paragraph of your story “Adams.” The first five words of the story are about the only background information we get and that’s less than half the words in the first sentence. The economy of language is so essential.
GS Yes. I think the “purposeful” is really hard and important. My feeling is, we don’t get any “points” for laying out something that the reader would otherwise assume or posit. Even writers we think of as being very big and lush and symphonic—like David Foster Wallace—are actually very structurally efficient. It’s like a well-built house that can then support all sorts of fancy decorative frills, extra rooms, etc.
I like the idea that a story—well, that we don’t really know what it is, exactly. And that this is actually the purpose of every story: to find one more active, breathing example of what a story can be.
This is the first of a two-part interview. Read the second half here.
Patrick Dacey’s fiction has been published in BOMB’s First Proof, Guernica, The Washington Square Review, Salt Hill, West Branch, and Stone Canoe, among other places. He has recently completed his first novel and is at work on a collection of short stories. Listen to Dacey read his short story, “Patriots,” for BOMB’s Fiction for Driving Across America podcast here. For more, go to www.patrickdacey.com.