Interview | George Saunders

by Rebecca Fishow

If George Saunders’ adventurous fiction displays generosity, creativity, and empathy, it’s because he too embodies all of these traits. As a writer a few years out of graduate school, what I appreciate most about speaking with George is his honesty. He implores us to find our heat, and confidently work with it, but doesn’t shy away from mentioning that even after countless hours and pages of writing, things may not pan out. I interviewed George while he was in Los Angeles through a series of emails. We discussed, among other things, the art and craft of writing, and his most recent best selling collection of short stories,Tenth of December. 

Cosmonauts Avenue: In the workshop I took with you, you would sometimes graph out our stories on the board, in order to show us our plot arcs (or lack of plot arcs) and encourage us to make something happen. Do you implement this mapping technique in your own writing? If so, at what stage of your writing do you use it?

George Saunders: I sure do. I usually resort to this when I have a vague sense of what happens (like, three or four little sub-beats within a larger beat) but the precise order isn’t yet clear in my mind.  So I’ll get a big piece of paper and sketch things out, or sometimes I’ll put those beats on index cards and move them around.  For me, though, I have to have worked through those beats in prose for a good long time first – I don’t do a lot of graphing before I’ve written stuff up.  It’s really just a form of ad hoc outlining, to see what the most natural line through the material is, and use that process to try to get a little clarity.  Sometimes the result is just, “Well, there are four different ways to approach this. Let’s start by trying this one.”

In workshop, where we’re looking at finished stories, it’s easier to go a little more in-depth– maybe identify places where the energy goes flat, or where the chronology is funky.  Those workshop pictures are basically just 2-D exports of the way the stories look in my mind–more “exploratory” than “factual.”  I think so many things we use to try and improve our writing are really just models, to try and prompt movement.  Whether they’re “true” or “accurate” is pretty nebulous.  The question is: Are they helping?

CA: Many of the worlds you create, in Tenth of December and in your other collections feel like alternative realities of the contemporary, working-class Western world. In “Victory Lap,” for example, the world is constructed out of the playfulness of language–it feels a bit like a TV family sitcom, but from the past, maybe. Words we don’t often hear these days, like “skort” and “egads!” fit right in.  Then of course, you are famous for inventing strange and often terrifying products: MiiVOXMAX in “Home” and Darkenfloxx™ in “Escape from Spiderhead” to name just a couple.

You told me once (after I had admitted that my fear of misrepresenting the world seems to prevent me from inventing) that the author isn’t responsible for representing the world. Stories have their own logic, and a writer is simply (or not so simply) responsible for retaining that logic.

This is sort of a two-part question. The first part is, how do you go about finding the worlds you invent? Does it begin with voice? Is it ever a challenge to make all of the details of that world cohere. If so, what does the process of overcoming the challenge involve?

Here’s part two: writing has the almost magical ability to affect readers’ perceptions, and teach them about humanity. Considering that fiction resonates with readers in the context of their personal/social realities, and can even influence their behaviors, what responsibility, if any, do writers have when it comes to reality?

GS: Part One:  For me, the way to find the world is to start writing and then follow the natural energy of the prose, and then that process actually makes the world.  So I usually start out with a very minimal sense of what the world is and where the story is going, trusting that the thousands of little language decisions along the way will answer those questions, and in a way that is more interesting than whatever I could pre-plan.  So that’s kind of liberating– the writer doesn’t have to comply with anything or be true to anything– she just has to make heat.  That said, I think there are writers who thrive on trying to make their fictive world true to the “real” world.  That’s where they get their heat– by trying to be true to that external reality.  It’s really just whatever works for the individual talent.  Which then implies that the writer’s big challenge is to come to recognize when she’s making heat–  by reading her own prose and watching her energy wax and wane in response.  That, it seems to me, is the essence of the whole deal.

Part Two: There’s an old idea about art, which is that we can understand it as not a description of the world but part of the world– a new part of the world–a beautiful, created thing in its own right, one that is just as much “world” as any mountain or city.  So my working assumption is that if I’m out in the world, and interested in it, and loving it, and it’s knocking me around and confusing me a bit, and then I go off and create this little language object that somehow responds to it, and that language object resonates in some way with a reader–then I have, de facto, been writing “about” the world.  And likely I’ll have been writing about in some non-reductive way–I maybe wasn’t aware what truth I was about to discover, but in the process of working with the piece, I’ve stumbled on to some new thing (a moment or an energy or a tone)–that then turns out to be in reference to the world after all.

