George Saunders Finds Inspiration at the Mall
The Booker Prize-winning writer talks about his work for The New Yorker
Since it was first launched nearly 100 years ago, The New Yorker has published countless wonderful fiction writers, but only a handful of them appeared very early in their careers — before even publishing a book — and went on to have the magazine be the main showcase for their work over the course of several decades. John Cheever, Ann Beattie and Donald Barthelme all come to mind. George Saunders first published a story in the magazine in 1992, when he was 34 years old supporting his family as a tech writer in Rochester, New York, and he has published more than 20 stories in the magazine, as well as several pieces of journalism and satire, since then. Anyone who has read George’s work knows how as a writer he is humane, profound and hilarious — as you’ll see from the interview, he has those same qualities, in equal measure, in person.
What follows are transcripts from a recent special episode of the podcast, Dan & Eric Read the New Yorker So You Don’t Have To, in which co-host and writer Eric Rosenblum interviewed fiction writer, George Saunders, about his history of contributing to the magazine. Dan & Eric, launched earlier this year, is a weekly podcast in which writers Daniel Torday and Eric Rosenblum discuss the contents of the current issue of the New Yorker. The interview with George Saunders is one in an ongoing series of episodes in which Dan and Eric excavate the history of the magazine by speaking with past and present contributors, including editors, writers and illustrators.
Eric Rosenblum: What was it like when you first got into The New Yorker?
George Saunders: It was a huge thing. I had sent them something before I even came to Syracuse as a student, so like ’85, and they sent me a really nice rejection. I was such an idiot that I didn’t know it was kind of an invitation to rewrite the ending of the story, and I was also cocky enough to be like, “Oh, I’m not rewriting anything,” so I just sort of rejected their semi-acceptance and a couple of months later rewrote it for a smaller magazine. So I had that contact and really my whole thing went dark. I lost whatever mojo I had. Really, the whole time I was at Syracuse, I didn’t write anything I liked or that they would respond to. And then, years later, when Paula and I were married and we had the kids and everything, I wrote “The Wavemaker Falters” from the first book, Civilwarland In Bad Decline, and I got a really nice rejection that was overt about saying “send us something else.” And that was really exciting. Finally, maybe within a year, I got that story called “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” accepted. That was just a life-changing thing. I remember I was working at this environmental company and we were doing a job up in Watertown, New York. We were doing this groundwater investigation and staying at this Microtel and I got a little note at the front desk, and it was sort of mis-transcribed like, “So-and-so from The New Yorker says ‘Okay, yes, maybe.’” At the time, my agent said it was statistically harder to get a story in The New Yorker than it was to publish a novel. I finished the job up there and then came home and Paula had gone around to all these dentists’ and doctors’ offices and found New Yorker covers and made a kind of a banner and we had a little cake and a little party.
They sent me a really nice rejection. I was such an idiot that I didn’t know it was kind of an invitation to rewrite the ending of the story, so I just sort of rejected their semi-acceptance.
ER: That’s amazing. What was the story that got rejected in 1985?
GS: It was a story that ran in Northwest Review. It was funny because it would have fit right into Civilwarland in Bad Decline years later. It was maybe a three or four page kind of nutty thing and I just could never figure out how to sustain that energy for anything longer. When I got to Syracuse [as an MA student] I kind of dropped that and repented a bit and started trying to do more normal realism. But that story in its tone and in its energy is very much like the first book ended up to be. Wah-wah.
ER: My first introduction to your work was reading “Sea Oak” in 1998, but shortly thereafter I heard you read “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” on This American Life.
It’s a story about a guy whose wife has died and he’s taking care of an older woman and he takes her memory to use it as historical educational video. Did that require a lot of editing?
