George Saunders is the author of two novellas and four short story collections, including Civil War Land in Bad Decline (1996) and his most recent work, Tenth of December (2013). A New York Times bestselling author and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and MacArthur “Genius Grant,” his career has been met with both popular and critical success. He now teaches creative writing at Syracuse University’s MFA program. This fall, Advocate Features Board member Warner James Wood conducted this interview over email. It has been edited for concision and clarity.
After my Grandfather died, he waited in line for one year. His ashes, inside a lacquered box, sat among the ashes of others in a cold concrete bunker nestled in the Chinese countryside. Each box bore a tiny black-and-white engraving of the deceased. The owner of the bunker kept track of burials by scrawling a name and date on the lids.
A single light bulb hung from the ceiling. It was rigged to save electricity by shutting off when it sensed no movement. Whenever someone came in on funeral business, the bulb flickered on. Otherwise, the dead waited their turn in darkness.
Last September, the McNally Jackson bookstore in SoHo, New York, hosted an event to celebrate the publication of the critical edition of Chris Kraus’s Aliens and Anorexia. The event was called “Alien Insurrection: An Evening with Chris Kraus, Emily Gould, Ariana Reines, Kate Zambreno, and Others,” and Kraus and seven other women were to give readings of the book and discuss “new feminism,” which I had never heard of. The venue was packed, the whole bottom floor of the bookstore overflowing with women: women wearing all black, women with notebooks, women with their hair heaped on top of their heads in the turn-of-the-century Gibson Girl style popular in the lit world. It was clearly an event that both the audience and the panel of readers had dressed up for, and everyone was eyeing each other up and down, unused, I think, to seeing so many other literary women in a room, uninterrupted by the presence of men.
Believing himself still young, a ditchdigger in the town where I once lived abandoned his dog so that he could travel the world and see what was what. I was only six years old at the time, beloved, and oblivious to the old mongrel’s lonesomeness when we took her in.
In the mornings she’d rush in, ailing and enthusiastic, pummeling my bare legs with her front paws to wake me out of bed, as if kneading a window for escape: Up, up! And in the evenings, when I’d run her down the pavement, she’d scatter gravel underneath her abdomen, clocking particles of airborne terrain across my sight: floured leaf, insect bone, grits of carbon, silt, sod, some clay. I’d fan for a warm breath, catch flashes of the moon eating dusk on the alternating pages.
Everything was either rain or screens. The screens shined out and lit up the rain in bulbous shapes. The rain was dripping on the screens too. Mai took her flats off and walked barefoot to the bus. She could feel the gum spots on the sidewalks.