On the basis of three story collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia and the latest, In Persuasion Nation; a novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil; and an all-ages kid's book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, George Saunders has, uh, rocketed, uh George has, uh, been acclaimed, uh, has uh, taken some time out of his busy life to talk with Rosie [whom he brought a box of treats] and me a second time.
Robert Birnbaum: So what do you think of the White Sox?
George Saunders: I saw them in Spring Training this year and they are looking pretty good.
RB: Were you excited last year [when the White Sox won the World Series]?
GS: A little bit—it's stupid though. They are all millionaires that I've never met—
GS: But sentimentally, just seeing the uniform was an, "Oh!"
RB: I am a North-sider and have never been a Sox fan, but that team got to me—it took me two months to find a White Sox hat in New England—finally, I found one at a national department store.
GS: I was here when they beat the Red Sox—I was doing a reading. And it was very sobering, the introduction was, "The Red Sox just lost." And you could see everybody go "Ugh" and then I had to read.
RB: I like Ozzie Guillen [the White Sox manager]—he's fun and funny.
GS: They were a very Chicago team. They reminded me of the '59 team—whatever it takes to win.
RB: Remember Juan Pizzaro? The WS Cuban pitchers Hernandez and Contrares are like him.
GS: [And] Louie Aparicio. Minnie Minoso and those guys.
RB: I loved "Minnie" [as did all right-minded baseball fans], Orestes "Minnie" Minoso [pause]. So, how's it going?
GS: It's good. Very good.
RB: Meaning? No complaints—
GS: No complaints. Busy, but good. We just had our third-year graduation ceremonies [at Syracuse] for our grad students and that is always kind of nice, sentimental.
RB: Is there some plateau before that?
GS: No, it's a three-year MFA, so at the end we have this big formal—they read and their thesis advisors introduce them and their parents come and it's kind of a cathartic thing—nerve wracking, you have to read in front of your girlfriend and your ex-girlfriend—
GS: —your friends and your mother and your grandmother.
RB: Is it my imagination or have you been doing a lot of more talking and outreach and—
GS: I think maybe—I've been trying to.
RB: For people who are part of the growing legions of George Saunders readers, there is a rich pool of information available. What could we discuss that has not already been hashed over?
GS: Yeah, I don't know.
RB: Maybe we should qualify this as a level one, as an entry-level chat.
GS: [laughs] No, I'll just make sure to contradict myself.
RB: Good idea.
GS: "All stories should be completely planned out from beginning to end."
GS: "The Bush administration is a paragon of wisdom."
RB: Oh my God. Who will believe that? Do you ever get readers who take seriously or are convinced by some of your stories? Like the Sameness Sex Scale in "My Amendment."
GS: I got a couple letters on that. It's funny—from The New Yorker you don't get it. People understand from the context. But that one made it out on the Internet and I was getting some pretty irate emails from people. One guy said, "You are the new Goebbels."
GS: It was funny because then I got an e-mail from him right after, "Sorry, sorry, a friend just told me that was a satire—I didn't realize it."
RB: That was nice of him. After you call someone Goebbels—
GS: Where do you go from there, really?
RB: For me your great forte is the employment of the reductio ad absurdum. I mean, what gives you the right to tell people they can't commit genocide? Or that their silly ethnic squabbles are a blot on history as in Brad Corrigan, American, where the burned corpses are talking and recounting the reasons for the war they died in—which seemed like every other war, incomprehensible?
GS: This book, it took a weird turn, because in spite of myself I had this 9/11-Iraq thing on my mind and I kept trying to write those political essays to get that out of my system. But it didn't quite get got. So I think what I was doing was a lot of—
RB: —the Filipino children—
GS: —that story just—I had a dream of that first page, it got cut later, but it was real vivid, with those TV voices like, "Well I guess we all learned something from…" That kind of stuff. And I just transcribed it and then I just said, "For once just fart around, try to make it funny and just let that pop culture in and try not to filter it at all." And it kept going and going and going and then without even me planning it, those corpses showed up—
RB: It's amazing that you could have these harrowing images and still cause laughter.
