An interview for the Book-of-the-Month Club Web site, 2001.
 

The Very Persistent George Saunders

By Andrew Lewis Conn

Named one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty by The New Yorker, George Saunders' short story collections, CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, and Pastoralia: Stories, have garnered a trunkload full of good notices. A three-time O. Henry Award winner and two-time National Magazine Award winner, Saunders' mordantly comic, morally rigorous voice has been heralded "astoundingly tuned--graceful, dark, authentic, funny," by no less an authority than Thomas Pynchon.

In his new book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, --an adult story for children, a children's story for adults, Saunders continues his humorous investigation into our moral foibles, this time with stunning pictorial support from Lane Smith, the Caldecott-honored illustrator of The Stinky Cheese Man and James and the Giant Peach. The result is a wise and funny, brew: visual and aural cause for celebration for both children and adults.

I had the occasion to speak with Saunders from his home in Syracuse, New York.

Andrew Lewis Conn: You've been compared to everyone from Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon to Samuel Beckett and Anthony Burgess to Mark Twain and Tom Waits. That's a lot of different names. So, my first question is, have you ever come across a comparison that you thought was just way off the mark, and second, who are some of your influences?

George Saunders: Mother Theresa, I thought that was wrong. [Laughing.] There are a lot of comparisons. Sometimes I think it's just a response to the comic nature of the stuff. It's kind of a mixed bag. There?s a serious heart, but at the same time it's pretty goofy and sometimes even scatological. So, I think sometimes people, in their first attempt to understand it, they just sort of reel off the names of anyone funny. . . Influences? I guess I really love the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, but the truth is, when I first started writing I hadn't read too much of anything, really. I mean, I'd read [Gogol], and a little Kafka, and I was a big Hemingway fan, believe it or not. He was a big influence, and Kerouac. But I think also, lately, I'm starting to be more honest about the fact that there are a lot of TV influences and pop culture stuff in there too. You know, in a funny way I'm starting to rethink the whole influences thing. It feels to me like you're born with certain neurological tendencies or affinities, and then you just kind of walk through the world picking out the things that feed that. So, take Beckett, for example: I read Godot and End Game, and that's about it, but the idea of Beckett is really. . .

ALC: Like you don't have to read all of Beckett to get a sense of Beckett's aesthetic?

GS: Yeah, because it seems to me as a writer what you're looking for is affirmation of some pre-existing internal tendencies. So, there was a time when I read, I can't remember how to pronounce his name right, but the French writer Celine, however you pronounce it, but I just read a couple of paragraphs of one of his books, and it felt like a dam had broken. And I went back and read it later, and didn't really like it that much, and I don't like him that much because he's an anti-Semite and so on. . . But there's something about those two paragraphs that hit something in me that needed affirmation, that said, "It's okay, you can go in that direction." So, it's as pretty mixed bag. I love Monty Python, though. And I was a big Steve Martin fan. I grew up in the 70's, and that stuff was in the air, and I thought they were pretty cool. I never would have considered them literary influences, except, a lot of that schtick that they did, those comic monologues, were incredibly literate and smart and biting. So, I think that's an influence. But, I'm not really sure.

ALC: I saw that one of your books was blurbed by Thomas Pynchon.

GS: Yeah.

ALC: So, how do you get blurbed by Thomas Pynchon?

GS: You just type it up! Actually, as I understand it, his wife is an agent, so my editor was able to get it to him through her, and apparently, he'll very, very rarely blurb a book, but only a first one. So that was a real coup. Very generous of him.

ALC: Did you get to send him a thank you note?

GS: I sent him a thank you note but, again, it went through her. I was anxious not to appear to be wanting to start a correspondence. Just a personal ethos of mine; never start stalking someone who's done you an immense favor. My editor, Dan Menaker, for that book, who's also editor of this Gappers book, I think that CivilWarLand was the first book that he had done. And we sent out a bunch of things for blurbs and nobody was getting back to us, and then he said that on the same day, he came into the office, and there was one from Pynchon sitting on the fax and one from Garrison Keillor.

ALC: That's called a good day.

GS: Right.

ALC: You studied to be a geophysicist. I went to school up at Cornell, and I saw Kurt Vonnegut give a lecture once, where he explained how some of the best writers of his generation--himself, and Norman Mailer, and Thomas Pynchon--they all came out of engineering. And I thought that was very interesting. He said that the best way to become a writer is not to be an English Lit major. How did you switch gears, and what did you bring to your writing from geophysics?

