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Matthew Vollmer
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"Knowable in the Smallest Fragment": An Interview with George Saunders
MV: While your short stories always have interesting plots--an aunt returning from the dead, guy working as cave man in theme park, etc.--it's the voices of these stories (for me, at least) that make them so memorable. In fact, when I remember your stories, I remember the voices: the rhythms, the repetition, the idiosyncratic logic, the corporate-babble, the exuberance, the wisecracks. Can you talk a bit about the importance of voice in your fiction, and how you come to discover the voices of your characters?

GS: Basically, I work at voice through constant anal-retentive revising. The criteria is basically ear-driven - I keep changing it until it sounds right and it surprises me in some way. I think it has something to do with a thing we did in Chicago back when I was a kid, this constant mimicking of other people, invented people, famous people. It was this weird historical moment where impressionists like Rich Little and Frank Gorshin were mini-heroes among my set of kids. So it has something to do with that. And then of course voice and plot get all tangled up -- a certain plot point is interesting, or attainable, or believable, in and only in a certain voice. The belief of the reader is engaged with the voice and then you pull your fast one. So it's all tied up together somehow. A character whose voice expresses limited intelligence, for example, we are more likely to believe him getting duped by somebody. That sort of thing. But writing, I would contend, is basically entertainment (with that word defined a little exclusively) and so voice is part of that entertainment.

MV: OK, so two related questions: What is your conception of what your stories do, or try to do, in terms of entertainment? And what does pulling your "fast one" entail?

GS: I guess by "fast one" I just meant: you cause action, and the reader believes it. You say the wedding is disrupted by an earthquake, and instead of suspecting you of trying to ratchet up the tension or trying to delay the marriage so the groom can find out about the pregnancy caused by his brother, etc, you just see the earthquake, if that makes sense. Because fiction is not only lying, it's lying to someone who knows you're lying. So to me, language is the distracting thing that makes the other effects possible. Which leads back to your question about entertainment. I think I would simply say that yes, I want my reader to be entertained -- but then I guess I would have to qualify that, and say that I envision my reader as being very smart and worldly and cognizant of the fact that he or she has only a short time on the planet in the best case, and so they are looking for a sort of 'entertainment' that has to do with intensity and depth and does not have to do with facile kicks or stupidity or denial.

MV: So how does the writing process usually unfold for you? I'm thinking of something like your recent story, "Jon," which, for me, was one of your most surprising yet-not only because of syntax and word choice, but also because it's told from the perspective of a kid who's grown up in some corporate research lab, as a test subject whose memories are mostly commercials and who gets daily doses of mood-altering drugs. How does a story like that come about? Do you begin with the concept? Do you hear a voice first? Is it image-triggered? Or does it depend on the story?

GS: Every one seems to proceed differently, unfortunately. "Jon," came out of a confluence of different, unrelated things: I sort of had that voice in my head, as a result of a stilted reading I gave and the resulting desire to really bust something out. And: a Frontline piece on youth marketing. And: the fact that my daughter's guinea pig had babies, which I then had to gender-segregate, in adjacent cages, because guinea pigs have no scruples, and are perfectly happy trying to hump family members. So the pathetic sight of the Boy Pigs standing on their little back legs, so as to gaze over at the Girl Pigs, inspired the Boys/Girls thing. Basically I just try to let multiple things in, even if there's not apparent relation, in the hope that something lively will result. And then the things you've "chosen" -- voice, subject, etc -- shape what happens next. But as I say, it's different every time, which is what makes it so frustrating but also fun.

MV: You have talked before about how important revision is to your work, about how you keep only about 40% of what you produce. Was revision something that came naturally? Or was it something you had to learn?

GS: Definitely something I had to learn. And to tell the truth, it's a little more complicated than I make it out to be. Sometimes it feels like the compression is happening in real-time. I might feel particularly "in" the moment of the story. Other times, it's this process of cranking out some text and seeing what can be cut. The cutting produces a clarifying or energizing effect. The constant, I suppose, is this sense that ultimately I control the process, and that the more patient I can be (patient meaning not consenting to call something Done until I really feel satisfied that I've been up every cul de sac) the better the story (or sentence, or paragraph) will be. Having said that, I should also say that this frequently (like today, for example) leads me to this too-frugal state, where I can't really get anything to feel joyful or fun. So it's kind of a double-edged sword. It's also a nearly spiritual practice of constantly being strict with yourself, but not too strict, because then the lights go out, or being generous, but not too generous with yourself, because then the sharpness goes out. A very enjoyable way to torture one's self for a lifetime.

MV: "The End of Firpo in the World," one of my very favorite stories--about a fat kid (Cody) on a bike that gets hit by a car--ends with an old guy (a "stickman with hairy nips") chanting "You are beautiful, God loves you, you are beautiful in His sight." For me, that is an amazingly tender and sad ending. Since everybody in Cody's world seems to think he's a loser, Cody thinks the stickman's utterance is just a product of madness. It's also a highly spiritual moment, since the stickman is offering a kind of benediction for Cody's life. What did you have in mind as you wrote this ending? Am I right to take the spiritual content seriously - that is, did you intend the spiritual register to resonate in a way that is unironic? If so, could you elaborate on that point?

GS: Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by spiritual. I mostly intended for it to be moving, in the sense that it would be felt as true. That is, that the cruelest thing about cruelty is that it sometimes convinces its object that that object is worthless. And we all know, in our hearts, that nobody is worthless, or beneath pity. So what got me into that story was this idea that some people go through their whole lives secretly believing all the negative signals mindlessly given out about them, and that this state of affairs completely colors their ability to give and receive love. Even in that moment of death, we are still, I suppose, thinking habitually, with the same old mind we've had all along. So Cody's version of death-time transcendence is to finally do what he thinks everyone has wanted him to do all along, namely, admit he is worthless. The spiritual part, for me, consists in just believing that every moment and every person is a sort of spiritual playground -- whatever God is, or is not, is fully knowable in the smallest fragment of reality. Trying to believe that more and more is what my spiritual life (such as it is) is about. And writing is certainly a major part of that effort.

MV: To what books do you find yourself returning? And what are you currently reading?

GS: I go back to Waiting for Godot, King Lear, Dead Souls, Red Cavalry, all of Chekhov's stories, Confederacy of Dunces. I also read Groucho Marx's letters now and then, and Steinbeck (especially The Grapes of Wrath), Hemingway. Among contemporaries, I find Ben Marcus's work inspiring. Also recently re-reading Michael Herr, Julia Slavin, Brian Evenson, Gary Lutz, D.F. Wallace.

MV: What's next? What are you working on now?

GS: I'm finishing up two things: a book-length illustrated piece on, I guess, genocide, for kids (ha) and another book of stories. I also just finished two screenplays - one for CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and one for the story Sea Oak. Thanks for your interest, and for the truly insightful questions. I enjoyed this process very much.

MV: Thank you, George.  Everybody at GutCult is looking forward to your new work..
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