Interview with George Saunders, 2013 National Book Award Finalist, Fiction
Tenth of December
Interview by Edan Lepucki
Edan Lepucki: Firstly, congratulations on being a Finalist for the National Book Award! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. What was the first thing you did after hearing the news of your nomination?
George Saunders: I deleted an in-progress essay I was working on called ‘Why Awards Don’t Matter.’
Ha. No—I was in Las Vegas to do a reading and immediately called my wife.
EL: Do you recall a moment in writing this book when the process seemed just too difficult to go on? How about a moment when you really enjoyed yourself? Please explain.
GS: One of the stories in the book (‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’) took 14 years to finish—but honestly, even that was sort of pleasurable. I love the feeling of being on the hunt—the feeling that the story is refusing to be solved in some lesser way and is insisting that you see it on its highest terms. One really enjoyable moment was sending that story, which still wasn’t done, to Andy Ward, and having him counsel me to have faith in it, and finish it, and put it in the book. I’d been on the fence about it. It would have been a much less interesting book without it, but I’d been working on it so long I’d lost any clarity. So what a wonderful thing, to have someone you trust deeply give you such strong advice—it’s what enabled me to finish it.
Another really enjoyable moment was reworking the ending to ‘Victory Lap’ with Deborah Treisman, at the eleventh hour, when it was already in galleys at The New Yorker—we found a nice complication in the last page or so. And it was a tribute to the way we work together that neither one of us balked at this last-minute adjustment—we were just in it together, for the fun of the story, trying to get it to be its very best.
EL: How does Tenth of December differ, in your mind, from your previous story collections? In other words, how is it a continuation of aesthetic preoccupations, and how is it a divergence?
GS: My idea about collections is that you write as hard as you can for some period (seven years, in this case, unless you count that 14-year story, which I hope you won’t) and what you’re really doing during that time is hyper-focusing on the individual pieces—trying to make each one sit up and really do some surprising work. So I’m not thinking much about overall themes or preoccupations or anything like that (really I’m actively trying not to think about them, because doing that can cause you to truncate the natural energy that your subconscious is giving off). Instead I’m just trusting that, if I’m working hard, various notions and riffs and motifs and so on are very naturally suffusing the stories and the resulting book (and in a more profound way than would have occurred if I’d tried to ‘put them’ there.)
Having said that, I can step away from this book and see that it’s (maybe) a (somewhat) gentler thing than my previous collections. Still harsh, still dark—but within that dark offset there’s some light getting thrown off, I think. It seems to me that some of the stories work like this: a terrible disaster is about to occur—and something (or someone) stops that from happening. Or, a disaster does occur, but someone does something that mitigates it somehow.
That squares with the way I’m feeling at this stage of my life. When I was younger, I found myself kind of shocked at the harshness of life. We had our kids and not much money, and were both working harder (and with more at stake) than we ever had (and we had worked pretty hard before) and although we were doing fine, it really opened my eyes to how harsh our culture (and, well, life) can be, especially under the auspices of capitalism. I thought: ‘Wow, if life is this hard for us—two relatively bright and privileged college graduates—there must be so much submerged suffering out there.’ So that revelation (and why that should have been a revelation, I have no idea) felt very urgent. And it was that revelation (and the resulting outrage and clarity—the strange beauty of the world when seen through that lens) that I was trying to get into those early collections.
Now, the urgent revelation is more along the lines of: ‘Though all of that is still true, please note that life is not all chaos and cruelty; it is possible to live a life that is loving and dignified (if you’re lucky) and, what’s more, you do not get to live that kind of life unless someone along the way has sacrificed for you and cared for you and intervened on your behalf—and people are doing that all over the place, all the time.’ So positive human action is not only possible, but pervasive; human beings can improve and choose light and so on. And this is all happening in the midst of the aforementioned harshness. So in this book I felt like I was taking the first steps to be able to accommodate that new (to me) vision of the world.
EL: Your stories are wonderfully voice-driven. Almost everything we learn about a character is filtered by the words he or she uses, as with this line from the collection’s first story, ‘Victory Lap’: ‘You could always clear the mind with a hard pinch on your own minimal love handle.’ I love that! How does language help you to discover and develop character?
GS: Well, thanks. I think of that as ‘third-person ventriloquist’ mode. That’s really the only way I know how to approach character, honestly. I mean—when we think about who, exactly, a person is, it’s hard to do that without considering the language she uses—which both indicates who she is, and makes her who she is—we find out who we are when we start talking (or thinking).
