George Saunders is the author of the acclaimed short story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia and the NY Times best-selling children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. His novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil was released by Riverhead Press in September 2005, and his third short story collection, In Persuasion Nation, was published in 2006. He is a three-time recipient of the National Magazine Award, and a four-time recipient of the O. Henry Award. Saunders is currently director of the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University.
Saunders: Well, to me, pop culture IS American culture. There isn’t really anything else. So then I find myself wondering: Does our culture (our pop culture) influence the way we live? I mean, does it morally inflect us? And I think it does. I think it makes us dumber and more materialistic. I think it’s, in part, why we’re in Iraq—our focus on our stupid pop culture and its dunced-out media made it less possible for us to think our way through the post 9/11 confusion. Also our culture makes our deep human travails seem somehow dopy. We walk out of the funeral of a beloved friend and there is a huge poster of some Hollywood star in drag in the Blockbusters window. Is that nothing? I think it’s something. I don’t know what it is, exactly…and we seem to survive it. But still, it is a feature of our cultural life. On the other hand, I’ve also had that feeling (we’ve all had it, I suspect) of mad love for our culture, its balls and freedom and swagger, its insistence on basic human autonomy, its denial of class, its sexuality, its hopefulness. So like anything, there are two sides to it. But I guess my point is, since pop culture is all we have, and it seems to inflect us, it must be the stuff of our literature.
Ex Machina Press: Corporate America pops up in a lot of your work as, perhaps villain isn't the right word, but maybe antagonist? Could you discuss the motives behind, the mechanics involved in, and perhaps even the repercussions of this trend in your work?
Saunders: I suspect it's more or less visceral. I don't have - have never had - a lot of money, and have, as long as I can remember, been feeling that pressure, the old work-to-live pressure. I mean, it has informed so many of my choices, and big ones too. My early stories, based, as they were, on the work of, say, Hemingway and Kerouac, were never about work, but about travel and adventure etc. But even as I was writing these I was always working my ass off, stealing time from work, trying to find work etc. So it came as a revelation that this should be reflected in my stories. I wrote the first book almost entirely at work and I think this money thing just naturally got titrated in - maybe in response to the guilt/pressure I felt at stealing time to write the book there in my cubicle? I don't know. But when I think of my life, I can feel that pressure of trying to get over, trying to make myself and my family a little cushion, at the back of everything I’ve ever done. That pressure and the corresponding fear of failure, was always there. And when I think of my personal failures-of-grace, my embarrassments -- these also have money, or rather the lack of, and the accompanying narrowness-of-choices, at their heart.
Ex Machina Press: Readers and critics tend to label you a satirist or even a moralist. I wonder if you think such distinctions can be limiting or even a trap in some respects. And to expand on that a little, I think what’s at the heart of that question is the issue of what compels you to write. Is it a need to explore or discover a political, social, or personal truth? Or is it something else?
Saunders: I think it would only be a trap if you believed it too much -- that is, if you were too wedded to it, or proud of it, or took it as an a priori assumption that whatever you were working on HAD to be satire, or HAD to have some kind of moral oomph. I think what happens is, I just look at the world that way – as a moral/ethical challenge -- and so inevitably these concerns seep in. I’m a worrier and have, I think, a natural affinity for people. I like people and feel bad for them when bad things happen. So I find myself wondering why these bad things happen, and if they are preventable and, if so, why we aren’t preventing more of them.
As far as what compels me to write....it's honestly that weird little pleasure of making something up. I can't rationalize it or defend it or even really describe it. But it has to do, I would imagine, with love of language and love of the books that have gotten under my skin, and this kind of euphoric sense of being allowed into that whole, centuries-old dialogue. There's just something satisfying to me about making up a little scale model of life that is (hopefully) convincing and charming and somehow self-contained and logical.
There is also that aspect of truth-exploring, for sure. This feeling of starting from some goofy made-up little concept and then working it and working it until it starts to feel like it contains something bigger, something you didn't plan -- and then suddenly it is about (you find) all the things that you really care about and are mystified about and that are dominating your life at the moment -- only you didn't plan it to be that way at all. That is really fun, and mysterious, and addictive.
Ex Machina Press: Describe how you take a story from that "goofy made-up little concept" stage to the "something tangible on the page" stage. Specifically, how do you work through the technical choices writers have to make - tense, POV, etc. Do you find you prefer present to past, first person to third? How can these kinds of choices affect a story?
Saunders: Tense, POV, etc are really just intuitive choices. Whatever feels most interesting, that's what I try. I don't really prefer first to third etc, but for sure each one has a different set of advantages and disadvantages. I think it has to do with what voice is most readily available at a given time -- that is, which seems like the most fun, or which one I can “do” most energetically at that moment. Maybe you’d say, which one I feel like doing at that moment. And then all kinds of consequences come out of that. But I don't do very much strategizing about which POV to use or any of that. The voice comes first.