GS: Well, I got into geophysics because I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and there was kind of the feeling about college that it was sort of a vocational thing. Like, you went to college--if you did--to get a better job. So, I had been reading Atlas Shrugged, and I was heavily under the sway of that: all of us Valiant Technical People and all of those other Little Clinging Liberal Arts Leeches. And of course, I was not at all technical, I was very bad at any kind of math or science. But I loved the idea of--and it's kind of a fascist idea, really--of being technically competent, and kind of better than everyone, and therefore you didn't have to worry about the moral rules. But also, there were two really wonderful teachers I had in high school, who saw something in me--I was really kind of a screw up--and they helped me apply to the Colorado School of Mines, which was and is known as the World's Foremost College of Mineral Engineering, and kind of held my hand through it. They literally called out to the admissions office and made this sort of special plea on my behalf. So I went out there to Colorado, and I didn't do very well, but it was one of those things where I had a feeling that if I bombed out of there, my life was going into the shitter. It was like the first thing I ever tried that took any kind of concentrated effort. So, five years later, I graduated from Mines, and went overseas to work in the oil fields. I mean, I'd been writing, or I had the idea of being a writer, since high school. But again, I wasn't reading much contemporary stuff, I was reading a little bit of de Maupassant, and Ayn Rand, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, just this kind of mixed bag. But then when I got overseas, I had a lot of time to read, and I started reading the classics and stuff, and kind of got up to speed. So anyway, to make a long story short, when I did get finally get back into writing?I got into the Syracuse creative writing program in like '85 or '86. I'd had that engineering background. And then again, later, after I got out of Syracuse, I went back to engineering and did that for about seven years while I wrote the first book. [Engineering gave me] two things: one thing, in terms of the language, I have a real dislike for any kind of "literary" language: language that's consciously literary or purple of overly rich or full of kind of cornball metaphors. I really like lean prose, stuff that just does what it's supposed to do and gets out of there. At least that's the baseline position. So if I get even a little bit metaphorical I feel like I'm out on a limb. And the other thing, because of the engineering choice, I was in a lot of places that were probably not typical. Like, I worked in a slaughterhouse--that had nothing to do with engineering, it was a post-college, lack-of-other-options job. But then I was over in Asia, in the oil fields for a couple of years, and when I came back I was working as a copywriter for a pharmaceutical company. And I worked for an environmental company, so I worked in a lot of industrial settings like wastewater plants and military installations. So at first I had this really lyrical, sort of sentimental streak from reading Kahlil Gibran and Thomas Wolfe and Kerouac, this sort of "O America, you verdant wrecker-of-souls" thing but then as I lived my life in these weird settings it was kind of hard to hold the two things in your head at one time, and be the kind of writer that writes about daffodils, or whatever. So, that kind of thing, plus the political dimension of a lot of the stuff I was doing in Asia, it all started coming out mixed together. I just remember working for a real long time--not successfully--to try to come up with a prose style that could somehow accommodate all of these different things I've seen. And, that's kind of what I'm still trying to do. And that's a really longwinded answer to your question--so much for brevity and precision.

ALC: It's a good answer. Let?s move on then to talking about the new book. How do you classify The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip?

GS: Well, to me it was a kid's book from the beginning. Kind of a sophisticated book, that might make kids stretch a bit in the reading of it. It's certainly not an Easy Reader Book. But I like the idea of giving kids credit for intelligence and an ability to grasp sarcasm and complexity. I was thinking of my kids when I wrote it. I tell them stories at night and they're never put off by linguistic complexity or moral ambiguity at all. What they don't like is any kind of preachiness, so I was trying to make it funny and trying to...I guess, again, thinking of my own kids, I was trying to instill an awareness of a certain comic and satirical tradition...like, we'll watch Marx Brothers movies as a family, or we watched The Great Dictator the other night, and I can see the argument taking place in my kids' heads where suddenly they're seeing kind of a simplified version of life, a satirical version of life, but they're bringing their own ideas of fairness or justice or whatever to it, and there's something about being able to laugh at those depictions of injustice or fart-headedness that in turn I think allows you to master them. So, for me, it was sort of in that tradition. It was clearly not written in the same vein as the other two books, which are for adults, but with I think the same moral concerns. Then, also the idea of saying, well here's how literary language works: we write really long, convoluted, funny sentences that sort of trip over their own feet, or we have, you know, these comically exaggerated neighbors, that you know are not real and I know are not real, and yet they sort of remind you people you've met, don't they? And they maybe even remind you of certain tendencies in yourself. So sort of an intro to dark comedy. When I was writing it, before I even knew the story would be illustrated or anything, I was just thinking about my kids, and the kind of humor we enjoy as a family. So, yeah, mainly it was a kid's book. I love Roald Dahl and Kipling's Just So Stories, or Rootabaga Stories, by Carl Sandburg--that kind of stuff, where clearly nobody's saying, "Let's keep it simple for the kids," but rather, "Let's see what we can throw at the kids and how much they can handle." And I've been surprised by this book. I've been called in by third grade classes, and they seem to get it and to really like it. They especially seem to like it if a grown-up reads it to them.

