He was born George Saunders and has kept the same name his entire life. Sometimes he moves through the streets beneath a great coat designed to keep himself from being killed. Otherwise he is fearless, naked in the evenings, a family man. There has been a moustache, a beard, a bald face. The area locale where he has chosen to live is brutal and cold and produces a large share of lonely people. He sleeps and eats and functions as any person might. But there the similarities end.
For part of each day, Saunders is a hero. He would never agree to this designation. But his modesty, his generosity, his expansive imagination, and his fully developed tenderness-generating technique are a large part of his heroism. His heroism is fitted with a blind spot that keeps Mr. Saunders from knowing about, or being able to acknowledge, the ways that he has beautifully scoured and remade—through artisan-quality writing—the people in many countries. His writing appears in books and magazines and quickly subsumes them, explaining the appearance of horizon fires in the far Northeast. The books of fiction are called CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and Pastoralia. The Suits call his writing “stories,” but they are really soft bodies to wear for a larger experience of life, hollowcore person-shapes that one can slip on in order to attain amazement. Saunders writes bodies, and his readers wear them. Some of these readers are probably in your house. If they are glowing or trembling, now you know why.
The following conversation took place on an old Toshiba calculator.
I. “PAY ATTENTION TO EVERYTHING AS IF THIS WAS YOUR LAST MOMENT ON EARTH.”
BEN MARCUS: When I visited your city of Syracuse, New York, I was kept awake all night by crows, who raised such a terrible noise in my motel room that I thought I might get killed. I later heard from other overnight visitors that this had happened to them also. Explain.
GEORGE SAUNDERS: It’s true, we have a lot of crows up here. It’s part of a Municipal Program to become the West Nile Virus Capital of the Northeast. We actually “recruit” crows from all over the United States—bring them here on special Crow Interview Trips, construct special “GlamorNests” for them all over town, screen weekend-long Heckle & Jeckle fests at our local moviehouses. And they are loud. We had one in particular around our house who used to sound exactly like he was calling my wife’s name (“PauLA! PauLA!”) until finally—in connection with the Crow Recruitment Program—we had a translator over, who informed us that what the crow was actually saying was,“I could sure use some freaking grapes! I could sure use some freaking grapes! If I don’t get some freaking grapes, I’m going back to Cleveland.”
BM: Where does the name George Saunders come from?
GS: It actually comes from the fact that my great grandfather, who emigrated from Greece, was catching a lot of crap for his last name, Vlahakis, and his accent. I think he was working as a fruit seller at the time. So he went for something very British. The accent he couldn’t do anything about. He was kind of a wildcard—left my great-grandmother and their sons for two years to go back to Greece and fight the Turks. And then as soon as he came home, he ran off with a waitress, to Napa Valley.
BM: Rather than ask who your ideal reader is, since I have met your ideal reader and he hurt me physically, I wanted to ask you how aware you are of entertainment, as a specific gift to a reader, and whether or not there’s ever a tension for you between what you feel you ought to do as a writer, and what you actually do. This is not a question about capitulation to a generic sense of what a reader might want, but rather a question of a potential discrepancy between what might please you and what you feel will please others.