GS: I wonder. I have been thinking about this whole idea of darkness. I'm forty-seven and kind of feel like, "Okay, I am going to go off in some new direction." I am not sure what it is. But I always hear, "He's dark, he is dark." And to me, I don't quite [pauses] see it. So for me to put in a corpse and have him be funny seems like we have been prepared for that. There is all kinds of stuff like that out there. It doesn't seem to me to be particularly dark. What seems dark to me is CSI Baton Rouge or whatever—where there is no mitigating humor, no sense that the absurd is absurd, it's all just murdering midgets and no one ever calls those shows dark. You get to a certain age, and God willing you see that the ratio of murders in your life is very low [laughs]. It's not one a week and it's not these kinky crazy premeditated diabolical things—so to me that's dark. Now to have a talking corpse saying things—that could be dark, but I have been thinking about where does darkness reside in a story? Is it just that bad things happen? No. Look at the Grimm Brothers—any of that. Maybe it's the frequency of bad things happening? But then you look at Shakespeare, the density of misfortune is very high. So I don't quite understand what darkness is anymore.
RB: The last Batman was a rated as a kid's movie. My son was terribly upset at the shooting scene of Batman's parents.
RB: We walked out. Was that supposed to be okay? Not to mention that there are Army commercials with the coming attractions for kids' movies. Maybe that is the culmination of Neil Postman's ideas in Amusing Ourselves to Death, "And now, this just in…"
GS: I see it in my own very limited brain. I can't really do two things at once. In my view the whole O.J. and Monica thing was a kind of prep—a stupidity prep. And we said, "Oh, that's important? It's interesting? I can really lower myself to worry about the sperm-covered dress and not have to stop myself and I can actually pretend that's serious cultural stuff?" All right, so then you lower yourself into that vat. And then 9/11 comes. And we are totally ready to be fed this bullshit and I don't think it's a coincidence. So a lot of that stuff was coming out in this book. And some of the reviews are, "Oh, it's a poke at advertising." Which to me—that's not enough. Something about this idea that you said—you can't wallow in shit and then come out smelling clean. I think culturally we somehow stupified [or stupidized] ourselves and now we are paying the price.
RB: The ubiquity of marketing is the most obvious thing. Consumerism seems to be a [government-sanctioned] religion.
GS: That's right. We are of the same generation, and I remember thinking if we could just get rid of this religious stupidity, our wonderful humanist nature would rise up. And that didn't happen. What happened was our materialist nature rises up.
RB: And in some form or other you adopt a new religion—something to believe in.
GS: And you have all the same moves—you bow to it and you have icons and ceremony. But you also have beauty. For me part of this advertising thing is that it is very seductive and I kind of like it. And as person of my generation I have been programmed to it, so when I go to think up this advertising stuff it's really fun and very easy.
RB: Sounds right. Some of those Nike commercials are really compelling.
GS: They are really compelling.
RB: And their product design is great. Colors, packaging—
RB: And then you have to reconcile their labor practices around the world [laughs].
GS: Aesthetically—there is a Nike commercial for soccer—it doesn't ever say the word Nike. And never says the word soccer. And has all these really charged political things. Very compelling. And in some ways it's a little minimalist masterpiece. And the only things that I guess are off is—what—it's meant to sell something and it's sort of a committee effort. That's the difference between it and The Dubliners, I suppose [laughs]. But the thing is, when I was younger I had this kind of vaguely paranoid vision, which was, the Man is doing this to us. Now I am much more a fan of that Pogo thing—"we have met the enemy [and he is us]"—the people who are doing that stuff are brilliant.
RB: What do you make of the mobile phone service provider ad where a young guy is talking to an older CEO type and he has a new phone and new calling plan and he claims he is—
GS: –going to stick it to the man. And the kid says, "But you are the man?" "Yes." "Aren't you sticking it to yourself?"
GS: Very funny.
RB: I don't know what that means.
GS: I don't either. But you laugh. And you feel like, "Yeah, that's a very rebellious attitude." There's another one that kills me—I don't know who it's for. But it shows a young couple, thirteen, fourteen years old, very beautiful Indian music thing and then it just shows them at different stages of their life and it's beautiful and I cry every time I see it. It's like for Nextel or something. And I'm thinking, "You didn't do that, you didn't cause that."
RB: I don't think about these small masterpieces anymore as much as I think about the people who create them. I fear that some how they have deluded themselves into thinking they have done god's work.
GS: Right, right. The thing is—here I'm playing devil's advocate—in a sense, they have. They did make something—I don't know. Maybe it comes down to a question of pure form. Look at a movie like Sin City. Which has no redeeming moral value but it is beautiful. What's the difference between that and a Nike ad really, when you get down to it? Honestly, I don't think that much about this stuff. But I know it's a really enjoyable guilty pleasure to just say, "Okay, I'm going to think of fifteen commercials."
RB: As when Spike Lee was doing Nike Commercial and Ridley Scott was doing Chanel—has anybody approached you to write ad copy or come up with a campaign?
GS: No, I am too much of a small fry. They would never—but if there is anybody out there listening...
RB: You never can tell.
