An Interview with George Saunders

George Saunders is the New York Times bestselling author of ten books, including Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize; Congratulations, by the way; Tenth of December, a finalist for the National Book Award; The Braindead Megaphone; and the critically acclaimed short story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and In Persuasion Nation. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

The first time we asked George Saunders for an interview, he politely declined. At work on his latest book, Saunders had placed himself under “a sort of artistic self-house arrest” because he’d noticed his public persona “depleting [his] inner life.” Nine months later, fiction editors Juliet Isselbacher and Tadhg Larabee caught up with Saunders to discuss the radical power of empathy, our new shared house arrest, and A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, the book on craft that came out of his original period of self-isolation. The following interview was conducted over email and has been edited for clarity and concision.

Let’s start with your new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which comes out on January 12. As I understand it, this work sums up the wisdom you and your students shared during your two decades teaching a class on the Russian short story. Why did you begin teaching this class? What’s distinctive or special about the Russian short story?

When I was first hired at Syracuse, I was assigned something called a “forms” course – basically, literature for writers, with an emphasis on craft (“How did they do that?”). I’d taken some time off after my first book, just to read, and had found myself really loving the Russians. So I designed a class to let me read a little deeper in that literature.

What I love about the Russians is that they walk right up to the big questions. I’m from the South Side of Chicago, and the first writing that really spoke to me had an overtly moral basis (Ayn Rand, Thoreau, Robert Pirsig). I felt that was the whole point of reading, to get less full of shit and figure out how to live. And, if I’m being honest, I still feel that way. The Russians were, for me, a way of moving from books with that overtly moral agenda to something more complex. Instead of telling you how to live, they showed different people like you, living in different ways. They were full of ambiguity, thwarted good intentions, the little beauties of the (flawed) actual. They introduced the idea to me that stories, at the highest level, don’t tell us what to think; they model different ways of thinking. As Chekhov put it, they don’t answer questions but help us formulate the question more precisely.

All of this to say – I’ve always loved the writers of this period, and I’m not sure why. It might be as simple as this: I saw Dr. Zhivago in high school and it seemed big and dramatic and romantic. I guess I’d just say I prefer the Russians. And this notion of preferring turned out to be one of the sub-themes of the book; the idea that making art is a way of getting ourselves in touch with our micro-tastes – those small but radical preferences that we maybe can’t exactly defend but that we live or die by, artistically speaking. Those micro-preferences are real and they are what we use (they’re really all we have), as we try to do something original.

You wrote in a recent letter to your students that writers will need to recover, make sense of, or at least bear witness to the events of the pandemic through fiction. You specifically wrote, “What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this, and what you’re able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you are paying now, and what records you keep.” What records are you keeping? What aspects of this situation are you specifically paying attention or bearing witness to?

Well, it turns out I’m pretty good at the “paying attention” part, not so good at the “writing it down” part.

Mostly I’ve been noticing the changes in my own mind – how obsessive I’m getting (“I just touched my one hand with my other hand!”) and how nostalgic I am for that former life (which seems like it ended many years ago): that life in which you could talk to some total stranger or be swept up in a crowd or sit in a mobbed bar without a mask and watch people passing by in the street through a frosted window and all of that. I find I’m collecting up detrital material – the way I’ll reach into a coat pocket and find a wadded-up medical mask; the smell of a certain brand of sanitizer I use in the car; that strange moment when someone without a mask starts approaching like it’s… 2017 or something; that little jolt you get when there’s a scene in a movie of a railroad station and nobody is wearing a mask, which is somehow related to that dream I’ve been having over and over, in which I’m having a great time at a party, as of old, and suddenly realize the pandemic is still on and nobody is masked and it’s too late to do anything about it AND I have to find my wife right away and confess so she can figure out what we should do about it.

Those are not things I knew about, a year ago.

I made those suggestions re: documentation in that letter to my students mainly because, in the early days, I noted a tendency in myself to understand the pandemic as, you know, an interruption/ abnormality/interregnum. The tendency, in that case, might be to shut down the observational machinery (until real life starts up again). But really – this disruption of life is life – life compressed and distilled down to its brutal essence. In normal life, we’ll have long swaths of “normal,” interrupted by bursts of “abnormal” (breakups, failures, sickness, death, etc.). But the possibility of disruption is always there, and the ultimate disruption (death) is promised to us. So what’s really insane is how, when things are normal, we assume that they’ll go on like that forever.

