Photo by Caitlin Saunders.
George Saunders is that rare sort of writer who may have gone ahead and invented a new genre. I’m not really sure to call it yet, but it’s something along the lines of Dystopian Social Satire. I would say something else here about Chekhov and magical realism, but I don’t want to get too clunky. Maybe you get the idea?
Saunders’ characters trudge through a landscape populated equally by insipid advertisements and zombies and ghosts. And it’s all treated like no big deal. In Saunders’ world, mass-badger killings are a problem for which an entire industry has envisioned a solution, one that is as mundane and accepted as cubicles and barbershops. While this alone would convince me to sign on the dotted line, his stories are also real, old-fashioned yarns, where things happen, plots reverse, coworkers betray one another, and teenagers fall out of love, and all of this is working toward expressing a truth, usually one about compassion between two people.
Vice: Can you comment about your life from high school graduation, perhaps, to age thirty? Looking at your resume is dizzying—you worked as everything from a groundskeeper to a geophysicist to an office drone. Were you trying to soak up a lot of different environments, or was it just the way things worked out?
George: I think it was partly confusion—I didn’t quite understand how the world worked—partly a kind of young guy’s hunger for life, partly an aspiring writer trying to do things that would make his mind larger, partly luck, partly misfortune. One thing kind of led to the next. But as I get older I can look back a bit objectively at myself as a young man and say that I (he) had (1) a real love for the world, (2) a high energy level, and (3) a kind of dopey arrogance, and that these three things made me get out and do a lot of things.
Do you think it helped your writing?
I do think it benefited, or at least colored, my writing. I think I saw enough of the world, high and low, and in odd enough refractions, that it gave me a little moral confidence. I feel pretty sure that my basic judgment is sound about people and events.
I’m assuming, wrongly perhaps, that many of your peers growing up didn’t do as much exploring as you did. Is that a dumb assumption?
My memory of that time—late 1970s, early 1980s—was that I was pretty typical in terms of energy expenditure, but maybe atypical in that I couldn’t have said what it was I was trying to do. I had this vague idea of writing someday, but wasn’t doing much of it. I had this idea of how a writer lived, and was, as I remember it, trying to be that person: going into ostensibly exotic or dangerous or beat situations and having a look around. But there were always a lot of energetic, adventurous people around, especially when I was studying at the Colorado School of Mines, and later when I was working in Asia. I actually always felt kind of bookish and cautious compared to these people.
How did you get into science? Was this an interest early on?
It wasn’t. But I had a great geology teacher in high school, Joe Lindbloom, who changed my life forever through his class. And when it was time to go to college I had no plan at all, so he intervened on my behalf and got me into the School of Mines. I had such great admiration for Joe and the way he thought about science, and so that was where my interest came from, really. I was trying to impress him, and honor the way he ennobled science and connected it with things I was more naturally interested in, like ethics and philosophy.
Is it fair to assume you spent some time working in cubicles? The power dynamic of offices is territory that seems very rich for you. Do you remember any specific, non-fiction instances of workplace cruelty at a job?
Oh sure. I remember having to fill out evaluations on some very good friends who were going through difficult times personally, and then getting chewed out because I hadn’t been “truly frank.” But it’s more the creeping, gradual, everyday stuff that I still dream about—the accreting nature of being under someone else’s power. And the weird and complicated thing was, the people who were oppressing me were usually pretty nice people and were being oppressed themselves, and would joke about the fact that they were oppressing me and being oppressed. Then just after our little commiseration session they would go away, and pretty soon here would come an oppressive memo, or they would fire somebody and leave early in order to avoid discussing it. It was the system that was (is) funky—this system that offers this wonderful collective protection to a group of people, in exchange for their time, time spent doing trivial activities away (for 8 to 12 hours a day) from the people they love. And these activities are, usually, completely irrelevant to the people they love, except that… a paycheck results.
Right. It’s like some weird math equation.
Exactly. The overall pattern is: long stretches of True Desire subjugation, followed by the longed-for Time With the Beloved. This is stressful and makes people behave in messed-up ways.
Was it ever different?
Sure. Think of life on a farm. But the catch is, life on the farm was dangerous and uncertain and scary, probably less so than life at the corporation, which is why, of course, collectively, we’ve chosen that route. As Walt Kelly said: “We have met the enemy, and he is Us.”
Raymond Chandler said something once about a writer who’d described the writing process as hell. It was something like, “No wonder his books are unreadable. Writing’s the best part. It’s what you’re in it for.” You seem to be of his school. Has writing always been a pleasure for you? Or was there a day when it just clicked?