GS: Vonnegut did a coffee ad.
RB: There has to be some hip, young advertising executive who is writing his novel at night and fancies himself a littérateur and he pipes up at a meeting, "Let's get that dystopian satirist Saunders and Lethem and that guy—"
GS: It's funny we have been marketing the hell out of this book. In really unconventional ways. Like with tattoos—so it's a little bit a wink and a nod.
RB: Didn't you write me and say the next book would—
GS: —right, no words, just reflective surfaces. The other side of it is for anybody making something, you have to move it, and these days—I remember thinking when I worked for that corporation, "Oh man, the American corporation, it's soul sucking." But then to have two little kids and get inside that citadel was very nice. To have insurance and to know if you just showed up and were competent and decent your kids would make it. And when the possibility of them not making it—and of us being really low was very real, I thought a corporation is group of people banding together for mutual—
RB: —no, that's called a community.
GS: But it was very similar. We were a community.
RB: It may exude that sense—
GS: Honestly I think it really was. But the only difference was—and this is the funny thing—it's just at the last turn of the dial that it's not a community. Because they will kick you out. They will kick your ass right out if you don't produce. Which I suppose in a real community they would do that.
RB: The Inuit would do that.
GS: Eskimos would. They are brutal. But you get to that point where you are hearing about someone's sexual problems at work. Their kids' problems and then one day every one has to go [makes a throat clearing sound] "Uh hmm, Miss Smith has too many unbilled hours and she will have to go." So I don't know.
RB: Work is no longer 9 to 5 for many people.
RB: —and they are forced to make it seem more humane in a sense. Or more something—Life seems co-equivalent with work. 24/7, what the hell is that?
GS: The other thing is that work for very few people and certainly when I was at the engineering company work had nothing to do with me except for money. Now it's not true for me and I think it's not true for you, but we are fortunate to be in that position. But at that time I remember thinking, okay I have nine hours blocked out here to do whatever they tell me and I have to do it in a cheerful spirit and efficiently so that I can go back to my real stuff.
RB: Another aspect of the modern American work culture is that the work is frequently about simply keeping one's job. Not about being productive at anything.
GS: When I was writing that first book at work, there was always that feeling of "Oh god, I have been in here for forty minutes, get out, get in the coffee area and make some propaganda and really consciously say I am going to talk enthusiastically about this project I am working on—go out here and do it loudly so people will hear."
RB: This is like the first story in In Persuasion Nation, the salesman for this absurdist simulated baby talking mechanism/mask. I hadn't had any contact with her work since her impressive memoir Liars' Club—I had a look at Mary Karr's recent volume of poetry—she's a colleague of yours. Yes?
GS: Oh yeah—a friend too.
RB: I had not realized that she had a serious conversion to Catholicism.
GS: She has.
RB: In a very serious way. It's all over her poems.
GS: It's a beautiful book.
RB: Is it?
GS: Yeah, yeah, I loved it.
RB: You are a lapsed Catholic—
GS: I am a reformed Catholic [laughs]. I'm a Buddhist in other words [both laugh].
RB: It's interesting to hear you call it a beautiful book. I just can't get my mind around all that stuff laced with those religious references. Is there a payoff if I can get past it?
GS: I can because—I think the whole book paid off. I have an old habit from the time I was a kid, I do this mental Catholic concession. When someone says, "The healing blood of Jesus Christ," I am already thinking metaphorically. Even when I was a little kid. Or when they say "crucified and rose again." I am not thinking so much—I'm thinking miniature. Have I been crucified today? But also, in the Buddhist thing, resurrection is commonplace.
RB: As reincarnation.
GS: Yeah, exactly. This year I went to Nepal for GQ and saw this little kid—
RB: Are you on a world tour for GQ? You went to Dubai—
GS: I did two. There was this little kid—he had meditated for eight months, supposedly without any food or water. And I went out and saw him and, man, it was something. In other words, it got me thinking, "Maybe it's not all metaphorical because there was something about that—he'd sat there for so long that his hair went from your length [short] to over his nose. And everybody in the town said, "When he sat down we thought he was insane and we were harassing him and poking him with sticks and now he has been sitting there for six months and he hasn't had any food or water—promise you." So I spent the night out there one night and nobody came or went and that supposedly was when he was getting fed. So who knows.
RB: Does he claim he is the next Dalai Lama?
