Matthew O’Donoghue speaks to Folio Prize 2014 winner, George Saunders…
George Saunders had a pretty good 2013 by anyone’s standards.
His book Tenth of December was a phenomenon in the states with George gracing cover stories in magazines, a space in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world list. While the attention was on a much bigger level than previously, and while it exposed him to a new series of fans this was the last step in a journey George has been taking for the last thirty years. Matthew O’Donoghue talked to him about his process, how he came to writing and what his moral relationship is with his work. And now Tenth of December has won the inaugural Folio Prize.
Matthew O’Donoghue: When did you start writing?
George Saunders: Probably in college, a little bit. I hadn’t read a lot so it was mainly a little bit of journaling, you know? But that was really just the start, it was just writing and no book. Then I went to Asia and I had my evenings open, so I tried to play with it a little more. It was steady going but I began to write with more sophistication as I began to read more.
MOD: What took you to Asia?
GS: Well my degree was in geophysical engineering, and I was a seismic engineer specialising in oil prospecting – and a technique where you blow off a charge of dynamite and then you record the vibrations on the surface. We were in the real outback in Sumatra. It was the eighties, and it was the oil boom. I wasn’t that great of a student but I could get a foreign job. It was funny though, looking back I didn’t even know you could be a writer, I didn’t know anyone that did it. I wasn’t going to go to college, and then I had a science teacher in high school who said “You really should, you owe it to yourself,” and actually got me in. He was a geologist and the school specialised in mineral exploration, and I had the sense that I had to get this one thing right or my life was going to be a mess, you know? So I just said, “OK, I’m an engineer. I’m going to get the degree.” – kind of power through. Then I got the job in Asia, and about half way through that I started to think “Well, I’m not very good at this. I don’t love it,” and then writing started to take over.
MOD: So how did you go from writing a journal to finessing and getting the work out there?
GS: Well, it was a long trek. I came back from Asia, worked a bunch of odd jobs… Actually what happened was a friend saw that I was struggling, and said “Why don’t you come live in our house for a couple of months and just try to write some stories? Since you’re always saying you want to do that, why don’t you try it?” It was very generous; it was the same guy who got me into school actually. So they put me up in their house and they didn’t charge me any rent. I wasn’t very good, but I hadn’t tried this for any amount of time. So six hours a day I went up there and I tried. At the end of that I realised that I was stuck – if I didn’t read more contemporary fiction I wouldn’t be able to write it. Until then I’d resisted it for some reason, I don’t really know why. And then, and I’m compressing a lot, I became aware that there was such a thing as a creative writing programme in college. I was working in Texas at an apartment complex as a groundsman, kind of a janitor, and saw in People magazine that Syracuse had a creative writing programme. They’d train you to write, and that was when I really got a little more serious. But even then it was seven, eight, nine years before a book. I’m actually three hundred years old.
MOD: Did you start with short stories just to get them out to magazines, or was it always intended the first book would be a collection?
GS: No, at first it was just that we had our kids and I was working full time. I would write a couple of stories a year, trying to do something that was a little bit original, that I could live with. I remember thinking “This is soul destroying! God, I’m not a child prodigy anymore, I’m thirty-two, thirty-three. So, OK. Just try to make each story something special. No laziness! Then someday, if you write two stories a year, in six years you’ll have twelve stories and if they’re all new you’ll get them published.” That was a really wonderful feeling: to almost abandon conventional ambition. There was no end in sight but I was happy enough, we had our kids and we had a nice life. So paradoxically that ended up being really productive because suddenly I wasn’t worried about being too old, because I already was. And I wasn’t thinking so much about what would sell, because nothing was. So then you’re like “Alright, well I’m kind of writing in a vacuum so what do I like? what can I do that’s somewhat new?” Out of that energy I started being published, and one of those stories got in The New Yorker, which in the States is like being taken up to heaven. I got an agent at that point but still I wasn’t finished with the book (Civilwarland in Bad Decline) That story, Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz, was in The New Yorker in ’92. The book wasn’t done for another three years, so I was working still. Slow. Slow progress.
MOD: Your writing has a really distinctive voice – when you were thinking about what you liked, how did you come to manage the tone of your work? The first story in Tenth of December, for example, has a huge tonal shift, going from an exploration of a young woman’s thoughts as she wastes her day to something much more threatening.
