George Saunders's latest story collection,

Tenth of December, is 2013 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction. He is the acclaimed author of several collections of short stories, including Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, as well as a collection of essays and a book for children. In 2013, Saunders won the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story and was also named one of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World." The recipient of a MacArthur "Genius Grant," Saunders is also, strangely enough, a nice guy. The bastard…

George Saunders

posted Nov 19, 2013

If you clicked on this link at this website, you probably don't need us to tell you who George Saunders is. But all right, just in case--George Saunders is a best selling author of short and non-fiction who has won tons of awards, including a Macarthur Fellowship in 2006. His latest collection, Tenth of December, is currently a finalist for the National Book award. He was kind enough to answer a couple of our questions.

Tom Batten


What's your big problem with the commercialization and commoditization of everything? Why don't you just get over it?

You know what? You're right. Good point. I'm over it. Great: now I can go out and make some real money. .

No – actually, I don't really have a problem with it as much as I find it funny. Or find it fertile – if I let my mind go there, I find lots to say. I'm intrigued by the thought that a new power structure is evolving that is not based on royalty or national boundaries or virtue or empathy, but is corporate – and am interested in the way this structure is slowly and seductively (almost organically) rearranging our ways of thinking, so that it can ascend to total and absolute power without even being noticed. .

Hmm. Well, maybe I do a have a problem with it.

It's been almost twenty years since your first book, Civilwarland in Bad Decline. Do you ever look back at your older work? What would the George Saunders of 1996 think of the George Saunders of today?

I think he was having enough trouble figuring out what he thought of the George Saunders of 1996. But I think he would have liked these stories. I remember trying certain things back then but not being able to do them – stories with multiple narrators, for example. It's funny, actually, how artistic time is relative – even though twenty years has passed, I still have access to the voice of that book, and its concerns, and can find the seeds of these current stories in things I was working on back then and so on. What I like about that book is that I can see that young guy trying really hard not to do anything familiar, even when that meant he had to make something sort of scruffy and jagged. I admire that. Plus he had better muscle-mass and more hair and could run a faster mile than I can.

We have to admit it took us a couple of tries to get through 'The Semplica Girl Diaries.' We kept getting to mentions of the SG's and thinking we must have missed something, or that all this is something in the world that we weren't aware of. When you're working on a story with a fantastic element like the Semplica Girls (or maybe just any story) how aware are you of your potential reader? Do you worry about losing people by not making things really clear right away, or do you have faith the pay-off will be worthwhile

What's with this "we" stuff? How many of you are there, anyway? Did you all have trouble with it? I feel a bit outnumbered here.

No, not really. We don't feel outnumbered. Since there are like a thousand of us here.

I do try to be aware of the reader, sure, in the sense that I want her to buy into the conceit of the story – in this case, that she's reading a diary entry from a guy who lives in a slightly futuristic world in which these SGs are totally normal. If I was writing a story set in our time, when cellphones are completely normal, it would be weird if, the first time someone answered a phone, the narrator said "Hal picked up his cellular phone, a small handheld device capable of transmitting and receiving to and from places far away, which could also hold photos, videos, and musical content." So the challenge of a story like "The Semplica Girl Diaries" is to make it feel authentic, while finding natural (and escalating) ways to help the reader figure it all out. And that strategy involves sort of titrating and reverse titrating the mentions of the phenomenon. So, in some drafts I hit it too hard and there'd be a moment early where I gave all of the backstory – and it felt false (as in the cellphone example). And there were other drafts where I was being so "subtle" that a reader could get to the end and have no idea at all of what an SG was.

Your stories are a regular feature of high-literary publications like The New Yorker and are also frequently anthologized in collections of the fantastic. Is genre something you think about much? Is treading that (real or imagined) line between literary and genre something you do on purpose?

