Battling Bitterness with Boogeymen

George Saunders discusses his new short story collection, Tenth of December, the importance of public artists, and the possibility that fiction makes us better people.

January 22, 2013
Slightly squinting woman in a white shirt with black hair over left shoulder

Naomi Skwarna is Hazlitt’s interviews editor. She is a National Magazine Award-winning writer with bylines in the New York Times, Vulture, The Walrus...

“Comedy may be a banquet,” wrote John Lahr, “but without a killing there is no feast.” George Saunders’ books, like CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or In Persuasion Nation, are populated by misfits: an obese guy forced to bury a hastily murdered CEO in a pit of raccoon bones; a family of sad ghosts stuck reenacting their own murders. His characters delight even as they shift from high absurdity to shocking violence—the bodies piled so high you can barely reach the salt.

Throughout the bloodbaths, the slog of low-level yes men and dilapidated theme parks, Saunders manages to produce chronicles of humility and grace. And laughs. And incisive explorations of good and evil.

It’s hard to tell whether his new collection, Tenth of December, is less gruesome than previous collections, or just better at hiding the stains. Take “Escape From Spiderhead,” set in a world where certain privileged criminals serve their time by participating in dubious experiments in which they’re administered drugs with names like Verbaluce™ and DarkenFloxx™. Or the title story, where a man dying of a brain tumour must force himself to act against his own hard-won selfishness. The violence is less exterior now, more rooted in emotion, and thus harder to laugh at.

A cheerful Saunders is thankful that we’re talking on the phone, because he tells me that an interviewer once compared him to an affable Muppet. (Google image search yields an indisputably human figure, a man with a blond-looking mustache that probably makes eating a turkey sub hell.) He admits to being a little more likely to write a story now where a baby falls off a cliff, but lands on a pillow instead of a spike. I feel mildly disappointed, in love as I am with the notion of a spiked baby. But hey, at least it still falls off a cliff.

Has life been very busy since Tenth of December was released a couple of weeks ago?

I’m a little ashamed to say that I’m enjoying it all—it’s really been a lot of fun. I’ve gotten to go on MSNBC and quote Terry Eagleton and Chekhov, it’s a guilty pleasure. When I was a kid in the ‘70s, you had people like [Norman] Mailer on TV, so it’s a weird thing that the writer has gotten a bit sidelined now.

What do you think having a more public community of writers would be like?

For any culture, to take the artist and set him aside is really a stupid move. Who steps into the breach? Talking heads, or professional entertainers. Suddenly, you start seeing the ship of state going a little off-course. In the case of [the US], off-course in the direction of aggression and paranoia. I’m not really sure that art is going to stop that, but [artists] belong in the conversation. My sense is that fiction is a great softener. It has the potential to make people slower to act and a little more thoughtful and engaged in the actual stuff of life. E.L. Doctorow and Tobias Wolff, or Alice Munro in Canada—you know that they’re wise people; people who’ve spent hours and hours imagining the inner life of others, looking closely at the way that good and evil actually happen.

Your work has always struck me as being really aware of moral accountability. Reading Tenth of December, I kept noting in the margins how often you extend and highlight the moment of choice. But the stories aren’t burdened with anger or condemnation. This is a long way of saying that this collection, especially the title story, made me feel like a better person.

Does fiction make us better people? I think it can, and I love the idea that it does, but when I’m writing, I put that notion aside. The great books that I’ve loved just sort of make you more alive. There’s a dormant humanity in us and a piece of art can make that dormant thing come out a little bit more. Almost like a peacock tail that suddenly goes up for awhile… and then it goes back down.

With really good fiction, you can live through it experimentally.

Yes, that’s exactly right—like a scale model. As a writer, part of your job is to make that thought experiment inescapable. If the two of us enter this world together, my job is to go a couple of steps ahead and make sure there’s no easy exit. That’s a lot of what I do in revision, making sure that when you get to the place where I want you to feel the emotion, you are there without regret.

When did you start writing these stories?

It started for me sometime around 2006, but one of the stories, “Sticks,” is really old. That’s been around forever, and “Semplica-Girl Diaries,” I actually had a first draft of that in ‘98. But most of the book started after the Braindead Megaphone [an essay collection], and sometime after that I stopped doing any other kind of writing than fiction.

“Sticks” is so bracing. I love the part where the narrator recognizes his own nascent meanness.

Isn’t that what we all have to watch out for? I sometimes think that life on Earth is a battle against your own bitterness—trying to push it down and as long as you can.

All of your characters, every single one of them, are constantly in combat with their meanness, or their bitterness, or cowardice. Al, in “Al Roosten,” or Eber and Robin in “Tenth of December.”

