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

Kevin Larimer

We have a little more time, and there are two topics that I want to touch on: One is the election and the other is death.
Wait, there was an election? Oh, you saved the good one for last.

It was very interesting to go back and reread, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” which was published in the New Yorker last July. I’ll confess that when I first read it—and this is maybe part of the problem—but my reaction was one of curiosity, almost like being at the zoo or something. Who are these creatures? What’s happening? It was almost a morbid curiosity. Now, rereading it, I think, “Why didn’t we see this coming?” I personally thought good would prevail. And it didn’t.
It did numerically.

It did numerically, but the system did not.
Well, that piece was really hard for me to finish, and I think it was exactly for the reason you’re naming. I went there thinking it was kind of a fringe—at the time, I think 40 percent of people who were going to vote said they would vote for Trump. But I thought it was kind of a fringe thing that would burn out. In other words, I found myself in the position of somebody who takes on the story, “Some People Like Football Better Than Baseball: Who Are They?” Well, they’re everybody. Or it’s a mix of all kinds of people. So I went in with this idea that I was going to try to pinpoint or diagnose this slender, fading movement, but in fact it’s half the people who voted. I’m still puzzling over it, actually. The one thing I’m sure of is this: The people who supported trump were either willing to ignore or could not see the humiliation and fear that he was causing in good people: Muslims, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, gay people, black people, any people of color. You’d have to be sort of willfully blind to not see the anxiety his rhetoric was causing in those people. So the thing that I think a lot of progressives are struggling with is, how could you discount that? Now, that’s an interesting question. Because the first-level answer is, they’re racist. I think it’s responsible to take that and try to break it apart a little bit, and one Gallup poll recently suggested an interesting answer, which was that most of the Trump supporters had a relatively low level of interaction with the other. They didn’t live near the border; they didn’t live near undocumented communities; they didn’t have a lot of friends of color. So it’s sort of a projection. When they have a fear about an undocumented person, it’s almost all projection.

And how were they getting their perspective on these matters? Fox News?
Well, this is the interesting thing, because that’s what my assumption was, so I would do these little fishing questions like, “So, where do you get your news?” And they’d say, “I get my news from all over.” And it’s funny, at the time, last spring, I took that to mean they also watched CNN or something. But now, in retrospect, I think they meant Fox and Breitbart and alt-right sites. They were seeing Fox as a little bit left of center. In the reporting, I would get these weird refusals of data sets to intersect. We’d be talking about something, and their facts were coming from somewhere I didn’t know about. And at the time, I don’t think that network of right-wing sites was as widely known. That explains a lot of the data in that piece. So I’m still puzzling over it.

But I think for writers, it’s a time…I feel kind of excited about writing. I don’t think I’ve ever felt in my life that it was a more essential task. When there’s leadership in place that is purposefully encouraging anti-factuality, that got elected on repeatedly being as nonspecific as possible, constantly invoking linguistic tropes, meaningless linguistic tropes, using these rhetorical stances to alienate and terrify groups of people, that’s when language shows up and goes, “I did matter all along! You writers knew about it.” So, right is still right, virtue is still virtue, and I feel a little bit energized about it. Now, the one thing I noticed during this thing that scares me is that this left-right divide is getting fatal. I went with these Trump supporters, and I got along with everybody and had a really nice time. They were very friendly; we chatted; I insulted them and they insulted me. But one thing that was funny—if I was feeling insecure, I’d drop the fact that I’m a New Yorker writer, in general. And I don’t think there was a single Trump supporter—there might have been one guy in Wisconsin—who knew what that was.

I expected, “Oh, that liberal rag.” Not even that. “Is that some liberal thing?” sometimes. But they didn’t know what it was. So that means then I went home and worked five months on a ten-thousand-word piece trying to be very measured but not a pushover and all this stuff. Who read it? We read it. Now, I’m a fan of preaching to the choir; the choir needs to huddle around the most profound version of our ethos. But it was weird to think, “If I wanted to bust out and really speak directly to Trump supporters, how would I do it?”