I think a good referent is music, instrumental music.  If a composer starts writing for two cellos and works it and works it, and some kind of organized non-trivial piece of music comes out of it, then we experience that piece as being “about” life, even though it is really just a sort of mathematical (wordless) pattern.  What makes art, maybe, is the mind’s engagement with the non-trivial product of another mind.  So then the question for the artist becomes: how do I work with my material to make it more…well, to make it more. Make it non-trivial, shaped; give it forward momentum and make it surprising and so on. How do I get more life into my prose?  That said, I think there are writers who thrive on trying to make their fictive world true to the “real” world.

CA: In what ways has your fiction writing changed and developed from CivilWarLand in Bad Decline to Tenth of December? Are you interested in exploring different themes and emotions now than previously? Has your prose style shifted? If so, what caused these shifts?

GS: The biggest change, from my perspective, is that I feel more confident now in my ability to describe different mind-states, especially positive ones–I think I used to shy away from what we might call positive modalities–love, friendship, victory, family.  I’d always felt these things, of course, and sought them in my life, but when I was younger, when I’d find myself wanting to describe one of these states, I’d worry about blundering into sentimentality.  Now, after all these years of writing, I feel pretty confident that if something seems true to me, then there must be some exciting way of representing it in prose–there are fewer dead zones, I might say.  I do less avoiding of certain topics or modes.  And I’ve started to take it as a technical challenge: if something seems true (i.e., if the story seems to be asking a character to make a certain move, and that move is familiar to me from the world) then, instead of saying, “That can’t be done,” I find myself saying,“Ah ha, how might it be done?”  I’m happy about this development, which I think has resulted from years of working with my own prose (exploring and pushing out at its perimeters) and also just from living–as you get older, you start to develop a little more confidence that your perceptions are, if not correct, at least the only place from which you can start.  And then, to have lived through some pretty major life phases (marriage, kids, kids grown, balding, etc.) you start to feel: “Well, I should know something by now…”

CA: Know something about living, but also about the writing process and habits. In an interview with The Believer, Brian Evenson said, “I don’t spend time ramping up and ramping down like a lot of writers I know … I don’t check to see if anything is new on the Internet. I don’t have to spend time sharpening my special magical pencil made from wood taken from the deck of the Titanic. … Instead, if I have fifteen minutes, I write for a full fifteen minutes.”  That is pretty amazing, to me. What are your writing habits?

GS: I love that idea: “If I have fifteen minutes, I write for a full fifteen minutes.”  I got a lesson in this when I was writing my first book, at work. There were days where it was either grab a few minutes or do nothing at all.  What that teaches you is that the subconscious is a very flexible and overflowing beast, if you let it be.  So the trick would be to eliminate all of the conditional statements we are so prone to make (“I really need three hours a day to even get started” or “It’s too noisy in here to work” etc., etc.) and just start.

As far as my writing habits–these days I pretty much just wander out to the writing shed and leap in.  Or right now, we are out in Los Angeles for a month, and I’ve set up this little folding table in the second bedroom of this rental house and am going to start in tomorrow morning.  Here’s what I’ve found to be a helpful mode of thinking: “Whatever good you are going to do, is up there, in your mind, and has been prepared by all that you’ve done before.”  So the trick is to access it– give it a chance to come forward.  You don’t have to overmanage it or worry it or treat it with kid gloves.  Just let it out.  And then, of course, revise it.  But this notion involves thinking of the story (or novel, or poem) as being already fully realized somewhere in your mind.  It might come out a little out of order or truncated or overwritten.  But that’s what revision is for.

CA: For many younger writers, procrastination, motivation, and self-doubt can be serious hurdles to production–especially considering a lot of us were brought internalizing a stimulus-reward system of work.  You’ve discussed your story of being a young, struggling writer a lot in past interviews. What kept you going early on? Do you have any wise words regarding perseverance?