GS: He doesn't claim anything. He just had a dream one night. He said a god came to him and said if he didn't get out of his house he would die. And he was a Buddhist monk. So he went out under this tree, the same type of tree that Buddha sat under and he hasn't claimed anything. People claim that he is the next Buddha and so he actually said at some point, "I am not Buddha." Meaning I am not enlightened yet. He said I'm at the level of Rimpesahat, which is like an accomplished master. And he just asked for six years of quiet and then it was too noisy so a couple of months ago he ran off and went deeper into the jungle and they haven't seen him since. So, I don't know. It was pretty amazing. His body looked unlike any body you have ever seen. It was thin but muscular and had a weird color to it.
RB: No food or water for six months—that's impossible.
GS: I know. I know.
RB: You went to Nepal for him specifically?
GS: Yeah, GQ had heard of him and said, "You want to go see him?" So I went to Katmandu, and if you drive it's about eleven hours. We flew. It's right on the Indian border in this beautiful grove of trees. Pretty, but the poorest place you could ever see. So the idea that it was a hoax didn't make sense for a lot of reasons. People are so simple there—
RB: Not like David Blaine, who I am convinced failed on purpose.
GS: I didn't see it—did he fail?
RB: I heard he did—that so-called news that was unavoidable. It was all kind of off-putting—someone was going to do a two-hour show. On what?
GS: [laughs] It's a bit like when Geraldo went into Al Capone's tomb [both laugh].
RB: You are probably the only person who remembers that—
GS: [TV announcer's voice] "There's nothing in there."
RB: This stuff is destined to be forgotten immediately. As hopefully Geraldo and his ilk will be. Anyway, I read somewhere in the storm of interviews you have done that you look at In Persuasion Nation as the third in a trilogy of short story collections. What does that mean?
GS: Really, what I meant is this is everything that—it feels to me a little bit like—I don't know why three would matter.
RB: Right. Why three?
GS: It feels like now I want to try something a little different, at least in flavor if not in length. It's a mid-life thing, I think. To say, these three I am really happy with them, proud of them. Now let's take a breath here—what I usually do is write stories back to back— six or seven at once and so what happens is an aesthetic approach will kind of wear out as I am feeling a book coming. So now this aesthetic approach is worn out and I am just thinking, just relax a little bit. And I have this Guggenheim so I have the next year and a half off.
RB: Apparently you were one of the 188 people that aced me out this year.
GS: [laughs] Actually, you were 189 and I was 188. So I hope that doesn't affect the interview.
RB: I also looked at the numbering on this chapbook you sent out.
GS: What, did you get 151 out of 150?
RB: 419 out of 500. And I thought we were better friends [both laugh].
GS: I didn't make that selection, man. You'd'a been number one.
RB: Sure, sure.
GS: Sean McDonald [Riverhead editor], talk to him.
RB: I didn't know Sean was a photographer [he did the cover art for the chapbook], he's multifaceted. I guess he has a safety valve in case dissembling writers do him in—[fumbling around in a pile of papers] where is that thing?
GS: You lost it. If you had a higher number—there it is.
RB: It's very nice to give away 500 copies of this.
GS: Yeah. Yeah.
RB: It's of some value—these pieces, essays and tidbits, are hilarious.
RB: So what's up with the benevolence?
GS: I-I-, uh
GS: Actually, we are going to put these out in book form someday.
RB: Enhancing the value of this—maybe I can cross out the '4'.
GS: I'll do it for you. It was the end of a period, so I wanted to get everything out—that was the political stuff that spun out of this book. The nonfiction stuff, so—
RB: Are you being identified as a lefty?
GS: I think so [laughs]. My goodness.
RB: How could that be? You haven't had any stuff in the obvious places like Slate—
GS: Two of those were on Slate. At some point, that valve switched off. The last couple things have just been funny, like that nostalgia piece in The New Yorker. I don't think this stuff through very much. I am writing six or seven things at once and whatever gets done goes out—so there is probably some mapping of the subconscious in all this but I don't have any big plan.
RB: We have talked about this before—I cannot read more than one of your stories at a sitting—
GS: We did talk about that. You were actually the first person who made me realize that about myself—THANK YOU VERY MUCH! [both laugh]
RB: When I am reading one of your stories and laughing hard I wonder if you were laughing?
GS: No, I usually get a little laugh the first time I come up with something—not even a laugh—a little ‘heh' in the chest and then I make a mental note that that's good enough—
RB: Going to show that writing funny is very serious business.
GS: I never think about it being funny but I think a lot about compression—if you compress things—the compressed truth, that's what funny is.
RB: Do you ever laugh hysterically—or reread your stuff?
GS: Sometimes, if I have do a reading. I don't usually laugh—and I never laugh hysterically at it. Sometimes I'll get a little nose snort kind of response [both laugh].
RB: "Nose snort"—good one. I like "chuckle."