GS: Yes. That story got accepted at a really interesting time. Tina Brown was just coming on as an editor, and it was a fraught moment and there was a lot of worry about what the magazine was going to become. I think her whole thing was that we’re going to be a mix of the new and the old and so the cover had a picture of like a Central Park hansom cab driver, a real old guy in a tuxedo, and then a young kind of punk guy sprawled in the back of the carriage. And then the two stories were mine, which at the time it was sort of unusual to see something so sci-fi in the New Yorker and then a really beautiful story by John Updike called “Playing with Dynamite,” which is a real classic New Yorker story. So that was a set-up. There was a lot of worry about getting that story right. Dan Menaker, who was the fiction editor, and I, and a guy named David McCormick, who’s now a really wonderful agent, and at that time was Dan’s assistant — we just labored over that thing. And there was all kinds of stuff about, believe it or not, at that time — were contractions allowed in a work of fiction? Back and forth. “I cannot, I can’t,” all that kind of stuff. Also I think I had the word “fuck” in there. So there was a lot of back and forth, a lot of actually pretty energetic disagreement. At one point there was somebody at the magazine who’d been there a long time and Dan told me this guy said, “Ah, the barbarians are at the gate.”
E: On to “Sea Oak.” It’s funny, you’d given all the drafts of “Sea Oak” to Keith Gessen, who was a year ahead of me at Syracuse, and he gave them to me. I had them in my possession for a year and a half or something and you’d forgotten about it, and then I was like, “I’d better give these back to George,” and I did. Can you talk about writing “Sea Oak”?
GS: That must have been a pretty big pile of papers.
E: It was a big pile of papers. I think the first one was hand-written and it was kind of marked up. And there was a series of typed pages. I was really excited to have it in my possession.
GS: Okay, you know the [Syracuse] Carousel Mall? That story has a debt to that place. If you remember the titular carousel was there. It’s kind of an old-fashioned double-decker merry-go-round sitting right in the food court and then weirdly, at least at that time, right adjacent to it was a Hooters. So, we’d take our little daughters there and we were kind of like, “Why did they put it right by the Hooters?” It started to seem like a part of this weird American tableau. First of all, it’s a fake old carousel, it’s not original, I don’t think, but you you know this kind of nostalgia this kind of Norman Rockwell thing, right next to Hooters, where you can literally on the merry-go-round look into the Hooters. I remember just thinking, “What would it be like, what would the equivalent of Hooters be if the world was run by women instead of men? If it was a matriarchy, would there be a Hooters? The short answer is there probably wouldn’t. But if there was, what would it be like?” And it just popped into my head the name of the place, “Joysticks,” and then I thought what’s that? It’s like an aeronautically themed restaurant where the guys are in ripped pilot suits or something. So that was one element of the story.
I remember just thinking, “What would it be like, what would the equivalent of Hooters be if the world was run by women instead of men? If it was a matriarchy, would there be a Hooters?”
Then at another visit in the mall I was walking along and there were these two kind of Syracuse working class young women walking near me and I could hear them talking to each other in this really interesting argot. It was this beautiful almost Shakespearean kind of a complaint-fest with lots of swearing and anger. So, at one point I went home and I just said I’m going to try to imitate those girls. I typed up a couple of pages of some simulation of how they’d been talking. I don’t remember the exact details but somehow those two wires got crossed. So I had some material about “Joysticks,” what would that be like, and that used to be, in those days anyway, I would just type a series of jokes, well what do the booths look like? What do the people say? What are they wearing? And then on the other thread was just these two girls talking in that mode, and at some point, as I used to do in those days, I was just like, well, these are the two things that are vital to me, I’m going to cross the wires and put them into the same story. And, then it kind of went from there.
ER: How long do you think you were working on it before you sent it to The New Yorker?
GS: Oh my god — that was a change in mode, because all the stories in Civilwarland I kind of just worked on them for maybe four or five months. I was doing it at work. I would just work in a straight line. I would just polish up what was behind me and move a paragraph or two or a page or maybe a page or half a page ahead. Steady forward progress. And partly that’s because all those Civilwarland stories are basically following the same trajectory. A guy has a bad life and it gets worse. I think “Sea Oak” might have been the start of this pattern, I would start writing stories and then get into them with a lot of energy and a lot of fun and a lot of joy and then halfway through they would lock up. I couldn’t figure out how to get it to move forward. I would end up writing a lot of scenes that were just duplicating beats.