GS: What kept me going, honestly, is that there was nothing else I wanted to do or felt I could be good at.  In the early days I can’t say I enjoyed it, exactly, but I was really obsessed with this notion of trying to find a way to express my feelings about the world. The drive was pretty naturally just there, as I remember it.  And then over the years I came to enjoy and crave work-time, but it wasn’t that way at first.  At first I mostly wantedto have written.  But it took a lot of hours of practice to come to actually like doing it.

One thing that can help motivate us is just to get some sense of how many books there are out there and how really, really difficult it is to do something meaningful and new.  If a person can really feel that, it is tremendous spur to work.  If we could look ahead and see how many thousands of hours it was going to take to get to where we need to be, we’d get cracking right away, I think–we wouldn’t tolerate any stalling impulses.  Kind of like if you were in a burning house and could see that the front door was a long way off, through lots of burning rooms–that would lessen any tendency toward neurosis or worrying.

It’s important, I think (especially in our time, which is so inundated with MFA-think) to realize that it’s not the case that that everyone gets to make a life as a writer.  The odds against that are very long, actually.  It’s something we have to earn.  And–whether this is a good thing or bad, I don’t know–the way one tends to approach one’s work is part of the set of gifts (or liabilities) one has.  I’ve seen this in teaching–there are some people who get a little addicted to process and process-talk.  Or even to difficulty and failure.  So they are spending a lot of energy monitoring their creative process in this quasi-self-helpish way–which is fine, unless it impedes the work actually getting done and becomes an end in itself.  The task is so difficult and takes so many years of focused toil, that these types of people tend to drop by the wayside.  In a sense, it might be seen as a sort of Darwinian control mechanism: if a person isn’t really spontaneously driven, he or she will pretty naturally stop writing, just because it’s such a long road and there’s no guarantees, and no limit to the degradation and defeat one can experience on the way.  One thing that ultimately successful writers have is that they are driven to work–it is, in fact, impossible to stop them from working.  Which is not to say they love it all the time, or work pain-free– just that they keep coming back to it.

CA: Here’s another craft question. Your final story in your latest collection, titled “Tenth of December,” seamlessly blends the fantasy worlds of two characters with the realities of their lives. Robin, a young boy who dreams of impressing a girl in his class, is saved by Don Eber, a terminally ill man who has resigned himself to suicide-by-freezing in order to spare his family the trouble of dealing with his illness. Each character, by the end of the story (spoiler alert, readers), ends up rescuing the other from death. They both leave their respective fantasies behind. How did you come to find this story’s dreamlike narrative form? Did you intend from the beginning to weave fantasy and reality, and if not, how did it develop? What advice do you have for young writers, in terms pursuing unconventional narrative impulses?

GS: This story was an odd one for me, or anomalous, in that I had a notion of the story before I started it, and just sort of sat there with that notion for a year or so.  The notion was just: guy with cancer decides to end it all and spare his family.  I somehow just had a feeling that I should wait, not start, let it sort of seep in.  And then at one point I thought,“Well, if he succeeds, that’s not much of a story.  So let’s modify the notion: guy with cancer decides to end it all and spare his family and is somehow obstructed.” I had in mind something kind of dramatic and episodic and set in the natural world–like Tolstoy’s“Master in Man” or David Quammen’s “Walking Out.” At one point, as I was letting my mind chew on that notion, I had this sub-notion (and who knows where this stuff comes from?) that the obstruction should be an angel.  Well, that idea didn’t last long, but I retained the idea that whatever prevented guy from killing himself was going to be associated with the color white–hence Robin’s coat.  (Sometimes I find these little ideas, though they don’t mean anything or make any sense–useful as handholds, just for fun, to get started.)  So when I finally decided it would be some kind of kid (in white) that provided the obstruction, I started writing a little.  And then it was just many, many drafts, to try and figure out who the two of them were, and what order their subsections should appear in, and what was the exact nature of the obstruction, and so on.  Iteration is a big part of my process so it was mostly just: write, revise, read (over and over) until the story found its final form.

The characters came out of an attempt to make someone who would (1) perform the necessary action (try to kill himself/obstruct that attempt) and (2) be entertaining and lively in the process.  And in trying to get (1) and (2) done, lo and behold, personality arises.  And my experience has been that, if I am concentrating really hard on (2), especially, the characters will start to do all the necessary “literary” work– will start to subtly resonate with one another and reinforce some sort of “theme” and all of that– but only if I keep my eyes averted, so to speak.

