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George Saunders
Riverhead Books
224 pp.

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in Bad Decline

George Saunders
Riverhead Books
179 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
George Saunders

Short story writer George Saunders discusses the unique fictional appeal of dioramas, the short story as a genre and the commercial viability of writing for a living.

Your stories have wonderfully original settings—an outdoor diorama park where the participants aren't allowed to leave, a self-help seminar aimed at booting unwanted individuals out of your life, a Humane Raccoons Alternatives business in which captured raccoons, supposedly destined for an idyllic release into the wild, are in fact bludgeoned with a tire iron and dumped in a pit ("our corporate secret"). How do your stories usually develop? Do you scan newspapers? Watch infomercials? And how did you train your eye to pick up on good story ideas?

Saunders: Well, I wish I could say I had a system, but really it's all pretty irrational. Of the ones you mentioned, only the raccoon one came out of real life—I saw a yellow page listing for a company called Humane Raccoon Alternatives. Other than that, they just sort of come as I'm typing. The result, I suppose, of a lifetime of living in America with an odd brain and my eyes relatively wide open, occasionally.

WAG: The biographical note in your first book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, stated that you were, at that time, "a geophysical engineer for an environmental company." (A side question: what, precisely, is a geophysical engineer?) The biographical note in your new book, Pastoralia, says that you now teach in the Creative Writing Department at Syracuse University. To most people, that's a surprising change of careers. How did you manage to pursue science and art, and why did you ultimately decide to follow art?

Saunders: The side question: a geophysical engineer, at least the kind I was, is someone who uses geophysical principles for practical ends. In my case, I was trained to obtain and analyze seismic data, in order to prospect for oil. So we'd drill a hole, put in dynamite, blow off the dynamite and record the resulting soundwaves on a computer, yielding a sort of 3-D picture of the stratigraphy underneath. (Sorry you asked yet?). I worked in Sumatra and Indonesia, doing this sort of work for about two years.

I was a scientist, albeit a largely incompetent one, since my freshman year of college at the Colorado School of Mines. I was writing all that time, but without any contemporary models, and while awash in technical homework. In the end, the two interests dovetailed: the tech writing I was doing influenced both style and subject. And any claim I might make to "originality" in my fiction is really just the result of this odd background: basically, just me working inefficiently, with flawed tools, in a mode I don't have sufficient background to really understand. Like if you put a welder to designing dresses.

WAG: Many writers—and publishers—argue that the short story has become merely a writing exercise. The pay isn't good enough to sustain anyone who isn't independently wealthy or currently living in a monastery, they say, although they acknowledge that writing enough short fiction can make you into a good novelist, once you've matured. On the other hand, you've now published two resoundingly mature, critically acclaimed short story collections. So I'm curious: do you think the naysayers are wrong? Is the short story genre indeed commercially viable?

Saunders: I'm not even sure that writing novels is 'commercially viable.' Most people I know who write either teach or live very frugal, often single lives. So I think it's important to simply disconnect the two things. The story form is incredibly challenging and beautiful and rewarding, in and of itself. A worthy thing to spend one's life on, no matter what the financial rewards. And I think you sort of have to end the discussion there. You can make some money with good stories of a certain type, while other good stories of another type won't make a cent, but a good story is a good story, and is worth the time, simply in terms of spiritual benefit to the person writing it. And then, secondarily, to the person reading it.

WAG: What do you tell your students, when they ask about the writing market?

Saunders: I basically tell them to try not to worry about it too much. Really great things will not get done if you have one eye on the market. Period. What pays well is not necessarily what is intense and important. We would all like to think that doing our best work will also benefit us in the physical world, but history is full of people who did amazing work and never got a break in life, and, conversely, people who did sucky work and lived like kings and died never knowing their work was bad. There are also, of course, those who did great work and lived like kings. And there are those most rare of birds, those who did great work, had the means to live like kings, but instead spent their time and energy benefiting other beings. So let us aspire to be part of the last class, cautious not to be part of the second class, and willing to be part of the first if necessary.

WAG: What attracts you to the short story genre? Does it offer you something that a novel can't?

Saunders: To be honest, I'm attracted to it because so far it's the only thing I can do. What limited skills I have are short-story skills: compression, brevity, deletion of non-essentials. I would love to take Isaac Babel's advice, which went something like: "write very good and long novels, very quickly," but of course he never did this himself. I plan to continue to be overjoyed if even the shortest piece works out, because they so often don't.

WAG: Why do you use dioramas so often as the settings for your short stories? Do you see them as a metaphor for something about contemporary life or—more prosaically—did you simply work in one as a teenager?

Saunders: I'm really not sure. They just often yield language and situations that are interesting to me. Sometimes I've thought that I use them because using them makes it impossible to revert to what is, for me, a fatal mode, namely: literal realism. Having set a story in a bloated, exaggerated theme park, you've committed yourself to a certain kind of ironic satire that, I've found from experience, is where I do my most intense work. I would sometimes like to think of myself as a Tolstoyan realist, or a Robert Stone realist, because I love those writers, but hard experience has taught me that I don't have both hands on the bat in that mode—so starting out in a theme park sort of corners me into the place where (sometimes against my momentary instincts) I do my best work.

WAG: Your stories are either set in the present or, in some cases, possibly an indeterminate future (aside from the satiric dioramas of the past, of course), and their themes are resoundingly contemporary. Have you ever considered working in an earlier time period without the diorama's ironic quotation marks being placed around it?

Saunders: I've tried once—the novella "Bounty," from the first book, was originally an attempt at a mock slave narrative. But then you get me, Mr. Working Class, trying to imitate 19th century speech and sounding like some drunk frat boy doing bad Monty Python. So, give me Contemporary Voice, or just Post-Contemporary Voice....

WAG: Finally, two related questions. Many writers have a favorite 'neglected' writer—someone they think has been unfairly ignored by the general reading public. Do you have one yourself? And who do you think is the best under-appreciated writer working today?

Saunders: I'm not sure that these guys are really underappreciated, but I love Isaac Babel and Henry Green—two of the great writers of the century and probably not always acknowledged as such.

I consider almost all of my favorite younger contemporary writers to be underappreciated, since I think they should all be given mansions and free computers and full refrigerators and told to go go go. So that list would include, among many others, and in no particular order: Ben Marcus, David Foster Wallace, Paul Griner, Dave Eggers, Mary Caponegro, Rick Moody, Arthur Flowers, Lee Durkee, Mark Sundeen, Junot Diaz, Chris Offut, Julia Slavin, Paula Saunders (my wife), Brooks Haxton, Michael Burkard, Kevin Canty, Edwidge Danticat, Larry Brown, Nicholson Baker....I could go on and on...

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers

Posted July 1, 2000


Photo Credit: Tom Mason

George Saunders is the author of two short story collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (a finalist for the 1996 PEN / Hemingway Award) and Pastoralia (published in May). His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's and Story, and have received two National Magazine Awards and appeared three times in the O'Henry Awards collection. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University.



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