That’s the question.
It’s a big question.

You mentioned that you feel  hopeful and energized now. That’s a very good message, this idea that language does matter now. Maybe now more than ever. But the hard thing is trying to reconcile the fact that no one really gave a shit about the language Trump was using during the campaign.
I would break that down, because many of us, including you, care deeply about it.

Of course. It didn’t have an effect, though. When I was hearing him say some of these things—“Grab them by the whatever”—I was like, “Oh, well, it’s over now,” because there’s no way someone’s going to vote for that.
It’s disqualifying, right, right.

But they did.
Yeah. And that’s a deep well. One thing I’m trying to tell myself in order to stay hopeful is that heartbreak is the difference between what you thought the world was and what the world actually turned out to be. So you thought this person loved you; they didn’t. Aww. Well, actually, that’s on you, in a sense. So those of us who are feeling crestfallen or heartbroken at this time, I’m trying to say to myself, “That’s your problem! You were out there in the rallies, why didn’t you know?” So then isn’t it literary to say, “I’m going to adjust my view because it was too small. I misunderstood America. I misunderstood the country.” That’s okay. You’re allowed to misunderstand. Also, America is allowed to be as fucked up as it wants to be. My perceptions just can’t be out of sync with that. That's one thing.

Now, we talk about specificity. With this thing, a fifth of the country voted for Trump. That’s a pretty small number. To elect someone else would take a sliver of about 15 percent. Say 15 percent of the population would have to flip over into an anti-Trump stance. That’s really easy.

Or just vote at all.
Right. But part of me is wanting to say because of our election procedure, this looks like the country has totally changed, but the truth is—and this is something I left out of the piece because it didn’t come into focus—so many of those people I talked to were as much anti-Hillary as for Trump. To me, that’s mystifying, but that was their position. So I would imagine if you just plunk in Joe Biden next time, it all shifts. So I’m not hopeless. It’s still depressing, mostly because it makes me sad to think of all the people I met on this trip down in Phoenix, and so many wonderful Mexican Americans and also Mexican immigrants who were so humiliated by this. You know, they work so hard, and now the country is sort of turning them into enemies. And that’s heartbreaking. That’s disgusting, actually, and it makes me sad. But the other thing it does is it backlights our whole history a little differently. You talk to any African American and you say, “America’s racist!” they’ll go, “That’s not news.” So I think part of the sadness but also maybe the invigorating thing for me as an older person is to go, you know what? I maybe never saw this country correctly. And as you get older, a little bit of an Aaron Copland vibe gets in your head, like, “Oh, this lovely country that’s been so good to me.” It’s a time for me to maybe reconsider, for everyone to reconsider, and say, “Yeah, this is not new, this kind of oppressive rhetoric and this kind of knee-jerk, reactionary demagogue thing. We’ve been fighting it a long time.” I think heartbreak comes from the fact that many of us felt that that was in its death throes and that this next administration would be the end of it, or at least a good movement towards the end of it, and now we have to wait.

It’s also perhaps naive for some of us to have thought that we understood this country. It’s a huge country. There are so many people, so many different kinds of people, and to think that we know who we are as one united…
Right. And so much of that comes from our mind, what we want to see. But to turn it back to writers: What an incredible moment to say, “Okay, we don’t know.” And let’s just generalize: “We don’t know the Midwest.” Well, that’s a good project, because it’s full of human beings and therefore full of literature. I remember coming the other direction; I was in Amarillo before I came to the Syracuse program, and I’d been working in a slaughterhouse, and we’d been having a lot of drama in our circle of friends and family—real deaths and drugs and all kinds of dark stuff. And I came out here very hopeful that that would give me a badge of authenticity, kind of like when Kerouac met Neal Cassidy. I came out, and I found that a lot of the people I met in the artistic community hadn’t had much experience there, and so therefore it didn’t hold much interest. It was sometimes just a one-line joke, you know? “Oh, Amarillo, I drove through there. Bunch of currency exchanges.” And I remember, it was maybe one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life to see that I wasn’t going to get in there with that. There was no understanding that there was an entire human community there that I loved, and they were suffering. So now, it’s a tremendous literary mission to say, “Can we reimagine our country?” It’s going to take some legwork, and it’s going to take some curiosity, which is in short supply these days, in both directions. 

