The Emotional Realist Talks to Ghosts: A Q&A With George Saunders

Kevin Larimer

Well, I’ll tell you, when I started reading this I wasn’t sure what to do. Because I know you, and I’ve read all your books, and then here’s this novel. And it’s had such big fanfare. “George Saunders has a new novel, and I have all the feels,” that sort of thing. And I was reading along, and pretty early on you write, “When we are newly arrived in this hospital yard, young sir, and feel like weeping, what happens is, we tense up ever so slightly, and there is a mild toxic feeling in the joints, and little things inside us burst.” And so I stopped for a second, because so much of it, too, is that when a reader enters your work, so much depends on where the reader is as well. You don’t have complete control over the reader.
Not at all, no.

So at that phrase—“little things inside us burst”—I guess I was feeling emotional, and I knew I was about to read a novel about a father losing his son. And I have young kids. You know, it’s all those little things that are happening in the reader. So I read that sentence, and it’s like, “Oh, the dead are weeping.” And there are very real emotions in here that I’m thinking through as I’m reading. But then the very next sentence is, “Sometimes, we might poop a bit if we are fresh.” And right there we realize we’re in George Saunders’s world.
It’s so funny you should pick that out, because in the manuscript, that’s said on page two. In the galley, it’s deeper, but in what I worked on for many years, it was two. And I remember thinking, “I just hope my readers will make it to the poop joke.” And that’s my weakness, but I was just thinking, “That’s where I’m signaling that I’m all here.” I didn’t turn into a super-straight realist guy, which is a fear of mine, because humor came into my writing as a form of emotional honesty. We’re talking about when I was really young. I kept it out when I was trying to be Hemingway, which is a form of emotional dishonesty. My wife and I got married, we had our kids, we were having a great time, but we were pretty poor, all working really hard. The humor came back in at that point as “Holy shit, what’s going on here? This is really hard.” So that was honest. My fear is always that as you get old and august, the world actually stops being so difficult, and it’s not that funny anymore. Please note that I’m saying this in a British accent. [Laughter.] So in that case, again, that would be a form of emotional dishonesty. Just because it’s not happening to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening. In that first long section I hope my readers don’t think I’m that guy now, that I’m just indulging in a straight historical narrative with capital-R Romantic tendencies. For me, that joke was a place to sort of breathe a little. You with me? I didn’t leave anything behind. I’m still doing it.

You did it.
But it sounds like you could have used a few more beats of the emotional stuff before the poop stuff.

You get a great mix of both in this novel. In all of your work.
You know what it reminds me of? If you were a Led Zeppelin fan, and then, what’s the album, the one with “Over the Hills and Far Away” on it?

Houses of the Holy.
There are parts of that album where you think, “Oh my God, where’s Jimmy Page? Where’s the guitar?” And they know that, and they’re kind of setting you up a little bit with those swelling strings, and then all of a sudden it starts. So to me, it was a little bit like, let’s make sure we don’t leave anything behind.

Let’s go back to something you said earlier about the essays that you were writing. You had mentioned that those gave you an opportunity to do a little bit of work on writing about your own emotional responses to things, which is in your fiction, but it’s not you, George Saunders, saying, “I feel this way.” There’s a part in the “Buddha Boy” essay, which a lot of people talk about because it’s a terrific essay….
Oh, thanks.

Do you mind if I read it?
Yeah, no, I love it.

“You know that feeling at the end of the day when the anxiety of that-which-I-must-do falls away, and for maybe the first time that day, you see with some clarity people you love and the ways you have during that day slightly ignored them, turned away from them to get back to what you were doing, blurted some mildly hurtful thing, projected instead of the deep love you really feel, a surge of defensiveness or self-protection or suspicion. That moment when you think, Oh God, what have I done with this day? And what am I doing with my life? And how must I change to avoid catastrophic end-of-life regrets? I feel like that now, tired of the me I’ve always been, tired of making the same mistakes, repetitively stumbling after the same small ego-strokes, being caught in the same loops of anxiety and defensiveness.” I love that you had the presence and the courage to write that. I really connect with that notion. I think anybody who is sentimental, as you said that you are...
I am.

Perhaps nostalgic...

And is very busy and maybe has kids, as we do, you can’t help but feel that way. Some of us feel that way a lot more often than others.
Those would be the good people.

But to push that idea a little further, I have those feelings, exactly what you’re talking about there. And it’s this tremendous feeling of guilt, because I have those moments, and then I even think of myself having those moments, like, “Oh, okay, at least I’m aware enough to be feeling this.”
Yeah, I think that’s true, actually.

But then an hour later, I’m checking my phone and looking at tweets. Yet it’s a wonder I ever leave the house and let my kids and my wife out of my sight. You know what I mean?
I do. I do. I think that you’re right, first of all, that the awareness that one is less loving or less present than one would wish is actually pretty good awareness, you know? Because there were times in my life when I didn’t even have that awareness. I just was…right. I think that’s where, for me, a person’s desire to get better on that score is what leads them to something. For some people, it’s a spiritual push, meditation or prayer. But I think just to be aware of that is huge. But as you say, it doesn’t change.