CA: I’d like to address the theme of chivalry, particularly modern male chivalry, which pervades your most recent collections. Chivalric acts are performed to varying degrees of success in “Victory Lap,” “Escape from Spiderhead,” “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” “My Chivalric Fiasco.” I have to admit that, as a female reader, I was at times frustrated with this focus–frustrated that chivalric ideas inhibited male characters to understanding female perspective and experience, a bit peeved that female characters weren’t explored in more depth.

But the more I thought about it the more I thought perhaps this is part of the point, the criticism. Then, in the story “Tenth of December” you directly address the problems with romantic ideals of chivalry by allowing characters to shed their fantasies in order to behave heroically. I thought that the structure of this last story in some ways parallels the book itself.   Do you see the collection as a tangling and untangling of the theme of modern chivalry?  Also, what draws you to this theme?

GS: Well, it’s interesting.  When I was a kid I used to write stories that were always about someone rescuing someone, influenced very much, I think, by the story of Christ, and my Catholic childhood.  And, well, Batman.  So maybe the short answer is that we use what we’ve got–we tell the stories (or versions of the stories) that our minds keep coming back to, because those are somehow the most powerful ones to us.  And we resist that at our own peril.  And then, because I’m more comfortable with male perspectives and vulnerabilities and so on, my characters tend to be male.  When I’m trying to think of someone who is a doof, and who I might be able to get to come alive via humor–I tend to imagine a male.

And then I always assume that the particularities of a character–gender, class, race, sexual preference, geographic origin and all of that–are going to eventually (I hope) get subsumed in that character’s more universal qualities.  And the reader is going to reach past those particularities and start feeling that he or she is that character.  That’s the hope, anyway.

It also occurs to me then to look at the other stories and at the actions that the female characters undertake and see what’s going on there.  In “Puppy,” there are two women both engaged in some attempt at positive intervention, and then, in “Semplica Girls,” the really effective interventionist is the little girl, Eva.  In “Home,” it’s the community that attempts an intervention, at the end there.  I like your idea, above, about characters shedding their fantasies of intervention to actually try and do it.  That rings true to me.  We all want to be heroic but to actually do so requires real clarity of vision, and a willingness to put aside our notions of how we want to be heroic–and look at what might actually be needed.

And so, in “Tenth of December,” one of the reasons the mutual rescues work (and actually there are three, I guess, since the mother rescues Eber, after Robin gets home and lets her know what’s up) is that each rescuer has to sort of lose his/her notions of who they are, in order to get to the place where the rescue can be accomplished.  Whereas the less successful rescue in “My Chivalric Fiasco” fails because the rescuer can’t quite get free of his ego, we might say– he (under the influence of the drug) is insistent on a certain model of rescue– even if it ends up damaging the rescued party, and contradicting her wishes.

To tell you the truth, though– I’m not really sure.  As I said above, my working assumption is that if I concentrate on a character, I am always, first, infusing so much of myself into him or her that he/she will become me, essentially, albeit exaggerated; second, we are going to move past the vagaries of the individual and into some more universal place.  In the end, a story is about the big human things, using that initial particularity as a kind of jumping-off place.

CA: When you won the United Kingdom’s newest literary award, The Folio Prize, (congratulations!) poet Lavinia Greenlaw as “unflinching, delightful adventurous and compassionate.” During your acceptance speech, you said fiction was “about developing our ability to be sympathetic to others,” to quote The Guardian. Words like sympathy, empathy have been frequently used to describe especially your newest collection. Reading Tenth of December, I certainly felt that in many of the stories. Characters and dilemmas are nuanced. Readers experience conflicts of interest and internal struggle when there aren’t clear correct solution to characters’ problems. At the same time, your writing also showcases characters that are unflinchingly deplorable in a harsh satirical manner. In “My Chivalric Fiasco,” Don Murray. “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” whatever total jerk introduces SGs into the world. Just about everything associated the the dystopian drug testing company in “Escape from Spiderhead” is deplorable. So, I’m wondering what other words, besides sympathy/empathy, would you attach to your writing? Are there challenges are involved with striking a balance without losing the power of any of the elements?