That happened with “Sea Oak.” I was writing several stories at once. But I got locked up right after Bernie’s funeral, and I couldn’t figure out what was next. I kind of had the idea that — you know, it was a story about them trying to get out of that housing complex after the death of their aunt. I just wrote every version of that I could think of. They seek and find and kill her. She comes back to them in dreams and tells them who the killer was. Or he plays the lottery. It just wasn’t going anywhere. I literally couldn’t get past that scene. I would write stuff and throw it away, write stuff and throw it away.
So we went on vacation at one point and you know how that kind of clears your mind out. I came back and read the story to that point and I think I was taking a walk or taking a shower and I thought, “Man, you’re such a faker. You teach writing, you can’t even finish a stupid story.” At one point in this little inner berating of myself, I said, “I don’t know why it’s so hard for you, you know she has to come back.” I did know that. She was the most interesting person in the story and I killed her off. And in that moment I said, “You know she hast to come back. “ And my mind completed the sentence, “from the grave.” And it was like a lightbulb went off. Oh my god.
I finished the story in like two weeks after that. It just felt like from all my years of watching the Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, I knew that story, I knew the zombie trope. It was the first time I realized that if you’re writing a good story, it rebels a little bit, and it rebels mostly against your early and too-simplistic version of it. There’s that Einstein thing I always quote, “No worthy problem was ever solved on the plane of its original conception.” The story just locked up until I was willing to stop dictating to it and start listening to it.
It was the first time I realized that if you’re writing a good story, it rebels a little bit, and it rebels mostly against your early and too-simplistic version of it.
ER: A few years later, maybe it was 2001, I had just been accepted into Syracuse. I went to one of those Stories on Stage things in Chicago. Bill Buford talked about that story. He said that you rewrote the ending 20 or 30 times. Do you know what he was referring to?
GS: I think he was talking about the same thing — I got stuck halfway. And wrote the second half 20 or 30 times. Bill was a great guy and a great editor. After this four year trial, I finally had it done and I’m so happy with it and it seemed like something. For me the dream is to have a story that rewards your attention to it by shocking you. Suddenly you’re writing stuff and you don’t even know where it’s coming from or what you mean, and then when you look at it at the end, you go, “yeah, I’ve meant that all my life, I’ve just never been able to say it before.” So it happened with that story. Then you send it to The New Yorker. Another victory, they take it. You’re so happy.
Then, for some reason we get a late start on the edits. I don’t remember what the actual time was but it was about half the time you would usually have to work through the changes. Bill came back with some pretty major things. They were good. In one case I had two scenes that were adjacent that were set in the same place. There was only a time jump. Which I don’t usually do and it was a little evident and awkward and he pointed it out and he suggested that I meld two scenes together. After you have a story accepted there, you’re kind of hesitant to change it, at least your first mind is: “You got in The New Yorker!” Even if The New Yorker is saying you need to cut this, you’re like, “No!” We worked on it really hard and at one point my confidence was a little shaken. I kind of went fishing for a compliment. I said, “Bill, what do you like about the story?” He’s a very quiet kind of guy and very precise in his speech. So there was a long silence. And he goes, “Well, I read a line and I like it….enough to read the next.” And that was it. That was the whole ethos of The New Yorker — which is so deep and so perfect. Fiction is a linear, temporal phenomenon. You go through it a sentence at a time and the moment that you shut the magazine and walk away is when the sentences have ceased to compel you. That was great Zen writing advice. And I’ve always thought that was maybe sort of a perfect condensed version of what I had discovered about writing up to that point.
Fiction is a linear, temporal phenomenon. You go through it a sentence at a time and the moment that you shut the magazine and walk away is when the sentences have ceased to compel you.
