Author Interviews
3:29 pm
Sun January 20, 2013

George Saunders On Absurdism And Ventriloquism In 'Tenth Of December'

George Saunders has been writing short stories for decades.

Saunders, a professor at Syracuse University, was once a geological engineer who traveled the world; he now crafts stories that combine the absurd and fantastic with the mundane realities of everyday life. One story about a professional caveman inspired those Geico commercials.

His fourth collection of stories, Tenth of December, recently hit the shelves. The volume has garnered incredible acclaim. The New York Times Magazine called it the "best book you'll read all year." That was on Jan. 6.

Saunders, who won the MacArthur "genius grant" for his work, told Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that the short story, as a form, presents a challenge he finds irresistible. He started writing short stories in his early 20s, and says he only planned to write a few before moving on to novels. But he says he's hooked.

"I just find it so beautiful, and I have not figured it out yet," Saunders says. "It's just a deep, deep well. When you get it right, it can be such a beautiful explosion of submerged meaning."


Interview Highlights

On the origin of "The Semplica-Girl Diaries," a story that took 12 years to write

"I dreamed the basic image of the story, which is really disturbing. In my dream, I went to the window in our house, and looked out in our yard, and there were these four [or] five [of what I knew to be] Third World women hanging on a kind of clothesline. And the clothesline actually went through their heads. And I understood these to be kind of lawn ornaments. They had on these beautiful white smocks. ... But the person I was, who was seeing this disturbing image, was actually overjoyed and happy at the thing that he should have been disgusted by. I thought, 'Oh my God. I am so lucky. I have finally arrived.' — And just this feeling of gratitude that I could do this wonderful thing for my family. So I woke up from that dream, and it had some kind of political, metaphorical implications. And so then, the trick for the next 12 years was to preserve the intensity of that first thing without having it just merely be a propagandistic preaching job."

On finding voices for his characters

"I do this thing that I call third-person ventriloquist. It's kind of a standard third-person voice at first, and then, as quickly as I can, I try to get into the person's thoughts, but then with the extra kicker of trying to use [or] restrict myself to his or her diction. When you're thinking in somebody else's voice, you sort of do become them. So what I'm doing is kind of tapping into a part of me as a 15-year-old boy. ... It gets really psychologically complex. What I've found is this technique really makes me love these characters a lot, even when they're kind of messed up or they're doing things that are evil or questionable. Because you're entering the imaginative process through their doorway, it shifts the world a little bit on its axis."

On finding the right imagery and honing his craft

"For me, one of the deepest pleasures is going into my writing shed day after day [knowing that, for example,] today I have to write that scene where Robin makes that decision. And you're just kind of waiting for one little detail to come in that will liven it up. ... In truth, the real artistic process as I've understood it is 95 percent intuitive, seat-of-the-pants, at-the-moment decisions that you can't even explain.

"If somebody gave you a furnished apartment that they had furnished, your first impression would be, 'Well, thanks, but this doesn't feel like me.' But then if you were allowed to replace one item every day for seven years with an item that you liked better, after seven years that place would have you all over it in ways that you couldn't anticipate at the beginning. So, likewise in a story, if you're doing hundreds of drafts, and each time you're micro-exerting your taste, that thing is going to look like more and more of you. In fact, I feel like my stories are much more indicative of me than this guy here talking to you or even me on one of my best days. The story's a chance to sort of super-compress whoever you are and present it in this slightly elevated way."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

For 20 years, George Saunders has been writing short stories. Once a geological engineer who traveled the world, he started crafting wondrous short stories that combine the absurd and fantastic with the mundane realities of everyday life. One story, about a professional caveman inspired those iconic Geico commercials.

In 2006, he won the MacArthur fellowship. This month, his new collection of stories came out. It's called "Tenth of December" and its reception has been nothing short of incredible. Reviewers have raved and The New York Times magazine called it, quote, "The best book you'll read this year." George Saunders joins me now. George, thanks for being with us.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: Wow. What a reception to this book.

SAUNDERS: Yeah, it's been a pretty good week.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: So let's talk about the craft of the short story because, as I mentioned, you've been working a long time at this. You teach at Syracuse University. Why the short story form?

SAUNDERS: Well, a kind of dumb answer is I just find it so beautiful. And I have not figured it out yet. I started maybe in my middle 20s trying a crack at it, and it's just a deep, deep well, you know? So when you get it right, it can be such a beautiful explosion of submerged meaning.

So, really, I'm just - I kind of thought, well, I'll work on a few of these and then I'll write a novel. And it's just gone deeper and deeper over the years.

LYDEN: Because there are people who may not have read you, let's take a look at your work. And let's take a look at "Victory Lap," which introduces us to two teenage characters. One of the things I love about your stories is these are very ordinary people. And we can relate to those people.

They then get entangled in very extraordinary circumstances at times, but this is a girl who's imagining herself as a princess meeting her suitor at a ball - as many young girls do - and her counterpoint here is a skinny boy, a neighbor, terrified of his very strict parents. Let's start by meeting Kyle. His really strict father has left him a work notice.

SAUNDERS: Sure. Scout: New geode on deck. Place in yard per included drawing. No goofing. Rake areas first, put down plastic as I've shown you, then lay in white rock. This geode expensive. Please take seriously. No reason should not be done by time I get home. This is equal to five work points.

Gar, Dad, do you honestly feel it fair that I should have to slave in the yard until dark after a rigorous cross-country practice that included 16 440s, eight 880s, a mile-for-time, a kajillion Drake sprints and a five-mile Indian relay? Oh, shoes off, mister. Yoinks, too late. He was already at the TV and had left an incriminating trail of microclods. Way verboten.

