An Interview with George Saunders - Believer Magazine

An Interview with George Saunders

by Alec Niedenthal
January 13th, 2021

“My working hypothesis (i.e., the one that helps me be most productive) is that there’s no distinction between ‘traditional works of realism’ and ‘experimental writing.’ I heard Tobias Wolff say this once: every great story is experimental. Otherwise why would the writer have written it?”

George Saunders is a conjurer, summoning worlds by stacking sentences and paragraphs, using agile and often brutally efficient language. 

If, as Justin Taylor says of David Means (and Proust, Woolf, Munro), some writers are time artists, then Saunders might be an artist of space—the theme park, the frozen pond, the cemetery. In his stories and lone novel, Saunders erects consciousness out of the self’s surroundings, whether that means nationalist playlands or graveyards strafed by the dead. For each of these spaces he creates a vocabulary, a string of bizarre proper nouns and technical terms that gradually scaffold into a legible narrative. 

Frequently his language reminds us of corporate technospeak, the way that large conglomerates use words both to hide reality and create their own. In this respect, some of Saunders’s fiction can be seen as questioning the very notion of what he will call, in my interview with him, “consensus reality.” We have the power to construct this reality together, he suggests, using terms and ideas shared in common, but if we are not careful it can quickly become slippery and deranged, gnarled by ideology, controlled by us and yet controlling us.

In his new book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, Saunders takes us through the dual craft of reading and writing fiction. He closely reads the works of several dead Russian masters: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol. He parses these stories for lessons, into both writing and life, showing over the course of the book that to learn how to write (and read) better is to learn how to live a better life, one more attuned to ambiguity, to multiple meanings and unwound endings. 

Publishing as our society reaches a fever pitch of chaos and sickness, A Swim shows that fiction is not an escape from the relative insanity of the world, but really a way of replacing the outer chaos with the inner one—the writer’s inner voice, her reckless and joyous and strange imagination.  

—Alec Niedenthal

THE BELIEVER: For A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, what did you want to do, to accomplish, that you hadn’t seen done in other craft books? These are extremely close, gripping readings of classic texts—not something you see often. 

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Well, in a sense I guess I was trying to avoid writing a craft book. The model of craft that goes, “Here’s how you do it, always,” isn’t that interesting to me. It doesn’t work with writers as good as the ones we get at Syracuse. There, it’s all about my mind meeting the mind of a particular young writer, at a specific moment in her trajectory, and the best interaction takes place… within one of her stories. Me editing her as best I can, her considering those edits, and so on. 

But at Syracuse we have another type of class that we call a Forms Course—sort of like “literature, for writers.” This book came out of one of my Forms courses. The idea—which I can’t exactly defend—is that doing a close reading of a story somehow gets certain knowledge into what I always call our “artistic bodies.” It just, somehow, makes something more available to us in our own work. It’s sort of a leap of faith I ask my students to take. 

The whole idea of teaching writing has to, I think, be approached with a lot of humility. We each have to learn a very personalized set of mental stances and tricks, to do our best work, but why should my set of stances and tricks have anything to do with you, necessarily? I developed those to help make an accommodation between my mind and the demands of the form—they are likely so particular as to be, at best, only nominally helpful to someone else.

So, my mantra for the book was: “When in doubt, go back to the stories.” Like: “Keep your gaze fixed on the texts; they are what the book is about (i.e., not my process or process in general). Let’s try to understand why those stories work, from the inside out.” And then if in certain places it seemed that my argument might be helped by a reference to my own work, I (grudgingly) let it in.

BLVR: As you read the Russians in A Swim, you find moments that stick out as seemingly wasteful; the story might survive without them. But then you show us that they actually do play a meaningful role in the structure of the story. Where does this distaste for waste come from? I’m particularly curious because you’ve been very critical of contemporary capitalism, which also hates waste—wasted time, wasted value—while also producing tons of it. 

GS: I think that distaste (or, I’d call it a “good-natured but watchful aversion”) comes out of the short story form itself. The form (I’d say) makes a de facto claim of efficiency. That is, as soon as I say, “Once upon a time,” and you notice that there’s only six pages to the thing, you assume that everything within that six pages is going to be to purpose. Otherwise, the result isn’t as shapely, or efficient, which is, you know, a way of saying that it’s not as beautiful. This is also true for a song. Or a poem. Or a brief, rushed, heartfelt confession of love at a train station. 

The story is a lot like the joke. When we get to the end, part of the reason you laugh is because you instantaneously see how tight and efficient that little “story” was: no waste.

Or maybe I’d compare efficiency in the world of the story to gravity in the world of dance. A beautiful dance can only exist in the face of gravity—that’s what makes it beautiful, is that it’s occurring “in spite of” (or “in cooperation with”) gravity. Watching a dancer, we understand what she’s up against (gravity) and admire the way she’s working within that constraint.