GS: I really try to put all those notions aside when I’m working and just try to take the reader on a wild ride.  That sounds simple enough, but it really means that you have to fully engage the reader– have to get her to really lean into you and trust you and go along with the ride; not be able to disengage herself and her real concerns from the narrative. That’s where this idea of empathy comes from, I think–the reader and writer do this sort of mind-meld and that in itself argues for a kind of commonality between people.  Even if they are, together, observing some deplorable action, they are momentarily united in agreeing that that action is deplorable–which is proof, of a sort, that two minds canconnect, i.e., empathy is a logical response–it’s real and true that we can believe in the reality of another person, and act accordingly.  Then, in fiction, there is that additional opportunity to expand that to include certain (although not necessarily all of the) characters in that little temporary mind-meld.  We feel for Pip, or Heidi, or Hamlet, or whoever, and this also underscores that such a connection is possible.  I don’t think it’s the case that empathy is modeled by creating a world where everyone is good or admirable–that would be false.  And my experience has been (emphatically) that if I set out to prove something or speak for some moral virtue, the story will be boring and pedantic and dead on arrival.

CA: Since CivilWarLand, you have been lauded as one of your generation’s preeminent writers’ writers, drawing praise and admiration from literary circles. Tenth of December, a best-seller, was immensely successful amongst a mass readership as well. Has this success effected your sense of purpose as a writer?  Do you see yourself as a figurehead or spokesperson for literature? If so, how do you hope to promote it?

GS: I’ve found that, as a working strategy, I try to keep things as simple as possible.  So my deal is, concentrate on the book-in-progress, try to make it as intense as possible.  That’s what creates all of these other opportunities anyway.  The bad thing about increased attention is that it has a tendency to turn your attention to your own shit, like, “What good news is there for me today?”  Which then turns your attention away from the world, where it belongs.  The good thing about increased attention is that it tends to increase your confidence and verve–I find myself willing to try bigger and riskier things now–which is maybe a little pathetic, but there it is.

CA: When Ben Marcus came to visit Syracuse University’s MFA program, he asked us all what could we write about now that will be most important fifty years from now. Given that fiction is for now, but also for posterity, do you feel this is a useful question? If so, what messages do you hope to send to the future?

GS: I think that can be useful, yes.  Or, you know, not.  Depends on the writer and where she finds herself.  For me it’s useful because it moves my mind out to the universal, somewhat.  If somebody in 2064 picks up one of my stories, will it still be capable of speaking to him?  If not, why not?  On the other hand, if it inhibits you too much (nudges you away from all particularity) that might not be great either.  “The man sat in his moving vehicle, which progressed past certain of the dwellings then in fashion, thinking of love, there before the timeless mountains, rivers, and valleys.”

But here’s what I really think: we have this beautiful opportunity to leave behind these little encoded testimonials re. what we felt about being here, and those testimonials have the potential to be consolatory–they can give comfort and warmth and hope to people in other places and future times–kind of wonderful.  And so we want to form those testimonials in the right spirit, and be properly reverent about the activity–which, paradoxically, means we also want to be properly irreverent and fun and naughty and disrespectful.  And it’s so interesting because we really don’t know, exactly, what might be consolatory to others.  I am consoled, weirdly, by the dark rage in Flannery O’Connor, and the narrator’s attraction to violence in Isaac Babel, and the absurdity and helplessness in Gogol.  Mostly what I think comforts me is that these stories were written by people who were just like us, in the confidence that paying attention to the world in this literary way has some value – that it’s better to live with our eyes open, trying to make sense of all of this chaos.

CA: Speaking of chaos, in the past couple decades, there’s been an ongoing conversation about all the ways technology and the internet, has changed the literary landscape. I’m curious, do you feel that having a platform like the Internet (which provides both a public space for almost everyone who wants to get their writing out there, and easier access to diversity than ever for readers) dilutes or strengthens the literary landscape? Have you experienced changes in the publishing process as a result of technology? How do you approach the virtual jungle? Any advice for readers on how to find the good stuff?

GS: Well, this might be sort of an anti-climactic answer, but I don’t think the internet has changed the literary landscape all that much.  The old-fashioned publishing model–a publishing house with the means and resources to get the word out, and a distribution system to get the product out in the world–still seems pretty good (and sought after, and hard to get), for exactly the reason you are implying here: with so much stuff out in the world, how do we find what’s good?  When you have a good publisher, they get the book the sort of publicity that alerts likely readers all over the world.  That might be an even more important thing, given how easy it is to get stuff disseminated on-line.

