The Very Persistent Mapper of Happenstance: A Q&A With George Saunders

Kevin Larimer
From the July/August 2000 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Don’t tell George Saunders you can’t get there from here. En route to an enviable writing career, he traveled from a working-class childhood in south Chicago to the oil fields of Indonesia, a slaughterhouse in Amarillo, Texas, and the stuffy office of an environmental company in Rochester, New York. Along the way he collected an MA in creative writing from Syracuse University, where he studied with Tobias Wolff, and a degree in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines.

Fiction writer George Saunders in Syracuse, New York, in the spring of 2000. (Credit: Jayne Wexler)

Saunders readily admits he didn’t chart his course, and he approaches the writing of fiction the same way—with no particular destination in mind. As a result his stories end up in some unexpected places: a prehistoric theme park; a future world where citizens belong to two classes: “Normal” or “Flawed;” and a self-help seminar where participants learn to identify who has been “crapping in your oatmeal.” Ask him why his stories, at once hilarious and macabre, are littered with severed hands, dead aunts, see-through cows, and Civil War ghosts and he’ll share your curiosity. “Where does this shit come from? I don’t have an answer.”

Today Saunders teaches creative writing in the graduate program at Syracuse University. He lives with his wife of 13 years and his two daughters, ages 9 and 12. His first collection of short stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, was published in 1996 by Riverhead Books. In May, Riverhead published his second collection, Pastoralia. Villard will publish his modern fairy tale “for adults and future adults,” The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, illustrated by Lane Smith, in August.

Recently I visited Saunders in Syracuse. During lunch at Erawan Restaurant and over coffee in his sunny Victorian home, he revealed two qualities that make him so popular among his students—a friendliness and a generosity one wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in someone at this stage of a successful writing career. He also displayed a quality one would expect to find in the author of such stories as “The 400-Pound CEO” and “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror”—the uncanny ability to find humor in unlikely places.

One of the things that’s immediately intriguing about you as a writer is your sort of non-traditional background
That’s a nice way to put it …

Well, it doesn’t seem like you’ve been stagnating in some university setting.
No, that started up here. It was kind of an inadvertent path. When I look back I’m always a little bit embarrassed because it’s not like I had any sense. I had such a malformed sense of the world at each point that I ended up making some stupid decisions without really realizing what the options were. I grew up in Chicago in a pretty working-class neighborhood so writing wasn’t something…well, I didn’t really know who did it. It never occurred to me that I might do it. But I never even read a whole lot. I remember reading Johnny Tremain—that was a big watershed. I got a degree in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines. This was at the height of the oil boom, so I went over to Sumatra and worked for a couple years in the oil fields. After that was a period of just bombing around with no real sense of what was going on. I worked in a slaughterhouse for a while in Amarillo, Texas. I was probably twenty-four or twenty-five. In that town if you wanted to get some money quick that’s where you went, and they would hire anybody and you could stay for as short as you wanted.

What did you do at the slaughterhouse?
I was a knuckle-puller. It’s a leg thing. It would come in on a hook. It would look like a big chicken leg. There was this complicated series of cuts. You had a hook in one hand and a knife in the other. The cuts were very surgical, some of them. When that was done you just sort of heaved it across onto this conveyor belt. It was like this big Rube Goldberg thing and it would go somewhere else. At one point I got demoted because I was too slow and I went to this place where all the stuff that was left over at the end came by on this big belt and you had to separate it. There was one box that was for bone and one was for fat and one for miscellaneous. The story was that the bone went to make pizza toppings, and fat was for marshmallows. It wasn’t too good.

So you were de-knuckling the leg. Of what animals? Cows?
Oh, cows, yeah. It was hard to tell. It could’ve been brontosaurus for all I know.

You’re a vegetarian now.
Yeah, but that’s pretty recent. One wasn’t a result of the other.

How did these kinds of experiences inform your work?
I always wanted to write but had never read anything contemporary. When I was in Asia there were all these great things to write about during the oil boom, but I didn’t have the vocabulary. I found myself drifting and not knowing how to put the stuff that was happening into the work because I had never seen it done before. But then I read that story “Hot Ice” by Stuart Dybek and that was basically my neighborhood where I grew up. To see that in prose… I couldn’t pretend that only Hemingway mattered after that. Dybek was a big breakthrough because I could for the first time see what you had to do to reality to make it literature, because I knew the neighborhood and I knew the people and I could see what he’d done to it.