Having said that -- I think my best work, or the work I hate least, has tended to be in first-person, present tense. But who knows why? And if I don't feel like writing in that mode, and try it, it often just fizzles.
As far as how it actually proceeds...first, the honest answer is: Differently every single time. There's generally a kind of very gradual accretion that goes on. There's this sense of pruning out weak phrases or sentences to make way for better ones. An urge to compression. An attempt to avoid repetitions, even on a micro-level. For example: Let's say I start out, God forbid, with: "Frank walked into the living room and sat down on the couch." In the editing mode, I'd ask: If it's a couch, do I have to say it's in the living room? (No). "Frank sat down on the couch." Do I have to say "down?" Can you sit up on a couch? (No). "Frank sat on the couch." And finally -- does what happens next depend on Frank sitting on the couch? Could he say/do it just as well standing up, which is the default position the reader will imagine? If so, cut the couch. And we are left with "Frank...." And then are moving efficiently on to the next good bit.
This is a little exaggerated but not much. The idea is that the reader should feel the story as a very efficient construct, out of which the waste has been removed, for her reading pleasure.
Ex Machina Press: I wonder if we can focus briefly on that "urge to compression" you mentioned. When asked to compare the writing of a short story to the writing of a poem, Raymond Carver once said, "I write them (stories and poems) the same way, and I 'd say the effects are similar. There's a compression of language, of emotion, that isn't to be found in the novel. The short story and the poem, I've often said, are closer to each other than the short story and the novel." So there's that word "compression" again. What is it about the short story that lends it to this poetic "compression of language" that Carver mentions? And how does that urge to compress affect you in the writing of a longer piece, such as The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil?
Saunders: I think “compression”
is just another way of saying “increased intelligence.” By cutting out the
implied or lackadaisical or mundane things, the intelligence of the piece
increases—more is being assumed of the reader, which I think the reader
appreciates. We are cutting past the surface and going right to the heart of the
matter, whatever the matter turns out to be. In short fiction especially, seems
to me, what’s important is not the surface—the rooms, accents, natural
environment—but the emotional center. So compression just means leaving in the
minimum amount of surface that will communicate some basic sense of reality—a
kind of stretched skin over what really matters, which is human beings
struggling to remain human.
Ex Machina Press: Well, since we’ve segued nicely into the new novella, let’s talk a little bit about The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. The first thing that jumped out at me about the book was the illustrations. This is something we haven’t seen in one of your books in a very long time. At what point in the writing of Phil did you decide it needed the illustrations? And what was the nature of your collaboration with Ben Gibson?
Saunders: I was planning on it being illustrated from the beginning. Originally I had imagined it as a big format picture book, a color illustration on every page, etc. So that informed the writing in a weird way -- I found myself writing things that I thought would make lively pictures. Then when we finally were putting it out, the consensus was that doing hundreds of full-color illustrations might be too much -- too expensive but also kind of off-tone. So Sean McDonald, my editor at Riverhead proposed we do something simpler, black-and-white, and use this very cool illustrator he knew, Ben Gibson. So we had a few meetings and lots of back and forth via email etc. What I loved was the odd pseudo-Soviet feeling of the book and especially the weird technical illustrations Ben came up with. I think we all felt that we didn't want to go literal -- didn't want to show what any of these "people" looked like too exactly. So the idea was, let's show stuff just off-camera, plus the landscape, plus bits and pieces of the creatures -- but never a head-on shot. I was really pleased with it and feel very honored to have had Ben working on the book.
Ex Machina Press: You mentioned the “people” in the text. These are characters comprised of things like shovels, blue dots, mirrors, tuna cans – all decidedly non-human in appearance. What was the appeal of using characters like this rather than human beings? Did it alter your approach to the writing in any way? And, to take it a step further, why do we as readers end up caring so much about “a gigantic belt buckle with a blue dot affixed to it, if a gigantic belt buckle with a blue dot affixed to it had been stapled to a tuna fish can"?
Saunders: The book came out of
a little dare from the illustrator Lane Smith, who said I should write a book
where all the characters were 2-D shapes. I tried but it was turning out kind of
dull and at one point, in response to my own boredom, somebody sprouted a
mechanical part. This occurred in the process of trying to make the sentence
more interesting- nothing conceptual about it really -- just bored with the
shapes. And then, because the mechanical riff was causing robots, and robots
seemed kind of familiar (ie, more boredom), at some point the mechanical things
sprouted vegetative parts. Again, it really wasn't a decision, exactly, or not
one that occurred outside of the typing, if you see what I mean. I think most
writing decisions come, or should come, out of a sense of what the story needs
-- kind of like when you auto-correct while riding a bike. You don’t say “LEAN
RIGHT!” – you just feel it, and do it.
