The Beatrice Interview

George Saunders

"If I'd kept living my life the same way, I'd have died earlier, I'd have died angrier."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Get Vertical!

" I've never been comfortable writing about real stuff," George Saunders confesses as we sit down to talk in the spacious lobby of Seattle's Sorrentino Hotel. "The verbal energy isn't there for me. If I tried to describe where we are right now, the verbal energy is low. But if I could make an exaggerated version, I could do it." Readers are fortunate that Saunders has been able to give his exaggerations free rein; his two short story collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, contain some of the most remarkable stories of the last ten years, many of them set in a slightly futuristic world where people toil in the miserable jobs available to them in a theme park culture. I read the novella "Pastoralia," in which a professional caveman imitator is pressured by his manager to turn in his coworker for poor work performance, in the New Yorker, shortly after I and twenty percent of my department had been laid off from an ecommerce company undergoing financial upheaveals; I found myself laughing out loud at Saunder's version of cheerful bureaucratic warnings about upcoming firings. Just before we met, I found out, from an interview in Salon, that he'd written all the stories in his first book at the office...

RH: What was your impetus for rechanneling your time that way?

GS: I tried to be the good doobie for a while. I worked all day at the office, came home, put the kids to bed, my wife would go to bed, and then I'd make a couple pots of coffee and stay up until 4 A.M. and get up at 7. I spent a year working on a book that way, and I was pretty convinced that it was good. And at the end of that period, I took a couple days off, slept normally, and then went back and read what I'd written. It was horrible, incoherent. And people were doing all kinds of other shit at work that didn't seem kosher, so...really, it was just desperation. If I didn't do it there, it just wasn't going to happen. And it was easy. They think they know what you're doing, but they don't.

RH: So was the decision to switch to short stories motivated by the time constraints?

GS: The shift for me wasn't so much about genre--because I'd worked on short stories before--but about tonality. Before that, I'd been into realism. That job somehow made me slip back into the absurd mode. I'd fought it for a long time, tried to be earnest and realist. I was in a conference call...I was so bored, I was a lackey, I didn't even need to be there. My presence was not required, but they were honoring me as part of the team. So I just started neurotically scribbling out these Dr. Seuss-like poems, and when I got to the end, there was more energy in that than anything I'd written in the last three years. That was my breakthrough.

RH: I love the way your stories capture the psychological reality of the workplace.

GS: I didn't know what these stories were at first. I certainly didn't think of them as corporate fables; I had no idea. Now, with a little distance, I can see that my whole psychological state was there. I was lucky, because I was so fucked up at that job that I was writing from the gut the whole time. If somebody had told me to write a book about my experiences in the corporate world, it wouldn't have been that book. I was 32 and hadn't written anything that I'd liked yet, didn't seem to be headed in that direction. Now I treasure that time, because it was so not a thought-out thing. It was a blur. For twenty minutes a day I'd just do that and then go back to the rest of it.

RH: And then the book came out and they discovered what you were doing...

GS: Yeah. And I don't know how much of that was by design, or maybe I was just moving up the ladder, but I couldn't steal the time suddenly. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't get it. Because I had done that book...I needed a little more time to stretch a bit, and I couldn't get it. It was so frustrating. But I still wrote...Well, I wrote "The Falls" at that job, and I started another story there, and then I got the teaching job (at Syracuse University).

The teaching job is great. I thought it'd just be eight hours a day writing. It's not that. But it's two hours a day, a good period. Plus--at an office job, you gain weight, because you're just sitting at a desk for eight hours a day. There's no time for your family except when you're done, and then you're stressed out. And forget your spiritual life; you're just too stressed out. There's a great Terry Eagleton quote about how capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body; I was living that for eight years. Now, I have time to work out, I spend a lot of time with my kids, I have a spiritual life. That difference between seven years ago and now is not trivial. If I'd kept living my life the same way, I'd have died earlier, I'd have died angrier.

