George Saunders | Interview outtakes
I recently spoke with writer George Saunders about his Chicago background, inventive use of humor and his latest collection, Tenth of December. Here's more from our conversation.
All of your previous books are titled after places from those respective collections—CivilWarLand, Pastoralia, In Persuasion Nation. Does Tenth of December suggest a thematic departure?
I literally never noticed that until you just mentioned it. [Laughs] At the end, I just look at the titles for the one that looks the best on the page, that sounds best and also that somehow triggers one little extra beat of meaning. Tenth of December is sort of neutral in a way. I just love the way it looks and the way it sounds. Sometimes I think you're just trying not to step into shit.
Tenth of December is your first story collection in six years. What took so long?
When The Braindead Megaphone, my essay book, came out, it got more attention than I would usually get for fiction. And at the time, I was doing a lot of side pieces. Developmentally, I had hit a bit of a roadblock in fiction, but then at some point I started winnowing those things out until I was just writing fiction.
The prose is more stripped down in Tenth of December. Was that intentional, or just the natural progression of your writing style?
Just the natural progression. It's not even conceptual; it's just like, “I've been in this room awhile. I've gotta get out.”
The characters in Tenth often face some sort of moral or ethical dilemma—personal shortcomings or literally rescuing someone’s life. Consequently, there are subtle religious references throughout. Is religion something that was part of your life?
Yeah, as a kid I was a real strong Catholic. Once you have that when you're young, it makes a space in your heart. Our minds, our perceptual apparatuses as they come from the factory, are inefficient to cope with or perceive the bigger thing. So you turn to whatever you turn to, but the notion of, “Whatever my senses tell me, that's all I have to tell.” That seems, like, totally crazy.
Any more ventures into nonfiction, or other projects?
No, I had a couple offers, but I'm really trying to just focus on the fiction and see what happens. I’ve had great experiences getting deeper into my fiction when I don't do anything else, so I'm kind of intrigued by that. I remember when I was writing my first book and didn't have time to do anything else. Every day was just, you know, spending half an hour or something in fiction. So I’m gonna try to avoid distractions. As you get older there’s some kind of weird subconsciousness that’s really powerful, you know? And it’s at this point when it gets to be like a really well-trained horse or something. It's doing things I don't ask it to do on its own. So I'll just let this thing do what it likes, and try to get out of the way as much as I can. I think that means keeping my writing life simple and keeping my real life simple and trying to really give that thing the chance to get out and run a little bit.
So what's next?
There’s a pretty good tour in the spring. And I just started working on a new thing in September. I'm just kind of toying with it a little bit. I don't know what it is yet. It's a little longer, but—we’ll see. Probably about March I'll start to really think about what the next thing is. But now I'm just trying to enjoy this book and not think too much about the next one because I tend to get really obsessive when I do, and then the tour won't be fun.