You played guitar in a bar band in Texas.
A really bad bar band. We were called—it’s really embarrassing—we were called Rick Active and the Good Times Band. It was along Route 66 in Amarillo, where they had these drunk palaces where you’d go to drink and they’d pay us each $50 a night and we’d play the same set six times over and over again, never practice, no original songs. This was 1986. I should’ve known better then. In a way it’s like half of your mind is saying, “It’s okay, I’m just slumming, I’ll write about this some day,” and the other half is just that there weren’t a whole lot of other options.

Were there any other early influences?
Monty Python was a huge influence—the way that they would get at something archetypal through a side door was always really interesting. We just turned our kids on to that recently. The argument sketch. Do you remember that one? “I’m here for an argument.” “No you’re not.”

I remember watching Monty Python with my father. He was really busy and we didn’t do a lot together, but every Sunday night we’d watch that. In our neighborhood, a very working-class neighborhood, jokes were really a currency. If you could tell a joke or even if you could imitate somebody it was a really big deal. Junot Díaz, who teaches here at Syracuse, has this great theory that writers come out of any kind of situation where language equals power. So in his case, in the Dominican Republic, English was clearly a meal ticket. And I think that’s true. So that combined with just sitting there with my father roaring at Monty Python…somehow humor became validated. But for years, like a lot of working-class people, writing was that thing which I could not do. It had to be just beyond my grasp or it didn’t count, right? So it was only when that sort of dropped that I could really have fun with it. But that was relatively recently.

Humor is obviously a very big part of your writing. Humor combined with sentiment. I’m thinking of the ending of the short story “Isabelle” in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. It’s heartbreaking.
I’m increasingly happy to be a funny writer. What I find really funny is the straight faces that people keep in spite of the fact that life is so full of suffering. I think of the poses people strike, and the hatred that they develop in spite of the fact that in fifty years we are all going to be dust. We have to occupy those places so that’s really funny to me. Whenever I try to write hard and earnestly it always comes out like that. I have to sort of trust it. I can’t write anything that isn’t comic—I don’t know about funny—but comic. Earnestness is my enemy.

You’ve written short stories and a novella. Have you ever tried to write a novel?
Most of those stories started out as novels. I’ve tried and I just recently got to the point where I’m not going to try anymore. If it happens it’ll happen organically. I’m not going to sweat it because in the past when I tried to write a novel I thought, “I’ll have to do something fundamentally different, I’ll have to stretch things out.” But if I have any gift it’s for compression. At forty-one I’m like, “Well it’s nice that I can do something. I don’t have to do everything.” We’ll see what happens.

When I was working as an engineer at the environmental company there was just no way that a novel was going to happen. When I was in that job I was desperately trying to figure out another way because not only was it not a lot of money, but not a lot of time with the kids. There’s that great quote by Terry Eagleton: “Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.” That was such a beautiful lesson because you come home half despising yourself because you’ve done such stupid things with your day. You’ve groveled and you’ve not even groveled efficiently. Then you come home and you’re exhausted and you’re not capable of generosity and I find it really sad.

A lot of your stories, like “Pastoralia” and “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” take place in this beaurocratic, artificial universe. Disneyland gone wrong.
I think it’s mostly that job I worked at the environmental company. It was a provincial office of a medium-sized company that was based in Texas so it had all the rigidity with none of the brilliance. There were probably thirty people there and they were all pretty anxious and by the time I got there they were shrinking the place down. It wasn’t huge enough that it was faceless. We all knew each other. There was quite a bit of inside space where there was no natural light. My own ego, my youthful arrogance, and my own high expectations of myself were put suddenly in conflict with this because, you know, by then I had two kids. I was maybe thirty-three or thirty-four and nothing was going as planned. I hadn’t won the Nobel Prize yet and Hollywood wasn’t calling because I hadn’t published anything, so there was something about that that made it seem absurd. It was a pretty petty place and there were a lot of rules. I mean at one point I was sending stories out and I got a nice rejection from the New Yorker and I was so excited because an actual person had responded and in a fit of madness I mentioned this to my supervisor at the end of the day. And he got this stricken look on his face and he said, “Well actually, George, it’s come to our attention that you are using corporate resources to produce your ‘writing’ so we’d like you to discontinue that.” And this was a guy who knew me and he knew my kids. So that wasn’t too good.