GS: This question rattles me, because it makes me realize that I make no distinction between what pleases me and what might please a reader. That is, if I feel the reader will be pleased by a thing, I simply want to do that thing. Period. My feeling is something like this: The basis for literature is the fact that all of our brains are essentially, structurally, identical. First love in 1830, in Russia, beneath swaying pines, is neurologically identical to first love in 1975, back of a Camaro, Foghat blaring. That’s why that wonderful cross-firing occurs when we read. It is not the case, as we sometimes feel, that the writer is making us feel what she felt. It is, rather, that the writer is poking that part of our brain that already felt (or knew, or sensed) what the writer felt (or knew, or sensed). Without getting too Star Trekkie, there really is, I believe, one universal mind, but the basis for the existence of that universal mind is the structural similarity of all those individual minds. Because the brain is a machine, and all those individual minds are just slightly different versions of that machine, only so many mind-states exist, and therefore you can know what I think, because it is what you thought, roughly. So, when I’m writing, I am trying to move myself, or impress myself, or prevent myself from getting bored and walking away—in the faith that, if I succeed in this, the writing will have some equivalent effect on the reader. On every reader? No. On every reader, to some extent? I think so. I hope so. Anyway, that’s what I assume. That, to me, is the really magical thing about writing: if I write toward my own best nature, I am also writing toward the best nature of others. It sort of doesn’t make sense, and even feels a little fascist, but I think it’s true. Here I have to confess that I also believe that certain effects have more power in prose than others, and that this tendency is, at least in part, universal. I believe in efficiency, action, clarity, velocity. I think these qualities are responsible for the feeling of being “drawn into” a piece of prose. Also, maybe paradoxically, I think that constructing this hierarchy of preferred effects is what style is all about. If one writer prefers some other suite of effects, and energetically tries to construct a prose-world based on the preeminence of those effects, style will result. I will also confess that, for complex reasons of background, etc., I really don’t care much about anything but being entertaining—with entertainment, I hope, being defined as “ultimately interesting.” Ideally, I aspire to write stuff that takes into account the fact that we are all dying. So there’s no time to be bloatedly intellectual, no time to be Merely Clever, no time to be stupid, or programmatic, or cloying. That’s the hope, anyway. And as for that ideal reader of mine, sorry about that.“Max” is basically a good guy, but he doesn’t get out much, and, for him, his fists are his most expressive part. That is, what you construe as “punching” is, for Max, sort of like kissing might be for most people.
BM: Your theory of a universal mind suggests that Buddhism plays a role in how you think about fiction.
GS: You bet. I find Buddhism inspiring in that it says: Everything matters. Suffering is real. Death is imminent. Pay attention to everything as if this was your last moment on earth. And then I see writing as part of an ongoing attempt to really, viscerally, believe that everything matters, suffering is real, and death is imminent. Chekhov said that art prepares us for tenderness, and I think this is also what spiritual practice can do. On a practical level there are also parallels. Buddhism emphasizes honesty and openness, nonattachment. So if you thought your story was going to be a biting satire of a nail-biting patriarchal brutalizer, but then, on page three, a street vendor comes in and makes a really interesting speech about his lifelong love of broccoli, and that speech has more energy in it than anything that came before—openness means admitting to yourself that your story needs to follow that vendor out into the street. That sort of thing.
BM: A cross old man once announced to me that it was impossible to teach writing. I replied, just as crossly, that he meant he couldn’t teach writing. Nevertheless, nonteachers of writing seem to love to declare its impossibility, to call writing programs scams and money-wasters, and just to generally deride the whole enterprise. Book reviews frequently resort to a shorthand critique, citing “workshop” stories, and a recent Village Voice article claimed that Jonathan Safran Foer’s originality stemmed, at least in part, from his outsider status, since he did not attend an MFA program. I was thinking of you and a few other writers—namely Charles Baxter and Aimee Bender—who have a reputation for being extraordinary teachers of writing, not to mention obviously original and productive writers. I’d be curious to hear your take on teaching, what its value might be, and why writing-instruction, unlike other artistic studies—painting or theater or music—seems so susceptible to criticism.