ER: Have there been others like that?
GS: “Tenth of December” was just way too long to run, so Deborah [Treisman] and I agreed that we would cut it down below that upper limit. At the time I thought, okay when its ready for the book I’ll put it all back in. We cut out a bunch — at least 500 words — of a story that I thought was drum-tight. We got it cut down and I never put it back in. Most cuts, I think if you make ’em, you never miss ’em. And it just makes a beautiful, dense, but spacious feeling or airy feeling. What you’re doing when you’re cutting, you’re actually saying with every cut, “Dear Reader, I trust you’ll get this without me hitting you over the head.”
ER: Another story in Pastoralia I remember being really excited by before I ever met you was “The Barber’s Unhappiness.”
GS: It was about the same time as writing “Sea Oak.” I have a vivid memory of sitting at our dining room table at Rochester. It was a Monday. The kids were at school, and Paula was out, and I was just sitting there like a real writer. There was a guy in the town where we were living, this barber, and he had this really obnoxious habit of ogling women when they would walk by his shop. I used to wait for the bus across the street and I just noticed him doing this all the time. I just started thinking, “Oh, I’ll crucify him in a story.” And it was fun. Lots of fun misogynist jokes told from inside the mind of a misogynist and mocking him, holding him up for scorn. Then a similar thing happened as with “Sea Oak,” where I got about halfway through it and it just locked up on me. I think it was because I was having so much fun kicking that guy and painting him as a Very Bad Person beyond all hope of decency. The story form is, I think, mostly based on the assumption of the possibility of transformation, and I had painted that guy into a corner, as such a dick that he wasn’t going to be able to get out. So I wrote a bunch of scenes that didn’t end up getting used and I later repurposed some of them. It was just a matter of realizing that I had given the reader so many facts about what a jerk this guy was that no reasonable reader would believe he could be saved. So then it was a matter of backing out of that and trying to remake him in the first half of the story so that there was at least the possibility that he could transform into a different kind of guy.
ER: So you had to go back and make him sympathetic in the first half?
GS: I just introduced the idea that he didn’t have any toes on one of his feet. It totally did the trick. He’s a real judgmental guy. He’s no big winner himself, he’s not great-looking, he’s a little older guy, lives with his mom, but he’s always doing that thing that guys do where he’s always assessing women on how attractive they are, very dismissively. So that made him very unsympathetic. Well then you give him this secret dark thing which is that he’s missing toes on one of his feet and he’s very ashamed of it and suddenly he kind of opens up. He’s still a jerk and he’s still obnoxious and yet you get a chance to go into his head and show him having these very pathos-ridden fears about his toes and it kind of gives you a little hope for him. Yeah, that was a sort of a mechanical fix.
I just introduced the idea that he didn’t have any toes on one of his feet. It totally did the trick.
ER: In “Sea Oak,” Aunt Bernie saying, “Show ’em your cock” — was that controversial?
GS: No. It was one of those things it just seemed exactly right at the time. I think in person, as a person I don’t think I’m a particularly outrageous guy. On the contrary. But when I type something like that in the heat of it and it’s funny or good or necessary, I just can’t worry about it too much. One of the funny things was I wrote that story and I just was inside of it. Especially after going through that long struggle of trying to finish it, it’s like you’re fighting for your life a little bit, and if something works you don’t care and you get so deep inside of it that it starts being very specific about what it needs. And when you get it, you just deliver it. There’s no moral judgment.
ER: In 1999, there’s this great photo of you and all these wonderful writers — David Foster Wallace, Junot Diaz, A.M. Holmes and Edwidge Danticat — you guys were all chosen as 20 under 40. Could you talk about that experience?
