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Data and Darkness: a Conversation with George Saunders

by Published on
George Saunders
Author George Saunders

Celebrated short story writer George Saunders was born in Amarillo, Texas, in 1958, and that’s pretty well the extent of his Texas connection. Saunders grew up in the Chicago area, worked as a mining engineer in Sumatra, and since 1997 has been on the faculty at Syracuse University in upstate New York. His stories have earned Saunders multiple National Magazine Awards and a 2006 MacArthur Fellowship. His sixth book of fiction, Tenth of December, was published Jan. 8. Saunders will read and sign books at 7 pm on Tuesday, Dec. 22, at Book People in Austin.

The Observer‘s Emily DePrang prefaced his visit by phone:

TO: If I were you, after the New York Times hagiography came out, I think I would be completely paralyzed.

GS: Yeah. I have an advantage over you in that I’m 54. You see these things come and go and you take it like, “Well, it could have gone the other way. It’s nice that it didn’t. And before long, it’ll go back to the way it was.” Because, you know, this is the most attention a book of mine has ever gotten. The other ones got some, so it’s just kind of like, if you eat beans, you’re gonna fart. If you get a lot of attention, you’re going to swell up and be full of yourself, or be paralyzed. And it passes. It’s best to just enjoy it while it lasts. It’s an interesting thing, to watch your own brain go through it. This is unexpected, so I consider it an interesting way to learn about how you react to things.

TO: Yeah, like what is the effect on the human psyche—

GS: —of having a shitload of attention? Yeah. If we had talked six months ago, before this happened, one of the things that was really on my mind was this question of readership. I had a small readership and I wasn’t sure why. I had two theories. One of them was, everyone was cretins. The other one, which is more serious, was that there’s something I’m doing in my work that’s keeping people away from it, some kind of reflexive habit that excluded people. Aesthetically, that’s interesting. Now that this book is finding a bigger readership, maybe I’ll recalibrate that and say, well—unless we get a wave of returns next week—maybe what I was doing was actually accessible enough to get this bigger audience that I wanted, but I just didn’t know it yet. It’s only interesting if the reason is aesthetic.

TO: I didn’t read the NYT article in part because I knew that if I read it before I read the book I couldn’t have my own thoughts. Then I read the whole book yesterday and I gotta say, you hurt my feelings.

GS: How so?

George Saunders Tenth of December coverTO: I just… I was putting off reading it because the pull quote on the cover said “Emotionally piercing” and I was like, “I don’t want to be emotionally pierced… It’s Sunday… Being emotionally pierced is something that I work actively and take medication to prevent…” By the way, this is going to be a shitty interview because you don’t know me but I closely identify with the way you must experience the world in order to write about it the way you do. Like, you’re my favorite living author in part because all the other authors I like have killed themselves.

GS: I won’t. I promise.

TO: Will you really not? I’m actually asking you, Emily DePrang to George Saunders, please don’t kill yourself.

GS: No. I’ve never had any inclination to do that, for a split second, ever.

TO: Good.

GS: On the contrary, I’ll be 140 years old, clinging to it. I think it’s dispositionary.

TO: Well, it’s partly medical.

GS: For all those reasons, this will be a great interview. We can just be pals.

TO: I’ve often wondered about that as I read and I was like, Oh shit, you experience the absolutely overwhelming, horrible thing your brain does when it notices all the details about the people on the train and extrapolates. Like, looking at somebody’s shoes and you think about what it’s like being them putting on those specific shoes that morning and where they’re going in those shoes and how they feel about those shoes—having that experience all the time is crippling and overwhelming and I gravitate toward people who are writing to deal with that. People used to talk about David Foster Wallace as someone who was constantly trying to bail out a sinking boat and he failed to do that. I read your stuff and I think, “I wonder if that’s how he experiences the world.”

GS: Well, I think actually that’s really interesting the way you put that. Here’s another way to think about it. That kind of high level of noticing that Dave had and I think any good writer has, that’s almost like an objective thing. The data comes in and it makes an imprint and the writer learns a prose style that will allow her to exploit the incoming data in an interesting way. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be anything. It doesn’t have to be crippling, it doesn’t have to be uplifting, it’s just data. And then what happens is … that data gets grafted onto or dropped onto the psychological person.

TO: The narratives you’ve already got set up.

GS: Yeah, and also your disposition. Like, Dickens is a person who had an incredible eye for detail and density of detail and it came in on a fundamentally sunny disposition. Take your favorite suicidal poet of the 19th century and the data comes in and it gets dropped on a depressed disposition. I think that’s really in our control. Well, the disposition is not in our control, but I think part of the job as a writer is to kind of belly up to your actual disposition and say, this is who I am and accept that as a given of your aesthetic.