We don’t have to be efficient (we can digress and expound and so on) but the best works of art that do digress and expound do so with the meter running, so to speak—part of the reason we love it when David Foster Wallace digresses is because we feel that meter running (we feel our patience waning) and (this part is important) we know that he knows that too—he’s like a dancer who, we notice, is hanging in the air a beat longer than should be possible.

And that’s fun—it’s fun watching that. But it only happens because we feel the implicit laws of the form (“Hurry up,” for the short story, “Come down from there,” in the dance) hanging over that moment.

Having said all that—a story that is only efficient is going to be a drag. It’s too mathematical. We see the writer’s agenda too soon and feel dis-included. We feel that the writer has dialed into, God forbid, a method, which is a form of autopilot, which is a form of condescension—she’s left us out of the game.

But here let me interrupt my pontificating to say (to remind myself, again) that, really, there are no truths in writing. There’s only what helps a specific writer, at a specific moment. It’s all just models and metaphors that we put out there, in hopes of helping. It’s one of the tricky aspects of writing about writing. If we say “things seem to tend to be this way,” it might be felt, on the other end, as a rule, or a prescription. And the form is too mysterious and vast—no single, fixed prescription is going to work.

BLVR: I love how insistent you are that young writers discover the mark only they can make on the page—the weirdness of which only they are capable. It’s interesting that you hope to use these classic stories as a vehicle for such writers reaching, or reaching deeper into, their weirdness and singularity. What about these classics, which are seen as very traditional and (minus Gogol and elements of the Turgenev story) straightforwardly realistic, that might help writers achieve that weirdness? Or are canonical short stories hardly ever as normal, as linear, as we think?

GS: Well, I might just slightly modify that idea of “weirdness.” What I really mean is that we are each trying to steer our work into some zone that, of all the writers in the world, only we can occupy. That’s the dream. It doesn’t have to be weird—just unique. Unique to us.

But you’re right—what I found was, when you really look closely at a (so-called) “realistic” story, you find that there’s nothing real about it—there’s so much omission and exaggeration even in something like Chekhov’s “The Darling,” which, on first read, seems almost anecdotal and so human-scaled and, you know, “real.” A truly realist story—one based on, say, a month in someone’s actual life—would be very long and dull and lumpy. When we write a story we are making a strange, compressed, exaggerated machine, whose aim is…. well, we don’t know. Or, that’s for each individual writer to find out for herself, each time she starts a new story.

And conversely—I always feel that when I do something weird in one of my stories it’s in an attempt to be, in the ultimate sense, more real—more in synch with the way things actually are. I’m trying to say something true about reality. And sometimes the merely quotidian won’t do. You can’t get there (to truth) from here (a “normal” stance). There’s not a story in the world, I’d say, that says more that is true and real about family life than “The Metamorphosis,” in which a guy wakes up to find he’s been transformed into a bug. But that profundity would not have been achieved had Kafka just wrote about his real life, I don’t expect. He did it that way in order to me more truthful (more “realistic”). 

So, with this book, I had it in mind to use some really strong, simple examples of the form to get at truths about the form itself, using them to examine questions like: Why do we care? When do we start caring? What does an ending have to do, and why are they so hard? And so on. So, the more straightforward the story, the better, for that purpose. (I could imagine a version of this book that uses fairy tales.)

BLVR: Along those lines, it’s interesting that A Swim is bursting with masterpieces of realism when your latest work of fiction, Lincoln in the Bardo, is a work that freely experiments with form, perspective and the boundaries between life and death. At the risk of covering the same ground as the prior question, what do traditional works of realism have to teach more experimental writers of fiction?

GS: Right—my working hypothesis (i.e., the one that helps me be most productive) is that there’s no distinction between “traditional works of realism” and “experimental writing.” I heard Tobias Wolff say this once: every great story is experimental. Otherwise why would the writer have written it? Realism is full of cheats and omissions—when you really look at them, they’re almost cartoonishly simple, relative to real life. We think that when someone writes, “Larry walked into the expansive atrium of City Hall with a feeling of trepidation,” that this is realism, but really it’s more like what I’ve heard call a channeling of “consensus reality.” Even though that atrium is full of thousands of objects and, if there are a hundred people in there, it is also full of one hundred different minds firing at once, creating one hundred entirely different realities, we’ve agreed to shorthand that moment, for Darwinian reasons. That sentence above is just a very rough, selective approximation of “reality.” And realism is just a mode of work that agrees to work within (to play within) that assumption of consensus reality.

