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A Satirist in Full Stride

George Saunders, whose new collection of short stories has just been published, may be the most talented goof-off writing fiction today

May 17, 2000

When George Saunders's debut collection of short stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, first appeared three years ago, Garrison Keillor wrote that Saunders was "a brilliant new satirist bursting out of the gate in full stride," and Thomas Pynchon even came briefly out of hiding in order to describe Saunders's voice as "astoundingly tuned." Not bad blurbs for a guy in his thirties who, it turned out, was holding down a job as a geophysical engineer in Rochester, New York, and who did most of his writing in bits and pieces while at the office, when his supervisors weren't looking. It did indeed seem that Saunders had emerged, fully formed, out of nowhere -- his stories were taut, witty, disturbing, apparently derivative of nobody, and set remarkably often in an oddly skewed future America dominated by theme parks. But the truth is that Saunders served a long and difficult apprenticeship, scraping by in odd jobs, studying in the creative-writing program at Syracuse University, and generally doing his best to suppress his natural impulses and write like other people. The work he produced before CivilWarLand, he says, he "won't let out of the house."

But no matter. Saunders, who is back at the creative-writing program at Syracuse, this time as a professor, has just released Pastoralia, a second collection of stories (all of which have appeared in The New Yorker in recent years, some in truncated form). The book confirms that he has indeed hit his stride -- its stories are every bit as finely tuned, mordantly funny, and original as those in CivilWarLand.

Toby Lester recently met with Saunders in Syracuse, New York, to talk about the new book and about Saunders's writing in general.
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George Saunders    

Why do theme parks pop up so often in your stories?

I really don't know. I sort of stumbled onto them. I think it has something to do with being able to say, "This is not realist fiction. This is something else." It's a way of reminding myself not to bash my head against a wall trying to be Hemingway or somebody. Instead I can just goof off, which is the only thing I'm really good at. Basically, using theme parks creates a sort of cartoon-like mood, and that keeps me from trying to launch into some earnest, twenty-page description of some character's childhood. Artistically, too, they're pretty useful -- a world within a world is always great, because it's automatically metaphorical -- but the most important thing is that theme parks are devices that lead me to where I need to be. Everybody needs some way to get into a story, and for me theme parks are often the simplest way. I just say, "Okay, it's a theme park about the Virgin Mary. Ha ha." No sweat and tears deciding what topic to take on. It's just that: a theme park about the Virgin Mary. So then it comes down to small-scale problem solving. What do you see when you first come in? Who do they hire to play the Virgin Mary? What does the manger look like? What does Joseph do on break? Because I'm kind of a bonehead, I distract myself with these stupid little problems so my unconscious mind can work on something bigger -- child labor, maybe, narcissism, whatever.

It's not bad actually, that Virgin Mary idea. I've only just thought of it now. Hmm.

Who do you think is funny?

I was really influenced by Monty Python as a kid. That was the one thing my Dad and I did together. One of my favorite current writers is Ben Marcus. He's great. He's got one book out, called The Age of Wire and String (1998). It's hilarious and really spooky. I think David Foster Wallace is funny -- and Dave Eggers, too. And Mark Leyner is a hero of mine. But the word "funny" is a bit like the word "love" -- we don't have enough words to describe the many varieties.

I've been asked if when I'm writing I know it's funny, and I think the answer is generally no. Because I think funniness has something to do with compression. When I write I know that I'm going to have to produce 40 percent more than I need. Sometimes I'll write a whole page and there'll be just one little schtick that's good in there. I'll eventually just cut the rest and go with that, and if I'm lucky I get to something funny. A lot of it has to do with knowing how to cut, so that you get a juxtaposition of strange elements.

Like describing somebody, as you do in your first book, as "a guy with armpit goiters who's constantly measuring them with calipers"?

Yeah. There's something about the mere sound of certain words juxtaposed that's just funny. I like "drive-through hand job," too, which is in that same story, "Bounty."

I only recently came to admit funniness to myself. When I first came to Syracuse, as a student in the creative-writing program, I submitted a story that was goofy, and pretty funny. Then I got all anal-realist -- you know, "the man sat at the window, deep in thought," that sort of thing -- and I told Tobias Wolff, my teacher, "I'm done with that funny stuff, and now I'm writing some real fiction." Now, he's the kind of teacher who'll let you make mistakes and live with them for a while. He said, "Well, good. But just don't lose the magic." And I thought, Why on earth would I lose the magic? -- and then I proceeded to do exactly that for four or five years. I wrote all of this realist stuff that just didn't work. What took me a really long time was realizing that just using my internal voice was all right, and it was the one I actually had to use. That internal voice was not anti-artistic, exactly, but it wasn't one I'd seen or heard before. I can remember thinking, You mean I should write that way, just like I think? It was really liberating for me to say, "I'm going to be a goofball for the rest of my life. I'm going to be a ninety-year-old guy with a fart cushion." It took a great weight off my shoulders.