I was working as a groundsman in an apartment complex in Amarillo, Texas and had decided to finally really, really try to get published. Over about three nights, I wrote this little story that later got accepted by The Northwest Review. Writing that, I was having so much fun. I had somehow blundered into a mode of writing that I really understood—kind of funny, irreverent, and pop-culture-influenced. I had a lot of confidence in that mode. I always seemed to know what to do next. So that was the first time that “writing” and “power” seemed connected. It was really fun and beautiful and that’s basically the feeling I’ve been trying to recreate ever since.
Do you remember writing your first short story? How old were you?
I think I wrote one in third grade in Chicago, about a third-grade kid in Chicago who, in the face of an extreme manpower shortage, gets drafted by the Marines and goes to fight in WWII. This story had the memorable and sensitive last line: “He had killed an amazing 50 Japs!!!”
Have you seen much reality television? I ask because in your new story, “Brad Carrigan, American,” you describe a show called Final Twist. In it, some college-age fellows dupe a buddy into an Italian meal, only to reveal to him that his mom is dead, which then morphs into more twists, culminating in the revelation that all the men have not eaten an Italian meal but their own grilled mothers (all of which happens in less words than I probably took to describe it).
It feels like this country thrives more and more on its humiliation and embarrassment of friends and loved ones for entertainment. I’m not even thinking of Punk’d per se. Even a lot of pornography is ending up this way, and it is all seen as normal. Nothing is truly entertaining unless someone is in pain. Do you agree, or am I being kind of shrill?
No, I’ve noticed the same thing. And I truly don’t know what it’s about, but I think it’s not trivial. For me, the interesting part is that the entities that are producing and promoting these things are corporate entities: the networks and their sponsors. There, my analytical faculty kind of stalls out—I can’t quite understand why this type of product would be so compelling to a corporation. I mean, I think meanness and exploitation and gossip are all pretty natural to human beings, and we’ve been enjoying these things forever. But when corporations get involved, with their built-in superchargers, it gets interesting and, who knows, maybe even dangerous. What happens to our basic (and I would say natural, and instinctive) kindness in the face of such an onslaught?
We get numbed-out?
My guess is, we find it easier to excuse indifference, rudeness, and cruelty. These shows are modeling relationships for thousands and thousands of people, so I don’t know… I met this young kid on a plane who was on his way back to Iraq, a very nervous, damaged guy. He kept wanting to confess things to me, à la the Ancient Mariner. But the weird thing was, when he confessed things, he did so in exactly the tone and diction used in those “confession boxes” they have on, say, Survivor. The culture, I would say, had damaged his ability to report—those shows and his exposure to them had undermined his very language and his ability to heal himself via storytelling.
That sounds like one of your stories. Do you ever use stuff like that, or stuff from your life?
I think all story writing is mythological. At least mine is. I’m not really trying to represent what was, but to use what was to gain access to a kind of deeper, more primal, world. I don’t see fiction writing as an attempt to represent the world as it is, but to make another world, totally alternate, that, if we’re lucky, has a moral/spiritual resonance with the “actual” world. For example, a Philip Glass symphony is not an attempt to recreate ambient sound. It is understood to be a highly stylized, patterned thing-in-itself, and when we expose ourselves to it, something happens to our heart, and that thing that happens somehow, mysteriously, makes it more pleasurable to be in the world and, I would say, makes us more passionate, aware, and maybe even more kind. Art can then be seen as a kind of inoculation, designed to make our being in the world more rich, if you know what I mean. Seen this way, the “real world” stuff a story builds up is just the means to an end.
Who is the first person you show a story to?
My wife. She has great judgment and honesty and, of course, knows me completely, all my tricks and falsenesses. And she has a brilliant impatience with the Merely Artsy—she wants stories to do very high-level moral work (as do I) and she reminds me of this, and forces me to go back this higher-ground when I’m feeling tired and self-satisfied too early.
When do you find time to write your own stuff? I don’t imagine that you get done teaching, come home, throw your feet up on the ottoman and turn on the TV while devouring some popcorn. What is a typical day for you like during a semester?
The above is exactly what I do. Have you been spying on me? I’m not sure we technically have an “ottoman.” I think he’s actually Albanian. But why quibble? I try to write in the morning, and longer on days when I’m not teaching. We have kids, and have tried to make a decent and normal life for them. When I was younger I think I imagined a more artsy, wild, dysfunctional, Kerouac-ian life. But when we had kids, well, you love them so much and they are all the adventure you could ever wish for. And the great side-benefit of living a relatively normal life is that you get to immerse yourself in the life that is actually being lived by your peers, in the actual country. And that is very rich.