GS: It's a little more honest. For me compression is very close to regular old prose compression. It'd be like a boa constrictor with a couple of pearls in it. The idea is to get the snake shrunk down so that the pearls are adjacent to one another—then what you get, you get more of it quicker.
RB: I do wonder why there is this limiting thing about reading your stories—maybe it's that the density of a story is as if it were a novel. And I only have so much head space available—
GS: When I am imagining it, I will have a longer description and my feeling is that I'd have the physicality in my mind, then it will kind of unpack for the reader—but only at a certain pace of reading. If it's too fast, my experience is that the physicality doesn't have time to unpack, but if you take a story—the story, if you read it slow enough, then you are supplying physicality to it. That's maybe when I talk about the trilogy thing, I'd like to go back and reinvestigate that. These GQ pieces have had a lot do with it. There you have to describe physical things. And you find out that there is actually a pleasure in that and I am not actually so bad at it. Early on, as a reaction against my own bone-headed MFA early stories, I said, "No more description. How many times do we need a kitchen described? We know what a kitchen is, let's get going." So now I am taking a bit of a step back and saying there are pleasures of language in describing a kitchen and the type of kitchen matters and so on—
RB: I just came across a new novel by Joan Frank [Miss Kansas City] and in the open passages she describes the protagonist as resembling Alice from Alice in Wonderland and talks about her hair color as a "conference" of various shades and hues. That stopped me. It wasn't stilted and I just perked right up.
GS: Right and that's one of the pleasures of reading. I went back and read the beginning of Great Expectations and it's amazing how the pleasures of the language and the pleasures of the physical world are one and the same thing. You can't just describe something in a lame, flat sentence and have it come alive. It won't. But if you can do it in the right way then it does come alive. For me, partly I am just taking a little bit of a step away from, whatever is the reigning aesthetic of the three collections and saying, "Okay, let me now reconsider this a minute." I know I am always going to believe in speed and velocity and humor. But is there a way that I can get a little more of the world in there—without sacrificing those things?
RB: If you have been a hard core short story writer it strikes me you become a junky for the quick satisfaction of closing down a story and the—
RB: —whereas a novel—
GS: —see what I have trouble with is that I don't have long-term faith in any one idea. I don't mean that as a diss on myself. I love the multiplicity of saying, like this Brad Corrigan story, 79 or 80% of the time I was going, "This is a stupid ass idea. This can't sustain a story." Then I kept saying, "Try, try." And finally at the end I was convinced it was, but I didn't want to spend four years doing that. And part of the reason I could do it was I knew it wasn't forever. It was a five month thing and then if I wanted to—which I did, I could back and react against it with something like Bohemians which is more realist. In a way being a little bit indecisive or maybe schizophrenic aesthetically you can say, "I believe in Thing A 100 percent." Knowing that you can believe in Thing B 100 percent next week. So the idea of sustaining some aesthetic principle for 500 pages, I am not sure I have the character for it.
RB: It doesn't have to be 500 pages.
GS: It DOESN'T—all right, great.
RB: Apparently your model is in the 19th century.
GS: How about 76—would 76 pages be all right?
RB: You haven't done or maybe it's escaped me—you haven't lampooned the Great American Interview.
GS: Because interviewers are basically the best people on earth [both laugh]. I know where my bread is buttered.
RB: You have been reading Dickens and Gogol and who else? Is that it?
GS: That's pretty much it. I read Dead Souls a lot. I read A Christmas Carol a lot. That is one that sticks with me. What have I been reading lately—I am actually not very well read. I came to it late, from an engineering background. Isaac Babel I read over and over. I am reading the Tales of the Genji—I just started reading that. That's pretty interesting. I tried to read Tristam Shandy again this year. It didn't quite work out.
GS: I get busy with tracing and everything, and I get distracted, so I just read something and get a taste of it and then I'll go teach.
RB: What about the journalism—has that been helpful?
GS: I think it has.
RB: It gets you out of the house.
GS: I had three things: the Dubai piece and the Nepal piece and I wrote my 8th grade daughter's graduation speech this year.
RB: Is that available somewhere?
RB: I came across Rick Russo's Colby College commencement speech last year and it was quite wonderful.
GS: It was so much fun for me to do this.
RB: Well you cared.
