GEORGE SAUNDERS IS THE quintessential nice guy. Maybe, it is all the training in Buddhism. Or the fact that the award-winning American author, with 12 titles to his names, came to writing from an unusual route, he used to work as a geophysical engineer. Or that he has been teaching for over two decades. Perhaps, there is no need to seek out the reasons for his niceness. He is just that unusual famous person (‘celebrity’ doesn’t sit comfortably upon him) with an unusual largess. I home in on his niceness not only because of a single interview but on account of what anyone who has interacted with Saunders—believed to be a genius in the world of letters or the godfather of the American short story—asserts.
Saunders’s new collection of short stories Liberation Day (Bloomsbury; 256 pages; ₹599) comes on the heels of his recent essay collection A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Reading, Writing and Life (2021). The essays were drawn from Saunders’ class on the Russian short story, which he has been teaching to MFA students at Syracuse University, New York for years. His debut novel, after a series of short stories and short fiction, Lincoln in the Bardo, about a cabal of talking ghosts and Abraham Lincoln’s son caught between this world and the next, won the 2017 Booker Prize.
In his writing and his essays on writing, he has often made a case for why fiction is necessary for our turbulent times. His new collection is thoroughly modern, both in content and treatment. And the themes range from resistance to capitalism to holding out against authoritarianism. The stories tell of mothers and sons, grandfathers and grandsons, there is both fantasy and reality. It is about the insecurities of being a woman in a working world dominated by men, of couples devoted to each other and those that are not.
The collection also includes stories that are written in simple language yet can be hard to grasp, often requiring a second reading or a re-reading. The characters here are thoughtful, they often convey themselves through the written word, in ‘Love Letter’ a grandfather writes to his grandson about the revolutionary path to embrace and which to spurn. ‘Ghoul’ is set in a hell-themed amusement park in Colorado, and follows the exploits of a lonely Brian, who questions everything including his reality. In ‘Elliott Spencer’, the elderly protagonist is brainwashed—his memory ‘scraped’ and then reprogrammed so that he might be deployed as a political protester. ‘My House’ is a favourite in the collection as it maps the disintegration of a deal between a prospective buyer and seller. In just a few pages, a completely composed man comes totally apart.
To better understand Saunders’ writing it is useful to turn to A Swim in the Pond…, where he focuses his critical gaze to the Russian short story and asks the “million-dollar question”: “What makes a reader keep reading?” Saunders does not believe in the intentional fallacy of writing, that the artist sets out on a course and then confidently accomplishes it. Instead, he finds the process more haphazard, and much more of a “pain in the ass”. For Saunders, writing is essentially editing, as he so eloquently describes in A Swim in the Pond…; “A repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (lather, rinse, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts, over months or even years. Over time, like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.”
“My experience of the last 10 years has been one of having certain core beliefs challenged (about democracy, race, our ability to work together to solve problems) and so I am, like my characters, trying to be good by continuing to believe in, and seek, truth”
Share this on
It is little surprise then that Saunders prefers writing to speaking, as with writing, he can be “less of a dud on the page”. It so happened that when the writer, who was on a road trip in the UK, and I were scheduled to talk, he was at a hotel and I was at an airport. The internet gnomes were not on our side and the call refused to patch through. Most other authors, especially those with the biggest awards to their name, would have walked away from the interview, but Saunders decided that we could do the entire interview on Zoom chat. Given that Liberation Day is about communication, and his partiality to the written word, he was gung-ho rather than impatient with the fractured connection. He typed out the answer to every question in real time, and had to even copy-paste the same answer multiple times as they often disappeared into the ether on their journey from his screen to mine. Hailing it as a “new interview technique,” and pleased to have “co-invented” a novel use of Zoom, we sat with our cameras off and listened as the other person typed.
Excerpts from the interview:
The central tenet to your writing is the capacity of fiction to change readers. How has this belief played out in your life?
Well, I think that all of these years of writing fiction has made me a (slightly) kinder person—slower to react, more patient. This comes from thousands of hours of tending to my characters, hopefully with some tenderness and love.
In mid-October you wrote an article in the The Guardian titled ‘Could I understand the people who rushed into the Capitol?’ You have this interesting line of thought that you, I, Gandhi or a kid who has shot up a school, we are all on a continuum. Can you elaborate on that?
Yes, the idea is that the human mind is held in common, and that each of us occupies some particular manifestation of that mind—we are, let’s say, individual rivers coming out of it. But…the water, we have is common. So, anything that happens is, at least possibly, understandable to us—I see this as a great source of consolation and even power.
In the characters and stories of Tenth of December, there was heroism and resistance. The stories here are muted. What has changed in your understanding of the world in the last 10 years?