GS: I suspect that what your Cross Old Man was trying to say was: only one young writer in a thousand ever gets a book out, and of those books, only one in a thousand lasts in even the slightest way, so why are you writing-program teachers holding out hope to so.
many young people, when you know and I know that only one out of a thousand out of an original thousand have any hope of writing an enduring work of literature? And basically, I would agree with that. The chances of a person breaking through their own habits and sloth and limited mind to actually write something that gets out there and matters to people are slim. But I also suspect that your Cross Old Man is too narrowly careerist. Because he seems to be neglecting the fact that, even for those thousands of young people who don’t get something out there, the process is still a noble one—the process of trying to say something, of working through the craft issues, and the worldview issues, and the ego issues—all of this is character-building, and God forbid everything we do should have to have Concrete Career Results. I’ve seen, time and time again, the way that the process of trying to say something that matters dignifies and improves a person. I’ve seen it in my own failures, in writing and otherwise. I think it comes down to the motivation of the individual student. If the student writer wants to get over, become famous, dominate others with his talent—then no matter what, he’s going to lose. On the other hand, if he wants to go deeply into himself, subjugate his own pettiness, discover some big truths about life—there’s no way he can lose. And the thing is, we all have both of those motivations within us, every second that we’re writing. So it’s an ongoing, lifelong battle to write for the right reasons. There’s a sort of instant karma always working, if you see what I mean.
Having said that, I do think it’s possible to “teach writing,” in the sense that an older, like-minded person can certainly speed some younger person’s progress along that younger person’s personal arc. I imagine it this way: The younger writer is racing through some snowy woods, wearing ice skates. The MFA experience, ideally, is a frozen lake that suddenly appears. The writer just gets sped up. The way is easier. The trajectory is roughly the same, but the velocity is higher. The danger of a workshop environment is a kind of groupthink that can creep into even the most enlightened gathering. Since ultimately what we are trying to do as writers (let’s admit it) is be iconic and undeniable and breathtaking, setting up a group whose function is to Thoughtfully Regard, then Rationally Critique, may be problematic. But then, I also think it’s possible to take that into account—to undercut that tendency, to keep knocking the legs out from under it, so to speak. Finally: I think the success of the MFA experience is proportional to how closely such a program resembles a salon, or a group of friends. So I think small numbers are important, a longer residence-time, financial support. I find that the best teaching moments happen when I know my students well enough, personally and artistically, to make certain intuitive leaps with them, leaps that aren’t strictly dictated by the work sitting in front of me. By the way, it may interest you to know that the Cross Old Man lives next-door to Max, my ideal reader. Because of the Cross Old Man’s impertinence to you, I have just sent Max over to “kiss” the Cross Old Man. I’ll let you know how it turns out!
Can I do a follow-up, to you? Because what I am wondering about, in reference to the workshop questions, is what your experience was as a student in a workshop. Did you workshop anything that later became The Age of Wire and String, and, if so, how was it received? If you had put some of those stories up, and they’d gotten resistance—would it have mattered? I guess I’m asking because of the extreme originality of that book, and the fact that one of its many charms is that it keeps insisting on abiding by its own new paradigm.
BM: The closest I got to workshopping pieces from that book was in a class that Robert Coover taught called “Ancient Fictions.” He assigned us to write new mythologies, or creation myths, and a few of the earliest pieces in The Age of Wire and String were written in response. It was more of a literature class, with some fiction-writing options instead of critical papers. But it was by far the best course I ever took having anything to do with fiction-writing. The pieces we wrote weren’t really discussed. I think we read them aloud and all nodded thoughtfully.
The workshop situation I was in with other teachers tended to err on the side of permissiveness, and actual teaching was more or less absent. It seems strange to say this, but in my own teaching I’ve tried to reverse almost everything I experienced as a student. Students now also seem to expect far more than I or my classmates ever did: extensive line-editing and lengthy written critiques, follow-up conferences, and then extra critiques of whatever revisions they’ve done. We were lucky if our teacher showed up or said much at all. At the time, the teacher’s silence or reticence seemed like blinding intelligence, but I’m not so sure now.
II. “IT’S NOT A DRAMATIC ARC SO MUCH AS A DRAMATIC VECTOR: STRAIGHT DOWN INTO THE MUD.”
BM: Even in your wilder stories, a current of deep ethics seems to run through your characters, an immense desire to do good, and it is this desire, the conflicts it creates, that seems to generate story for you. Big moments of grief seem to result, and these serve as epiphanies, revelations, or just incredible finales. Is this connected to a belief you have about character, or does it derive more from your sense of what might propel a story? Or neither?
