|George Saunders by Austin Kleon|
A LIFE IN WRITING
'I want to do as much weirdness and experimentalism as is necessary to access the emotional core; no more, no less. It's not a fancy side-project'
Saturday 12 January 2013
He calls Tenth of December, his new collection, "my least disturbing book" – a good indication of the slant of his work. The stories are still extremely sinister, turning on a threat of violence all the more powerful for being withheld, but they allow also for the possibility of people doing the right thing. And while the tone and setting of the stories is often satirical, the interactions are deeply, realistically human. "My habit," says Saunders, "would have been to veer towards the dark – to prove I was something; edgy, or maybe to prove that I was cognisant of the dark side. Now, with age and confidence, I can say, yeah, that's true, but I am cognisant of the fact that people can do things well. And can be more loving than you expect."
We are in a meeting room in Manhattan, in a complex owned by Syracuse University, where Saunders has a residency and is down for the day from his home in upstate New York. He looks, at 54, like a younger version of William H Macy: affably dishevelled, fundamentally amused and, in conversation, ignited by the force of his passion. Tenth of December is alive with ideas, driven by his talent for subtly reframing the world. It took him a long time to get here, says Saunders, who came relatively late to writing and had to overcome a hefty inferiority complex before he found his voice. By training he is a geophysicist, and in his early 20s he spent a few years working in the oil fields of Sumatra – the kind of life experience that, one might have thought, would have emboldened him to write.
The problem, he says, was one of authority; he hadn't read enough, then, to feel he had a right to contribute, or any sense of what idiom his contribution might take. "If you haven't read you don't have the voice," he says. "The lack of voice eliminates experience. I was having all these experiences but they were kind of blocked to me."
The experiences were pretty wild. "I mean, the material was electric. These crazy nightclubs, transvestite clubs, and Sikh bouncers who were rumoured to actually kill people when they bounced them. I had read so little that I didn't know how to … I would look at that experience and try to Joseph Conrad-ise it; or Somerset Maugham it. And it didn't cohere. If I'd read Kerouac I would have had a diction. So I remember at that time my magnum opus was about a very old man in a senior citizen's home who was looking back on his years in Asia." He laughs and hammily wheezes: "'Oh, I can hardly move. But I lived once!' And then I'd write down what I did last week.'"
That it occurred to him to be a writer at all is something he still can't entirely explain. "I just wanted it so much. And I didn't have any other means of imagining myself into the future. I played music, and I tried to do that, but I didn't really have the fire. There was just this feeling that I can do this. And unfortunately, I had a kind of a dispositional stubbornness."
He had grown up on the south side of Chicago in a mixed neighbourhood. "It wasn't John Cheever, but it also wasn't The Grapes of Wrath. It was just home." His father worked for a coal company; his mother was a homemaker. It was a comfortable childhood; it was later, in his 20s and after returning from Indonesia, that Saunders experienced a period of poverty that would deeply inform his moral view of the world, particularly as it appeared in his writing. It was this, twinned with his years spent as a tech writer, that shaped Saunders's style: pared down, thrillingly compact, with everything stripped to its essence. (As a tech writer, he billed for his hours and was rewarded for shedding anything fancy).
"The thing I found," says Saunders, "was if you want to avoid creating a world that looks habituated, compression is a great way to do it. Because we're habituated, both in life and in fiction, to certain ways of expressing things. So – if someone asks how do you get to the hospital? The answer is four blocks and turn left. But the actual experience of going to the hospital is a thousand pointillistic things that are probably sub-articulable. And then: what are the linguistic corollaries that I can make, that actually come alive anew?"
Saunders has never worried too much about the commercial impact of these aesthetic decisions, but he does worry about "excluding readers because of a weakness in your own approach. In other words, is your edginess a kind of defence mechanism?" He would say the same thing about his gravitational pull towards the negative versus the positive experience. In all things, he is motivated by the ambition, just once, "in prose, to represent the way life actually feels to me. So I don't really care about commercial so much, except if I was failing to be commercial because I was failing to be human, because I was too afraid, or too technically deficient. Then I would care. Commercially" – he smiles – "I'm almost dead, so it doesn't matter."
The period of poverty he went through in his 20s is the moral underlay to all this; it taught him, in a different way, to be lean and efficient and, if he didn't already, to regard the truisms of his country with a certain scepticism. He was unemployed when he returned from Indonesia, and "to come back and be a dope with a college degree who couldn't find work – to see what America feels like when that happens … it was short term, but I got enough to see. When you butt up against capitalism in that way, it leaves a scar that stays. Terry Eagleton says capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body and to get that experience first hand, I think you've got something to work with for the rest of your life." It is true of many writers, he says: "They may not have the facts, but if they've had any kind of encounter with the moral universe, that may be enough. That's it."