Could the microclods be hand-plucked? Although, problem: if he went back to hand-pluck the microclods, he'd leave an incriminating new trail of micro-clods. He took of his shoes and stood mentally rehearsing a little show he liked to call What if Right Now? What if they came home right now?

LYDEN: So, George Saunders, this is so delicious because I'm just immediately in Kyle's head with him. And that's not a space that a reader always gets to inhabit with an author. And I was thinking you've been a geophysicist. And I thought, you know, geode is perfect because so many of your people are under these tectonic pressures of absolute rigidity - the rigidity of mortality, which we're all going to face, debt, which a lot of us face, futility, which I think most people feel at least once a day.

SAUNDERS: Right. For me, if I think about all those things, I kind of block up. But if I just concentrate on a human voice - I do this thing that I call third-person ventriloquist, which is it's kind of a standard third-person voice at first. And then, as quickly as I can, I try to get into the person's thoughts but then with the extra kicker of trying to really use/restrict myself to his or her diction.

When you're thinking in someone else's voice, you sort of do become them. So what I'm doing is kind of tapping into a part of me as a 15 year old boy, or in this case, a 15 year old girl. So it gets really psychologically complex. What I found is this technique really makes me love these characters a lot, even when they're kind of messed up or they're doing things that are evil or questionable.

Because you're entering the imaginative process through their doorway, it shifts the world a little bit on its axis.

LYDEN: Yeah. Another story in this book, you know, we mentioned a moment ago the way that you burnish your language by using the voice of people who find themselves in over their heads. I'm thinking of "The Semplica-Girl Diaries." Is that the one that took you 12 years to write?

SAUNDERS: That is. You know, I dreamed the basic image of the story, which is really disturbing. In the dream, I went to this window in our house and looked out in our yard and there were these four, five - I knew them to be sort of Third World women hanging on a kind of clothesline. And the clothesline actually went through their heads. And I understood these to be kind of lawn ornaments. They had on these beautiful white smocks. Welcome to my dream life.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

SAUNDERS: But the person I was - who was seeing this disturbing image - was actually kind of overjoyed and happy at the thing that he should have been disgusted by. I thought: Oh, my God. I am so lucky. I finally arrived, you know, and just this feeling of gratitude that I've been able to do this wonderful thing for my family.

So I kind of woke up from that dream, and it had some obvious, you know, kind of political, metaphorical implications. And so then, the trick for the next 12 years was to kind of preserve the intensity of that first thing without having it just merely be a kind of propagandistic preaching job.

LYDEN: Let's go to a story that I think is really accessible, George, and that would be the title story of this collection, "Tenth of December." I quite loved it, and I thought, you know, there's almost a '50s feeling in here. This is about a boy who goes into the woods. He's kind of a misfit. He's going to encounter a very sick old man who is thinking about ending his life. And that, to me, is almost classic. Like, I could see Timmy in "Lassie Come Home" and, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: But you've given it a complete, you know, contemporary twist. This is sort of near the end of the story where the little boy Robin has been saved but his savior hasn't. Would you begin there?

SAUNDERS: Sure. With a shock, he remembered the old guy. What the heck? An image flashed of the old guy standing bereft and blue-skinned in his tidy whities like a POW abandoned at the barbwire due to no room on the truck or a sad, traumatized stork bidding farewell to its young.

He bolted. He bolted on the old guy, hadn't even given him a thought. Blimey. What a chicken (bleep) thing to do. He had to go back right now. Help the old guy hobble out. But he was so tired. He wasn't sure he could do it. Probably the old guy was fine. Probably he had some sort of old guy plan.

But he'd bolted. He couldn't live with that. His mind was telling him that the only way to undo the bolting was to go back now, save the day. His body was saying something else: It's too far. You're just a kid. Get Mom. Mom will know what to do. He stood paralyzed at the edge of the soccer field like a scarecrow in huge flowing clothes.

LYDEN: A sad, traumatized stork bidding farewell to its young, a scarecrow in huge flowing clothes. I think one of the things that really hits me in your language is that it seems simple but you have such a way with image.

SAUNDERS: Oh, thanks. You know, honestly, so much of this stuff happens on the fly. And for me, one of the deepest pleasures is going into my little writing shed day after day and, like, OK, today, I have to write that scene where Robin makes a decision.

And you're just kind of waiting for one little detail to come in that will liven it up. Like that stork thing was something that I - it wouldn't have been a natural thing. I think it would've come after many drafts. You know, when you do interviews, you get a chance to talk about your work. You sort of want to jump to the safety place which is the concept. Like, yeah, that's what I do. I often think about image, and image is something that - but in truth, the real artistic process, as I've understood it, is 95 percent intuitive, like seat-of-the-pants, at-the-moment decisions that you can't even explain, you know?

LYDEN: Although again and again and again, which is why it can take 12 years...

SAUNDERS: Exactly.

LYDEN: ...to write a 24-page story.

SAUNDERS: Exactly. I always compare it to, you know, the process of if somebody gave you a furnished apartment that they had furnished, your first impression would be, well, thanks, but also, this doesn't feel like me. But then if you're allowed to replace one item a day for seven years with an item that you liked better, after that seven years, that place would have you all over it in ways that you couldn't have anticipate at the beginning.

So likewise, in a story, if you're doing hundreds of drafts and each time you're micro-exerting your taste, that thing is going to start to look like more and more and more like you. In fact, I feel like my stories are much more indicative of me than this guy here talking to you or me on even my best day as a person. The story's a chance to sort of super compress whoever you are and present it in this slightly elevated way.

LYDEN: George Saunders is the author of the new collection "Tenth of December." George, it really has been fun. Thank you.

SAUNDERS: It was a total pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.