TO: I did read this Guardian interview about your relationship to darkness, your dark aesthetic and how in this one, there’s the disposition that you’re talking about and there’s a recognition of it and a comfort in it, and then there’s realizing that you can write authentically away from the thing that you’re predisposed to.

GS: Yeah. My experience of it is, I don’t do a lot of pre-thinking about what I’m going to write about.

TO: Yeah. Because then it would suck.

GS: I think what happened was, as you get older and your worldview changes, that gets enacted into the stories incrementally. At certain decision points you go, oh, okay, so it would be pretty easy aesthetically to take this story in this direction, but wow it would be harder to take it in this direction. So just for simple reasons of trying to expand the envelope you take it in the harder direction. So this book, it turns out that the really interesting places in the trajectory of these stories were those moments when—like, in the first one, “Victory Lap.” It becomes an abduction story. Well, you can let the abduction take place or you could interrupt it. And I tried both. The interruption was harder and more interesting. So if the other one had been harder or more interesting, I would have done that, but it just turned out it wasn’t. So then, the whole length of the book, it becomes more light, more light gets in.

TO: I would argue about that.

GS: Well, you might be right. That’s become part of the trope. It is incremental. You look up from a book and you’ve written it, and suddenly you’re talking about it.

TO: Yeah. And you’re supposed to be able to articulate why you did what you did when actually, if you had known why you were doing what you were doing, it would have sucked.

GS: Oh I know. The way our critical discourse has evolved, it’s always talking about the reason and the intentions as if you’re in control. That’s okay, but it’s also sort of um…

TO: Dishonest?

GS: Well, I don’t know if it’s really dishonest but it’s really, um, it would be confusing to young artists. It was confusing to me to see artists talk about the process like they got up in the morning and decided and did it. So it’s one of those nebulous things where to not talk about it is weird, to talk about it gauzily is weird…

TO: Yeah, I got my bachelor’s in English and I remember thinking, how could a writer write a single word if they had to know everything in advance like that? And then I learned, they don’t. Your background brain is doing all kind of stuff your forebrain has no idea about, and then people can go back for the next 50 years and pick it out.

GS: I think it’s valuable to do that. I would even go a step further and say, I think going through the exercise of picking thing out, even in that reductive way, somehow it runs around and front-loads your subconscious. I studied Isaac Babel really deeply and Hemingway, and I can feel that somehow, in some really complicated way, that’s beneficial.

TO: Absolutely. Studying it, yes. But the belief that that’s how it gets made is totally different. If you’re going from analysis that’s great, but if you’re a writer and you’re doing this analysis and you think that that was somehow in the architecture, you’re gonna be lost. I just think of it as sausage, like, well whatever I’m reading or looking at, I don’t know how it’s going to come out but it’s all getting ground together and coming out as something.

GS: But I think, Emily, there’s a secondary problem, which is this. If the culture is talking about art that way, then it’s also implying a kind of lower goal for the whole thing. So in other words, you can read a book review and say, “Oh, okay, it’s about patriarchy, I got it.” And of course we all know that the real effect of a piece of great writing is much more multivalent and magical and crazy. So if you get a culture that’s talking about books in terms of this reductive model, it totally discounts the mystery which is really where all the juice is.

TO: Right. If you can sum it up, it’s probably not that great. Well, if you can do a good job summing it up. Or you can sum it up and ruin it.

GS: It’s funny because this is a trope from when I was a kid in the Seventies. You’d hear these singer-songwriters say, ‘I don’t like to label my work, you gotta hear it…’ So that’s all true, and it’s also part of what you have to do I suppose. But as a reader, I know that feeling. Like you get through something, you read Gogol and go, ‘I really want somebody to get me in the ballpark and validate what I felt!’ I think it’s all good.

TO: Yeah. Okay, I asked for ten minutes, the PR lady gave me 20 and I’ve had 16. When do you need me to let you go?

GS: Well, I gotta jump in the shower at like 3:30. If we can go up to then that would be good for me.

TO: It’s 2:16 now, so you probably mean 3:30 your time.

GS: Yeah. No, we can talk until seven, but that’s my final offer.

TO: Dammit George, you’re so selfish. The New York Times thing really changed you.

GS: [Laughs]

TO: Okay, let me knock some stuff out. I have a bone to pick. “Victory Lap,” I was so stoked at the beginning. I opened a book by a well-known male author and I was like, “Wow, the protagonist is a 15-year-old girl, and it’s such a good 15-year-old girl!” It was me remembering how it felt to be her by reading this, and I’m thinking the story is from her perspective, and then it’s not. She gets set up as a perfect picture of innocence to then be the quarry so this skinny guy can actualize himself by saving her. She just becomes a potential rape victim. And that made me sad.