If someone says, ‘I am reticent in terms of my possible future with Ed, just in terms of the low ceiling his ambient insecurity constructs vis-à-vis his future prospects,’ well—that’s one person. If she says, ‘That Ed is a frigging stinker! He kills me! That dope’s going nowhere fast, due to he’s such a nervous quakin’ bastard!’—that’s an entirely different person.
Well—or maybe it’s just that first person, drunk.
But the idea behind this third-person ventriloquist mode is that I try to leave the objective third-person as quickly as I can, and take on the diction and thought habits of the character. If you are looking to understand why a person might do something, a good clue would be in the way he thinks about (or justifies) it in his most private space, i.e., his unfiltered thoughts. Also, it’s a great way to find your way to a new or flamboyant or energetic voice, since the conceit is: I am going to imitate Man, Thinking. And there is absolutely no limit to that. Nobody knows what ‘Man, Thinking’ actually sounds like. We know what it has sounded like, in books—but a few minutes of closely examining one’s thoughts tells us that to represent thought in prose is absolutely impossible (if we define ‘thought’ to include all of those split-second impulses and sensations and half-memories and fleeting associations and rises of the gut and so on).
EL: In a review of this collection in the New York Times, Gregory Cowles writes, ‘Money worries have always figured in Saunders’s work, but in Tenth of December they cast longer shadows; they have deepened into a pervasive, somber mood that weights the book with a new and welcome gravity. Class anxiety is everywhere here.’ (I agree; and on a side note, I love to tell my husband, ‘Don’t denigrate my pay stub,’ which is an allusion to your story ‘Civilwarland in Bad Decline’). What say you? What role do you believe class plays in your fiction, and in the conflicts of your characters?
GS: I don’t know if it’s class—well, it IS class, sure—but I think of it more as ‘paucity issues.’ There’s something about not having enough that creates pathos and tension and humor, especially in a culture that equates plenty with moral rectitude. Paucity undercuts grace. That’s sort of funny (and sad). I grew up in Chicago and of course everyone I knew worked, and it was clear that work and the need for money superseded and sometimes rode right over ‘lesser’ concerns, such as marriage and family and leisure time and spiritual development. Work informed the rhythm of my life and the lives of everyone I knew. If a person was having a ‘personal issue’ (a troubled kid or a discovered affair or a health issue) well, that had to go on hold for eight hours—it was a necessary virtue to tough it out and put those things on the back burner and go to work. A person could get through her whole life and never get a minute to think. This was not coal mining country or anything like that—but still, Work was like some stern guy who came to the door every morning and said, ‘OK, knock that crap off and come with me. Stop fooling around.’ And off everybody went. So when I was young, I started noticing that the writers I loved (Hemingway, Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe) often had no or little real work in their stories—it was all exotica and hip work-avoidance: trout fishing and hitchhiking and so on. And that didn’t square with the life I was living. And I wasn’t finding paucity or petty money-worries represented in those books. But was certainly finding it in my life. So these concerns started to leech into my writing (since keeping them out meant falsifying the voices and structure and content of the stories), and now I feel like paucity vs. grace is one of the great American issues—we all live with it every day. As Paul Simon beautifully put it, “Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day / and I’m trying to get some rest / That’s all I’m trying / To get some rest.”
EL: When I saw you speak at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop back in 2005 or 2006, you said you were slowly working on a short story made up entirely of brand names, including the verbs. Is that a real project? Any chance we’ll get to read that amazing (and terrifying) story any time soon?
GS: I don’t think that was a real project. I hope not. I did write one story that was all commercials (“In Persuasion Nation”) but that was about as far as I want to go in that direction. That’s a scary thought, though—that someone remembers something I said in 2005. I think that was back when I was also claiming to have written War and Peace, and to have invented the knife.
EL: If your book could go on a cross-country road trip with another book, what book would that be, and why?
GS: I’m not a big fan of my books going on cross-country road trips. They get arrogant and, next thing you know, start aspiring to become ‘large-print’ books. I say, let them stay home and be regular small-print books, you know? One of my books (I think it was Pastoralia) went on a cross-country road-trip and came home married to an iPad! And was suddenly ashamed of ‘being made of just paper.’ He completely lost his sense of self and, trying to impress his ‘wife,’ started mumbling about wanting to become ‘a major motion picture.’ It worked out fine—I used him as a doorstop for a few years and now he’s back to normal.
But if I had to send my book on a cross-country road trip, I’d send it with a collection by Alice Munro or Tobias Wolff or Lorrie Moore, so it could improve itself by association.
Edan Lepucki is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me and a staff writer for The Millions. Her first novel, California, is forthcoming in 2014 from Little, Brown. She's the founder and director of Writing Workshops Los Angeles.