There's a whole list of things I can't do in fiction writing, that I wouldn't even try -- no, I have tried them, and that's why I know I can't do them. I only started having fun when I started saying, "Okay, I can't write a straight sentence. I can't describe nature. I don't really care what happens when a divorcing couple sits down in a café. I just don't care." When I turned away from those things and turned toward things I like to do -- dialogue, humor -- then suddenly everything opened up for me. But I'm always aware of writing around things I can't do, and I've come to think that that's actually what "style" is -- an avoidance of your deficiencies.

Part of your style is to play a lot with dialogue and with common verbal tics -- the use of "like," as in, "He was like: dang," or the use of the rising inflection at the end of a statement that's not a question, as in, "Because I want to?" Is that an avoidance of deficiencies?

Definitely. I didn't go to the greatest of schools as a young kid, and then I went to engineering school, and so my grammar is not the best. I'm not articulate in a conventional way, so I channel my energies into other things -- dialogue, for example -- where inarticulateness can actually convey passion, and, in doing so, becomes, in a perverse way, articulate. Unlike that last sentence.

There's an Orwell essay that I love, called "Politics and the English Language," in which he says that language is inherently political. So something like "like" is a sort of indicator of a larger societal dysfunction. What "like" does is allow you to join two thoughts that are grammatically distinct but associatively linked, without having to go to great lengths to make the connection. It's kind of an impressionistic device. You can say, "The truck was going so fast, like, I just went, like: Slow down, jerk?" I'm sure we stumbled across that sort of device because we needed it. It's meaningful. The same goes for euphemisms, which I love. When somebody takes great trouble not to say something, it's an incredible display. They can't say, "I'm dying." Instead they have to say, "The ongoing experience that has been my life is apparently not going to be quite as lengthy as was first suggested to me."
Almost everybody in your stories seems to be stuck in some sort of horrible job. Why?

I like fiction that's not unaware of the fact that people work, and that work costs you, and that people spend their days focusing really hard on trivial little things. I've worked in some really cruddy jobs, during which I got a good taste of what America is when you don't have your shit together. (I don't completely yet, actually -- I'll show you the car I'm driving.) Those jobs were spiritually formative. I don't really use details from them in my stories, but they feed into a central theme, which is that it's not too nice to have the culture's foot pressing down hard on your chest.

What's interesting, though, is that if something bad happens in a story, or if something bad is the centerpiece, then that's considered dark, which I think is weird. People keep saying to me, "But you seem so happy." And I really am. But I love that Chekhov quote: "There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of every happy man, to remind him by his constant knocks that there are unhappy people, and that happy as he himself may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws." That seems to me to be a very legitimate function for literature: just to tap in the closet. For me it's pretty natural just to say, "Yes, life's pretty good, but it's not good for everybody. And when it's not good, this is how it might feel."

Do you have a specific routine for writing your stories?

No, and the reason is that I learned to write at work, while doing another job, and so I could never count on anything. That was great in a way -- I'd literally be writing a tech report on one side of my screen and one of my stories on the other. At any minute I'd have to drop my story. Somehow along the way I lost the idea that a story had to be something precious -- you know, that I had to have the incense burning as I wrote. I realized that a lot of my writing isn't conscious, and even if I have to cut something off, it's still there, under the surface, and it will come back later. It was a really good lesson -- I'd get interrupted just before writing the greatest line in all of English literature, but then I'd come back an hour or two later and find something better.

Actually, those constraints were great, because they forced me to be tight. Sometimes now I write pages and pages more than I should, just because I have the time, and it's all garbage.

All of it?

Well, okay. But it's interesting, isn't it: there's such a fine line between attachment and aversion. One day you can think, This is the greatest story in the world, and then the next you think, This is the biggest piece of shit in the world. Well, maybe it's neither. I want to free myself from that kind of neurotic behavior.

What's your next project?

I don't know. Whatever drops in my lap. I wasted a lot of years working on my writing and very grandly saying, "And now ... MY NOVEL!," which would soon be reduced to a short story, then to a paragraph. I'm just always grateful when whatever I'm working on doesn't sort of crumble away. I have a kids' book coming out in August, illustrated by Lane Smith. It's called The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. It was really fun, so I've started to write another one. The problem is that it has sort of become a novella, and even though it's supposed to be a kid's story, it's suddenly about genocide...


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Toby Lester, formerly an editor at The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound, is now the editor of Country Journal.

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