It doesn’t solve anything.
I know I can’t run a marathon, and I still can’t.

I could go out and train.
I could do that. But I’m aware I don’t want to. And I think that’s part of art. Part of fiction writing is a small training in assessing how good your awareness is. You come back to the page you’ve written, and you’re reacting to it by reading it. And the critical thing is: How fine-tuned and honest are your reactions to your own work? So a part gets slow; do you notice it? Do you honor the fact that you noticed it? Are you willing to try to fix it? And then the second level is: You’re aware of your reaction to the work, then outside of that you’re also aware that that reaction is also temporary and may change. So how then do you revise? You go ahead and make the change. But then the next day you come back and do it again. And at some point, you reach a steady state where your reaction to the piece is pretty consistent. Then you’re good. But for me, that mimics the process of being in the world. How are you feeling right now? How reliable is your feeling about how you’re feeling right now?

I want to say one thing parenthetically about the GQ pieces, because you are right that I was able to turn to my own emotional state to write about them. The other thing that I learned is just the simple mechanics of…describing the setting, which I don’t usually do in my fiction. I feel like I can’t get anything going with that. Well, when you have to do it, you find that you can get something going. So there was a part of me that got more comfortable with the power of just describing physical stuff. That was something I had been suppressing. So the idea that I would spend a couple lines describing someone’s looks or something, I usually wouldn’t do it, except if I could get a little joke in there. But now I have more confidence that if I am given the task of describing your face or this street outside, I’ll be able to come up with some language that is interesting in its own right. That is something I learned from magazine writing. You’re driving through South Texas for three hours, and it’s gorgeous. You think, “Do I have something I can say about this?” Once I gave myself permission to do that, I found that, sure, your years of writing have made your language skills good enough to describe a mountain.

I want to refer to something in an essay you wrote, “My Writing Education: A Time Line,” about your experience earning a master’s degree in creative writing at Syracuse University in the 1980s. You wrote about a meeting you had with one of your teachers, Doug Unger, and basically that he didn’t pull any punches in telling you that your thesis was essentially not…it was “crap,” I think, is the word he used.
He didn’t say it was crap; he just didn’t say it wasn’t.

Right. [Laughter.] And your response was that it was difficult to hear, of course, but that he had the respect to do such a thing for you, to not just feed you a line about how brilliant you are. That’s one of the things an MFA program can offer: respect. Because for a creative writer, where else can you go in today’s society where everyone around you respects what you’re doing—maybe they don’t necessarily like your work, but the act of writing is respected. That sort of validation for writers is something we try to provide at Poets & Writers, too: What you’re doing is important. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about your experience teaching at Syracuse. When we talked in 2000, you had been teaching there for maybe three or four years. Did you have a sense then that you were going to be there for twenty years or more?
I hoped so. Yeah, those early years were really rich, and they still are. There’s something to be gained by staying in the same place for a long time. But I like this idea of respect. That’s correct. And I think, also, what Doug gave me in that moment and what I got from my whole time there was just that standards don’t move, you know? This thing that we are doing is actually really hard, and there are no guarantees that anybody will be able to accomplish anything. So when you get to an MFA program and you realize that there actually are standards that aren’t being imposed by your teachers; they’re being imposed by the world, by culture, and the rabbit hole you have to go down is very, very deep. There are levels of exertion and understanding that you haven’t even touched yet. And the whole purpose for that journey is so you can be most uniquely yourself. That’s what it should do. It should be neither a teardown nor a feel-good factory. But just to say, this thing that you’re doing is really, really difficult, really, really essential. You don’t even know yet. “Know you do not yet” [in Yoda voice]. You’ve got to say, “Actually, this is even harder than you think, and also, we don’t know how it’s going to be hard for you in particular.” To set that up I think is really useful. In some ways, it’s maybe like going to medical school—except for the money—but in the sense that someone teaching young doctors doesn’t say, “It’s all right. You don’t have to worry about tonsillectomies, because you probably will get only about six in your career, so don’t bother.” You know? That’s not a thing. The way you’d know a culture was going down the shitter would be if someone was doing that. I think it’s the same with the arts. But it’s complicated, because part of that process is to nurture, but part of the process is to not over-nurture, which I think can be a problem in MFA programs. You come to love these people so much, and the delivery of bad news is not fun. But respect is the key thing, because if you really loved a young writer and you saw that she was doing something contrary to achieving her full potential, it would definitely be an act of love to put up a sign to stop her from doing that, in whatever way worked. Basically, my prayer is: “Let me positively inflect this person once or twice while she’s here.” More, if possible, but once or twice would be great. If I could just have one interaction so that five years down the line, she goes, “Ah! I now know what he was talking about.” Or the best is when students have walled off certain material that they don’t want to do, they don’t want to do it, but it’s essential to them, and you somehow help them take the wall down. That’s really wonderful. Or when they have been hurt or maybe diminished by some life situation, and you can make them see that that actually is their material, and it’s all right.