As you get older, you have these moments of clarity where you see where all the nonsense in the world comes from, and you can also see that it’s on a continuum with your experience. If you see someone doing something really awful, in history or across the street, it’s interesting to think that with imagination, you could come to understand why they did it, without endorsing it. It’s a scary way of looking at things, but invigorating.

In Joel Lovell’s recent New York Times Magazine story about your work, there was a part in which you talked about discussing writing with David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Ben Marcus—the question of creating emotional writing, truthfully. Do you feel like you’ve come to understand how to deliver that in your own work?

No. I mean, yes and no. The subtext of all those conversations was that you have to make the fiction lively, it has to be new in some way. I found that the way I could get energy into my work is by being funny, a little irreverent, being fast, being a little bit pop culture-ish or something like that. That’s how I got a first book out.

How do you keep making it new, story after story?

Say I want to keep that energy in my work and I want to make it more—fill in the blank. Accessible. Emotional. Whatever you want to call it. You’re trying to move over there without leaving those initial virtues behind, because that’s what keeps your reader engaged. That was true of Dave Wallace—in his case it was that high postmodern, cerebral, amazing intelligence that he had, and I think he was moving toward the same doorway again. He had to—you can’t forget what got you invited to the party in the first place.

In your preface to the second edition of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, you mention the pleasure of locating your stories in theme parks. Was that a way of evading your instincts, e.g. writing imitatively of Hemingway?

When you read writing about writing, one of the tacit assumptions is that the writer had an intention to do thing A, and she went out and did it, haha! Congratulations, victory. But in my experience it’s more that you’re just trying not to stink. You’re trying to get your prose to have something in it that compels the reader to keep listening. I found that if I put it in a theme park, it freed up a lot of my positive virtues. It was an accidental find, but it really changed everything for me. I didn’t have any intention at the beginning of talking about American pop culture and Plato’s Cave. There was no grand political intent. I was just trying to not stink.

Tenth of December feels like a departure from that. The stories are less fantastical or dystopian than some of your previous work.

As you get older, I think you want to get all the different valences of life into your work somehow, even if they’re a little shrunken or distorted. For me, I’m now 54, my wife and I have been married 25 years, we have two wonderful daughters. It turns out life is more than just a dystopia. You look at a writer like Tolstoy or Alice Munro and they have three-dimensional representations of a happy life in their work, which is the hardest thing to do. That’s an aspiration I have, to be able to represent all the different modes of being on Earth. A modest ambition.

When you look at it now, do you see an organizing principle in this collection?

When I read it the last time, I thought, well, it seems to be a lot about the those occasions when human beings do good things. How does that happen? What are the contributing factors to somebody actually finding the wherewithal to do the right thing in a given situation?

That was what you observed reading it afterwards.

Yes. If I preconceive things then the worst thing happens. That is: the story is what you planned. That’s a disappointment for everyone, because the reader is smart and a little ahead of you, even. So if the reader sees it coming and then it comes, the reader is rightfully disappointed. The only way you can have the proper relation of respect with your reader is to not be sure yourself of what’s going to happen, what it means or what you “want to say.”

It’s hard to imagine your work not requiring painstaking design. They have such mathematical plots, like “Escape from Spiderhead.”

It is mathematically plotted, but if you give yourself enough time, that process happens one beat at a time. In “Spiderhead,” I started with the idea that there’s a drug that changes the way you talk, and then in the midst of doing that, it produces the next beat. And so you just keep doing that, and at some point you get off-target, and then what you do in the revisions is cut the false moves and return to the essential. The idea is that story begets story. If you have one convincing scene, it will tell you what the next scene needs to be in order to fully address the energy of the first.

Your writing frequently satirizes capitalist systems. By being a storyteller, do you feel like it’s possible to avoid some of the drudgery that your characters are often trapped by?

One thing I’ve loved about being a writer is that it’s one of the few areas in art—maybe along with being a poet or a painter—where you really don’t need a lot of help to get it done. You don’t need a $100,000 worth of equipment, you don’t need co-writers, you don’t have any imperative to keep your ratings up, especially if you’re teaching. There’s nobody outside of your own bad instincts co-opting you or trying to get you to say something that isn’t true or authentic. The culture needs a skeptical outside voice that doesn’t have to speak the popular truth to have a platform. That’s a really wonderful way to live.

Slightly squinting woman in a white shirt with black hair over left shoulder

Naomi Skwarna is Hazlitt’s interviews editor. She is a National Magazine Award-winning writer with bylines in the New York Times, Vulture, The Walrus, the Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, the British Journal of Photography, and others. Since 2019, Naomi has been producing slow fashion and soft sculpture under the name Casual Clowne.