GS: I like the kind of story where the reader comes away loving the character, feeling strongly identified with the character. And I think the way to make that happen is to make a character who is as good as the reader. That is, the reader feels the character is doing everything just as he or she would, if put in the same situation. So for the writer this means no slumming, no puppeteering—by which I mean, no manipulating your character to prove a point or illustrate something you believe or service some prejudice you have or fulfill some secret hope for the story. Don’t make the character stupider or blinder or meaner than yourself. That is, credit the character with the same basic nature as you, albeit tempered or complicated by whatever is happening to him, or has happened in the past, that makes the character “you,” but in a parallel universe. Even if your main character is Hitler, believe that there is some part of yourself that could swell into Hitleresque proportions. Another way of saying this is: believe that there but for the grace of God, go you. So, in part, this ethical tendency you note is just a strategy to get more warmth into the story.
But to be another degree more honest, I think that’s just the way I see the world—in fairly simple ethical terms. I always have. As a kid I was interested in philosophy and religion, and came to reading and thinking via Catholicism, had amazing early experiences in the Church, glimpses into what ideas such as compassion and self-sacrifice might mean at a visceral level, got the sense that life was big and painful and that the purpose of an individual life was to aid other beings in trouble, which runs counter to our instinct, which is protect our own ass. And then that beautiful heroic narrative of Christ sacrificing himself to save everybody, even when he didn’t want to. I found that very moving. That naïve big-question sensibility (“What are we doing here? How should we behave?”) stayed at the heart of my ludicrous, spotty reading life through college. Years later, when I was first working on CivilWarLand, I felt like I turned an important corner in my artistic life by letting that sensibility back in, that feeling that things matter, and that literature exists to help us examine the big questions. That there are such things as power, as abuse, as bad luck, and it definitely matters which side of the fence you’re on. It matters whether we’re hungry, whether your love is returned or rejected, whether we walk into the room with a fireplace and the cheering crowd or are locked out of the room and have to stand out in the cold with wet sneakers, etc. I guess what I’m saying is when it comes to writing stories, I don’t know any other way to proceed. As soon as I start writing, things start to unfold around some central moral vector, and that’s that. So, sometimes to my frustration, my stories tend to be “problem” stories: will he or won’t he do the right thing? And they also tend to be fables, although I didn’t realize that until recently. So the tendency you mention is both a blessing and a curse: I have something to write about, but there is a sort of an implicit ceiling, a kind of limit of subtlety I can’t get past. The dangers of this approach are oversimplicity, preachiness, and, eventually, fascism.
Can I ask about your relation to this ethical stuff? I feel your work as extremely “ethical,” in the sense that I always feel opened up when I’m reading it. I am, in the Chekhovian sense mentioned above, prepared for tenderness. Is this part of your intent?
BM: I’m not sure that in attempting sympathy in fiction I can claim a connection to ethics. It’s hard for me to link writing with good deeds, since most of what I wrote for so long was character-free, and then when characters did show up they were interested in killing or at least harming the other characters. Not very ethical. A kind of coldness used to appeal to me. Behavior, if present at all, was mechanized and described the way a tree might be: sort of the stubborn opposite of giving human properties to inanimate things. But if I ever do get lucky and spill out some people-like pieces of writing, they are inevitably cruel or pitiful, take your pick. Unfortunately it yields only minimal drama. The cruel people act cruel to the pitiful people, who become more pitiful. It’s not a dramatic arc so much as a dramatic vector: straight down into the mud. I’m sure most people get over this narrative paradigm in third grade, but it’s about all I can manage so far.