I sometimes think that thinking about these sorts of questions can be a distraction–I’ve always compartmentalized the “marketing” part of things and just figured that most of my energy has to be given over, first and foremost, to making something good–and then trusting that, if I do that, I’ll find a way to get it out into the world.  Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but sometimes I see young writers who, in their very natural anxiety about making a place for themselves, tend to overemphasize what seems to me like a secondary part of the process (i.e., “how should I present myself/get myself noticed?”)  I think this is even more of a temptation in the Internet age, when we are constantly being told that a writer has to establish an on-line presence and so on.  I try to remember writers like Cormac McCarthy and Alice Munro and Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, who never did any of that stuff and still don’t– we know and love them for their work, which somehow found its way into the world and would not be stopped.

CA: Do you feel that the internet has changed the way writers work with publishers and editors? If so, how?

GS: The only thing that comes to mind is that, relative to when I started out, I think it is easier now to get (nominally) “published.”  There are more venues, when we count on-line places.  And my hunch is there are more publishing houses, hence more first books.  And there are certainly more creative writing teaching jobs.  So it’s changed in that way–anecdotally, it seems to me that more people can make a living at this thing, albeit more modestly and further beneath the radar.  (All those books but not necessarily more readers to read them, or venues in which they can be reviewed).   I’m not sure that this is really true–I haven’t seen any statistics or anything– but that’s how it feels to me.  And I think that might be a good thing or a bad thing.  It’s nice that people who love to write can make a living at it, but maybe not so good in that it threatens to turn the art form into a sort of insular or incestuous thing–writers writing for other writers, having very small readerships and a steadily narrowing range of concerns and tonalities, etc., etc.

I don’t really, to tell the truth, have too much energy for thinking about things like that.  As I mentioned earlier, I’ve found that if I keep my thinking about writing simple, and confined to those few hours at the desk, the results tend to be more intense.  And part of this simplification takes the form of a sort of mantra: “Trust that, if you do good work, the world will find it.”  That, of course, may sound a little facile, especially coming from an 800-year-old dude with a tenure-track job, but that’s how I was thinking of it back at the beginning too, mainly because it was just too scary and complicated to think about connections and optimizing my career and so on.  I didn’t have time, was using all of my energy up on my family and job and writing, and to think that that stuff might matter just scared the hell out of me.  I liked the simplicity of thinking: “It is all about the work, period.”  Even if it’s not just all about the work, pretending that it is helps me get stuff done.

CA: I know you are a huge fan of historical Russian short story writers, like Babel, Gogol, etc. Do you tend to read a lot of international contemporary fiction as well?  If so, can you identify any important non-U.S./Canadian authors or trends that Western writers would benefit from paying attention to? On the flip side, what do you think Western writers are doing well? Of course, our our output is incredibly diverse, but if you could zoom out and look at the big picture, what is American literature telling the world?

GS: I get a lot of good suggestions from former students.  I recently read and lovedSenselessness by Horacio Moya, and By Night in Chile by Bolano.  Also loved Faithful Ruslanby Georgi Vladimov.  Adam Levin turned me on to Moya and also to Patrick Ourednik’sEuropeana, which is pretty amazing, and I Served the King of England by Bohumul Hrabal.

As far as what Western writers are doing well–I’m not sure.  I think I could probably fabricate a decent answer (“We are very good at titrating genre elements into literary fiction”) but the real truth is, those kinds of questions don’t enter into my actual writing process very much at all–or at least not in any conceptual or articulable way.  I pretty much just read whatever I come across that seems to be compelling, trusting that there’s some synchronicity in those books appearing when they do, and that whatever I’m working on will be fed by whatever I’m reading.  My intelligence, such as it is, is not really set up for big, sweeping, comprehensive understandings about things–I tend to mostly just be trying to move my own work forward, in whatever way is necessary, and those ways tend to be internal and private and inscrutable.  I’ll give you an example:  the other day I read a story in the New York Times about the British composer Thomas Ades.  That night, I went on a YouTube binge, had my mind blown by the beauty of his work, and I know that that experience (the mind-blowing) is going to be important to the book I’m now writing.  How?  I have no idea and I don’t really care to know– or, I don’t feel any need to articulate it.  I just know that this is going to be important to me.  Is this a valid approach, or a universal one?  No – it’s just mine; it works for me.