GS: I think I was just over the age limit but they grandfathered me in. I got a letter from Megan O’Rourke saying, “Do you have anything that’s like two pages. Or three pages.” And I sent a few things and they were not my best. And I’m like, “Why do you need that?” And she’s like, “Well, we’re doing this under 40 issue and we’d really like to put you in there but we need some new work.” I’m really slow as I’ve been indicating. I kind of freaked out about it. I really wanted in there. I’m a big fan of the subconscious being kind of willing to work with you. So one night I dreamed that this old girlfriend that we had parted and it had been my fault basically and she came to me and said, “I just want you to know, I’m fine.” And I’m like, “Oh, good,” and she goes, “No — I’m fine.” She said, “You don’t talk, you listen. I’m fine. I have a beautiful baby.” I said, “Oh, I’m — “ “No. I have a beautiful baby and he’s so smart. He’s a genius.”
Just then this little baby crawls in and the baby is really smart. He’s talking about Einstein and he’s reciting the periodic table of elements. And I’m like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” And then as he’s talking I notice that there’s a zipper on the back of his head like he’s wearing a mask. And I realize in that dream logic that he’s not that smart but he’s got a computer face mask on that’s causing him to say these smart things. So, anyway, welcome to my dream life. But I get up and I’m like, “Oh, yeah,” and I wrote that up. And that was a really quick story called “I CAN SPEAK!” based on that dream. And that was the story that The New Yorker took.
So we all went to New York. I was there with David and Junot Diaz and Jeff Eugenides and Edwidge Danticat. They had built this kind of weird carousel thing on one of the islands off of Manhattan. They would spin it real slowly and the camera was mounted on the thing so that we would be in focus but the background would be blurred. So we spent this really wonderful day out there talking. I think for most of us it was the first time we ever met. That night I think Bill Buford had a big party in his apartment. I seeing Don DeLillo on the elevator on his way out, and walking in and there’s Steve Martin, Mary Karr, Norman Mailer, and Rushdie all sitting at the same table or something like that.
Our kids were little, I was teaching at Syracuse and we’d never been to any of those kinds of things before. At one point Paula and I went in and it was kind of too much and there’s a little backroom. We thought, “Let’s just sit down away from all the famous people and collect ourselves.” So we sit down and we look up and Salman Rushdie is there with Padma Lakshmi. Right there at the table. This was right after the Fatwa. There was a real long awkward pause. And finally Paula goes, “So where you living now?” A good icebreaker. But those were really sweet days because our lives were still fairly hardscrabble and we didn’t have any money. I had one book out. Paula was working, I was working. It was almost like Cinderella going to the ball a little. I always just remember trying to just listen to them and see what they knew that I didn’t and see what they thought about their work and how they talked about their work and how they related to each other and the world.
ER: Did you connect to any of them that night do you remember?
GS: Jeff Eugenides and I are still friends. And David Foster Wallace and I — we were friends forever after that. It’s a close-knit fraternity in the sense that you may not see somebody for a few years but when you do, there’s a kind of a team feeling or a camaraderie. And likewise with the editors and the people who work at that magazine. It’s really sweet.
ER: Were you pretty close to Dave?
GS: Yeah, I think in that sense that we probably met in person four times or something. One time he came to Syracuse and we went over to a house of a mutual friend and had brunch over there. I visited him in Pomona and read there. I interviewed him on stage at the Public Theater when Oblivion came out. So I think we were friends in the sense that I think we really liked and respected each other and we were pretty frank with each other when we got together. As I remember we didn’t waste a lot of time on small talk; we got around to talking about fiction and talking about what it was supposed to do. And my memory is, and of course I’m probably projecting because this was certainly my interest at the time, but my memory is that we were talking a lot about a mutual restlessness about how ironic fiction was or how kind of hesitant we were to partake of sincerity maybe, something like that. And at least on my part, the feeling was that it was constricting to have to affect a certain world-weary or cynical stance was limiting. And then for me a lot of that is authentic and real and philosophical but there’s also a certain part that is — you know, it’s a phone-in, it’s habitual. So I think we were directly or indirectly talking about that. And you can see that interest — it’s in his essays and also I think in the Pale King you can see him really trying to figure out how to be as masterful and virtuosic and funny as he was and at the same time, the way I would put it is somehow honor the simpler, more virtuous aspirations that people have. And that’s a real high-wire act. And I think he was getting there. He’d have done it with that great mind of his and great heart.