ALC: I think in general, you can't hide those things from kids. Kids are hip, they know what's up, they get it. I have an aunt who's very sick at the moment, and they're kind of skirting the issue around their eight-year-old son, but he knows what's going on.

GS: Yeah, and he probably also knows that he's being kept out of the loop, too. I think we sort of conceptualize kids as being very pure and clean at first, and then only later does their moral faculty kick in. But, of course, it?s there from the very start, it's fully formed. In fact, what might be the most precocious thing about kids is that they're so wide-eyed about the world. And I think because they're so little, if they want to survive they have to be very crafty and aware. So with my kids I've found that you can tell them pretty much anything, and as long as its vital and true, they'll stay interested. They're like little moral barometers. And as far as [The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip?s] darkness, the way the story is set up so that [Capable, the lead character of the book] is the only sane, lucid person in the book. And I'm guessing that kids feel that quite a bit: that they're the only ones who really know what's going on. Have you ever read this book called The Shrinking of Treehorn?

ALC: No.

GS: It's a really great kid's book from the Seventies. And the whole central riff is that this little boy is shrinking, but nobody will admit it. And he's sure that he is, he has physical evidence, but everyone either ignores him or doesn't hear him. It's really a great story.

ALC: If you were thinking of this primarily as a children's book, how did that change your approach to the writing?

GS: Well, first, I guess any book is really written for you, for the author. You're sort of addressing something for yourself. And with the adult stories I'm always kind of prodding that lazy, slothful part of me, that ego part that says, "Well, since I'm doing okay, everything must be fine with everybody. And if it's not fine with them, it must be their fault, because look at me, I'm doing well." So I'm always trying to prod that part of me, to try to get myself to be more aware, more mindful, more compassionate. In this book I felt that I was addressing that part of ourselves that is daunted by the disfunctionality in the world, the part that is so overwhelmed it feels like quitting. So the book was a way of saying, yeah, it's pretty screwed up sometimes, but we do have resources, it's not like we're totally out here in the cold, with nothing. We have brains, we have intelligence, we have kindness, we have, occasionally, sanity. And those things will not only help us through but we can then turn around and try to help out other people.

ALC: When you started, did you conceive of the book as an illustrated book?

GS: I did, yes.

ALC: How closely did you work with Lane Smith? How did that collaboration come about?

GS: Well, the book was done, and Random House had bought it, and then they called him, I think just kind of thinking, you know, he's the best. And they told me they were calling him, and I was like, "Yeah, right, well definitely give him a call." Just because that seemed to me like: We're having a barbecue, let's get Springsteen." But they sent it to him on a Friday or something, and almost immediately they called back and said he was interested. And I knew his work from before, and always liked it. But at that point the book was pretty much done--there was some tuning, I did some tuning up and stuff--but the collaboration was just, you know, he'd send me stuff and I would go, "Oh my God!" There were a couple of times where, I might ask him to put more pictures in, like I'd say, "How about this, could you do this?" Basically I was all for eliminating the text altogether and going with pictures only. But [Smith] and his wife Molly [Leach, who designed the book], they are just such an amazing entity. I mean, they just have an incredible design sense. So I would basically just sit here and wait for these drafts to come in the mail. It was a collaboration in probably the best sense, which is that it just so happens that our visions really matched. And not only did we both agree that exaggeration was essential, but we also agreed on the tone of the exaggeration. So I really just enjoyed the back and forth.