A so-called “experimental” writer might be seen as a kind of lunatic who is acting that way in order to speak more truth (i.e., to “be real”)—like a Shakespearean fool.  Or, to remind us that the consensus reality approach is inadequate and delusional and approximate. The way I think of it is that I am trying to get my story to be more than just words on the page and speak directly and radically to something in you; to some essential and burning question that is real to you in your life. To do that—everything has to be allowed. 

Behind this idea is another one… the “real” world (the banal, mundane world) isn’t real. We construct it with our very limited minds. It seems reliable and we get addicted to that illusion of reliability and then some disaster strikes (we get sick, go nuts, have our heart broken) and we see, for an instant, that we don’t really know anything. Fiction can artificially (and again, by any means necessary) put us into that state for a brief time.

BLVR: In A Swim, you emphasize that revision, the willingness to revise (and revise, and revise), is the calling card of writers who eventually publish. Why do certain writers dislike revising? Is it fear? Anxiety? Or misplaced confidence?

GS: I think it’s mostly because they haven’t really done it yet. I found that once I’d had my first experience of really revising, it became a totally addictive thing. Now I love it. And here I mean the kind of revision where you are moving chunks of text around and cutting whole bits that you used to love and all of that—radical revision, I sometimes call it… where every bit of text is under fresh consideration, every single time. 

Once a person hits his or her groove in revising this way, it becomes an incredible super-power (goodbye, writer’s block). But when a writer’s idea of “revision” has, so far, been a timid one—just moving commas and so on, or injecting a new phrase now and then—they don’t get the reward for revision—which is that, the new form of the story starts really, as Stuart Dybek says, “talking to you.” The real reward, in my experience, is that, over time, the story starts getting smarter than you are—there’s a kind of accretion of wisdom that happens.

But revision is, yes, scary. For any and all of us and at every level. There’s that crazy Rubik’s cube feeling you get when you look at a paragraph you’ve written—so many choices!—that can cause a lot of anxiety (“I could be working on this bastard the rest of my life!”). There’s also that feeling I’ve heard some young writers describe, that, if they start pulling on a string in the story, the whole thing will collapse—this idea that there’s something sacred going on in that first flush of creation and, then, to change any part of it is to undermine what made it good in the first place. Personally, I don’t feel that way, but I know writers who do. I’m just not sure I know any published writers who do. And if someone out there does feel that way, I’d say: do a test case. Take one story (sacrifice it, you know) and try to radically revise it. (You can always go back to the original.) What you’re betting on is that that same enviable state you were in when you wrote the first draft can be regained/recreated (and regained and regained, every time you revise). So, you’re like a musician who gets to go into the studio and improvise a solo, over and over, and then come back and knit together the very best version. You get to have it both way—you’re in the flow, over and over… and then you get to decide which of those is best.

The other advantage of learning to energetically revise is that all of the versions of you get to, eventually, have a say in the thing (brilliant you, dull you, happy you, sad you, etc.). You get to, essentially, slow that fictive reality down, and go in there and walk around, observing closely than you ever could in real life. In other words: there’s a kind of accretion of wit that happens over the weeks and months you spend revising.

But, again—there are other times when the perfect paragraph just comes to you, and then “revising” would include, you know, leaving that thing alone every time you come to it.

Here is the blueprint for all fictive advice: “The aspiring writer should always do Thing X. Unless… she shouldn’t.”

Ha ha. Sob.

BLVR: You say that “[the] difference between a great writer and a good one […] is in the quality of the instantaneous decisions she makes as she works.” But at other moments in this book, you talk about writers listening to the text or following the voice, implying a less-conscious process. Certainly a writer can be too self-aware about the way she’s writing, too invested in writing a certain kind of story at the expense of the story she “should” be writing—or too id driven, too guided by what feels sexy or enticing at the expense, again, of the deeper reaches of voice. At what level should the decision-making of composition be happening, in your view? 

GS: To clarify—when I say that “[the] difference between a great writer and a good one […] is in the quality of the instantaneous decisions she makes as she works” I am talking about that same “less-conscious” process you mention. For me, anyway, there’s very little conscious (conceptual) deciding going on, ever. Almost all of my major “decisions” are made intuitively, in each pass. And then I let them stand (or don’t) in the next pass and, over time… something starts to solidify.

But, here I want to really tread lightly, because if there’s any “takeaway” from this book that adamantly does NOT want to be a how-to book, it’s this: you never know. Everyone has to find out for themselves. And, having found out….that knowledge won’t do you much good the next time. (Mastery = “being comfortable with the idea that one will never been a master, i.e., will never get to go on autopilot.”) Some writers, I’m sure, benefit from a high level of planning and all of that. But one thing I have observed: young writers tend to overcredit the extent to which they need to have a plan (and then execute that plan) and they also tend to overestimate the extent to which their ability to intellectually defend that plan has anything to do with the quality of the final product. 