You said in a New Yorker interview that you try to approach a piece without an “overarching notion” of what it means or what it’s about, lest it read as “overdetermined.” Instead, you said, you seek to “perform a sort of joyful, rowdy blurt”; to “do a bunch of things at speed, for fun, then look up and see what you’ve made.” What advice would you give to your students about how to create a story for or about our current condition that isn’t “overdetermined”? How can writers take on this moment – which has literally stifled expressions of vitality – and still surprise themselves?

My advice, maybe paradoxically, would be to not try to write “about” anything. That’s, I think, what makes a story overdetermined – the writer’s allegiance to some plan or agenda or aspiration. She sticks to that plan (i.e., has an overt intention) and then starts ignoring the story’s natural energy. I’ve compared this to a bad conversation. We all have something we want to say but if, over dinner, all Person A is doing is saying what he’d planned to say, regardless of what Person B is saying in response – that’s not a conversation, it’s a lecture. There’s an element of condescension in it and, for Person B, it’s going to get boring.

So… I don’t know that we need stories about this time as much as we need stories suffused with whatever wisdom is especially available to us from this time, if that makes sense.

In other words – I’d say that if a young person is a talented writer, whatever she writes is going to end up, “being about” her essential view of the world. How could it not? Even if the story is just a talking pencil sharpener and a grumpy talking ruler and an optimistic talking half cup of coffee on a desk – her stuff is going to find its way in there, because what else has she got? That’s what revision does – it injects your essential stuff into any story at all.

So, to my way of thinking, the (happy, liberating) point is that the writer doesn’t have to decide; she has to discover. And she does this by doing her best to put aside her agenda and her plan and even her sense of who she is as a writer and just seeing what the text wants her to do and wants her to be. And she does that by attempting to delight herself – by paying special attention to those aspects of prose about which she has the strongest opinions.

If she can do that – compel her reader to finish her story, with which she has delighted herself – all will be well. It will be fresh and new and important. Plot, theme, politics, a view of one’s time, etc., will all arise naturally from that process (according to me, anyway).

Your recent story “Ghoul” seems to speak to our current condition (“Sometimes in life the foundation upon which one stands will give a tilt, and everything that one has previously believed and held dear will begin sliding about, and suddenly all things will seem strange and new”), though you said in a New Yorker interview that you actually began the piece a year before life as we know it changed. Have you started any new stories since the pandemic actually hit? If so, what has that writing process been like?

I have – one (“Love Letter”) was in the New Yorker and two are in progress. The process has been the same as always, to be honest. I have so much faith in process – that combination of intuition plus iteration that I write about in the Russian book. Basically I feel whatever needs to be said will be said, as long as I keep my head down and revise like crazy (which is to say, keep making choices, over and over).

Besides, I think literature exists to speak to all times, not just the current one. It’s meant to be about those human tendencies that are always with us. A time like this teases certain of these out and exaggerates them. And I think the deepest meaning of art is not in what it says, but how it says it. The ride you take the reader on along the way actually is a form of meaning. To me, it’s the most important form of meaning. If you think about a movie you love – let’s go with Birdman – you can reduce the plot to “a former actor struggles to produce an intellectually challenging play,” but that could be an equally accurate description of an episode of a really crappy sit-com. The thing that makes Birdman great is the way Birdman is. The way it was shot, the way the story unfolds, the thousands of little decisions in it. That’s what we really are talking about when we say we love a certain work of art.

In a New York Times Magazine interview, you said, “If death is in the room, it’s pretty interesting,” and your 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo is obviously rife with ghosts. Has the pandemic and its toll changed the way you think about death? Has it drawn you closer to the subject, or pushed you away?

Well, my mind always wants to say, “Death will likely not happen to me and, if, by some chance it does, I know for sure it won’t happen until 1000 years from now, when I’ve accomplished everything I had in mind and am, at last, fully functional and happy.” The pandemic might be understood to be Life saying: “Uh, if you were more awake and less in denial, George, you’d see that I am always busy kicking someone’s ass, in one way or another, and your turn will come soon enough. And this pandemic is just a little reminder that nothing is promised to you, Mr. Big Shot. So, try to remember all of this even after you get the vaccine.”

The lesson I am trying to take from all of this is that the correct attitude, always, is gratitude. Gratitude, to me, just means realism. We recognize the terrifying range of things that can happen to a human being and the briefness of this life and, if we happen to be not in agony, we appreciate it, and resolve to do something good with that brief moment of autonomy and grace.