ALC: But basically, he just worked off the finished manuscript-- In other words, you didn't say, "Capable should look like this," or "This is what the characters should look like," or the gappers, or anything like that?

GS: Never, no. The only thing we really talked about at all, there was that one picture where the food had to be painted white. [In the book, the last meal Capable's mother made before she died was rice. As a result, her mourning father insists that all of their food be painted white.] And we had this discussion about what kind of food would they actually have. And that was really fun, because we thought, "Well, let's see, they couldn't have this, because that would require freezers, which they don't have. You know, that kind of stuff. I got really lucky with this because I could see how somebody easily could have dumbed down the illustrations, but he did totally the opposite. In fact, I'm looking at a picture right now, where these guys are carrying a green house on their backs, and I never in a million years could have conceived it quite like that. So that was a real treat.

ALC: One of the things I enjoyed about the book is that it's a beautifully produced book, a beautifully designed book: everything from the page format to the binding to the paper quality. Did you have a hand in any of those decisions?

GS: Well, I didn't have much, but Molly and Lane did. Molly's the book designer, so they worked very closely together. And Random House was very, very generous. It seemed like on this project, everyone was working from a pretty pure place. It all fell together very nicely. I finished a couple of Christmases ago. I teach at Syracuse University, and every December I have this big rush of creativity because I don't have to teach anymore. And this was something I was doing at night, for an hour or two every night, for my own pleasure. And no one quite knew what it was exactly, but everybody, at every turn was very responsive.

ALC: Here's a strange question: why do you think so many children's books feature orphaned children or children with recently deceased parents?

GS: Well, it's an old trick. All the Grimm stories start off that way, with the parents dying. Or Huck Finn, or Great Expectations. My guess is, well, for this story, mechanically, I think it had to do with considering the child as individual. If you have a child that's surrounded by a safe support system, then the subject becomes family. Whereas in this case, and in any of the interesting fairy tales, they're about somebody who's really alone in the world. So, I think people have different strategies for getting the kid alone. But if the story is supposed to appeal to one individual reader, and they make the identification of their ego to that character's ego, then the impulse is to disrupt that calm, to pull that character away from others, to make that character alone. And I think we may incorrectly relate that to a similar tendency you see in television sitcoms, where the kids are the only smart ones, and they're always the smart ass, and the parents are stupid. I think that's a slightly different thing going on there. It's subtle, but I think there's a difference, to say, yes, I have a family, yes, they appear to be functional, but they're not. [In The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip] I do'?t think Capable's father is stupid, I think he's traumatized. So I'm not sure, what do you think about it?

ALC: I think it goes back to what we were talking about earlier. I mean, even her name is Capable. And the fact that she's cut off, that her father is traumatized, he's out of it, so she's alone. It makes the narrative into a test.

GS: Right, right. If she had two parents who were functional, she wouldn't even enter into it. I mean, if I lose my job, and my wife loses her job, my kids don't have to go out and earn a living because we're going to figure something out for them. But if we're dysfunctional, and I'm an alcoholic who goes to die in a ditch and my wife is obsessed with her train collection, then the kid has to step up, and then we have a more interesting story. You've forced me into a kind of re-examination to make sure I was'nt jumping onto some kind of pop culture bandwagon. But I think like so many things, it's not a matter of, you know, you should disallow the parents and neighbors to be stupid. No, what's essential is the tone of the stupidity. [In The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, the neighbors] are kind of stupid, but they're mostly egotistical and self-centered. Anyway it's funny in American literature right now, especially in criticism, there's often a push to the middle. I don't know, PC or whatever, but there's an impulse to be measured. And I think sometimes the great joy is in being unmeasured. That's what art is for.

ALC: Talk to me a bit about that, about the push toward going to the middle in criticism?

GS: For example, with my stories, I'd often hear things like, "Your stories are so dark, but you seem so happy." And for a long time I thought, "Oh, yeah, that's true." But I think now, it interests me that the over-literalizing is a misunderstanding of the function of art. So, for example, if I write a story in which a pirate is standing on a beach and a big rock falls on his head, well, somehow it seems like in the public forum what gets discussed is, "Well, this writer has a thing against pirates." Or, this guy is interested in geology because of the rock. Whereas I think that the real thing, the way art affects you, the way that you feel you're evolving as a writer is much more subtle and nuanced and has more to do with the motion of the prose than that sort of static plot assessment. In other words, in a sense, I think good literature in almost every case pushes us toward compassion. And compassion defined complexly. I don't mean necessarily like "I love everyone" compassion, but a more rigorous compassion, an empathetic relation to other people. But that's a complex thing. And most people interpret a story only in terms of plot. In other words, if I've written a story full of scatological elements and death, even if it's an exaggerated depiction of the negative, somehow the perception is the writer is negative. And I think that's a real misunderstanding.