How are you able to negotiate some of the awful things that happen in your stories—death, dismemberment—with humor?
That’s a South Side of Chicago thing because our whole world—communicating anything emotional—was to be sarcastic. If you wanted to say you loved somebody you’d punch him in the crotch. My impulses are always very sentimental, I mean mawkishly, sit-comishly so. So in some ways I think it’s a cloaking mechanism. If you have in one scene a kid getting his hand cut off, I think in some funny way you’re more willing to accept a sentimental scene. I don’t know if you’re more willing to accept it, but maybe the juxtaposition of those two things is more interesting. As a writer I’m really aware of my defects and how much I have to find other things to substitute, so humor helps. It’s got its own inherent energy so if you can sustain funniness you almost always have to sustain something else. Pure funny you see sometimes in humor columnists who are just funny, but in fiction to keep funny going you almost always dredge something else up. I think.

For some reason I think of Charlie Chaplin.
Yeah, The Great Dictator. I think partly it’s ritualized humility. If you think of the great evils: When China invades Tibet they’re not funny, they’re not self-doubting. There’s no trace of humor in what they’re doing. And Hitler: not a guy who’s at all prone to see funniness in himself. One of the great things about fiction is that if I write an asshole into a story it has to be me. I can’t generate him. And it’s always funny in the reviews they say my stories are full of losers. I know where I got all those things. I didn’t just make them up. I think it’s ritualized humility.

In your stories, one thing that continually strikes me is guilt. I’m thinking of “Winky” in Pastoralia, and just about every story in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.
Well, I think it’s the Catholic background. The binary that got set up was that you were either doing good or you were doing evil, and you were never doing good. If you actually appeared to be doing good there was probably something wrong with your intentions. I think if you have any moral tension, guilt is part of it. If a person can feel guilt they are at least cognizant of a moral interplay. It’s a powerful emotion—one, because it implies you’ve done wrong, and two, that you know you’ve done wrong.

When I was a kid in Chicago, the big thing was to go to a Bears game because it was expensive and people didn’t really do it. But this family that lived two doors down from us—they were maybe ten years off the boat from Poland and they didn’t have much money and they lived in a house that was completely bare, no furniture. It always smelled like noodles and they were always kind of barking at each other. One day the kid came over and said “I got Bears tickets.” It was like someone in the poorest neighborhood saying they had a house in the Hamptons. So I said, “Great, we’re going to go.” It was his father, his uncle, Greg, and me. It was a big journey with trains and buses, and we stopped at other Polish relatives and there was a lot of cheek-pinching. But I was going to endure it all to see Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. So we finally got to Wrigley Field and just before we go in the father says, “All right, boys, we’ve got a little problem which is that we only got two tickets, but don’t worry about it we got it figured out. The Andy Frain guys they never look up when they take your ticket.” So they picked each one of us up—we were maybe ten or eleven—picked us up and put us on their shoulders. And in those days they were still wearing those big overcoats, and they had us put our feet down their overcoat and they buttoned it up. And so the plan was that they were going to walk in and they would take our tickets and not look up. Now I was the all-time Goody Two-shoes, straight A, never had an evil thought. And I was just appalled to be cheating, and cheating publicly. Then the father says, “Now if they do look up, all you got to do is look retarded.” And he was serious. The idea was that if they thought you were retarded they would let you in for free. So he says, “Now let’s see how you’re gonna do it.” So we had to practice. And we started in. What I was really deeply ashamed of afterward is how willing I was. I was not going to get caught. If they busted us, I was going to go into the retarded thing, I was going to do what he said.

Something of that is in my writing too. When I’m getting ready to send something out, I get really intensely self-critical. To my credit I get really fanatical about revising, but sometimes that can bleed over to just lock-up.

I think sometimes you can find yourself frightened of what you’re going to find if you look at it too closely too soon. I finish something and I think it’s good and I don’t want to go back to it too early. How many times do you wake up the next morning and say, “That’s trash,” you know?
I think you’re right. Part of being a writer is to know when to trust yourself. I know I’m going to have a cycle. I’m going to love it more than it should be loved at first, hate it more than it should be hated later. You let your ecstatic side have it for a while, then you let your neurotic, self-doubting side. For me it was a breakthrough to realize that that wasn’t abnormal, that you weren’t right or wrong in either of those two, that you were right in both and wrong in both, and you just had to let it have a long shelf life and then it would start to make sense. Part of it, too, is knowing when to quit.