GS: Why?

TO: Because it made me think of [the Joyce Carol Oates story] “Where Are You Going Where Have You Been” and between those two stories I couldn’t think of another story about a 15-year-old girl. If a 15-year-old girl is attractive and lovable then she’s potentially going to get raped and that makes me sad.

GS: I would just refer you back to our previous conversation because I totally had the same feeling. But the thing is, it really didn’t start off to be an abduction story. It was just, when I got done with that section it wasn’t a story. I noted in her speech that she had said this thing, “All you gotta do to be good is be good,” so that presented this next thing. So I guess technically I couldn’t figure out any way to make it interesting for her, somehow, being taken at knifepoint, freeing herself.

TO: Oh yeah. I was just sad she got taken at knifepoint. I just wanted her to have other things to do.

GS: Well, that’s what I wanted too. In fact I based that story on, I started an imitation of this Chekov story called ‘After the Opera,’ which is just what you’re talking about. It’s a girl comes home from the opera and she’s just moving around her room thinking about her night and it’s gorgeous. Perfect. And so I thought, this was kind of in the spirit of, ‘Let me see if I can do something without any violence or death.’ But I actually couldn’t. I couldn’t get the story to cohere. So at that point, I think the part of yourself that knows it can’t afford an agenda, says, at any cost necessary let me get this story. So part of me says, ‘I know this is a thing.’

TO: I knew you’d know it was a thing!

GS: Right. So then I think in stories, you say, ‘Note to self, this is a thing.’ And you inevitably think of the Joyce Carol Oates story. So then part of it is, can we wriggle out of this so the most horrible thing doesn’t happen? Maybe, but I don’t know how. And then it’s this dude. So then, I’ll tell you this. Toward the end of this, I think The New Yorker already had it, and we were working through the edits, and the thing I really didn’t like about it was just what you’re saying, that she is this three-dimensional nice girl, and she gets rescued by this boy, and structurally she vanishes.

TO: Exactly.

GS: Again, it wasn’t so much a politicized thing, but just aesthetically, it was fucked-up that she vanished. So then at the very end there’s that moment where he lifts the rock over, he’s going to kill the abductor, and that’s when she gets to come back in and stop him. So that’s the best I could do.

TO: Damn, I do love that you thought about that.

GS: For story world, that’s what’s interesting, is when for reasons of balance or politics you don’t want to do Thing A, but the story says you have to.

TO: Just like you were saying earlier, you don’t really make the decision, because if you do, it sucks.

GS: Right. But to keep it on the table and say, Okay, a reasonable reader of this story is going to feel this is somewhat cliché. That a girl is being victimized. And not only cliché, but a little bit obnoxious, a little bit exploitative. So you go, yeah, it’s true, I would feel that way, if I was on page six, I’d feel like, ‘Oh no, you didn’t.’ So that’s the fun part is to go, ‘Well, but I did.’

TO: So now what?

GS: Now I gotta somehow pull this shit out of the fire the best I can. But I enjoyed that conversation because for me a lot of these stories, there is a high level of—almost as soon as you’ve started a story you’ve fucked it up. As soon as you start it you go, ‘Oh no…’

TO: Well no, anything you do is—that’s what kills me about fiction. There’s only like four things that can happen. You can only write so many stories about a New England couple getting a divorce. I wanted to tell you real quick that today, I was driving along, I saw a Lexus billboard, and it had a black background, it had a picture of a gorgeous silver Lexus and it said in huge letters, “Don’t Go Quietly.” And I thought that was hysterical. I thought, you know who would think that was funny? George.

GS: That is funny. I would love to hear the discussion around that.

TO: Right? Okay, when I said you hurt my feelings, let me explain. I get up at 8:30 in the morning yesterday and I go sit down and read the first story and I’m like, “Ugh, so good it hurts.” And then I read the second one and I’m like, “I’m okay I’m okay.” And I got to the end of your third story where Callie leaves the puppy in the cornfield and you know she’s going to lose her son even though she’s doing the best she can, and I sat back and thought, God, I don’t do a lot of drugs but I want to be high, I want to be drunk right now, I need immediately now not to be in my head, being me, experiencing this right now.

GS: You better go find a different writer, dear! That sounds painful!

TO: It’s excruciating! And I woke up my husband and got under his arm and sobbed face down, like “And the puppy’s going to starve and the medications—

GS: Oh, I’m so sorry! But that may not be the case! The puppy could crawl out of the woods. And I don’t, I’ll tell you the truth, I really don’t think that woman’s going to call CPS.