I’m interested in the trace fantastical elements that appear in your stories, as well as the occasional ghost. So much of your stories seem wedded to an emotional realism, yet your settings—the landscapes—are often, if not fantastical, then exceedingly odd or improbable, leading to real emotions in an unreal world. And then your stories, sometimes very slightly, leave the realm of physical possibility entirely (the dead awaken, for instance). Are these three distinct writing-spaces to you? Do you see a difference between “realism” and fantastical writing?
GS: I guess it’s strategic on one level: if you’re going to have some really crazy things happening, you have a better chance of being believed if you jump off from some believable ground. It maybe comes from a sales instinct: If I’m trying to hustle ten bucks from you, and I’ve invented a wild story to support my hustle, it’s probably best not to sing that story in an operatic voice. Better if I tell it in my normal voice, eyes downcast, acknowledging all your doubts about the veracity of my story. That’s how I see the realist touches. I think the fantastical elements are there as my lamebrained attempt to mimic the real strangeness and mystery of even the most ordinary day. Realism is nonsense, when you think of it. I mean, there is no such thing. Nobody writes realism, if realism is defined as “fiction that is objective and real and not distorted, but is just, you know, normal.” But I think that’s what “realistic” has come to mean. The nature of all fiction is distortion, exaggeration, and compression. So what we call realism is just distorting, exaggerating, and compressing with the intention of alluding to, or handwaving at—taking advantage of our fondness for—what I’ve heard called “consensus reality”—the sort of lazy, agreed-upon “way things are.” Which, of course, is not at all how they actually are. How they actually are is: We are walking corpses. Ideas people die for fade within ten years. Murderers walk. The dead don’t really die because they can sometimes continue to affect the actions of the living just as much as if they were still around. Et cetera. So realism, as beautifully practiced by Zola, Chekhov, Carver, et al, is a strategy—a strategy to elicit our emotional loyalty by doing some sleight of hand to make the distorted, exaggerated, compressed thing they’ve made remind us of consensus reality. Why? Power of effect. They want to make a powerful effect. What I find exciting is the idea that no work of fiction will ever, ever come close to “documenting” life. So then, the purpose of it must be otherwise. It’s supposed to do something to us to make it easier (or more fun, or less painful) for us to live. Then all questions of form and so on become subjugated to this higher thing. We’re not slaves any more to ideas of “the real” or, for that matter, to ideas of “the experimental”—we’re just trying to make something happen to the reader in his or her deepest places. And that thing that happens will always be due to some juxtaposition of the life the reader is living and the words on the page, no matter how unconventional or conventional the representation of those events is— the heart will either rise, or it won’t. I think it’s interesting, though, that some writers of our approximate generation have a sort of queasiness around this issue of realism. I know I do. There’s something about the normal approach (“Bob, age forty-three, pale blond hair—
a senior-level accountant—felt good about his marriage. He got into his tan Lexus, thinking of Maribeth.”) that makes me scared and sick. I am always trying to avoid it. You’ve written two radically unconventional books. Do you ever feel that pull toward what we’re calling realism? If so, what’s stopping you? What do you think that pull is about? That is, what do you fear you’re missing by not doing “realism?” What concessions/changes would you have to make to be “more realistic?”
BM: I do feel a pull toward realism, but there’s always a hand waiting to smack me down off it. From afar, where I definitely am, realism looks like a place of readability, which I very much desire, by which I mean that inscrutability is not something I value. But I can almost watch my fiction turn generic as I attempt realism, and then the trade-off leads to work that is punishingly dull. So what stops me is a total lack of ability. For probably good although unfathomable reasons, a narrative framework, a skin of storytelling—which I equate with a writerly promise that time will pass and that people will move around in a made-up space—seems to justify many kinds of conceptual or innovative approaches to fiction, but I find that, in itself, a kind of fantastical notion. I’ve seen a few writers I hugely admire, such as Joe Wenderoth or David Markson, become marginalized or called “experimental” because they have forgone the typical narrative skins and pursued more conceptual or subversively informational fiction. Yet their realism is, for me, extremely high.