Ex Machina Press: So now you've got these characters evolving, sprouting mechanical and vegetative parts and so forth. At what point in the process does the story turn political, because this is a very political book? Had you the feeling before starting this project that you wanted/needed to write something political?
Saunders: I didn't really have the feeling that it was particularly political at first, because I started writing the book back in 2000, before our present troubles began. I had Rwanda in mind, and Kosovo, as well as a perennial "interest" of mine, which goes something like this: Is genocide something that could happen here and, if so, who would be doing it to who, and why? How would it be justified (ie how would the genocider hide it under a cloak of Goodness). I think I'm interested in this because the historical reality of genocide kind of blows me away - I can't believe it actually happened (and keeps happening). And I keep trying to connect that reality up with the day-to-day reality I've known these 46 years, where people are generally nice to one another and will even endure hardships to protect somebody else, even somebody they don't know etc. And since both things (People Are Good + People Are Evil) are demonstrably true, so how does that work? What is it that poisons a culture and how does it feel to be in the middle of that? Who are the people in our culture who might go in that direction? What traits are present in them, in nascent form, that, under the right (wrong) circumstances might turn them into murderers? So somehow I was working out of that energy in the book -- not that a book like this could answer those kinds of questions. But these questions are interesting to me and I find myself coming back to them, in different forms, in different stories -- I think because, if you're interested in that ultimate question (Are we good or bad?) this seems like a place to start.
Ex Machina Press: Has life as a teacher changed the way you write? Do you find your approach to the task is any different after working so closely with the students these last 8 or so years?
Saunders: I don't think it changed the task so much, really. It has the effect of refreshing my enthusiasm, I think. Being around such talented young people who are so excited about fiction and so curious about it is inspiring. And somehow it makes me want to keep trying to get better and -- well, this is an embarrassing thing to say maybe -- but teaching the work of the classic fiction writers day after day, getting a chance to revisit the great stories, makes me really want to someday enter that group, if only for a story or two, or a line or two, sometime in my life.
Ex Machina Press: Your education early on was primarily in the sciences, correct?
Saunders: Yes-- my undergrad degree was in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines.
Ex Machina Press: I'm interested in how someone with such a seemingly non-literary background decided to switch from the sciences to arts. Was there any particular writer or book you remember as having a profound influence on your decision? Or perhaps it was a teacher or mentor who sort of nudged you in the right direction? Can you talk a little about that transition in your life?
Saunders: I guess there were a series of little prompts....I remember seeing
Hemingway on TV, maybe when he died? But what struck me was the litany of cool
things he'd done. I might have imagined this but I seem to remember a picture of
him in that safari jacket and then the admiring news-person running down his
accomplishments, adventures etc. I read
Ex Machina Press: Kurt Vonnegut once said something to the effect that, if you want to be a writer, don't go to college and learn about literature. Learn about something else. As someone with a degree in geophysical engineering who is now a writer and teacher of literature, I wonder where you stand on this issue. What advantages (or disadvantages) did your early education give you as you developed as a writer?
Saunders: One thing it did was
give me access to a kind of secret world; in this case, the world of geophysics
and oil exploration in Asia. I got to be a fly on the wall in the purest way. I
got to go into the field, got to go to meetings, hear the way people talked
inside corporations. It also gave me a set of technical terms, a technical
language, which somehow informed my prose eventually. I got to go inside a huge
corporate entity as it was very quietly diverting resources from a Third World
country, and also got to see firsthand that even "corporate oppressors" were
actually very nice and highly morally energetic people. So that later, when
someone would talk about “earth-rapers” I would think: Well, okay, but also, I
lived with these guys for two years – was ONE of those guys for two years. So it
seems to me that art is about just that jump: from conceptual generalization to
nuanced, 3-D understanding of the complexity of all situations.
Ex Machina Press: I've heard there are two screenplay versions of your stories in the works (“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and “Sea Oak,” I believe). Can you talk a little about the experience of adapting your own work to film? Will we be seeing any of these in theaters any time soon? And, perhaps you can tell us a little about your upcoming collection and any plans you may have beyond that -- dare I ask, a novel?
Saunders: That's true -- I did
adaptations for those two stories and both of these are, as they say, "in
development" -- with Ben Stiller's company, Red Hour Films. Looks like
CivilWarLand is looking good for being financed and my best bet would be that it
would be shot in fall of 2007. The Sea Oak script, they just acquired, so we'll
see what happens. The process was nothing but fun -- Ben is a really great guy
and a fantastic editor, so I learned a lot. Mostly about basic film stuff -- how
to tell a story in that mode, how to find visual jokes etc. But also something
about the value of the real, of basic realism. In film that is really the
biggest thing: those are actual people up there. So certain prose effects don't
work. If there is a husband and a wife, they have to talk, and there's some
value in having them talk like real people. So there’s a pull towards, say, less
stylized dialogue, which then opens other, mostly emotional, doors.