GS: I always care—I care about the stories but there was something about projecting your audience, it's something I don't understand and I am a little afraid of it. But I noticed that I knew the audience was going to be 2nd graders, 90-year-old Republicans, people who didn't want to be there and somehow that changed, that threw a switch in my head and I know for me there is something in that, that pertains to novel writing and I don't quite know what it is yet. Same thing with the journalism pieces. There is a willingness—it might be like this—I started out, because I had a bunch of years of failed book stories when I was at Syracuse and then when I left, I got a really rigorous aesthetic for speed and whatever it is that CivilWarLand is about. And I was really OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder] about it. And I didn't let anyone read anything except my wife and I was fighting over commas and it was good—
RB: What was that abbreviation you threw out?
GS: Obsessive Compulsive. I had superstition and a certain [type] font.
RB: A certain font?
GS: Oh yeah, 10 point, Times Roman, everything had to be just right [both laugh]. I wanted to distinguish it from the corporate documents that were in 12 point. So what I said was, that if I inhabit the highest version of my aesthetic then it might be good enough for people to read. So now when I am trying to say is—okay, actually it turns out I can relax a little bit and still have something to say. And so I am easing myself down into being a little bit more of a relaxed writer—maybe in some ultimate way it's a little more trusting of the audience. The graduation speech was interesting that way.
RB: It occurs to me that this has shades of Sally Fields [at the Academy Awards].
RB: Accepting that people really like you. And that must somehow mean something to you?
GS: It does—if it's true. But I doubt it [laughs]. It's not about "like" but it's about—
RB: People seem to be involved in your writing and seem to be dedicated to it. Going through the ashes and such—
GS: To have a body of work out there and then courtesy of the internet start to see a given story will be called his "best" and his "shittiest." And you go "Wow, how amazing." So then I think it's not really my job to figure in advance to only give them the best. ‘Cause you can't. So then you just start taking some swings at some pitches and as I am getting older I am thinking, "God, don't let me die before I get my swings in."
RB: You want to leave it all on the field.
GS: And that means you have to take a few wild swings. Or else you are not really alive and you are not really an artist. So that's something I am learning and I am really trying to grow into that idea. That I'd rather fuck up a few things than get to the end of my life and go, "Very nice. Very tidy!"
RB: There are, I suppose, many examples of grand failures—which may arguably be greater than some neat perfection.
GS: Somebody said a novel is a long work of prose with something wrong with it. When I read Dead Souls I realized I had never finished it until last year. I thought I had, but I hadn't. It's kind of fun. It's real loose at the end. It's not like everything gets tied up beautifully.
RB: I'm jealous of people who have taken the time to read significant works of the19th century. I never seem to get to that—
GS: That's my big one for last year. I read that Chris Hedges book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning and the Paul Fussel's The Great War and Modern Memory—that was good.
RB: There's a new book by Jay Winter called Remembering War that I am interested in-- that play of memory against what is claimed to be the objective reality.
GS: In the Fussell book, if I remember correctly, he makes the point that people's memories were kind of frontloaded by the poetry of the period, so what they remember about the war is what they had brought to the war from their reading of poetry. And there is another book—I don't remember the name—they just found a bunch of tapes in the British War Museum of reminiscences of WWI veterans and they are just gory and sad and beautiful and they just transcribed a bunch of them and it's pretty interesting stuff.
RB: There is a new translation of War and Peace [by Anthony Briggs]—
GS: I have it.
RB: I never read it, and looking at the first chapter now, I still think giving high school students Tolstoy or Dostovesky or Melville doesn't make any sense to me.
GS: No, no.
RB: What's the experiential connect supposed to be? But anyway I started reading the Tolstoy book and I'm thinking, "Wow, this is quite good."
GS: It's great. I was sick once when I was working at that corporation and took about three or four sick days off and just read it and the first hundred pages were really impossible and then it was like the best movie I have ever seen. I couldn't stay away from it. I was sneaking it in to work, just to find out what was happening.
RB: Sneak it into work?
GS: They didn't mind if I brought it, just if you read it there.
RB: Back to the journalism—is that a different muscle?
GS: It is‚ and I don't really have it yet. I am trying to figure it out. These two pieces weren't really strict journalism. They were kind of experiential, get-there-and-be-a-little-funny-about-it. For me the stories are‚ when I'm doing it I can feel myself going in the direction of the most interesting language for me at that moment. And the story goes in that direction. Whereas this stuff is more like, it happened this way, what's the most truthful vivid way you can say it? And that's a nice way to write for me. It takes some pressure off. It says, "Look, if I am writing this moment between you and me, I can't fabricate it. I can slant it and I can filter it but I can't totally make it up." There is something about that that is a stepping stone into novel writing. I notice there are books that I love, novels, big novels, and there are entire chapters that are by my existing standards, too workmanlike or something?
GS: No, necessary but somehow maybe banal. A little bit flat in tone. Because they are doing serious work.
