Off the Cuff: George Saunders
George Saunders, professor of creative writing in the M.F.A. program at Syracuse University, is the author of the multiple works, including short story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2000) and In Persuasion Nation (2006). Before his reading on campus last Wednesday, the Review caught up with him to discuss recent fellowships, writing techniques and nuns.
2006 was a big year for you: You were awarded both a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. What are you up to these days?
Hoping I don’t get a letter in the mail saying it was all a clerical error. [Laughs] No, I’ve been writing a lot...part of the benefit of a Guggenheim fellowship is that I got to take the year off from teaching, so I’ve had a lot more time for writing. I’m on a less rigid schedule and I’ll go back to teaching in the fall.
Have you been doing any traveling? Writing journeys? Soul-searching?
I did these three trips for GQ; I went to Dubai [and] Nepal — there was this little boy there who’s meditating without food or water for six months — and I also drove the whole length of the Mexican border.
How’s the border?
It was a great experience, so complicated, so complex. From watching the media’s reporting on the situation you’d think it was completely different. I actually left feeling kind of hopeful.
Well, yeah, one night I’d be with these Mennonite, far left-wing types, and then go out with these super-radical, armed Christians, but when you got past that, those politicized differences, they were laughing and joking, and it made you hopeful. Like, maybe if you’d stopped politicizing the issues, it wouldn’t be like this; it just reminds me that there’s a kind of Steinbeck or Vonnegut American sentiment out there.
Speaking of [writer Kurt] Vonnegut, how are you feeling about his recent death?
I’m just sad that he died, but you know, I never actually had the opportunity to meet him. He was a remarkable person and represented one of those rare situations where someone speaks the truth in a way that just kind of lights you up and that’s really one of the great things about reading.
What was your favorite book when you were a kid?
I think the first book that really nailed me was Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. It’s a story about this kid in Revolutionary War-era Boston…I was really young at the time and a nun handed me the book — I was kind of in love with her, it was complicated — but I was fascinated by the idea of a sentence being a thing in and of itself. I didn’t really think about it as an influence for many years, but that was the first time that a book wasn’t a lame representation of life, it was life, sort of a thing in and of itself. Also Dr. Seuss: I loved how self-contained his worlds were.
How would you classify yourself as a writer? Do you think it’s important to classify oneself?
I think it’s probably not that useful to think in those terms, because you’re just laying a trap for yourself. As far as the distinction between comedy and drama, I try not to be as funny as possible; that’s kind of thin ice. But, in the course of doing that, humor appears. It seems to me that humor is just telling the truth a little bit faster than people expect.
How do you think one teaches a student to write? Can it be done?
I really try to emphasize the “first time reader” mind: Let’s go through your stories to see where the dead spots are in this story, as readers, and the next part is to ask “why?” In a way it’s psychological. Writing, like any kind of entertainment, is an attempt to be charming. I think you really have to improvise a different approach for each student; some just need to have their ass kicked for three years, like I did.
As a writer who also teaches, how often do you find yourself breaking your own rules?
My thing is that there aren’t rules, but there are experiences, really. It’s kind of like, as a plumber, if every house had totally different types of plumbing with different materials. The writer has to go into each story — each house — and fix it, discover the internal rules of each story. You’re not really prepared to do anything. The writer is he who, upon beginning his task, has no idea what to do. In the long term you’re just becoming comfortable with uncertainty…so I think, as a professor, you’re always in a battle with yourself to not ingest your own dogma.