There are these soporific, safe phrases like “once upon a time” that make non-realist writing much more OK,and so I’m at the point where I’m wondering if that’s a good thing worth pursuing or if it’s a capitulation.
III. “HAVE WE SUFFICIENTLY DESCRIBED THE WONDERS OF LIVING IN OUR TIME?”
BM: Several less narrative pieces of yours (“Four Institutional Monologues,” which was in McSweeney’s, and “I Can Speak!” which was in the New Yorker) did not make it into Pastoralia. What was the process of selecting work for that book? The above pieces were far less story-driven. Did that play a role in your decision?
GS: If I remember right, “I Can Speak!” was written after the manuscript was finished. So I had all these story-driven pieces and the one monologue, and it didn’t seem to fit. But both stories you mention, plus another monologue (“A Survey of the Literature”) will be in the next collection. The monologue-like pieces feel different for me—easier, in some way. They don’t depend on surprising myself as much as the more story-driven pieces. But I like them, and my thought for this next book is that they might add a little something— maybe offer a political or institutional angle on stuff that is covered more emotionally by the stories. I can picture a sort of a “spine” of these types of nonnarrative pieces running through the book. I like the way books like In Our Time or The Coast of Chicago use little spacer pieces that are different in tone and intent than the longer, more narrative pieces.
My usual approach so far has just been to put everything together that feels like it came out of the same aesthetic suite of ideas, which usually corresponds to a certain three-to-four-year time period— and then weed out the weaker links, or the anomalous ones. I usually have two or three pieces I start and don’t finish, and another two or three that I finish but am not happy with, and then another couple that I’m happy enough with, but don’t seem to fit with the rest. They make a sort of goiter on an otherwise smooth shape. And then I figure that, if each of the pieces represents an intense move in some direction, a move that I played out aesthetically, then if I put them all together, with attention to the order—the book should be more than the sum of its parts. That’s the theory, anyway. For this next book, there is a pretty strong nonnarrative presence and also, I think, a stronger political (or overtly political) feeling. This wasn’t planned but was maybe a product of the time during which the book was written.
BM: There is a word sometimes used in connection to fiction—moral—that can scare the bread out of me because I use it too, and then must secretly admit that I don’t really understand it, or what it means, yet it seems to me to be a word that is reached for when something called “serious fiction” is discussed, a word we’d like to assign to the fiction we care about. Does “moral” fiction mean something to you that you can articulate?
GS: The short answer is: all good fiction is moral, in that it is imbued with the world, and powered by our real concerns: love, death, how-should-I-live. This is true, I think, of all great writers, regardless of their approach: Sterne, Chekhov, Barthelme, Morrison, Gogol, Bellow—whomever. But I think that word has taken on additional overtones since the Gardner-Gass debates of the 1980s, where the binary was: (1) Fictional effects are effects of language vs. (2) Fictional effects are effects of represented experience. My guess is, most of us who have ever tried to write a sentence in a story know that both (1) and (2) are simultaneously true. If I write, “The cow, ducklike, made a ducklike cow sound, then disappeared down the Shaughnessy Chute,”—we recognize that there is a pure-sound quality to that, but also that cows and ducks and chutes are somehow “appearing” in our reading-mind. So it’s the confluence of these two effects that makes the heart-rise I mentioned above (or doesn’t, in this case). But somehow, at that time, there was this sense that the purpose of fiction was “moral” in