George Saunders in Conversation With His Editor

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 7 2013 5:30 AM

George Saunders and Andy Ward

The Slate Book Review author-editor interview.

(Continued from Page 1)

So with the GQ pieces, which I knew couldn’t be much longer than 12,000 words, there always came a draft of reckoning—where it suddenly became clear that entire vignettes (which were actually pretty good, i.e., pretty well-realized) would have to go.

Then usually just before sending I’d cull through all of the stuff that had been cut, and start editing that as well—trying to get each bit down to the bare minimum, or the essence of itself, so to speak. And as I kept working (trying to get down near 12,000 words) I would keep cutting from the good bits and whittling down the rejected bits, thinking: If you guys are ever getting back into the story, you are going to have to be really lean.

So I would send you the outtakes in the spirit of putting out a fishing hook—the ones that you would call out as being good or possible, I’d try to work extra hard to get back in—sometimes they’d have to bump out some other bit. And sometimes you would say: This bit has to go in. Or send the merging document you talked about. So it was a form of gut-check. Like, I could make a really ruthless cut if I knew that you would eventually see the cut bits and call me on it if I was being too Draconian.

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Ward: Do you still get that panicky feeling in your stomach when you send a story to an editor?

Saunders: Yes, and I hope I always do. I think that’s a respectful way to feel. A realized piece of writing had better be taking some chances, and since the end goal is communication, there’s always the possibility that the chance you are taking won’t pay off, i.e., the little leaps of faith that you’ve programmed in might be wrong, due to some tin-ear syndrome on your part.

Ward: Relatedly, do you ever not know if something is good at this point in your career?

Saunders: I feel more certain of what’s good, I think. Or—I know the trajectory of my own work through the many drafts, and can tell as I’m getting closer to the place where it will be as good as it can get. It reminds me somewhat of when I used to work in my dad’s restaurant. After your 50th dinner rush, you started to get a feeling for where you were in that process. It would be a total madhouse but, remembering the previous total madhouses, you could go: OK, we just have to hold out for another 15 minutes and it will recede. So sometimes in a story I can feel that it’s not working yet but at the same time can feel it slowly moving in the right direction. And can have some idea of how long it will take before that version of the story will show its true face.

Ward: OK, let’s do a speed round. I’m gonna throw out some topics and you give me 20 or so words off the top of your head. Ready?

Saunders: Ready.

Saunders: A book, written at work, by a youngish guy just realizing that capitalism can suck (i.e., can “plunder the sensuality of the body”).

Ward: The process of writing: Is it agony? (I think of the Post-it Philip Roth put on his computer, post-retirement, which read, “The struggle is over.”) True for you?

Saunders: I’m not sure I would call it agony but there is a kind of cyclic frustration. You get one story right and then here comes another one. When does that end? What I’m trying to do is get it to end right now, by recognizing that that cycle is writing. That is: trying to understand the frustrations and setbacks (and agony) as part of a bigger chess game you are playing with art itself. If someone really loved boxing, I suppose that when he got really nailed part of his reaction night be: “Huh, interesting—I wonder how that happened? And how do I prevent that from happening again?”

Ward: Your essay collection, The Braindead Megaphone.

Saunders: Sold enough that I got to go on TV, which helped me realize I should shy away from being on TV and just write fiction.

Ward: Your new book, Tenth of December.

Saunders: A book I would have liked to have written when I was young but didn’t yet have the chops necessary.

Ward: Why is that? Is it a matter of wisdom simply coming with years, or that you have gotten better as a writer? In other words, what did you not know then that you know now? Easy question, right?

Saunders: I’ve always wanted to write energetic, atypical sentences, i.e., sentences that were not normal or bland. I used to feel that there were situations and actions and mind-states that were too “banal” for me to describe them well. Now I feel that there is nothing that can happen to a person that is banal. Feeling that way was a failure of vision on my part. Everything that happens to us is interesting. That’s our job: to feel that way. And an interesting thing has started happening: feeling that way (or at least trying to feel that way), I am finding that non-banal prose will always present itself. Or the prose is banal at first, but if you start poking at it, with the confidence that the underlying reality is not (is never) banal, then the prose starts to rise to the occasion.

Ward: Favorite non-Saunders story ever.