Well, I think there is still heroism in these stories, but perhaps it’s a form of heroism that we are seeing enacted, on all sorts of levels, around the world— the heroism of, we might say, “stumbling toward truth”. My experience of the last 10 years has been one of having certain core beliefs challenged (about democracy, race, our ability to work together to solve problems) and so I am, like my characters, trying to be good by continuing to believe in, and seek, truth. In each of the stories, someone starts out sure of himself/herself but deluded—and then gradually discovers, sometimes painfully, the truth. So that’s a kind of heroism, possibly.
In short story collections, do you wish that they could be shared as stories and not as a book? Does the order matter?
The order does matter, yes, that’s always the last step. I write out the titles of the stories on index cards and arrange and re-arrange them on a big table, trying to find the order that gives off the most light. Not a rational process but one that proceeds by feeling. “Is this better than that?” and so on. My notion is that intuition is very smart—smarter than analyses or mere intellect. So “process” is the writer finding a way to most directly access the subconscious, by whatever means works for her.
Is your reader always her?
Well, yes. 🙂
I got in the habit of trying to mix my pronouns, out of respect for my wife and our two daughters. Time to indicate, by that, that the world is half female (and that’s the better half, in my view).
Do you watch Black Mirror? Some of your characters, like Eliot Spencer, who has his brain scraped, sounds like a Black Mirror-esque character.
You know, I never have. I heard a description of the first episode and it scared me. I don’t know where that stuff comes from for me. It usually starts as a desire to do a strange voice, and then I work backwards (“Who is it, that is speaking in this odd way?”). It is a very mysterious process, really. But it goes back to my first book and story called ‘Offloading for Mrs Schwartz,’ in which an old woman has her memories offloaded onto a disc. I invented brain scraping but have never got any royalties. Hahaha.
“If we looked deeply at Putin’s life, we might feel more “tenderness” for (i.e. interest in) him. It might even make us more effective in working against him, insight always being an advantage”
Share this on
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain was about the Russian masters. If the Russians masters were to write on Putin what would that story be? There is a tendency to see him as a caricature. And in your writing about writing, for example about the creation of your short story ‘The Barber’s Happiness’, you mention the need to move beyond thinking of the central character as simply a crude, arrogant misogynist. How would the Russian writers create a more humane Putin?
If we looked deeply at Putin’s life, we might feel more “tenderness” for (ie interest in) him. It might even make us more effective in working against him, insight always being an advantage.
It is a great question and, honestly, I’m not sure—it may be that writing about people at that end of the spectrum might not be the best choice—if fiction works to tenderise people, we wouldn’t want to write in such a way that underestimates or blurs the evil tendencies of a person like that. But I believe Tolstoy could do it. It’s sometimes enough to just dramatise someone—for example, in the first part of the short story ‘Master and Man,’ the character is horrible—selfish and rude to Nikita. Tolstoy just shows that, and we believe it.
In my own small way, I tried to write about a dictator in ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.’ [A novella that examines the human tendency to see the world only in binaries.] It is a question that I’m thinking about a lot these days.
In A Swim in the Pond, you pore over each story over and over again. Do you study your own work in similar depth? Wouldn’t it be stressful to think of a Russian Saunders studying your work with equal studiousness in a hundred years?
Yes, very stressful. 🙂 My thought is that if we analyse closely like that, some sort of wisdom gets taken into what we might call our “artistic bodies”. Then, when we work, we will find ourselves drawing on this knowledge without even realising it. So it’s not the case that, while working, we think, “Oh, I’ll use that technique from Chekhov.” Rather, it has become part of us—it becomes part of the aesthetic platform that we are always standing on, if that makes sense… So, in my work, I am always trying to escalate, be efficient etc, it’s an internalised part of the process, from reading and studying so many stories over the years.
What is the biggest lesson your students have taught you over the years?
That talent is eternal—every generation has freshness and wisdom. The tendency for an old(er) person might be to think, you know, “Everything was better in the old days.” But teaching makes one realise that everything is wonderful right now—human beings are always interesting and sweet and seeking. So—it’s a kind of Fountain of Youth. For which (bonus!) I get paid!
Thank you so much for taking the time to type out your answers.
I think I am more precise in writing. In speech I tend to meander. I have quite the “monkey mind” and I can’t quite keep up with it, when talking, so I tend to skip around. The act of typing enacts a certain discipline, I think. But even in my fiction I am trying to make things sound natural and off-the-cuff, which, of course, takes a lot of time, revision, iteration and all of that. I love the idea that writing can help us access a deeper part of ourselves—the part that, in real life, the rapid passing of time renders inaccessible.
Artificial Intelligence Is Like Allopathy Rajeev Srinivasan
The City of Loss Somak Ghoshal
What A Song and Dance Kaveree Bamzai