There were other fallouts from this experience, not least in his attitude towards money. To this day, Saunders says, he flinches when using a credit card. When presented with a choice, he instinctively goes for the cheapest option. It also did something to his productivity. Before he won the 2006 MacArthur fellowship, which comes with a $500,000 bursary, Saunders combined writing with full-time teaching and if that meant he only had eight minutes to write in a day, he took them. "I set up the computer at just the right angle to make it maximally hard for somebody to get around and see what I was doing. So having written under those conditions, it was great training. I abandoned a lot of grad student habits: what sort of research should I do? Let me burn some incense before I get started. It was like, if you don't do this now you're out of luck for the day."
Winning the prize was a real game-changer psychologically too, given his earlier anxieties. "It had a very strange effect: having a bunch of strangers go 'you're worth something', and you thought, 'alright then, I will be worth something'. And this book is actually the result of feeling a little more sanctioned, to take the bigger swing at the ball. These people I don't know honoured me with this thing; I'm going to do better."
Saunders is often considered a postmodern writer, an accidental side-effect of his efforts to push through the limitations of existing modes of expression. For a long time, he felt "very vulnerable around postmodernism" and stuck, in his reading, to Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dos Passos and Thomas Wolfe. "So then it was a long process of trying to not become a 1930s writer, when it was actually 1980." He didn't, at that point, set out to be postmodern. "My thing is to say: I want to do as much weirdness and experimentalism as is necessary to access the emotional core; no more, no less. It's not a fancy side-project." It's central to the project of making it real? "Exactly. Toby Wolff said all good writing is experimental by definition. If it's not experimental, it's just a museum piece."
Apart from the technical difficulties of pulling off such ambitious stories as as Saunders', the biggest problem is keeping himself interested over the weeks and months and eventually years of a project. He is strict with himself about not working on something if it doesn't enthuse him, even if that means putting a half-finished story away for a decade. The key to his engagement, he says, is the not knowing; how it turns out, or what exactly he is aiming for. "It's kind of a circular thing. You're writing to find out what the scene is for. Once you find it out, you're going back and doing some horticulture. So for me, my whole schtick is, doing short fiction is like trying to suspend your conceptual understanding of the story for as long as possible."
There is nothing worse, he says, than plodding through the plot points of a story that is dead before it hits the page. "Donald Barthelme has this great essay called "Not Knowing", where he says that your job as a fiction writer is to keep yourself confused for as long as you can. And the text will actually have an energy that will start talking to you. If you can keep your own designs a little quiet."
It's something of a brain melt: trying to understand the mechanisms of keeping one's own self in the dark without blowing the ability to do it. Actually, says Saunders, it's a subtle but definite distinction.
"There's the ability to articulate a knowledge and there's the ability to enact it. And I was never that interested in the first. It's sort of a job hazard. You have to do it, and in teaching you do it. But the real reason I got into this is that I wanted to actually be able to do it. Be able to write a story. And there's whole tracts of knowledge in there that you can do without being able to articulate it."
These days, with both a MacArthur and a Guggenheim fellowship behind him, he has the luxury of dividing his time between writing and teaching, taking refuge in each when the other gets too much. The mental state most conducive to his writing is, he says, "to be a little bit happy. I goof around until I feel that" – and if he doesn't, he puts his work in a drawer until he feels like returning to it. To this end, Tenth of December took years to complete, interrupted by other writing, and any planned thematic link between stories is coincidental – or, rather, unconscious. By the end, Saunders saw, there was a broad, shared landscape between the stories of either a near future or a parallel present, a kind of Saunders-land that is instantly recognisable to his readers. (Those ornaments in the garden? Turned out to be made of live, developing-world women, rented from an agency and hung from a kind of clothes line – the new, must-have status symbol of the American suburbs.)
Saunders has always been fiercely ambitious for his writing, but lately has refined his idea of what constitutes trying hard. "I don't want to get to the end of my life and not have done my best," he says. "And I'm starting to realise that I always thought the answer was just to work hard. And it's true, but there's another component, which is that you have to keep pushing yourself to open up to the widest possible vision of the world. And find a prose style that will make that compelling. And that is a beautiful challenge."
Saunders feels under no particular pressure to turn out another "nine, 12, 15" books since, he says wryly, "I think I'll probably still die at the end." The interesting thing is somehow to get "a story down that is true to the way this has all felt. Even if it's a four-page story. That would be very nice."
He thinks for a moment. The ambition is this: "I want you to read my book and have it actually matter to you. Not to your constructed literary self. But to you. To the person who has issues and confusions."
To Saunders, that's what a moral is; nothing preachy. Just the fact "that one human being can speak to another and say something that isn't bullshit".
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