You’ve discussed your first short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, alongside a quote from British literary critic Terry Eagleton: “Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.” You’ve also criticized the disdain progressives have for working-class Trump voters, especially in relation to your own Trump-supporting family members. In fiction and in real life, how do you hold space for empathy as you critique and satirize the cruelty of late capitalism?

It's a great question and I think the best answer might be, “Right, yes, exactly. How DO you?” I mean – that’s the challenge. It’s easy enough to be empathetic and loving toward someone who agrees with you. And if the person who disagrees with you is causing harm to some other, innocent, person – well, it’s pretty tempting to say, “Compassion, ha! That’s so 1955.”

Here’s how I’m trying to think about it. Empathy, understood correctly, is an incredible superpower. And actually, I’m not sure I’m using that word correctly – let’s cut to the chase and say that love, understood correctly, is an incredible superpower. What does this mean? Well, love is really what I’d call advanced understanding, accomplished with a tremendously open mind. We aren’t afraid to get right in there and try to understand someone, even if he or she is our perceived enemy. We want to know as much as we can and we recognize that the best way of knowing is to apply that earlier-mentioned open, non-conceptual, agenda-free mind (i.e., the mind we (try to) write with).

I’ve found, from these various non-fiction pieces I’ve done, that if you fill your head with enough information, a holy thing can happen – you can turn into a big, stunned question mark. You honestly don’t know. You see that every position involves benefits and costs; that everything really does happen for a reason (i.e., cause-and-effect is real). And, in that state, you are happy to defer deciding – you are not in a rush to judge, or any rush to act. You’re, like, stunned into humility. That’s powerful. You really don’t know where you stand. It doesn’t last long but it always feels like a good, cleansing event (before I go back to being my same old opinionated self).

I think one result of living in this particularly information-ridden time (fast, superficial opinions being piped into our heads all the time) is that we feel we have to always be judging things and pronouncing opinions and so on, and that certainty equals power. It’s like, the surer we are, the better. But the world is not, mostly, actually, waiting for us to opine. And we’re smarter (and kinder) if we learn to be confident enough to defer judgment (not avoid it, just defer it).

What we want to be is powerful; having a loving heart is a very powerful thing.

You told Writer’s Digest that your stories sometimes emerge from the desire to deploy a certain diction or “talk in a certain voice.” How do these voices come to you? Does inhabiting these distinct patterns of speech and thought ever change the way you think or see the world?

Oh, sure. I have a story called “Al Roosten” that is written from the point of view of what we might call, using the technical term, “a real turd.” I started out to crucify him, and sort of did, but along the way I also got fond of him, because he kept (in “his” voice) telling me these sad little truths about what had caused him to become such a turd – insecurity, mostly. And once I’d finished the story, I kept running into real-life Roostens (some of them at those Trump rallies), and now I had an operating theory, and some baseline sympathy to work with. I think fiction can have the effect of softening the boundaries between people. I noticed that when I was talking with those people, the fact that I had a modicum of baseline affection for them helped them to open up to me a little more, and, in the end, that made for deeper, better reporting.

In fiction, we take a big, solid, sometimes pejorative category (“real turd”) and, by trying to make a convincing example of someone in that category, we find that the big pejorative category gets fragmented down into smaller, less pejorative categories. Part of the reason Al is a “real turd” is that his business is failing and he’s financially responsible for his sister and her two kids. Who doesn’t know that feeling? (“Oh God, I may fail at something important and let down the people I love.”) Suddenly Al was both a real turd and… me, on a different day.

Many of your stories could be called dystopian, in that they take place in worlds whose fantastic aspects are exaggerations of real life horrors. They make the reader uncomfortable—I remember opening your 2013 story collection Tenth of December in a bookstore, starting “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” and being so freaked out that I had to read more. How do you think of your fiction in relation to other political tools? Does fiction offer something that a speech, for instance, cannot?

So much more, I think, although fiction also has a grenade-like tendency – it might blow some stuff up you didn’t want blown up. The main political force a story has, I think, is freedom. It shows a free mind and a free heart at work. That free mind/heart will go wherever it likes, wherever there is beauty or truth – and that is truly subversive. We might find our political beliefs contradicted or rendered facile or complicated in, as you say, an uncomfortable way. But that’s the true politics. As Chekhov said: “My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom – freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves.”

Often, a story with an overt political intention ends up just being a bad story because the writer, wanting to pronounce a sermon, keeps all the control on his side; it’s like that bad conversation I mentioned earlier. Fiction can lead us from what we think we believe to what we really believe. Under the pressures of the form, our belief is going to be forced to be expressed more specifically. If we say, “I believe X,” a story is going to road-test that belief in a specific person, on a certain day, under narrow conditions.