the sense of “instructive.” That I reject. I mean, it is instructive, it feels that way, but instructive in a deep way, and in a way that does not flow from a writer’s desire to instruct, if you see what I mean. Rather, it flows from the writer’s confusion in the process of writing, or at least the writer’s sense of exploration. Writing can be a formal way of enacting Thomas More’s great plea: “For the love of God, man, think it possible you may be mistaken. ”When a writer does that, then I think the result is moral, in the sense of “accounting for all complexities.” I think you leave the work of art not instructed, but baffled, baffled in a way that humbles you and makes you move more carefully (but fully) through your life, at least until the effect wears off. For writers of our generation (and of course, using that expression means I am really talking about me), that phrase “moral fiction” seems to signifty something else, though, some deeper fear, a fear that the assumptions “we” have made about writing are self-limiting, especially around the issues of being ironic/edgy/experimental—a feeling that maybe our approach is preventing us from reaching into the more profound aspects of our experience, especially as we get older and less jaded and the checks start rolling in and the grandkids have grandkids and we see that life is not so angsty after all, at least not all the time. That is, the fear that our approach may be omitting significant aspects of our actual experience. I sense a real feeling of discontent hovering over American fiction right now and maybe all American art forms, post-9/11, that has at its core questions like (and please excuse the USA Today “we” in what follows): Does what we are doing matter? Are we writing as big as we need to write? Are we just spoiled-brat sneering aesthetes who are masturbating while looking away from the big questions of our age? Have we sufficiently described the wonders of living in our time? Are we properly accounting for the good and the beautiful and the enjoyable? But also: Are we properly accounting for the fact that evil exists, and exploring the difference between this and not-evil? How much of the irony and cleverness of our experimental writing—and for that matter, how much of the earnest and uplifting We-reinforcement of our realist writing—is just knee-jerk and ultimately reactionary? In other words, life came brutally knocking at our door, and now we are reconsidering the venture. And I’m not saying everyone should get busy on their Kosovo novel—I think there is
a way in which even the most domestic story (or wild experimental story) can take into account the larger world. But one could argue that American fiction has ghettoized itself by insisting on a self-reifying view (humanist/materialist?) in which all answers are known, the political binary is carved in stone, we all have swallowed whole certain orthodoxies, and the purpose of the fiction is just to reinforce these. At the heart of this lies a selfish agenda, that has (one could argue) really ceased seeing the world as a unity, and has begun aggressively internalizing certain capitalist dogmas that say: of course you are the most important thing, of course you exist separate from the rest of the world. I’m not sure I actually believe all of the above—but I do find myself thinking about these kinds of things a lot lately. Does this make any sense? Do you feel any of this? It may just be that I am saying: I really really hope to, in the future, write better. By the way, I just came back from the Cross Old Man’s house, and am happy to report that, after many many “kisses” from Max, the Cross Old Man has at last admitted that writing can be taught.
BM: I worry that if you smother an old man with kisses, crank up his sexual heat or whatever, he’ll admit to anything. These lonely people are just waiting to tell us what we want to hear.
IV. “THAT VOICE OF HEMINGWAY’S CAN’T FUNCTION IN A WAL-MART, ON CHRISTMAS EVE, WHEN YOU HAVE AN STD…”
BM: You have a film project underway. Can you tell me about it?