GS: For me, the mantra is to minimise the intentionality at the outset. I didn’t really intend to have that happen to her, I was just trying to do that voice for fun. I’d read a Chekhov story called After the Opera and it’s a beautiful little six or seven page piece where this girl just comes home from her first opera. And she thinks. Because it’s Chekhov, nothing happens but it is still really full. So I thought I’m going to write a story with no violence in it for a change, trying to rip him off. But when it came to the end of my six pages, nothing happened. So then you think “Is this a story? Does this feel like a sufficient story? Not really. Why not? Well, ‘cause nothing of consequence has happened yet. OK, what could happen?” And then you’re in a process of re-writing to make what you have be efficient and nicely shaped, dramatically. At one point the character said “Do good, all you have to do is to do good.” And that’s like “Ah! Really? Is that what you think?” Then you say to yourself “OK, let’s test that premise.”
I don’t remember exactly how the abduction premise occurred but that’s when this story sprouts a new element that you didn’t plan. There’s a time where you say “That doesn’t seem congruent. I don’t know, does that go?” but then you think “In real life things can happen like that. So let’s see if we can make it work.” That’s the technical part, suddenly you have to make that segue. Put it this way – if you describe to me what your next three days are going to be like, you can imagine something and you could write some things down but your days, even if they’re totally boring, are going to be so much more than you imagined. There’s so much texture. So in writing stories, if you decide at the beginning the stories going to be about one thing, and the story is going to proceed this way, and then the story only does that, you’re going to be disappointed. There’s this sort of Zen poet Gerald Stern who says if you start off to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking, you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking. Einstein, of course, Mr Smarty Pants, had a saying “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.” What that means is you can have an idea at the beginning but if all you do is execute that idea the reader is going to be disappointed. Because there’s an inherent condescension in that.
MOD: So you have to test your premise almost…
GS: Exactly. Also, you might have to proceed with the assumption you’re writing what you want, but when the story gets boring, and it will, you have to say “Hey man, let me be a little smarter than I was when I thought of that idea. Let me complicate it.” It’s a bit about call and response. You put something down and, assuming that the reader is every bit as smart and maybe a little smarter than you are, if you have a first motion planned in your story you can rest assured the reader already knows the one you have planned. So you don’t do that, you have to somehow account for their expectations and subvert them.
This sounds pretty abstract but it’s mostly just line to line. Most of the process to me is just reading, almost like you have a meter in your head: this is positive and this is negative. Try to clean your mind of what you thought about the story yesterday and just watch what the needle is doing. And if it stays in positive, that’s great, but usually it will waver and at that point you do a real generous turn to yourself and say “What’s the problem?” Usually you’ll know, if you’re not flinching. You’ll know it’s boring right here, or sometimes it’s as simple as saying “That’s not physically possible, what you just described,” or “That sentence is complicated, there’s something not very graceful about that sentence right there”.
MOD: This sounds like it’s about setting aside ego.
GS: That’s the whole point, or at least destabilising it for a few minutes. Exactly. Because you have that whole attachment to what you did yesterday, and if that wins the day then the story is just in rigamortis. You come back to it and you say “I thought that yesterday but that was just a thought, what does it look like today?” If you do that hundreds of thousands of times you sometimes, gradually, come to a higher ground.
MOD: The approachability and the precision of your work is what astonished me when I first read it. There are a lot of morals in your writing, in a similar way to the Coen Brothers‘ films. People get punished and it may be just or may be unjust but it is up to the reader to sort that out. How do you get to this point? You seem to be fond of your characters so punishing them can’t be painless for you?
GS: Part of the deal for me was when my daughters were born and I could say to myself “Shit matters. Actually, things do matter.” Before that I couldn’t really see any reason to live one way rather than another way, although habitually I was a pretty nice person. Intellectually I though that nothing matters, it was all pretty much random. Then when my kids were born, the feeling I had for them… That everyone who has been born should have had that kind of affection going for them, suddenly the world was a little more morally infused than it had been before. It doesn’t mean you should preach in a story, I mean god forbid you should preach in a story, but to say “things matter.” It’s not universal, different things matter to different people, but at any given moment…
If you have two people sitting at a table, they both want something, they both have desires, then that makes for a kind of moral infusion and it isn’t the case that the good people get rewarded. If you do that as an offer it’s a little unfair. I guess it might have something to do with the assumption that it’s true of your characters, and it’s true of your reader, that they’re not that different from you; basically you’re the same neurological package. Hopes, dreams, fears, neurological package. And if you assume that of your reader, the bar gets raised a little bit. A bad work of fiction will often be Mr Smart Writer pissing down on the character and slightly pissing down on the reader by association, whereas in a good story everybody gets to come up and be on the same level, and it’s kind of comradely.
Matthew O’Donoghue, for Waterstones.com/blog
You can Reserve & Collect Tenth of December from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/Oe2sB7), buy it online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/Oe2okS) or download it in ePub format (http://bit.ly/Oe2k4I)