TO: You don’t?

GS: Well, it’s impossible to say one way or the other. The story doesn’t say. The story says she probably is. But personally, given the mayhem of the world—and I’m just making this up for you, Emily—

TO: I know that, and I appreciate that.

GS: [Laughs]

TO: No, seriously. My husband will be driving by and I’ll see something that’s ambiguous and Jeffery will tell me, “No, that’s not the way it looks, it’s this more positive way,” and I’m like, “Okay, thanks.”

GS: But you know, I’ll give you a serious answer to that, because I’m kind of moved that you’re moved but also not so happy that you’re moved to feel pain. But on the other hand, the thing that that says about you is that you’re really susceptible to fiction and you’re feeling the character’s pain really intensely, which is wonderful, so then maybe what’s actually going on is, I mean it certainly is pain but it also is that you’re opening up. I remember reading Wallace and feeling that way, like, Aw man, I’m tingling, you know? So I don’t know.

TO: It’s fantastic. It’s what you do that other people can’t. Throughout the book I feel like you identified the two most excruciating things, which is disappointing your children or being a disappointment to your children, and the pain of animals.

GS: Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. I don’t know.

TO: Do you have kids?

GS: I do, yeah.

TO: How old?

GS: Ah, 24 and 22.

TO: Boy, girl?

GS: Both girls. And a lot of the book was—I mean a lot of my life was, you know, my wife and I, trying to raise them, and loving them so much, and so I think that gets in there for sure, especially if there’s any kind of financial strain….

TO: Oh yeah. The whole, moving money to the Discover to try to buy the figurines, that’s close to home.

GS: Yeah. That was definitely our experience and I’m getting the sense that it wasn’t just ours. That sort of 1930s ethic that if you don’t have, you do without, has fallen by the wayside a little bit. So yeah. Especially during the period of that book, there was a lot of that.

TO: During the period of that book there was a lot of that?

GS: Well, that story. That story goes back 13 or 14 years.

TO: Really!

GS: Yeah, I started it in 1998. Like that credit card thing is totally real for us, moving everything around. But the thing that isn’t in that story, or maybe it is, is just the warmth that we had. It wasn’t like a panic. We were just like, ‘Oh. God, well, that’s embarrassing.’ Like in that piece, we got somewhere and all our cards were full. That was just kind of how we rolled then.

TO: I remember being left at the restaurant while my dad left to go get a different card. That was so real…

GS: Yeah, I did that just recently, to my daughter. They didn’t take cards or something. I just feel like there’s a lot of comic potential in this stuff we all do and we all try not to fess up to. But for some reason I don’t have a problem with it.

TO: But I love it. That’s your job is not to have a problem with the things nobody else fesses up to. Okay I have to spit out the phrase I wrote down: “The profound moral weight of the mundane.”

GS: Yeah. One of the things, when you get older you look back. Now I’m 54. And I’ve been through all the major things except grandkids. I’ve had my youth, I’ve fallen in love and got married and had kids and they’re in college and all that. So you think, at this point, I kind of have got the lay of the land, I kind of understand what American life or what just life in general is. And mostly when I look back at important moral moments in my life, they weren’t major. They weren’t charging a fort. They were small and at the time you might not even have felt them as moral moments. But in retrospect you go, ‘Oh God, that was a big one.’ I think most of the things in my life at least have been kind of low-contour, but still important. Still, people were on the other side of these decisions for good or ill.

TO: And what does it mean about literature that you keep getting called humane? That’s a distinguishing attribute?

GS: I don’t know! I like that but I think there are a lot of humane writers. I don’t know, really. I feel pretty humane. Working on it, anyway.

TO: Now I can see that I have probably 30 seconds left so this is the perfect time for this question: Do short stories fight injustice?

GS: Oy. I think they probably do. But I think when you’re writing, you better not think about that.

TO: Yes yes yes!

GS: I think what they do, and here I’m probably, I use this phrase a lot so if I’m copping from myself, forgive me. But they make the boundaries permeable. So if you’re watching TV for example, you’re going to get this feeling that you’re distinctly different and separate from other people. And they’re mostly your enemies. But reading fiction, you feel like, ‘Actually, you know, Tolstoy in the delivery room in 1829 or whatever, was a fuck of a lot like me in 1990 or 1988. He’s describing things that actually happened in my mind.’ Or whoever the writer is. So I think that’s a hopeful thing, and it does fight injustice, in the sense that it just reminds you that you’re not without agency and you’re not above or below the fray. But again, if you went into it with that, and I have in my life, the story that comes out doesn’t fight injustice. It’s just boring.

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.