GS: Back in 1997, Ben Stiller optioned CivilWarLand and so for the last year or so I’ve been working with him on a script. It’s been interesting in that film writing is so much about structure and so little about language. You can just say, “Tens of thousands of chimps emerge from mobile phone booths, speaking French,” and that’s it. There are the chimps. In other words, you don’t have to do what we usually do, which is convince with language. You can just make these little structural units, which will be de facto “convincing” because the viewer will be seeing them. So it changes the nature of the challenge, writing-wise. It forced me to use a different part of my brain; the part that says, if I put A, then B, then C—trusting that each of these will be done well— then I’ve made resulting Meaning D. Which is not how I think when I’m writing fiction—then, I tend to concentrate on the individual line, trusting that some worthwhile effect will come out in the end, but I don’t necessarily know what it is. It’s also been interesting anthropologically—getting some idea of how movies get made, how the larger mass culture might get accessed, how finances play into the whole thing, etc. So much of our storytelling now takes place within this quasicorporate framework, and so it’s interesting to see if there is a sort of de facto editing effect working, and if so, what the flavor of it is. Also it’s been interesting for me to think about broad appeal—is it possible/desirable for somebody like me? What is the difference between “literary” and “popular?” I’ve been especially interested to see, in myself, a sort of knee-jerk tendency toward the dark, the negative, the nihilistic—somehow, film writing made this tendency more noticeable. When I do this knee-jerk thing, it’s more apparent, feels more like flinching. In film, it seems like because there are actual people up there, somehow my urge to credit the noble, the good, the simply decent is more easily managed than in stories. I’m not sure what to think of all that, but I’ve noticed it, and am sort of mulling it over. It goes back to something we talked about earlier: how much of the brooding cynical nature of our art-fiction is meaningful (i.e., is telling a deep truth) and how much of it is just limited technical ability and/or sloth? I think there are deep truths about our time that are dark and scary—but I also think that not every dark/scary move that is accomplishable via fiction necessarily has a real-life corollary. Sometimes they’re just easier—as Tolstoy said: “Happiness writes white.”
BM: You’ve had two amazing and critically lauded collections of short stories. Do you feel pressure to write a novel?
GS: I sometimes do. I just finished reading Appointment in Samarra and Revolutionary Road and those really made me want to write a novel—they’re such beautiful, complicated books, and they show America in so much wonderful detail. My main problem is a very small intersection-set between (1) the abilities it takes to write a novel and (2) the abilities I actually have. Working on a story, I have very strong and intuitive opinions. With novels, I have mostly Ideas, which, in my case, are deadly. I seem decent at compressing, but not so good at elaborating. So for now, I’m just allowing myself to do what I love, which is write stories. The one thing I would love to do in a novel is show the world as a big, stunning, contradiction: to show Truth A in all its glory, then show Truth B (which contradicts Truth A) in all its glory. There’s a beautiful story, which sounds like a joke, because it starts: “Once Tolstoy and Gorky were walking down the street.” As Gorky described it (in a memoir piece he wrote about Tolstoy) this mob of hussars comes walking up the street, and Tolstoy launches into this brilliant bit of polemic about how that sort of young man—brutal, cocksure, militaristic—represents everything that is wrong with Russia. And Gorky was convinced. Then, as the hussars passed in a cloud of tobacco smoke and cologne and leather, etc., Tolstoy spun on his heel and delivered an equal-but-opposite dissertation on why that sort of young man—fully alive, masculine, passionate, spontaneous—was the hope of Russia’s future. And again, Gorky was convinced. That, to me, is art’s highest aspiration: to show that nothing is true and everything is true. To work as a kind of ritual humility, and ritual celebration, of all that is.
BM: Like Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson before you, your stories have served as an ideal model—an inspiration—for legions of newcomers. This may be an awkward question, but does being so widely emulated by younger writers change the way you approach what you’re doing?
GS: I don’t really see that. Every so often, someone will send me a story full of funny franchise names, or composed completely of acronyms. But to the extent that it’s true, I’m honored. And it’s funny how, as you get older, and look back at your own work—it seems young. In a good way, but… young. And you remember whom you were channeling or admiring at the time. So I say, anything that gets us going. I remember basically rewriting Red Cavalry by setting it in an oil camp in Indonesia, where I’d once worked. And also rewriting In Our Time, but set in Amarillo, Texas, and Nick had not just come home from war, but was on spring break. And what I felt most acutely, doing those little knockoffs, was how inappropriate and uncomfortable someone else’s stylistic tics were, superimposed on my life. In other words, those imitations helped me realize that there is no Real Life—there is no objective reality. There is just your version of it, and that version has to be in your language. I thought: that voice of Hemingway’s can’t function in a Wal-Mart, on Christmas Eve, when you have an STD and your uncle is drunk and trying to buy an O-Jays record to give to his new girlfriend, a speed-freak waitress. Hence the constant necessity for new voices.