Interview with George Saunders
Author of Tenth of December
Interview by Marc Dickinson
In your most recent collection, Tenth of December, the award-winning title story has multiple points of view and a narrative that moves around in time. So in thinking about structure, how do you set up a story in terms of conflict and exposition? For instance, why did you decide to have the boy fall into the pond so far into the story? It seems that was "in media res" and much of what came before it is back story. How much do you feel you need to put in for the reader to care about the character before you put him in peril, and how much of a slow buildup do you rely on without fearing losing your reader?
I guess it’s because him falling into the pond doesn’t have any meaning apart from knowing who he is and who the old guy is. It’s just an action. But once it comes as part of a string of (escalating, interwoven) actions, then it becomes…well, I guess it becomes “plot.” I want you to care about the character, yes, for sure. For me, him falling in isn’t the real story – it’s essentially just a beat called “INTERRUPTION OF SUICIDE.” So we have to establish, before that, that there is going to be a suicide – and maybe even raise the idea that the suicide might even be (to the character, and/or to us if we were that character) a decent idea. I felt we should be a little bit rooting for the suicide to happen – and then the boy appears. He can sort of ignore the mere presence of the boy – but once he goes through the ice, the father in the character (whose name I can’t remember at the moment) appears, so to speak, or gets re-enlivened – no way can he let the kid die. And that, I thought, was a cool complication. For me, that’s really what stories are about: creating cool (i.e. meaningful) complications. That’s what we call “rising action.”
The beginning of Tenth of December, as well as in many of your other stories, is chancy because of the voice and the confusions (in time, place, setting, character) it can risk—you really have to trust your readers. I enjoyed reading it because of the great voice, but how do you go about creating a voice that is fitting, yet realistic and gripping, for your characters? And how much do you risk with alternating points of view and surreal voices (with limited context) without risking too much confusion for clarity?
That is really the whole game right there. You have to keep rewriting and cutting and changing until, it seems to you, the voice is the right mix of difficult and accessible – where the trouble you are putting the reader through is worth it, and the reader will feel that it is worth it. Which reader? Well, that’s the writer’s decision. I tend to imagine a really bright reader – someone who has read POV stories and stream-of-consciousness stories and gets the game.
The thing I might stress here is that NONE of this is decided in advance. I don’t have a working theory. I just reread and rewrite and edit and add OVER and OVER until I can live with the product.
Sometimes when we study writing, we think that the writer had it all figured out in advance, per some sophisticated literary theory or plan – but I don’t work that way. It’s more like a system of controlled and iterative improvisations, and then I take or leave the results of that improvisation.
In an interview in Italy in September 2010 you mention that you prefer writing short stories to novels because you are "a bit of a control freak," and you thinks novel writers have to be more courageous and not in such taut control. Your short stories seem to have a common thread of a racing, out-of-control feel; imparted because of the fantastical threads you weave between seemingly unrealistic characters and situations with very real issues and conflicts. As a result, how do you believe you are in control as the writer when it comes this style of writing? How does your sense of control show up for the reader?
I am in control because, at the end of the day, I choose which wild free improvisation to keep wholesale, which to cut, and which to work on and tighten the next day. We might compare it to some guys improvising in a recording studio – who then fanatically go through everything and edit out all but the best (wild, improvised) takes. In the end (in my view) the writer is in charge of, and responsible for, everything that happens – even though (1) he didn’t plan it and (2) he may not even be able to explain it or (3) there are things going on that he has “blessed” but not overtly designed in.
In your work, you often deal with strange and possibly extreme situations—and these are fun to read and listen to. In fact, the stories are quite funny and unique at the start. But at some point you “pull the rug out” from under the story and it becomes suddenly serious, powerful, and full of emotion. How do you write characters that are funny but we still care about—how do they not become jokes and therefore unfulfilling? And how do you blend the pathos and humor in a story—how do they work together in a narrative, or push against one another—and how do you know when you’ve gone too far or how do you know when to pull back to find that balance?
Those are great questions and those are the ones the writer is trying to answer – not with a one-size-fits-all theory, but with that individual story, if that makes sense. It’s maybe like this – what would you answer if someone asked you, “Hey, how do you ride a bike?” You could say “Well, I try to keep my balance,” – but that doesn’t quite do it. That’s just a restatement of the original question. The real answer is sort of like, “A second at a time.” Writing a story is like that. Your questions and concerns in this question are perfect, right on the money – But my real answer to the question would be “Right, exactly, how DO you?”
You often use fantastical elements, surreal moments, or genre tropes in your work. What is your philosophy in blending genre and realism in fiction? What are the strengths of genre that you pull from, the strengths of literary fiction, and how do you use and balance them in your stories—and what do you avoid from both genre and literary fiction as you experiment?
My guess is that anyone under 70 has ample experience with cross-genre stories – just watch one night of TV (even back in 1970) and that’s all you need. So if I have a philosophy it’s simply to use whatever is needed to cause some emotional/aesthetic POP to happen. We all have a deep, deep knowledge of different forms and genres and so on – maybe what’s going on in fiction now is that we are just admitting that we have this knowledge and going (1) Oh, so that must be ok to use and (2) actually, people have been using that for years (see Grimm’s Fairy Tales, HG Wells, Shakespeare etc. etc.).