Well, shifting gears here—
Let’s move on to death!

Let’s move on to death. It seems like the perfect place to end our conversation. You’ve mentioned that you find death such an interesting and terrifying thing to write about. It’s in all of your work, but this book in particular, because all but three people are dead. And a horse.
Thank you for noting the horse. [Laughter.] I think it’s because I have a reasonable level of belief that it’ll actually happen to me. I remember, as a kid, being in my grandparents’ house in Texas, and it was a smallish house, and I could hear their sleep-noises, and it hit me really hard—and they were in their sixties, so they were old to me at that time—and I couldn’t sleep, and I thought, “They’re going to die, my God.” And that just-woke-up sort of confusion: “What if they die right now? They could. Well, they could. They’re going to, and they could.” I don’t think I’m fascinated with it, but I kind of feel like, you know, if you’re on the tracks and you distantly hear a train, come on! I’m not fascinated with the train, but—

It’s a fact, coming.

I guess another way to phrase the question here is that, similar to how taking the election as this sort of negative and looking at it as a positive, which you so beautiful did, it’s a similar thing with death. I think that the kind of general feeling about death is that it’s a negative. And yet it’s going to happen to every one of us. And you seem to have taken the positive view, which is that it makes life, life.
Yes. Let me put it another way: As with the election, it’s not that you think the thing itself is positive, but being willing to accept the reality of the thing is positive. Then you accommodate it. It’s kind of like—actually, it’s sort of anti-denial. Denial is something I’m very prone to, and it’s always gotten me in trouble. Okay, look, death seems to be, as far as I can tell, it’s going to come for me. So is there any way I can accommodate that knowledge? No matter what, whether it enriches your life or fucks it up, it’s still healthy to acknowledge. So if you go to a party, and you know everyone is leaving at midnight, it should affect the way you pace yourself, or the way you are there.

I think what happened with me is, again, because of that thin ledge of talent I have, I’m not a writer who could write a story about something that has no urgency for me. There are really talented writers who say, “Oh, I’m going to imagine that I live in that apartment.” I can’t even do it, something so casual. I flounder in that mode. So I have to make sure that my stories get on something that really matters to me. Death would be one. I always quote Flannery O’Connor: “A writer can choose what he writes, but he can’t choose what he makes live.” So coming at that idea from the other direction, if your prose is flat, that means you’re not writing about—well, it means your prose is flat. And it means you better stop that. So for me, what that means is, when I get off into something where the prose starts jangling, then full-speed ahead, don’t worry about what it’s about. But that tends to be about mortality. And it might just be a lack of subtlety. I’m not too good at making a story in which nothing big happens. I mean, the masters do. Chekhov, he always can do that. I think I’m maybe just not that subtle. So for me, peril, death, has to be there for me to get the necessary energy.

This whole novel is predicated on death. Did anything about writing it surprise you?
Oh, yeah. So much. But mostly it’s—this is Poets & Writers, so we can talk about it—but mostly it was the internal dynamics. If you’re writing a story as over-the-top as this one, it’s all in the doing. It’s all in the line-to-line and section-to-section transfers. And my thought was, if ever once I got too cheesy or on the nose, all the air goes out of the balloon. So much of the editing work was: If I juxtapose this speech with this speech, what does it feel like? If I cut this speech and move this one up? I just finished section nine; which way am I going? And the constant enemy was kind of—I was going to say “banality,” but it’s not really that. I think a lot of the energy is, as a reader, going, “What the fuck’s going on here? Who are these people?” And then, just about the time they figure out who they are, then I have to keep moving it. The idea was to keep the reader always a little bit behind me but interested. So sometimes if you make a too-obvious structural move, the reader passes you. “Oh, it’s a ghost story.” That’s really hard to talk about, but it’s all the micromanaging of text and transitions and the way the speech is made, which I really like, because if my attention’s on that stuff, the big questions come in anyway, and they come in naturally. So the surprises—there were thousands of things that surprised me.