Have you noticed any changes in how writers are approaching the MFA?
There are two observations. One is that the relation of the young writer to the MFA program has changed certainly since I was a student. At that time, the idea was kind of like, “Oh, that’s freaky. Let’s be outlaws and do this thing that isn’t actually going to make us richer or whatever.” And there weren’t very many programs. I’d never heard of one until the week before I applied. I didn’t know they existed. And then there’s the false and damaging assumption that if one wants to be a writer, you must go to an MFA program. And the related one, which is, if you go to an MFA program, you’ll definitely be a published writer. That whole suite of assumptions makes a lot of pressure for students. It’s what we call “professionalization,” and I think that’s not so good, and I predict there’ll be some kind of backlash against it. I predict there will be—there probably already is—a group of people who say, “I’m not going to an MFA program; I’m going to do it on my own.” And then we’ll have a series of successes from those writers, and the pendulum will swing. There’s nothing wrong with it, but the most damaging thing is when a student doesn’t get in and thinks, “Therefore I’m not a writer.” That is not true. And it’s a function, at least in our program, of the numbers. We get 650 applications for six spots. We have six spots because those are all that we can afford to fully fund, which we feel is kind of ethically or artistically important. So if you’re number seven, you’re great. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t get in.

Another thing you mentioned in that essay is that when you first got to Syracuse and were studying with Tobias Wolff, who is just an amazing writer, a master—
He’s a genius.

But you had the realization that he’s also a real person. He creates this amazing art for four hours in the morning, and then he goes grocery shopping or picks up the laundry or whatever. And that leads into something I want to talk about, which is how to respond to success. Because here you are, and if people see you picking up your laundry, it’s like, “Wow, George Saunders has this normal life.”
Not as often as you’d think. Mostly they’re just like, “Hmm, who’s that bald dude?”

You’ve been the cover story in the New York Times Magazine and appeared on talk shows; you sang a song with Stephen Colbert. You’ve achieved a very high level of success in this field. And literary journalists and bloggers and everyone on social media will pump that up, rightly so, but we don’t often talk about how, as a writer, you are supposed to respond to that sort of thing.
That’s a great question. I think one thing you can do is watch it. I’ve said before, if you eat a bunch of beans, you’re going to fart. That’s it. It wouldn’t be a disgrace, but you might notice it. So I think anybody, at any level, who has gotten any attention knows this syndrome, which is the birthday syndrome. You get something published, you tell your friends, they get excited, and you get elated, which, as a word, has positive connotations. But I actually see it as kind of a negative. You get elated: You can’t think about anything else and you want more. It’s like a sugar buzz. And then the next day, it’s not your birthday anymore, and you’re like, “What the fuck is wrong with all these idiots?” You know? That’s just the human mind responding to stimuli. So I think part of it is to ask yourself, “Where am I on that scale right now? How full of shit am I based on this attention that I’m getting?” And by the way, that would also go the other way; if you were being criticized, you would have anti-elation.

It’s the same thing, though, because you’re still thinking about only you and your hurt feelings. I think part of my deal is to sort of take everything in my life and subjugate it into the goal of using my talent wisely. So if success starts to occur, go on full alert to the ways in which your natural biologic reactions to success might screw up your work. One way is, you get into the rarefied-air syndrome, where you’re only in cool places being praised. That’s death. You can’t do that. The other thing would be believing that it’s objectively true that you did well. That’s anathema to an artist. Even after a work is done, you have to be going, “I should have done better; I know I could have.” That’s how you get to the next thing. I think most of it is just not believing in it too much, and maybe if you still have a little skill left you say, “Let me also not enjoy it too little, because it doesn’t happen all the time; it doesn’t happen to everybody.”

If we think about talent, talent is like a flower. I wasn’t doing publishable work until about thirty-three. Well, the odds are, it’s going to wilt. It may very well wilt before I die. So you have to treat it as something that you were gifted with briefly, and it may or may not be around. But I also think of it as kind of a fun adventure; especially in this time, I feel like it’s not a bad thing for a writer to work herself into a more public role, to kind of push herself into the public mind a little more so as to push back against some of the stuff that’s going on. But it’s like everything else. Anything that happens to you is going to have some effect on your artistic abilities, so I think part of it is to manage. Even when we met the last time, I had just come out of that period when I’d written a book at work, and the way I understood that was, okay, this is part of it. This is part of the artistic journey. I don’t have enough money, and my hours are getting burned up doing this work. All right, I accept. And then it becomes ennobled. And I found myself empowered by that. If I thought, “Ah, I’m getting cheated by the world,” then that’s disempowering. But to say, “This is part of my writer’s journey,” then suddenly you can take more of it.