From The Paris Review
  From issue 158, Spring/Summer 2001. From "The Man in the Back Row Has a Question VII," in which 11 authors answer the following questions. These are his full, unpublished answers. The published portion of George Saunders' responses are in italics.

When Francine du Plessix Gray showed her father her first composition, he perused it and replied "Pathetic dribble! You dare call that a story?" tearing the pages to shreds. Rather than teachers and editors, did you ever get support early on from parents or peers?

Actually, the same thing happened to me. Which was annoying, because I barely knew Francis du Plessix Gray's father. I mean, we'd spoken a few times, but I could never understand what he was saying, because of his accent. The ironic part was that the thing he tore into shreds actually was some pathetic dribble. I had inadvertently, you know, dribbled on a sheet of paper, and somehow he mistook this for a story-- I think he really didn't know as much about literature as he thought he did. Once we had established that what he had torn up was indeed some dribble, he perused it and replied, "What pathetic pathetic dribble! You dare call that pathetic dribble?" He was really a harsh guy. I used to say this to Francine, and she would say, "Oh wow, I know what you mean, he can really be a drag to be around."

John Hall Wheelock was so influenced by Swinburne that his father sent him (by steerage) to see him. Wheelock touched Swinburne's coat as he was passing but never had the nerve to speak to him. Were you as a young writer, ever influenced to such a degree? Explain.

Well, I felt the same way about John Hall Wheelock, and begged my father to send me to see him by steerage, but my father would always refuse, saying, 'Son, I don't think there is any such thing as steerage any more." But I really loved Wheelock, and so I did what I always did when my father refused me anything, which was to start pathetically dribbling. In time, my father was convinced, and since, as he suspected, steerage no longer existed, he sent me Economy Class instead, and to sort of simulate steerage, made me wear a pair of jeans that belonged to my sister and sit atop a crude wooden box with some gypsies he rented. Unfortunately, I, like Wheelock, lacked nerve, and in fact was so short on nerve that I was too afraid to even touch Wheelock's coat, and had to settle for touching Swinburne's coat. Which was sort of funny, because Swinburne, noticing that I was touching his coat (it was in his lap at the time), blurted out, 'Who do you think you are, John Hall Wheelock?" To which I could only reply: "I wish!"

For Frank O'Connor, it was a toss-up whether he was going to be a writer or a painter. The paints were too expensive. Were there other possibilities for you?

Yes. When I was young I had hoped to be a guy who drives a Maserati around on the deck of my own personal yacht while wearing the Hope diamond around my neck on a gold chain. Sadly, the Maserati and the yacht and the Hope diamond and gold chain proved too expensive. And yet, I think it was a good thing, because, when my father, feeling bad about our crushing poverty, offered me a set of paints, I looked him in the eye and said, "Jesus Christ, dad, I ask for a Maserati and a yacht and the Hope diamond and a gold chain and all you can come up with is a crummy set of paints? Jeez, nice generosity! Just forget it, I'll be a stinking writer." To which he replied: "Talk to me like that again and I'll call Francine du Plessix Gray's dad and he'll come over here and whip your butt." That's just how it was around our house, and in time I came to accept it.

When Joan Didion was a teenager she would read Hemingway and type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. Did you practice such exercises?

Oh, sure, I did that. In fact, not only did I type them, I wrote them. I wrote "The Killers" and "Hills Like White Elephants" and I seem to also remember writing "Big-Two Hearted River," although at that time it was titled "Nick's Big Day of Fishing." That was a good period for me. Hem used to say: "You write good, kid. And you type okay too. But your left is weak and you flinch when I pretend to hit you." And then he would pretend to hit me, and I would flinch, and we'd have a good laugh about that, and he'd say: "Get back to work, kid, or I'll fire you and hire that Joan Didion person." Gosh, those were the days, down there in Cuba, and whenever we'd see Francine du Plessix Gray's dad at the bullfights, Hem would pretend to hit him, and du Plessix Gray's flinching would make my flinching look like pathetic dribble, and Hem and I would laugh, laugh, laugh.

When William Randolph Hearst and a small party left after the first act of her play 'The Days to Come," Lillian Hellman threw up in the back aisle. Has rejection ever caused such a reaction? How did you respond to it?

{Published answer: Yes, I am told that after my first short story was rejected, Lillian Hellman threw up. How did I respond to this? How could one respond? I was extremely touched, and I threw up.}

Actually this version is incorrect. I was there, with Hem and Francine's dad and Swinburne and Swinburne's coat, which was still in his lap. What happened was, Lillian vomited in the back aisle while Hearst and friends were still sitting in the back aisle. That was how Lillian was. She thought this was funny or something. I remember once, at the premier of, I think it was Little Foxes, she went up to FDR and I think Stalin and passed wind in their aisle. A big joke! But not so funny for the Russian peasantry, as it turned out. But anyway, from my point of view, it was admirable of Hearst and Co. to stick it out all through the first act with Hellman's vomit all over their shoes. But that's the sort of guy he was: the sort of guy who would sit through the first act of a play with vomit on his shoes, then rush off and start a war in a small South American country. Plus I found it touching, the way he always carried that sled with him.

When his first book was published, Sir James M. Barrie carried it around in his pocket, taking "surreptitious peeks at it to make sure the ink had not faded." Can you recall your reaction to your first publication?

I became engaged to it. I had a story accepted in The Northwest Review, and became engaged to the issue when it came out. I carried it everywhere with me, and placed it in the passenger seat next to me and took it to the drive-in, etc etc. But then I introduced it to my parents, and things went wrong. They noticed immediately that it was a "small literary magazine" and, because they had different ideas about my future - preferring, I suppose, a human being, or at least a copy of Reader's Digest - well, it made for a certain tension. "Antithetical premise," my mother would say. "Whatever do you mean by that?" And the Northwest Review Spring Issue would blush, as would I....For me it was a rich time, a time of passionate arguments about the poems of William Stafford, a time of frantic page-flipping, a time of staring endlessly into the cover art, a time of paper cuts and....but of course it couldn't last. We were from different worlds! She, to put it frankly, cheated on me - what a painful thing. I came in and she was lying beneath a copy of the Collected Works of Francis du Plessix Gray - what an irony! I walked out and never looked back, although I have to admit that, even now, passing the microfiche section of our local library, I feel a certain pang of regret.




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