RH: Based in part on the types of magazines in which your stories have appeared, you've acquired a reputation as a literary writer. But I look at these stories, and I can easily see you having become a science-fiction writer.

GS: I get a lot of questions about that genre element in my stories. But I never read a lot of science fiction when I was a kid, and what I read I didn't really like. I think somehow the sensibility of TV...I watched a lot of TV, unrestricted...and when I made that transition that we just talked about, I think the narrative archetypes came from TV. Even if you don't read sci-fi, you see it on TV. Those became fallback narrative structures that I'd just use without even knowing I was doing it. There was something satisfying about how they resonated. Take "Sea Oak." If I'd done that as a straight story, a critique of work and mass culture, it'd be dull. I know it would. But when you superimpose that "Tales From the Crypt" plot, then it's like, "What the...?"

If you have a work of fiction that says something cautionary about technology, that I think of as sci-fi. In my stuff, I just substitute slightly comic props for what's already there. These days I'm not sure what isn't science fiction, in terms of writing about technology. If you go out and walk all depends on how you describe it. Like when I arrived at the airport in Seattle this morning. If you say, "George arrived at the airport and went to the parking lot," it's not sci-fi. But if you really look at what's going on-- the strange railroad cars underground, the electronic parking structures--it's almost as if the world is so high-tech that science fiction is obsolete.

I could set out to write a story like Chekhov, a good realist short story, but it always veers off into this direction. At this point, I pretty much agree to leave it alone; if that's how I do it, great.

RH: Who are some of the writers that inspired you?

GS: I went to engineering school, so I wasn't very well read...I'm not very well read still. But I'd read Thomas Wolfe, Kerouac, Hemingway. Another big influence was sketch comedy: Monty Python, Second City, that sort of stuff. The Marx Brothers. Before CivilWarLand..., I was pretty much reading Isaac Babel and Hemingway, and Stuart Dybek, whose stuff I love. But I look at the people I'd consider influences, and then I look at my stories, and I don't see them in my work, really. Well, from Babel and Hemingway, I did learn to cut, cut, cut, and to revise. But as far as the tonality, I don't really see it. Since the first book came out, I've learned to mention Gogol, Kafka, Beckett, you know, but at the time I hadn't really read them.

RH: Do you revise extensively?

GS: Obsessively. That's why it takes so long. In manuscript, Pastoralia is about 90 pages, and it took about five, six years. I'd get stuck in the middle of every story. My subconscious would be flying for about seven pages and then I'd lock up. I wouldn't know what to do. So I'd write--I hope I never do this again, but I wrote alternate endings. "Sea Oak" had about two hundred pages of polished but abortive endings. And that happened for a few other stories as well. The first couple pages I could do on verbality alone, but then when I needed to move into the rising action, I got clenched up.

RH: Was it a conscious decision on your part to do another collection that included several short stories and a novella?

GS: No. In fact, when I realized it'd happened, I didn't like it. And I made sure it was just called "stories" this time, not "stories and a novella." Each of the novellas, "Bounty" and "Pastoralia," were attempts to write novels.

RH: Are you going to keep trying?

GS: I guess I'll let the work tell me. If something drops in my lap and it can't help but become a novel, I'll grab it. I'd always thought that the way you wrote a novel was that you lower your standards. Now I think...well, there's the main corridor, and if you need the supporting hallways, you can get them. I have a kid's book coming out in August, and then I was trying to write another one, and that's led to an eighty- or ninety-page thing that seems pretty solid to me.

I'm 41, so if I get even two more decent collections of stories I'd be thrilled. I'm not too greedy about it. I feel like I've had more than my share already.

RH: And there's no pressure on you from the publishers to do a novel?

GS: No, I'm really lucky. I was so slow with the first book that everybody knows just to leave me alone.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Matthew Klam | Complete Interview Index | Deborah Eisenberg

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan