There’s no two ways about it: George Saunders is one of the greatest living writers of fiction in America now. Since his scorching debut collection in 1996, he’s stuck with admirable firmness to his short-fiction guns, publishing only stories and novellas, almost all of which take place in either the contemporary US or a harrowingly shit-awful, worryingly near-futuristic version of it. Saunders’ stories tend to be faultless masterclasses in sentence-perfect brevity, hilariously dismal corporate language and that weird unquantifiable thing that squishes up your heart and makes you do embarrassing involuntary audible laugh-sobs in public. He is a MacArthur-Fellowship-certified proper genius and we were pleased as punch to get to talk to him about his forthcoming collection Tenth of December, which might be his best one yet.
Congratulations on such a head-spinningly good new collection! Your publishers are calling this one your ‘most accessible collection yet’. Do you think that's right?
George Saunders: I think it is more accessible. By which I mean, maybe, that a person who isn’t necessarily a big reader of contemporary short fiction could dive right in and find something in it. Lately I’ve been writing these non-fiction travel pieces and have noticed that a lot of very bright, engaged people I know, who don’t really get my fiction, seemed drawn in by these. So I had that goal in mind – to, where possible, reach out – put up a bigger tent, so to speak.
There’s a pleasing structure to this new one. Do you set out to write a cohesive collection, or do you just do one story at a time until you've got enough to lump together into a book? When does it become a book?
George Saunders: I don’t have a big, overarching idea for a collection when I start out, no. I try to keep my focus on the small stuff – on the sentences, on keeping the energy high – trusting that the greater whole – story, then book - will take care of itself: it will be coming directly from the subconscious and therefore will have some sort of cohesion. It’s what I think of as a ‘seed crystal’ approach, like in biology class: start with something small and let it accrete organically outward. Using this approach, you can sometimes outwit that simplistic/thematic guy inside yourself.
We’ve always been brimful of admiration at your sticking exclusively to short fiction. But will there ever be a novel?
George Saunders: I think there might be. But not if it would cause you to stop admiring me. Ha. No – I try not to have too many ideas about what I might do/might not do/should do. My hope is just to follow my own natural energy and interest and see what happens. So far, the natural DNA of my writing has been inclined toward brevity. It may be a version of that sports idea, that there are fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles – maybe there’s something similar re: prose style? I imagine my stories as little wind-up toys: wind them up, put them down, they go directly under the couch. I would like to write a novel, just because – at least here in the States – there’s a certain level of cultural and critical attention that seems reserved for that form.
You've said before that it's the improvisatory quality that attracts you to the story form: the way you can start out and not know how you're going to end up. Don’t you know what you’re doing from the outset a bit more these days?
George Saunders: It’s changed a little. In some cases now I have a sort of pre-sense of what I need to make a story – usually just these broad action/escalation markers. If I can figure those out in advance, I can engage that improvisatory energy in figuring out how I get from one marker to the next. In Tenth of December, ‘Victory Lap’ and the title story were written like that – the rest were pretty much improvisations. I love that Gerald Stern quote: ‘If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking – then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.’ Or, as Einstein said it, in his slightly more snooty manner: ‘No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.’ So the trick is to keep the conscious, conceptual mind at bay and thus stay open to mystery, revelation etc.
So the character who turns out to be narrating his story from beyond the grave, for instance: did you know he was going to end up dead when you started out?
George Saunders: No, I didn’t know that. I actually wrote about 100 pages of that story where he lived and actually did escape, before reeling it back in and finding out he was dead/had to die.
You've done quite a bit of dead people speaking or acting, post-mortem: ghosts, disintegrating zombie aunties, narrators who’ve already killed themselves in the most horrifying way possible. Why do you think you keep coming back to this talky-dead business?
George Saunders: There are probably all sorts of thematic implications and so on – but for me the main reason for writing about ghosts is the little rush of pleasure I get from doing it. And I hope that pleasure shows up in the quality of the prose, and also takes the story in an unexpected direction – a story will often take an intriguing turn while you are occupying yourself with making the language energetic.
And why all the futuristic stuff?
George Saunders: My futuristic tendencies are more a means to an end – I want to write about human tendencies at the end conditions. Like in a science experiment: if you want to know something about a concrete beam, put it under extreme stress. One can do that pretty handily in an alternate world.
The other thing we see a lot in this alternate world is this constant anxiety about poverty. You're writing about the richest country on earth, but almost all of your characters are dirt-poor and fretting like mad about it. Not exactly The Great Gatsby, is it?
George Saunders: Well, I think that’s the real American story: the severe divide between the rich and the poor, and the cost the poor pay in grace and ease, and how untroubled the rich are about that. Just about every American life below a certain level is dominated by work and the depredations caused by far to talk about sex or religion or even a small disgusting goitre we have in some private place.
Legal and thoroughly depressing mind-altering drugs come into play a lot in Tenth of December. Is America’s dependence on pharmaceutical drugs an issue you're particularly worried about, or are drugs just a good device for a story for you?
George Saunders: The latter. I loved the opportunities those drugs gave me to write in different registers. I’d made a living out of writing in a sort of stripped-down, vernacular minimalism, and sometimes feel like busting out – ergo, drugs. In the story, that is.
You’ve said before that you came late to literature and that your scientific background (studying and working in the field of geophysical engineering) meant that your writing was “Like if you put a welder to designing dresses.” Do you still feel like the welder, or do you admit by now that you’re basically Karl Lagerfeld?
George Saunders: No, some things die hard. I was poorly trained as a reader and I think will always suffer for that. So what I’m trying to do is make that malformation to work for me, ie make really cool metal-dresses.
It’s kind of reassuring that the final sentiment of the new book – in the acknowledgements in the back where you thank your daughters – is, ‘Goodness is not only possible, it is our natural state.’ It’s way-grim in the world of your fiction, and outside of it much of the time; are you really optimistic about the world your kids are going to inherit?
George Saunders: I don’t think I’m optimistic or pessimistic – these are both versions of the same disease, the disease of wanting to say, ‘Oh, I see how life is (all good/all bad) – now I can stop thinking and worrying about it and interrogating it.’ I will say, however, that one of the revelations I’ve had over the last few years is that goodness is possible and attainable – that we do have the power to move ourselves in the direction of openness and awareness and so on. And that there are remarkable people in the world who are inclined – through disposition and/or training – to positive vision and action.
Cool. What about Ben Stiller? Didn’t he buy the rights to one of your stories, and wasn’t he going to direct and star in it, and you’ve written the screenplay, and oh-God-please let’s have that film soon, please? What’s going on with that?
George Saunders: I think that’s not happening. I wrote one for Ben Stiller that came very close but the signals I’m getting is that that ship has sailed. Or sunk. So we will just have to watch the movies that our minds make. Eesh. That sounds like a bad self-help book: Improving the Movies Our Minds Make: Reinventing Your Inner Tape Loop.
Tenth of December is published by Bloomsbury on January 3