Honestly, I try not to think about genre at all. It goes better for me if I try to stay focused on what that particular story seems to want to do. That way I can bring in whatever is needed, and might be lucky enough to make something that isn't readily categorizable. In our time, we all know about all genres – who hasn't seen a sci-fi movie, or a dark comedy, or a zombie film, or whatever? So it would be terrible of, at the moment of truth, as the story blunders toward some new place, the writer said to his story, "Oh, no you don't, that's a genre element! Get back here."

I think the main thing is that the writer should have some other thing he's focused on, besides genre. Why are you writing this story? What is it serving? That is, he should have something to which he can subjugate the story. Let's say your idea is that you want the story to be "emotionally moving." Well, then you would let in whatever genre elements made the story more emotionally moving. Or say you want to "critique fin de siθcle capitalism." You'd let in whatever genre elements etc., etc. For me, my goal for the story is often something like "to make it the wildest ride possible, on the assumption that the wildest ride is going to be the deepest ride, too." And then I make all decisions on that basis – and usually on the fly, by the intuition, at the moment of writing and then at the moment(s) of revision.

Asking you about writing a novel seems like it would be the lamest thing we could do, being that you probably have check-out girls at convenience stores asking when you'll take a crack at one, but we were interested to read somewhere that at some point 'The Semplica Girl Diaries' was around 200 pages. Was there a part of you at that point that thought, Hey! I've done it?

Oh, yes there was. But then I read it. And could see that I hadn't written a novel, but just a bloated – well, a bloated "something shorter." I am always going for a really fast feeling – a structure in which one thing causes the next, which causes the next, and so on. In these faux-novels of mine there are usually long swaths of pretty good, pretty funny writing – but these swaths lack the animating factor of being necessary. They aren't caused by anything essential and/or don't cause anything essential. And so must go.

What's the last story you've read that you wished you had written?

"The Overcoat," by Gogol. For my money, that's the best short story ever written – so funny, so compassionate (without ever being sentimental), so perfectly shaped, truthful, and insane.

You're renowned for the distinct voices and points of view of your characters. When you're working on a story, do you start with the voice, or does that develop as your work through a draft?

Well, it's kind of both. I love to start with a particular voice, and almost never can start without that – but then, in revision, the voice gets refined and starts telling you things you didn't know. It becomes more like itself, and/or starts changing as the story goes along, in response to the events of the story.

We were surprised to find a couple of reviews of Tenth of December online that focused on how dark some of the stories are, especially 'Escape From Spiderhead.' We found that story really uplifting and at times very funny, although some terrible things do happen in there. So, what we're wondering is, who is crazy, those random reviewers or us?

I think it's all about how one defines "dark." I think my stories have dark initial offsets but then the subsequent internal dynamics produce some sort of light/hope/uplift. I understand a story as an answer to the question, "How might humans respond to conditions of extreme stress?" A story doesn't have to be a linear or "fair" representation of life, for some essential (and positive) life-feeling to get through. But I'm finding that when some readers say "dark," they just mean "bad things happen" or "there's too much violence for me" or "there's too much strangely-contextualized violence for me." Which is fine – using that dark offset is just a choice. Or, more honestly, for me, it's just what I need to do to get some heat going. It's not for everybody. Not every writer works that way, and not every reader wants to read a story written from that place.

The other thing is, this book really got out there into the world – at least it got out a lot more than my other ones did. So I think I'm getting, not only the readers who should be reading my book (i.e., those who "get" the above approach), but some who (attracted by the positive press) probably shouldn't be reading it– that is, readers who process irony or humor or exaggeration differently than my "usual" reader.

But I don't disagree with a reader who says my stuff is dark or cruel. I mean – a story in which someone commits suicide by bashing her head against the side of a desk is pretty dark, however you define "dark." But I also think that story is full of love. So maybe it's the opposition that's messed-up – this idea that something is either "dark" or "uplifting"; that it is either "positive and life-affirming" or "negative and bitter."

Is life "dark" or "uplifting"? And the answer is: "Yes, exactly."