But, speaking for myself: the great enemy has always been knowing too much in advance; having an agenda; having too-strong an idea of “the writer I want to be” or “what this book I am writing is about.” The text (in my view) has a certain inherent energy. Our midwife-like job is to discern and honor that energy, through revision. 

This is another way of saying that our job, on the micro-level, is to prefer one version of a sentence to another. My whole process is just going through the text over and over again, making small changes in that intuitive way you mention. For me, that is the road that leads to everything: theme and plot and politics and tone etc., etc. 

I always compare it to a conversation. If I come in knowing what I want to say, and just say it, you are going to feel neglected. There has to be, in my part of the thing, some awareness of where you are, from moment to moment. And a lot of that assessment happens, you know… by feel. Some very smart part of ourselves gets brought to bear in those moments of instantaneous, intuitive decision-making. 

BLVR: Again, these are very close, microscopic readings. How has close reading made you into a better fiction writer? How could young/unpublished writers, or older/published writers, benefit from conducting readings like these of their own (irrespective of whether they’re, say, writing a craft book)?

GB: Every semester someone will ask a version of this question: “This analyzing is all well and good, but how is it supposed to help my work?” And one answer is: it might not. Or: honestly, I don’t know. But then I ask them to imagine that there’s a big grain silo over their heads. The act of faith is saying, “If I put good stuff in there—good stories, good analyses of same, rich life experiences—all of that will find its way into my practice; it will raise my aesthetic bar and make certain moves available to me as needed, by a process the exact details of which I don’t need to know.”

Speaking for myself, yes, reading this way has really helped my work. Maybe it’s like (if you’re a guitar player) listening to a great soloist and learning the solo later. It just makes you aware, in your body, of the upper reaches of the activity. I’m noticing, even now, that having spent all of this time reading and re-reading these stories, and working on the essays, I seem to be writing better, with more facility and happiness. 

And finally—I feel that there’s something hopeful and wonderful about trying to look deeply into anything. It teaches us something about the way the mind works. We, essentially, watch, with our mind, another part of the mind reacting to a highly organized system (the story) and there is a parallel there between the way that mind reacts to the most highly organized system of all, the world itself. Somehow it builds confidence in our ability to be in a given situation. And I think this is because the process of analyzing a work of art goes like this: have a reaction; notice the reaction; bless the reaction (i.e., admit it as valid); try to articulate that reaction. And isn’t that….every moment? Isn’t that what we do when we hear a political speech, or meet a new person, or are suddenly thrust into some weird new situation? And if we have confidence in our ability to enact that sequence, that results, I think, something like what we call “confidence”—we feel more comfortable being fully present in any given moment. We know we can deal with it. 

BLVR: I have to say that I disagree a bit with the way you read “Alyosha the Pot,” but of course that’s one of the virtues of this book—that your critic’s voice is warm and inviting, and so we’re free to disagree. (I think that it’s possible to see in Alyosha a fable of political domination, and that the “agreeably passive” nature perceived by the reader is in fact a traumatic response to that domination, as if an inverse Bartleby.) As a craft book A Swim is remarkably democratic and open. Why was it important for you to write that way? Why not just argue, “This is my interpretation, and these are the writing lessons you should glean from it, and if you don’t agree you’re wrong”?  

GS: Thank you: “democratic and open”—I love the sound of that. And the reader is more than free to disagree—that is, really, the whole point. I offer, you accept and reject, and in that way… we’re playing together. 

And yes—the book comes out of all of those years of teaching and the intention there, simply put, is, as we’ve said above: help these madly talented young writers become more like themselves on the page. Help them learn to do that which only they can do. So the job is not “provide correct interpretations” but “get some shit started.” That kind of teaching is really more like (gentle) judo. They have so much wonderful energy and each of them has a certain “issue” or obstruction in their work. So the game becomes: get shit started such that those obstructions break up, or reform into something more workable. 

So what I was trying to do in the essays is get the party started—my dream would be that, because of the book, people suddenly would start taking the story form more seriously, and that the country will soon be full of the sounds of people passionately debating about Alyosha and Marya and all of the other made-up people in the stories in the book. 

Ha. That is a dream. But really, we’re doing an idiotic version of this now. We’re taking “stories” into our heads (many of them false and surficial and laced with agenda) and then we’re…forming projections of other people based on those stories, and we’re fighting about it. Think about QAnon—a totally false and insane “story,” that has gone out through these informational channels set up by corporations, for profit, and literally infected tens of thousands of people, who are especially susceptible because (what Hemingway called) their “built in shit detectors” have not been sufficiently developed. How are those detectors improved? Well, by living, for sure, but also by having an active, skeptical, joyful daily relation to complex language: that is, by reading. 

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