ALC: I forget the writer who said this, but it's a great quote: "Style is morality."

GS: That person said in three words what I just said in like nine million. That once again goes back to my love for precision and brevity. Ugh. And the thing is though, I think it's some kind of lack of faith. If you really don't understand something, you take something from the story and muck it up by reducing it to a simplification. Especially in our comedy right now, in our satire, we're afraid to get too far from the shore. Or, we get really far from the shore, without any real. . . I'm having a hard time describing it. But I think all satire is a way of saying, "I love this culture." Satire is fundamentally an expression of affection. In other words, there are other ways of showing affection, sometimes through sarcasm.

ALC: How long have you been teaching at Syracuse?

GS: This is my fifth year.

ALC: Do you enjoy it, are you able to write during the semester?

GS: Yeah, I can. I actually love teaching. The graduate program here is really, really good, and it?s just a great crop of students. And the odd thing is you get to see how your students are just like you were ten years ago: they're so hungry, they're so much in love with writing, and they've sacrificed other careers to be here. One woman was in the Peace Corps in Rwanda, another worked in the publicity department of Paramount Pictures, another speaks six languages. . . they're just amazing people. So it's all good. Time is always kind of an issue. I would love to get, you know, seven hours of writing time every day, uninterrupted, three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year. But the great thing is I get to teach courses in twentieth century Russian literature and the modern short story.

ALC: It must give you a chance to re-read all the texts?

GS: It does, and also read some I didn't get to. Because, like I was saying before, my reading had been sort of spotty.

ALC: I take it in the writing program you don?t teach hard and fast rules, but what are some of the core values that you try to instill in your students?

GS: Well, these kids are so good when they get here that they don't need much. . . The whole writing process is kind of beyond words. When you "master" writing, it's all about your individual process, and about the way you approach things. And my experience is that, I don't have a set of approaches, but I have a set of approaches to approaches. When I start working I don't necessarily have any idea about what?s going to happen or how it?s going to happen. But I have a certain level of comfort as I'm working that's helpful. However, having said that, that's me, that's twenty or fifteen years of processing to reach that point. And each of these students who come here have a totally different experience. So, on one level, I try to teach them that there is no greater authority about their writing than themselves. When they get through the program they feel that they are the judge and jury for their work. But they come to that by purposely subjugating themselves. Then on a more technical level, in workshop we do a lot of talking about sentence logic, which is, you know, here's a sentence, is it stopping people from logically moving forward in the story? I think it's like a DNA thing, like if a sentence has got a flaw in it, you can trace that flaw through the whole piece. So, for example, there was one, really interesting thing, this student, a really good writer, had this thing where somebody was stabbed in the neck with a certain kind of needle. I forgot what it was called, but it was some kind of a knitting needle. And one of the girls in the class was very embarrassed, and said, "Well, you know, this is probably silly, but this particular type of needle has a curved hook on it." And it turned out to be very important.

ALC: Because it throws you out of the story.

GS: Absolutely. Because she couldn't have killed the guy with a hooked needle. And also because the whole idea, that the kind of knitting she would do with a curved needle is much more elaborate and domestic and calm and would require long hours, whereas the kind he meant, the pointy one, would be something you would use to make something simpler. So that wasn't true to the character at all. Another thing we talk about a lot is how a piece's flaws and virtues are always the same, how they're always tied together. The traditional workshop tendency is to just cut a problematic bit. But we say, "Well, how does this really, really banal dialogue relate to this incredibly killer description of nature? What is the writer not understanding about her own work?" So what I try to do is to get writers to think about their special virtues/defects. Because style comes from a frank recognition of your defects.

ALC: What do you consider to be your defects?

GS: Well for me it's traditional plot. I've always hated since I was a kid in grammar school sentences that sound like anyone could write them.

ALC: The well-made sentence?

GS: Yeah. "It was a balmy day, and Gordon Smith walked into his well-appointed office. . ."




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