RB: So what makes them necessary?
GS: Well, just plot. The assumption of the novel is that it is fairly naturalistic. That if Jim has a job, that he has to get fired from the job.
RB: The rifle is in the room so that—
GS: Something like that. And there are scenes that I just can't…I don't want to write them. They are too familiar. Now that's a defect in me. So the journalism is a nice way of saying, "Well, look, you really did talk to the guy." So you have to describe it. And the definition of a good writer is, can you describe the banal in a way that makes it work? It doesn't have to be brilliant.
RB: That's right.
GS: So the payoff is if you do the groundwork, then you get a bigger—in screenwriting, I am learning the same thing. I have been writing the CivilWarLand script. There are scenes I would never have written that are not in the story. I thought they were just too dull. But you put them in, a husband and wife talking at breakfast and suddenly the emotional stakes go up. So for me it's a little bit, like I have this prissy part of myself and he had to hold his nose while I do the groundwork. And then I can get into the bare-bones stuff.
RB: This is your obsession with perfection?
GS: With stylistic—
RB: Having to do with the highest achievement?
GS: I remember even as a kid being very put off by sentences that sounded like anybody could write them. And I was very entranced by Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes because she has those pearl-like beautiful little sentences. So we get…
RB: Well some people do talk in a certain ordinary ways and sometimes that's all you get—
GS: There is a dialogue concession that my inner nun makes. But something about—the kind of sentences that are just workaday sometimes—
RB: "Then they walked into a room."
GS: Yeah, ich. So even as a kid when I got those early grade primers or whatever. I couldn't read them because they were so—but then Esther Forbes, I dug her. You could tell she worked over every sentence. So that kind of care for sentences also has a down side, which is sometimes life is—
RB: Sometimes life is desiccating—
GS: I read an essay that Hunter S. Thompson wrote about Hemingway. His point was—and I don't think he is correct in this—but his point was that one of the reasons he went nuts at the end was because he had this highly honed style and suddenly the world had gotten bigger and the style couldn't encompass the world. And I felt that sometimes you think in order to get the scope of the world you have to be willing to do some workmanlike sentences. Everything can't be a pearl. That is something I am trying to—the journalism helps a lot.
RB: And is the journalism going to be a permanent part of your repertoire?
GS: I think so. It's really fun. I work with this guy at GQ, Andy Ward, who is a fantastic editor. He has a really great way of—he just turns me loose on stuff. And when I hand stuff in he is always so positive and then we still work on it and it gets better. So as the kids get older it's been a nice way to reconnect with the world a little bit and see if my assumptions have any truth to them. As you get older it seems to me that my projections get so big and sort of bossy and it would be possible for me to sit in that room and write my shit without ever consulting the world. It's real useful to get out there and bang your shins against it a little bit.
RB: Out of the bubble. Interesting you stay that. I have such a sour taste about American magazines—every once in while I will find a gem—Jim Harrison wrote this impassioned story about life on the Arizona border that was centered on a dead pregnant 19-year-old Mexican girl—I found it in Men's Journal, which is mostly about men's toys and libations and grooming devices. It's like when Playboy had these important interviews.
GS: For my point of view I would rather have—or you get behind a powerhouse like GQ, they send you places in style —not in a trivial way. They give you the resources you need. So for my point of view it's very exciting to be in a kind of writing that is not marginalized—in other words, they really want these pieces to be good. They are giving me lots of room. So I feel empowered by that.
RB: So what's the connection with the quality of your work there and what they are using to sell the magazine?
GS: It ties in with what we talked about earlier. I'm not sure about GQ but my sense of the larger industry you have really, really intelligent people at every level working hard to do great stuff but what are they [working] against, they are working against the basic —it takes money. So I find them very heroic there. They will say we have been talking about doing this piece where I go back to my hometown. That's the pitch—
GS: Yeah, Oak Forest. And they say, "Okay, if you say you can do it we know you can do it. Go get it." So I am like, "That's terrific."
RB: The best editors and art directors are the ones who pick talent they have confidence in—once they have made their choice, they let them go.
GS: It takes a lot of confidence.
RB: If you sit on talent and micro-manage, I think that's a deficient personality.
GS: I had the same experience with The New Yorker. They have been so good to me over the years. And it always just wants more. Give more of yourself, write better stories. In that part of the business I am really encouraged. Now the book side of it, I don't know how that works. What I mean—
RB: You have only been at one house, Riverhead?
GS: And they have been great to me.
RB: The two women who started it left.
