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God Bless You, George Saunders

Back in college I was well transfixed by the short stories of George Saunders. His most recent work has gotten some heady press: "George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You'll Read This Year". I had the pleasure of getting a short interview with him in 2006, where he told a wicked story of vindication for lambasting some pervert for his first short story in The New Yorker.

The Daily Texan, 8B
April 5, 2006

The Daily Texan: You will have a collection of short stories coming out this month titled after one published in the November 2005 issue of Harper's, "In Persuasion Nation." What sparks the instinct to write a story set in the brutal world of advertisements?

George Saunders: For some reason, my stories seem to work best when I start with something very small and non-literary. In this case, I'd seen this Coke commercial where, as a Coke truck progresses through a desolate town in winter, the town literally lights up behind it, suddenly decorated for Christmas, subtly indicating: Coke is Christ! So this made me start noticing this trend, wherein the purpose of an ad seems to be to show that all good things flow from the product: health, family, even virtue itself, come to you courtesy of CitiBank or whoever. So then I thought it might be fun to write a story just in commercials.

DT: For what product will you do your first commercial advertisement?

GS: The University of Texas. There would be a vast field of mindless droids, and then a big Longhorn would trot through, and behind it, all the droids would turn into really hot and intelligent college students debating the issues of the day.

DT: Many of your stories tend to follow a similar arc, beginning in the realm of the absurd and ending with an often introspective significance. Do you see that arc resembling most of our lives, with our giddy childhoods progressing into this soul-searching and maudlin adulthood?

GS: Well, now that you mention it, yes. This pattern also has to do with the story form itself, which, as I've come to understand it, is like one of those episodes of MacGyver, where he has to defuse a nuclear bomb with, like, a length of dental floss and a dead penguin. The storywriter writes himself into an impossible situation and then has to write himself out of it, and the only way to go is: deeper. Or, as Einstein said (I'm paraphrasing what he actually said, as we were both pretty drunk at the time), "No worthy problem can be solved in the original plane of its conception." I think what "Al" meant was: a story has to kick into a higher plane to satisfy the expectations the beginning creates. But he also might just have been yanking my chain. He was like that. All serious one minute, short-sheeting the beds the next.

DT: Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul last summer said in a profile by The New York Times Book Review that nonfiction is more apt to inform us about our modern world than fiction. How would you plead?

GS: I don't really think fiction was ever much good at informing anybody. It is pretty good at transforming people. I don't see stories as a way of getting information or cataloging the world or creating a picture of the world; I think of them more as a tool to create or expand one's awareness and love of the world: a form of prayer, really.

DT: Are you an active "consumer" of news?

GS: I'm not a fanatic about it. Like Thoreau said (and he was sober -- H. David was not a fun guy to hang out with): Go away for a year and when you come back, you can be sure that, in your absence, there were floods and scandals and murders -- the only thing you don't know is the locations, names and dates. I am really paraphrasing him here. He may not have even said that. To tell the truth, he mumbled. One day I asked where he was going, and he kind of mumbled, "Galdenstond." I was like, "What? No such place, Henry." And then he kind of stomped off. Years later did I realize he'd said "Walden Pond." Boy was my face red!

DT: Does short fiction give you an outlet to express grievances, political or otherwise, in a more thoughtful way than by simply coming out and airing them?

GS: I think so. It also forces me into the awkward position of examining my grievances to see if they make sense and even modifying them to be less bombastic and pompous. I do think of the politics, sure, but mostly I'm trying to tell a story that feels truthful and has done some consideration of all sides of a question. Most of all, I try to write, as [William] Faulkner said, about "the human heart in conflict with itself." And I'm sure of that quote. I had him write it out. Of course, being Faulkner, he wrote it out in a Southern accent, so it's very hard to read.

DT: Your undergraduate studies were in geophysical engineering. Did you write much during that time?

GS: I wrote a little but wasn't reading anything contemporary, so mostly what I wrote were imitations of Thomas Wolfe if Thomas Wolfe mind-melded with both Ernest Hemingway and Kahlil Gibran. Stories with titles like, "Oh the Vast Cosmic Place Where the Fishing Was Pleasant, My Brothers!"

DT: When did you cross the threshold and start using the other literary half of your brain?

GS: I worked for a couple of years in the oil fields in Sumatra, and there finally did a good bit of reading. Then I came home and traveled around a bit -- I think I finally made the jump when I started grad school at Syracuse. My math was never sharp and has only gone downhill, may it rest in peace.

DT: In Kurt Vonnegut's latest memoir, he writes, "I was a chemistry major, but I'm always winding up as a teacher in English departments -- There's been very little gratitude for this." Would you agree?

GS: I don't know. I'd have gratitude if Kurt Vonnegut was my English teacher. Of course, I'd even have gratitude if he was my chemistry teacher, or even if he just walked by on the street. I'd have the most gratitude of all if he'd written some of the funniest and most enduring and beautiful books of our time, which, come to think of it he has. And I am grateful.

DT: In context of your short story "Sea Oak," what is your connection to male strip clubs?

GS: If you see me, you will see I can have no possible connection with male strip clubs, unless I am servicing their vending machines, or it is a male strip club for the visually impaired or it is a special male strip club for women who like to see balding middle-aged men dance poorly, which I hope there is no such thing in all the world.

DT: Your short story "The Barber's Unhappiness" has an interesting postscript. Could you talk about it?

GS: I used to wait for a bus across the street from this barber shop in the town where I live, and I'd watch, every morning, this old pear-shaped barber sit out front of his shop and ogle any woman who passed by. We'd just had our daughters, and so I was a kind of born-again feminist, and this guy started to get on my nerves. So I wrote this long story kind of nailing this guy, or at least my imagined version of him. It took a few years but finally I finished it. And I actually felt kind of bad -- I didn't know anything about the real guy and had written this kind of nasty story about him.

So the day the story came out in The New Yorker, we happened to be (my wife and now-older daughters and I) back in that town, and I saw him come out on the sidewalk and had a little fit of remorse. (Fiction is so cruel! Here's this probably perfectly nice guy, and I've defamed him in the pages of a national magazine!) Then, as we passed, he looked my wife and daughters over and said, in this lounge-lizardy voice: "Laaaadies." And I felt vindicated.