ER: I always remember in grad school the day that “Jon” came out. There was a huge buzz. All the students were so excited. I wonder what that was like for you.
GS: It was great. To have something in the magazine that you’re proud of. This is probably an indictment of my low self-esteem, but it really helps my teaching. Because you feel like, okay, I may not be able to explain it to you, but I think I know how to do this shit. I always felt — I’m kind of an anxious person and as a teacher, I was an anxious teacher. I did a lot of prep and I would really obsess over a class that didn’t go well. With students like you guys you cannot phone it in. You guys are too smart and too talented. A phone-in will not get you what you need. You have to be really prepared and sharp and honest and in the moment when you’re teaching students at that level. So, when you’re me and you’re not that well-educated and you’re kind of working class and you go into a class like that, I always feel like my imitation of an academic person is stupider than I am as a writer. So when you have a piece in The New Yorker it’s nice to just sort of go, look, I’m not smart enough to explain this exactly, but here’s some evidence that I do at a visceral or intuitive lever I kind of know what to do. And when I’m editing your work I kind of say to the class, implicitly, this guy, the one who wrote the story is the one who’s editing your work. It’s not this bumbler in front of you in class, it’s another mind that I can bring. You get a story in The New Yorker and you’ve got sort of continued demonstrated viability.
When you have a piece in The New Yorker it’s nice to just sort of go, look, I’m not smart enough to explain this exactly, but here’s some evidence that I do at a visceral or intuitive lever I kind of know what to do.
ER: I always remember this one moment. We were sitting at the place we used to go for dinners with visiting writers. You and Adam Levin and I were talking, and Levin said something about Philip Roth. For some reason I couldn’t reconcile the idea that you would like Philip Roth. I had this idea that you guys were very opposite aesthetically, and, not morally, but sensibility-wise. And I was like, “George doesn’t like Roth.” And you said, “No, no, no, I do. I love Roth.” But for some reason I couldn’t grasp that.
GS: I think you can have the opposition and still love somebody’s work. Maybe it’s like there’s kind of two reading minds. One is the one that you publicly, in your functional, real human life, you say, “God, who doesn’t admire Roth, it’s just amazing what he’s accomplished.” And then I think there’s a second thing where you have to say of every writer, “Okay, what do I know, or what can I do, or what can I bring to the table, that this person can’t.” It’s not because of any defect in the person it’s just because they’re a particular person who’s trained themselves to accentuate certain things in themselves. So, I will take writers who I just dearly love like Chekhov, even, and Gogol, and I think at some point in a very quiet place in your mind, you have to say, okay, is there any tiny fragment of human life that I might know one percent more about than that person does. And then you try to do that thing.
I think of it as a working class or maybe even a punk sensibility. Which is to say, “When they go high, I go low.” I can’t do Edith Wharton — I love her work, Paula and I are listening to an audiobook of hers, she’s amazing — but I can’t do that. If I did the reader would feel the fakery. So then you think, “Let me look at my life and look at my personality and try to do something that’s true and that’s authentically from where I’m from.” Then that’s why it’s possible to love every writer, every accomplished writer. And at the same time keep yourself a little aloof in a certain way.
I think that was true of Roth, too. It’s not about liking or not liking. It’s about not trying to stand in the same square as that person. In terms of personality, or personhood, nobody stands in the same square as anyone else. So then you can see craft as that which allows us to make and stand in our square, which is hard work. It’s uncomfortable. It sometimes means you have to be a different kind of writer than you set out to be. In my case maybe a lower writer, maybe not as polished or as masterful, but, I hope, vivid and intense and passionate about the small number of things I know.