By Richard Chachowski
When it comes to literature and short stories, there is perhaps no writer as unique as George Saunders.
A professor at Syracuse University, Saunders’ short story collections have won widespread praise, with Saunders winning the National Magazine Award for fiction on four different occasions, the 2013 Story Prize for his short story collection “Tenth of December,” and both a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His debut novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” won the Man Booker Prize in 2017, and his new nonfiction book, “A Swim in the Pond in the Rain,” an analysis of several notable Russian short stories, is being hailed as one of the most anticipated books of 2021.
The Signal interviewed George Saunders in a candid discussion about his writing process.
How do you manage to avoid becoming frustrated or impatient with how long a story is taking, even if it takes years to complete?
SAUNDERS: Well, I usually have other stories going on at the same time. That way, I program with some patience. When I hit the wall on story A, I just shrug and go, “Well, at least I haven’t screwed it up yet,” and turn to story B. The one thing I feel I’ve really learned over the years is patience. If something isn’t that great, and you refuse to pronounce it finished – you win. It might still be great, in the future.
How do you know when a story’s finished?
SAUNDERS: For me, it’s a feeling of being able to get through it, page after page, feeling something like, “Yep, yep, that’s good, I’d still be in it if I were a first-time reader.” During revision, there’ll always be some place where that feeling goes away. It’s just a slight deflection of the needle into “meh” territory. But late in the game, that point keeps getting pushed deeper and deeper into the story, and then you’re on the last page, and here’s that feeling, and you fix that, and then you’re at the last paragraph, and you have a really keen sense of what bowling pins are in the air …
And then you read it a few more times, to make sure you’re not kidding yourself.
In the end, there has to be a little playfulness, a little, “Ah, it’s just a story,” feeling. But … not too much and not too soon. And maybe that’s one of the biggest things we learn: how do our stories feel, when they’re finished? How much revising (for us) is too much? Too little? There’s a bit of a Goldilocks thing going on – we’re trying to do it “just right.”
How many stories do you typically work on at a given time?
SAUNDERS: I love to have several things going on at once, just so I can let a story sit awhile if it wants to do that (that is, I can avoid torturing it when it doesn’t want to play).
But usually there’ll come a point where a certain story seems to want to be finished, and I know then to give it my full attention because, in that state, it’s ready to confess everything. It’s like I’ve given it enough deep attention, and now it’s ripe. Like all of this stuff – that’s just a feeling I’ve learned to recognize and that may be what any writer is trying to accumulate – a set of feelings, very personal to her, that tell her where she is in the process and what she should do next.
Do you follow the Hemingway approach when it comes to calling it a day and sort of say, “Okay, I think I know where this story is going; I can just go to bed and pick it up from the same place tomorrow?”
SAUNDERS: I’ve done it all sorts of ways. I like that Hemingway idea and have talked about doing it that way – but, you know: unless I don’t. There can arguably be value in occasionally writing too long, even to writing yourself into a bad place. There’s just no limit to the ways in which art can work – which I think is the fun of it. There is no method. And a person has to get used to that and even start to like it – the freshness and challenge of that.
Do you have an idea of where a story is going or what the ending looks like when you first start off?
SAUNDERS: I prefer letting it lead me a little each day. But sometimes it works the other way: a whole draft just comes out. The one thing that’s always true for me is once I get a passable full version, I go back and revise the heck out of it. It’s like, once I know the story’s larger intentions, I have what I need in order to start refining its innards.
Many of your stories usually contain an “A-story”—the main storyline—as well as a “B-story” that simultaneously develops in the background of the main narrative. Do you always have a plan in mind for what the A and B storylines will be ahead of time?
SAUNDERS: No, God no, seriously. No plan. Mostly I just have a voice or, to be more honest, a handful of sentences that sound weird or intriguing. And my theory is, if I just start messing with those, trying to improve them (per my own quixotic inner standard), then plot and theme and all of that will appear. And it works best for me to keep the plan at bay as long as possible – to let the story reveal it to me, instead of declaring it to the story. But again – people work in all kind of different ways and some very good writers do plan it all out. Or, I’m guessing, they plan a lot of it out. There always has to be some surprise, which is really just an occasion where your subconscious – the smartest part of us, I’d say – shows up to give the writer a gift.
The A/B structure I think comes pretty naturally out of my life and the context of those stories (you go to work, you come home, go to work, come home). So, not planned, but, as I was writing those stories, somewhat predictable – as soon as I put a guy at work, the structure arose naturally.
That was actually a big realization for me, the young Hemingway acolyte: life wasn’t all trout fishing. People went to work and that sapped their grace.
Do you ever worry that some of the surreal or absurdist elements in your stories may be going “too far,” thereby losing your reader as a result?
SAUNDERS: Well, sort of. But the answer then is not to just walk away but to ask why it’s too much, and address that. Usually the problem is not that something is too weird but that it’s overdetermined — I already know what it means. I know what it represents and am using it as a sort of cudgel, or it’s (merely) the first-order thing. My feeling is that weirdness ought to be earned — it ought to be in service of some larger goal. For me, that goal is emotional. I’m trying to say something true, that moves you and somehow speaks to your actual, lived, experience. To do that (sometimes) the story asks you to introduce something that is not real. But you’re not doing that in order to be weird; you’re doing it over your own objections, because the story insists that you need to do it – it’s the quickest way to be truthful.
How did you make the switch from being a strong believer in Ayn Rand and conservatism when you were younger to the more liberal beliefs you hold today?
SAUNDERS: Mostly from living, I think—traveling in Asia and seeing the poverty and the beauty and then coming home and seeing friends and family in various states of struggle with money and addiction and all of that. I’d say a certain feeling of mercy and pity got unlocked in me and I saw that Rand and Reagan and that whole movement was based on … something else … this delusional idea of radical independence, which was often used as an excuse for turning one’s back on someone in need and seeing yourself as separate from everything else and better than it. In other words, a fundamentally frightened and selfish movement, from my perspective. It didn’t match with the reality I saw all around me; it wasn’t workable or kind.
Many of your descriptions of Dubai seem almost straight out of one of your short stories. As you were exploring the city, was there ever a moment where you thought, “Oh my god, it’s like I walked into the setting of one of my stories?”
SAUNDERS: Yes, for sure (I think that’s why they sent me there). But I think we can pick up traces of all of that in the U.S. too. I worked in a slaughterhouse for a short time and to leave that hellhole, slightly smelling of blood, and drive home past these Texas-style McMansions was an education in … something. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, and you see it everywhere – this crazy inequality capitalism creates and blesses and dresses up as “award for accomplishment” that is so extreme, sometimes, as to seem dystopian. Only … we’re used to it.
Do you believe your trip to Dubai had any effect on some of the stories you wrote afterward?
SAUNDERS: Everything I do and see, I hope, eventually gets into the stories, albeit, you know – reformatted. I imagine I have this big vat over my head and everything I read and watch and observe in the world goes in there and then I forget about it, but it’s directly feeding the subconscious so that it’s ready to come into a story.
What would you say is the main reason you personally write?
SAUNDERS: To be really honest, I do it because I’m good at it and get power from the world for doing it and because, by doing it, I get into better relation with me and the world. It’s fun – I mean, that’s probably really the answer. I enjoy helping order come out of chaos – that feeling where, on Monday, it’s a bunch of clever typing and then by … well, the next August … it’s something coherent, that is surprising me and teaching me things I didn’t know I knew.
Saunders’ new book, “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain,” was released Jan. 12, 2021.