Q&A: George Saunders

In preview of his new book, "Tenth of December," and Powell's talk on Feb. 8, the author speaks about defying categorization and teaching a young Cheryl Strayed.

By Genevieve Hudson February 6, 2013

The author George Saunders has no shortage of accolades. He has won a MacArthur “genius grant” and the National Magazine Award for fiction four times, as well as been called the funniest satirist since Mark Twain by the likes of Zadie Smith. So perhaps it comes as little surprise that his newest short story collection, Tenth of December, has already been titled the best book of 2013 by the New York Times. And it’s only February.

Infused with the satire you’d expect from Saunders’s previous works like Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, these stories are hilarious and absurd and lead the reader into a stilted world where disbelief is gladly suspended. Saunders guides us across a path laid with clear, well-crafted sentences and meticulous attention to language into a bizarre universe, like ours but not, where a young boy thwarts a child-abductor by flinging a geode at his skull and futuristic humans experience surges of love and lust through chemical drips administered by the MobiPack™ fused to their lower backs.

Saunders spoke with PoMo about how he’s managed to defy being categorized as genre fiction, getting and giving permissions to write how you want, and what is was like to work with a young grad student named Cheryl Strayed. You can catch him at Powell’s on February 8 where he will be reading from Tenth of December.

Culturephile: How does it feel to have the New York Times say that you’ve written the best book to be read all year, and it’s only February?

George Saunders: Well, it feels good. I took that as a sort of ornery, hyperbolic, throw-down. It's gotten a lot of people reading and discussing the book, so I'm very grateful for that.

You’ve been called a postmodern writer and a surreal writer, and you sometimes infuse sci-fi elements into your work, yet you are widely read instead of being corralled into genre fiction. Why do you think this is?
I think it might be because these days our pop culture has already destroyed the validity of those categories. Anyone who is even marginally acquainted with TV has already been comfortably straddling and crossing those boundaries for years—even if they’ve only watched The Simpsons. For my part, I try not to think about categories but, rather, just try to imagine myself speaking directly to the reader, and then try to maximize the emotional pop, by whatever means necessary.

You are historically a very voice-driven writer. It makes it easy to engage with your characters. This new collection seems to continue in the same stride. When you sit down to write stories—does voice compel you into the narrative first? Or character? Place?
It’s always different, honestly. But I know I can proceed with a voice alone, and the place and the character and all of that will show up. If I start with a place, that’s just an excuse for me to start hearing the voice. But honestly—the real process of writing is so multi-valent and complicated and sub-verbal that it’s kind of hard to answer truthfully—it’s a lot of things happening at once, at speed.

I read that “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” [which first ran in the New Yorker and now in Tenth of December] took 12 years to write. That’s quite a while. What is the average gestation period for a story?
Well, 12 years is not average, thank God. The funny thing is, I still can’t quite explain why it took so long. I think it had to do with the oddness of the concept and the sort of darkness inherent in it, plus the diary form. It had to feel like a real diary and, at the same time, I had to do something more with the concept of the Semplica Girls than to just disapprove of it. Honestly, I don’t know why it took that long. It just did. I always know when something is done, and this one kept refusing to be done.  But I liked it and always hoped for the best for it—so just kept on, no matter how irritating and at times embarrassing that was.

In the story “Victory Lap,” you present the point of view of three different characters. What prompted this decision? Did you begin the story thinking it belonged to only one character, then realize it needed to open up?
Yes, it was just something that I arrived at through the many months of working on it. Sometimes a story will sort of “tell you” that some new element is needed. I always sort of blank on process questions, because the way I approach revision is just to reread the story, making small changes, then key these in, then reread while making small changes—over and over. And the story very slowly starts to move in a certain direction. So by the end I can’t really remember why or when this or that occurred. It’s an iterative process that comprises thousands of small, almost unnoticed-at-the-time, decisions. And then you look up, and it’s (you hope) a story.

Karen Russell, Pulitzer Prize finalist, said of your work: “I read Saunders because he always makes me want to write. He reads like he’s having such a good time, and I love his humor so much…He was one of those writers that just opened doors for me.” I remember being assigned your story “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” as an undergraduate and “Red Bow” in graduate school. Both of these stories showcase examples of what was possible with language and, as Russell said, to open doors for us. How does it feel to be the writer that serves as that kind of example to others?
It feels great. And I remember with great respect the writers who did it for me—Barry Hannah, Stuart Dybek, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver. That’s the beautiful thing about writing—it’s a lineage. Nobody ever creates himself or herself as a writer. The craft gets passed down from one generation to the next. We’re all on this big writing team. 

Tell us more about that. Who opened doors for you? Did you ever feel you needed “permission” to write in the style you do?
I think I got a lot of courage from certain comic writers—the Steve Martin of “The Cruel Shoes,” Monty Python. And then when I read Celine for the first time, and not knowing about his noxious anti-Semitism—there was something about the conversational tone of his prose that fired me up. Stuart Dybek has a story called “Hot Ice” that was very permission-giving, because it was set in a Chicago neighborhood I knew—it was the first time literature had seemed to be in color as opposed to black-and-white, i.e. set in some far-distant time and place.

Has teaching helped your writing? Does it inspire you, or does it take time away from producing your own work? How often do you encounter young writers that truly impress you?
I am always—every semester—encountering young writers who truly impress me. We get around 550 applications at Syracuse for six spots. So they are already astonishing when they get here. And I don’t think it has affected my productivity at all, and has possibly even helped it, and has certainly had a happy effect on my understanding of young people. Whenever I hear someone my age say, you know: “Oh, this younger generation, blah, blah, blah,” I just feel like: You must not work with any of them.

I’ve heard through the literary grapevine that Portland’s Cheryl Strayed was one of your students during her MFA years at Syracuse. How do you remember her and her writing?
She was brilliant even before she came. And the work she applied with had the same quality people loved about Wild: it was honest, and it was sharp, and it thought well of human beings. There was none of that quality some young writers almost habitually apply—that quality we might call “auto-snark.”  Cheryl knew how to love in her work, how to appreciate. That is, I think, one of the rarest qualities in writing: that ability to celebrate. And people rise to that quality in Cheryl’s work, and in her personally. 

George Saunders reads at Powell's February 8.What are you working on now? Do you ever see a novel in your future or do you prefer to stick with the short form? 
I’ve got…some pages.  As always, I won’t have any idea what it is until it decides to tell me. 

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