I have to ask you about one of the voices in the book: the hunter.

Where did that come from?
I don’t know.

You pause on that character it seemed to me in a slightly different way. It was more detailed in terms of what he had to do in the afterlife. All the thousands of animals he killed during his lifetime were gathered around him, and he had to hold them all, one by one, “for a period ranging from several hours to several months, depending on...the state of fear the beast happened to have been in at the time of its passing.”
I mean, I could make something up, but the truth is, this is what I love about writing. Basically, they’re going from Point A to Point B; they need to pass some people. What I love is to suspend the part of your mind that says, “Well, who should they pass?” and just go, “No, who do they pass.” And that guy just showed up. I don’t know why. I honestly…the only true answer is: I don’t know. He just showed up. And in that space…it’s funny: You’re walking through the woods, and you go, “Okay, I need somebody to show up on the left,” your mind turns there, and it supplies. That’s the difference between someone writing well and someone not. And I don’t think you can say much more than that. But you do train yourself, I think. I’ve noticed the training is mostly been to repress the side of me that wants to figure it out. Who should I have show up? No. Maybe just a vague turning in that direction that’s informed by everything that’s behind you, and then a trust that whatever the little intuitive leap is, is actually coming from the subconscious in a deeper way. But it’s literally like training yourself in putting up a little roadblock to your conscious mind and saying, just stay back a little bit. You don’t have to go away, but just stay back. And then veering over here and seeing what you’ve got. I mean, how do you talk about that?

You don’t want to look behind the curtain.
No, you don’t. But it’s also years of being in that exact space and being somewhat confident. And I would even say, in that moment when you turn away from the conscious, there are several different strands of other things. There are several candidates going, “I’m over here! I’m over here!” And there’s a micro-moment where you can go, “No, no, no, no, yeah.” So it’s really freaky.

Well, this book is full of those moments. As you say, it’s a comic novel, but when I was reading it, moments like that are haunting.
Oh, thanks.

Your work is full of those moments where it’s comic, laugh-out-loud moments, and then this little twist.
Part of that, again, is that alert[ness]. I’m trying to imagine where you are. Now, again, you can’t exactly, but it’s surprising how you sort of can. So if, on a micro-level, you feel like you just landed a very nice, profound, serious moment, and I’m watching Kevin—what if I do the poop joke? So it’s interesting, you know? You’re enjoying the pleasure of that deep, literary, serious moment. Now, you know, if we just left it alone, does that trail off? And if we follow it with another one, do you now feel like it’s becoming predictable? It’s a challenge of teaching in an MFA program, or teaching writing in general: Those little skills are so small and subrational, in a certain way. You can’t teach those moments, and yet everything abides in them. So that’s why I do a lot of close line-editing with my students, because in that way you can sort of communicate, if you have a sentence that’s this way, and you can edit it and make it this way, and that way’s better, you’ve kind of engaged that moment a little bit. That’s very interesting. And the danger is, in school, we’re always analyzing the effect after the fact, in analytical language. Which may or may not have anything to do with how Tolstoy did it in the first place. That’s the thing. I try to remind myself of that, that we’re talking about literature often from the wrong end of the telescope. That’s the conundrum of a writing education.

I was saying earlier how you can never know the mess of neuroses and emotions and everything that a reader is bringing to it, but on the other hand, just in my case, I’m not feeling anything new. I’m not going through anything so special that hasn’t been gone through by other people, you know?
Think of it this way: If we’re walking down the street, you’re having your thoughts, I’m having mine, somebody gets hit by a car; suddenly, we’re both in exactly the same space. So I think in art and writing, you can do the same thing, sometimes just with a simple sentence, you know? “They crossed the river.” You might be having a bad day, but suddenly, you’re crossing a river.


Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.