CA: Do you think the U.S. is paying enough attention to international literature? Or for that matter, does it pay enough attention to the work of minorities or marginalized peoples from within the U.S.?

GS: No, we’re not.  It’s a big issue, I think: not enough books from other countries are being translated into English.  I suppose there must be market considerations (not enough Americans are interested in reading foreign literature) but it’s interesting that, in a time when our status in the international community seems to be dropping, we are, on the evidence of it, less interested than ever in knowing what’s going on in other countries.  My fear is, this could make for a very flat and insular and self-involved literature.

As far as within the U.S.– I think we are pretty good (or getting better, anyway) at representing minority lives and the lives of marginalized people–but maybe the danger is that, as our means of expression gets homogenized (by, say, the corporatization of literature) we might be disallowing alternate voices and approaches; that is, we might be somehow saying, “Yes, yes, tell us about your life–but make sure and do it in a way we’ll recognize.”  An increasing tendency toward simple language and easily reduced concepts and so on.  If this is the case, then we are really talking about the banalization of fiction and the disappearance of (useful) difficulty.  If a marginal or minority story can only be told in a mainstream voice, then we’ve denuded it.  This, of course, is true of any narrative– one fight that (it seems to be) is underway is our fight to preserve meaningful difficulty in the face of a culture that seems to be somehow reactionary in its addiction to simple or reductive narratives and modes of telling.  That is a real and complicated danger that, at least in my mind, is somehow associated with this charming humongous beast called late-phase capitalism; the marketplace is having an effect on voice, on the question of which voices are welcomed– we tend to be moving in a direction where anything unconventional, that is striving to make new sorts of meaning, might be considered“weird,” and “weird” is coming to mean “unnecessarily complex (or critical, or ambiguous).”

CA: Ben Stiller purchased the rights to your story “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” back in the late 90s. But the project stalled out for many years. Word on the street is there’s some real momentum now towards making the film version happen. Can you bring us up to date on the saga?

GS: I think they’re still trying to get it funded.  I did a big rewrite a couple of years ago.  So we’ll see.  There seems to be no predicting, at least from where I’m sitting (upstate New York, mostly).

CA: Film adaptations of book vary regarding how close the story remains to the original text. How concerned are you with maintaining the integrity of your story? Are there certain elements of it, thematically, tonally or plotwise that you hope stay intact? In contrast, is there anything you feel lime a movie version might do better?

GS: I wrote the script for this one.  It’s not an exact reproduction of the story, by any means.  I think what you have to do is find the roughly parallel version that retains the spirit of the original but wraps it in cinematic energy (rather than prose energy).  Also, by the time I wrote the script, the story was already fifteen years old.  So that liberated me to try and do something different from the same source material– to explore a little. Otherwise it wouldn’t be much fun.

CA: Thank you so much for this interview! It’s been a pleasure to hear from you. Just one last question. Can you list a few of your current favorite books or authors we should add to our reading lists?

GS: There’s an insanely good book called Patriotic Gore, by Edmund Wilson that a friend turned me on to this year–an examination of the literature of the American Civil War.  It’s one of those books that is so smart and ambitious and nervy that it recalibrates one’s ambitions.

I also read James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom–another great Civil War book.  It had this deep moral effect on me–he is so good at channeling the various and contentious voices of that period, and somehow making the reader see that the usual mode of political debate–fighting, being clever, parrying with your opponent, feeling self-satisfied with one’s small, temporal rhetorical victories–is the easy path, and is so typical and banal and leads nowhere.  And then, through that haze, comes somebody like Lincoln, always thinking of ways to get the thing to work out, and of the good of others.


George Saunders is the author of eight books, including Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and won the inaugural Folio Prize in 2013 (for the best work of fiction in English) and the Story Prize (best short story collection).  He has received MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story, and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In support of his work, he has appeared on The Colbert Report, Late Night with David LettermanAll Things Considered, and The Diane Rehm Show.  In 2013, he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine. He had taught in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University since 1996.

Rebecca Fishow is a writer and visual artist living in Montreal. Her work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, The Believer Logger, The Fiddleback and elsewhere. She is the interviews editor for Cosmonauts Avenue.