When I start to write a story I always have a simple design that would make it sort of classic and beautiful, but I can’t do it. I have some kind of weird thing that twists it, but the twist isn’t meaningless. Somehow the distortion that always happens if I work hard is useful. It’s like having this dog and going out in the field and saying, “Bring me back a pheasant.” That dog is your talent, and it runs out and and it comes back with the lower half of a Barbie doll. But if every time it brings back the lower half of a Barbie doll, you put those things together and you think, “That’s kinda good.” I don’t fight it anymore.

You write on a computer. You also said you revise a lot. How do you trust your ecstatic instinct electronically?
The kind of writing I do I wouldn’t be able to do without a computer. Until I get to the end part of a story I work on the screen almost exclusively. Any time something strikes me I just put it in or cut it or whatever. If there is anything significant that happens I’ll save it. But the main thing I do is to try to keep it really free. Nothing is ever lost. I can always go back to it. It’s like those fast motion pictures of trees growing. I don’t know if it’s true with trees or not but let’s pretend it is. You sort of see this thing accreting and parts disappear and come back in but in the long run it’s working in a general direction. I couldn’t do that on hard copy.

For me, writing has become—it sounds a little pretentious but sort of true—a spiritual practice. If you’re open to whatever the story presents with no attachments to what you did yesterday or any attachments to what you want the thing to be or how you want to be perceived, but just open to the needs of the story, that’s kind of ecstatic. It’s really beautiful to say, “What I did yesterday or for the last twenty years might be shit but that’s okay.” It’s interesting to see how the artistic form teaches you. It instructs you on your own shortcomings as a person. I love that writing can really help me turn back the spiraling neurosis. It can help me be a little bit less stupid, less judgmental and unkind.

You said it is important to be there when you’re writing, not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow. Is that harder for you now that you have a couple books?
It was really hard after the first book because I just thought I had squeaked through a door. “The Falls” was the first story of the new book that I wrote and it was a real lucky sort of breakthrough because it was so different from the other book. And I remember writing it and thinking, ‘No I shouldn’t send it out because it’s not like the other ones.’ But when the New Yorker took it I thought maybe whatever it is I have to offer is not totally manifest in that book, it’s something different, and that was a nice feeling to think it’s not really about style but something else you have to offer.

And maybe you don’t even know what it is yet, and maybe you never will. Maybe you’ll be eighty and you just keep cranking stuff out and you’re good enough and then you die. When you’re young you think, “I want my work to last,” and then you see that nothing lasts. Shakespeare doesn’t last, nothing does. The moment of doing it is really all there is. Everything else is all delusion. It’s hard to remember, especially now when books are coming out.

Tell me a little about The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.
I have two daughters, and I would tell them these made-up stories about this little girl and they were funny and in some ways they were funnier than anything else. They were freer and not so programmatic. And I wrote it. It’s basically a short story really. And I liked it. There was something Monty Pythonesque about it. I didn’t have to worry about any realism and I had a really good time working on it and I sent it to Daniel Menaker at Random House and he bought it. As kind of an extra bonus he sent it to Lane Smith and Lane had read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” So that instantly became more of an important book than it was. That was really a thrill. I’d go down to his studio in New York and there would be a whole wall of sketches. Not only were they true to my work, they were twice as good as I could’ve ever dreamed of. One, he understood that the book is an exaggeration, but two, he understood the flavor of the exaggeration. It was really a thrill for someone who is not a bit visual. It was a good lesson for me because he is the least neurotic person I’ve ever met. He goes into the studio every day habitually and gets it done. I’m sort of a Catholic, “I think it’s good but it probably isn’t.” The Eeyore School of Literature.

Are you currently working on more stories?
I’ve got one that Lane Smith and I might do if I can get it to be good enough. It used to be a novella. It seems to be pretty funny. It started to be a kid’s story and then it extended to be about genocide. So unless there’s a big need for a child’s guide to genocide it won’t be that. I’m sure this summer I’ll be working. I don’t really make too many plans. I just sort of see what develops.

Kevin Larimer is the assistant editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.