For example, I have a story called “Tenth of December,” in which a guy with cancer decides to end his life, to spare his family the pain of watching him die. In the story (spoiler alert) conditions arise which cause him to change his mind. Does this mean I’m “against assisted suicide” in general? Not at all. I don’t know how I feel about it in general. And I’m not even against it, for him, on the day in the story. But, it turned out, he was against it (under those circumstances, on that day).

So fiction teaches us that, to be wise, it makes sense to deal in particularities and distrust generalities (in general, ha ha).

In your New Yorker article, “Who are all these Trump supporters?”, you describe America as “fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail.” In light of our country’s continuing history of injustice, what would it mean for the American experiment to succeed? Does art help you hold onto this possibility?

I’m a Nyingma Buddhist and one of the beliefs is that everyone has what is called “Buddha nature.” That quality is shrouded by obscurations and habits and all of that but everyone has it and is, therefore, perfect (beneath the obscurations and habits). So, everyone is equal and if we try to view everyone as being, beneath the temporary manifestations, equal, and perfect, and loveable – well, that’s a good way to live, to the extent that we can do it. (There was a version of this is my childhood Catholicism too – everyone part of “the body of Christ,” Jesus as a loving, omniscient novelist of sorts, whose great power was His ability to abide continually in all-embracing love, for everyone.)

The way I see it, or am trying to see it, is that, for the first time in our history, our country is perched on the edge of the moment when we might start really living into the foundational beliefs which, understood correctly, are exactly equal to what I said above: everyone is equal and loveable and deserving of respect. Everyone. The “American experiment,” as I understand it, is that we are trying to enact that belief in a truly diverse culture. That is, we are saying, “Everyone is welcome and once you are here, we are going to treat you with radical equality.” Have we ever really lived that way? Ha ha. No. (Or, only during a few shining moments.) Could we? Sure, of course, why not? If we believe it enough and, maybe even more importantly, if we can find a way to believe it anew – why couldn’t we, finally, do it?

This would mean saying, “OK, if we did it right, our civic beliefs and actions might be, for once, in sync with our spiritual beliefs – defining “spiritual beliefs,” rather broadly for now, as “that which we would turn to at the hour of our death or the hour of the death of someone we love,” i.e., what we really believe, at those moments when we come to see that our usual, habitual way of living is insufficient. Or, we might say that a “spiritual belief” is that which arises when we realize that our rational minds, though pretty great, are designed to operate within a very limited set of conditions. Or, a need for “a spiritual belief” arises on those occasions when it occurs to us that it would be pretty weird if our minds were exactly the right size to perfectly understand the universe.

Anyway, wouldn’t that be nice? To feel that we were part of a larger thing that is good, and of which we are truly fond? For me, that’s what politics should be asking: “what changes are needed around here so that I will feel truly proud of my country?” In other words, we have to be able to conceive of all of our past sins as steps toward our future righteousness. I can say, as a Certified Old Fart (COF) that we are in much better shape than we were in, say, 1965 – in some ultimate sense we are in a more intelligent relation to racism and sexism and misogyny and homo- and transphobia than we were then. It’s not even close.

So, I’m hopeful. All of this tumult might be understood as the shock of really seeing who we have been, relative to who we aspire to be – but that’s a good thing. (Better than still falsely believing we are what we are not.) It’s like if we thought we were ready to run a marathon and then jogged out of the house and were winded after 100 yards. Is that good news or bad news? Well, bad, on the surface, but in the grand scheme, it’s good. We might, then, better know what work we had to do.

And yes, yes, a million times, yes: art helps. It helps us imagine the experience of other people and feel fondness for someone for whom we wouldn’t, in real life. That’s a big deal. It’s a form of practice for (real-life) compassion – just that process of reading along, accruing a certain view of a character and then finding out, by story’s end, that our initial view was too small, that it was partial. That, right there, is an essential moral activity. It prepares us to go out into the world, have our usual too-small or biased or reductive view of someone or something, and then go, “Wait, am I sure? Might it be otherwise?” And then we look closer, and we find out that, yes, it is otherwise; we were wrong. And suddenly we’re… bigger. We’re trying to not be so wrong and selfish and stuck in our own head.

Literature shows us that, not only can we do this, but we’re actually pretty good at it – it comes naturally to us, if we give it a chance.