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June 6, 2013 / josephesque

So, I Interviewed George Saunders for DASH Literary Journal

It’s true. I had the unfathomable privilege of interviewing one of my favorite writers who recently landed on Time Magazine‘s 2013 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. The interview was published in DASH Literary Journal alongside work from (and interviews with) Ron Carlson, David Hernandez, Kate Gale, and many other talented writers. I encourage you to buy a copy, not only because I shared the Editor-in-Chief responsibility for this issue, but because it is just truly a fantastically constructed magazine filled with exceptional content. Please visit DASH’s online locale for more details. Below is the interview I conducted with George Saunders as published.

A Very Brief Interview with George Saunders

by Joseph Blair

George Saunders has a long list of accolades. He is a MacArthur Fellow, New York Times bestselling author, PEN/Hemingway Award and O. Henry Award recipient, and he was recently the topic of The New York Time’s article “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” published only three days into 2013. Despite the grandiosity of his name and the prominence of his reputation as a literary dynamo, Saunders has proven himself perhaps the nicest, most approachable person I have encountered in the field of literature. Recently, he graciously spared time out of his expansive Tenth of December tour to sit down and answer a few questions for us. As expected, his answers were nothing short of illuminating and insightful.

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DASH: Mr. Saunders, congratulations on the wild success of your latest collection, Tenth of December. Your talent has been undeniably established and recognized on many levels over the last ten years, yet it seems this recent publication has hoisted you into a broader public eye. I want to thank you for taking time out of your day for this—time that I know is valuable and I don’t want to waste—so why don’t I just jump right into it:

Recently, it seems like I haven’t heard your name without “the writer of our time” tagged to the end. Do you believe there is any added pressure with this descriptor? Do you think these sorts of depictions affect the way you write or how you think about your writing?

George Saunders: I hope not. One of the blessings I’ve had these last 20 years or so was relative obscurity, and that is a great place to get some work done. Lately, yes, I can feel a ripple in the way things are for me professionally, for sure. And that’s been pretty fun and maybe a little alarming. You sort of feel, like: “Aiyee! I’ve got all these people on the line now, hope I don’t let them down with the next thing.” But the thing is, I really love to work, and I can’t wait to get back to it. And I find that – maybe from all these years of doing it – once I get working, any expectations (mine or those of other people) tend to fade away and I just get absorbed in the story. I think the key thing, always, is to get freshly involved in the story you’re working on and forget everything else.

DASH: You excel at bringing believable humor and otherworldliness to the (allegedly) mundane reality of everyday life, and in so doing, make it enjoyable for people to read deeper morals and often uncomfortable truths interwoven into your writing. Where do you think these real-life entities intersect with those of (for lack of a better word) “science fiction”?

GS: For me the trick is to sort of banish that distinction. What if we just say: “real” and “sci-fi” are just categories and we are going to, temporarily (i.e., while working), disallow them? Real life is full of magic and scary truths and all of that. The problem is, we get so habituated to seeing things in terms of “conventional reality” that we gloss over the terror and the beauty. So if we are going to get the proper amount of terror and beauty into stories, it might be necessary to sort of shake the table, so to speak; to suspend the idea that a story is some sort of linear representation of “how life is” and regard it instead as a machine to produce thrills (or emotion, or escalation – whatever).

DASH: Critics love comparing writers to other writers, and you have not been immune to this trend. Have any comparisons ever thrilled you? And on the contrary, are there any that surprised you or you thought didn’t make any sense?

GS: Honestly, I have low enough self-esteem that any comparison, to any other writer, is welcome.  With respect to being part of the community of writers, I feel a bit like Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk: “I just want to be in there somewhere.”

DASH: Did becoming a MacArthur Fellow “Genius Grant” recipient in 2006 change the way your family or friends thought about you?

GS: I don’t think so. I hope not. It maybe changed the way I think about me. Suddenly I could somewhat stand myself. Ha. No. Well – yes and no. I think the biggest benefit was just that uplift that came with the idea that some people, far away, had done this extensive vetting process and judged my work worthy. That was literally “en-couraging,” i.e., it gave me courage.  When I was writing this new book, when I got to a point where I wasn’t sure what to do, I often felt myself erring on the side of the bolder choice, partly fueled by the faith of those people at the MacArthur who thought enough of my work to give me the fellowship.

DASH: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? And what advice might you offer to emerging writers who are seeking to establish careers in what is—to say the least—a rather uncertain time for the field of literary publishing?

GS: I think of that bit in (I think) Hemingway, where there’s the description of someone going broke “suddenly and then all at once.” That’s how I decided to become a writer. I always loved the idea of it, and then gradually screwed up the other things I could have done (mostly by quitting my oil industry job), and then before long it was sort of like: “Well, you keep saying you want to be a writer, and nothing else is working out at all, so maybe it’s time to get to it.”

DASH: In “Tent City USA” (originally published on twenty-something GQ Magazine pagesnow more easily accessible through various blogs who have compiled the piece for a simpler read), you spent a bit of time doing field research and living among the homeless at the H Street Encampment in Fresno, California. Have you ever thought about returning and seeing how things have changed or who may still be around?

GS: I keep thinking of expanding that piece to book length and then, yes, a return visit would be a necessity. The City of Fresno actually closed down that particular site as part of a very visionary program where they bought each person six months of rent somewhere and assigned each person a counselor to make sure the person got all the government help they were owed, and to help them apply for jobs and/or get whatever rehab services they needed. So, I’d be very happy to see how that worked out. The tent city was on railroad land, and once they got everybody out, I think they padlocked the site.

DASH: Has teaching creative writing at Syracuse University in the MFA program affected your writing or the way you view your audience?

GS: I’m not sure. The one thing it has done is keep me optimistic about “the youth.” I sometimes hear people my age complaining, re. “The kids these days,” but then it always turns out that the person saying that isn’t working with any. The students I get are so good – both as writers and as people – that it is just continually cheering. Nothing is lost on them; they are generous, they are voracious readers – just a total blessing and privilege to be around them. It makes me feel like our literary culture is in very good hands.

DASH: Lester Bangs said, “Rock ‘n roll is an attitude, it’s not a musical form of a strict sort. It’s a way of doing things, of approaching things. Writing can be rock ‘n roll.” Have you ever considered your writing to be rock ‘n roll, or is that specifically saved for your guitar playing on the side?

GS: No, my guitar playing is so lame that there is very little rock ‘n roll in it.

I love rock music but, honestly, am a little skeptical of the “rock ‘n roll attitude” – at least as it often manifests. I think it’s because I lived through the 1970s and saw how rock ‘n roll can be used as an excuse for a lot of things: sloth, sloppiness, cruelty, empty posturing, nihilism, getting so stoned you can’t talk, and so on. Obviously, “real” rock ‘n roll is something better – that I’m all for. I think a piece of writing can sometimes take off and get daring and a little ragged, just because it is so in search of truth – that is something you sometimes hear in a great song. And I definitely aspire to that moment, when all former stodgy ideas of beauty and form get left behind because the prose is speeding off so desperately in search of something it can’t quite reach…

DASH: Lastly, have you considered writing that all-American novel “of our time,” or do you plan to continue down the path of short fiction, which has been so successful for you thus far?

GS: My only plan is to keep doing what I’ve been doing, which is letting each story tell me its ideal length, in real-time. No expectations, no plan, no preconceptions about what a piece is going to be.

DASH: Thank you kindly, Mr. Saunders.

GS: My pleasure.

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