GS: What I mean is—the book side has to work harder —Sean is busting his butt on this book and did on the Phil book. And I think—I don't know what I mean, really—
RB: Maybe that's the trap of book publishing. That the book publishers are treating books in the same way as other commodities—like the movie business treats movies. It's a totally different mechanism of appreciation and consumption. Even more mysterious is how a book becomes a "big" book. Unlike a movie, I don't think you can front load the advertising and hope for incredible first day sales.
GS: What I have been so happy with Riverhead is that they understand I'm not a million seller and no matter what we do that's not going to happen. But they have been really, really good at the guerilla tactics to say, "Okay, granted, you are not going to be in every house in America, but let's make sure you are in the houses that want you and maybe don't know about you yet." They have been really creative and energetic about that. As a mid-career person it makes me think, "God, I am cared for."
RB: That's all smart stuff. That's all one can expect, that the books be put in front of the potential readers—no crusades to convert people to the George Saunders creed—
GS: No, I am all for that [both laugh]. There is a special drug that is on the cover of the book if you touch it—
RB: It sounds to me like there is this fierce and animated internal dialogue going on in a way that other people don't talk about [or admit].
GS: Oh yeah, very neurotic. I feel really lucky to have had this much play. And I want to make sure I don't screw it up.
RB: What does your wife say?
GS: About what?
RB: Do your interior conversations get out into the air?
GS: Sure. She knows me and she knows when I am full of shit.
RB: That's key.
GS: Yeah, and she had high hopes for my writing and she–she's my first reader and I really trust her reaction. So if she says, "This is good," or, "You're doing good," then I know I am on the right track. Other times she'll say, "I am not quite feeling this." And I always feel she had put her finger on a certain bit of falseness. I am always writing to her, in certain ways. Like I would like to write the big book and she would go, "Now that was really something." That would be the dream. She is a very good reader, and I really admire her way of looking at the world. And I aspire to it.
RB: What is her way of looking at the world?
GS: A lot of things —she is an ex-fundamentalist. She was raised in South Dakota and they were on the Baptist side of things. Uh, I think she has a really expansive view of the world but also has very high standards. She was a ballet dancer. She knows when something is technically sloppy and she also knows when it is not properly animated emotionally and she is not invested in a lot of intellectual gamesmanship. So if you show her something that is merely clever, it doesn't do it for her. She knows when I am really putting my soul into something. And she can't hide her reaction. So when I bring her something, it's always a big day. And if she doesn't like it, it's a bad day. But I know what I have to do—which is go fix it.
RB: Do your kids read?
GS: Very much, a lot, they read better stuff than me. They read Nabokov and my younger daughter is a big fan of Art Spiegelman—she's big fan of Maus. My older daughter has read the collected works of Nabokov—so if they are reading me they are slumming a little bit.
RB: There is the self-effacing former sort of Catholic I know—I am not exactly sure about your Catholicism, "failed?"
GS: Not failed, it worked [laughs]. I am probably still a Catholic.
RB: So you are taking a break from—
GS: Teaching. Syracuse, if you get a Guggenheim they pay your salary for the year.
RB: No! Sweet. Well, you won't be applying next year—so maybe I'll move up in the ranks.
GS: You'll be up to 180—basically, I don't have to go back until a year from August. Fifteen months of time to experiment and write some things.
RB: More GQ stuff?
GS: I am going to be doing them pretty regularly, but I don't know what they are yet. They usually call me and say, "Here's an idea," and they are always ten times as good as what I came up with—and sold a nonfiction book to Riverhead also.
RB: I was wondering when you'd get around to collecting the nonfiction—I'm not about to run out and get GQ. What might be a topic for a novel?
GS: That's where I get messed up—if I think of a topic I'm dead. I think I'll start writing a bunch of paragraphs and just try to see. There is something in the DNA of a paragraph—for me anyway, that the length of the piece is predestined in the tone of the paragraph.
RB: What's the biology axiom?
GS: I know what you are thinking of—progeny schmogeny something—Progeny smogeny, that's it [both laugh].
RB: That's what I was hoping we would (d)evolve to—just start talking nonsense syllables.
GS: We could do that.
RB: People would go, "That's brilliant!"
GS: "How phonetic!"
RB: "How meta!"
GS: I had a couple of ideas—I always think of Dead Souls. A comic novel could operate on one scam—I think I am just going to fart around and see if I can find a tone. For me the key to having that switch thrown in my mind would be to find the right tone to write it in.
RB: Where are the movie projects at?
GS: They are both written and we are just waiting. We got two offers on money, and they keep saying we can do a little better. We are waiting for scheduling things to drop into place.
GS: Good enough. All right, thanks.
© 2006 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing