The following interview first appeared, in part, on episode one of The Organist, the new podcast from the Believer and KCRW. You can hear the episode here and hear the full Saunders interview here. —Ross Simonini
THE BELIEVER: After listening to you read your work aloud a few years ago, I’ve since had your voice in my head whenever I read your work. Have you ever had this experience with a writer?
GEORGE SAUNDERS: Steve Martin is somebody… when I was younger I read his book Cruel Shoes and then I saw him live afterwards and the whole book kind of came alive in his voice. Yeah, for sure.
BLVR: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
GS: Well, for my work I’m not sure, because I’ll read the story “Victory Lap” sometimes and some people will come up and say, “You know, I—I liked it when I read it, but when I heard you it made more sense.” So there you’re like, Well, I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I hear these voices differently than I do them. I’m sort of limited as an actor. Like I have about three voices I can do. When I’m writing it I hear a much more subtle version. But, you know, I’ve got basically four switches I can throw, four voices.
You know, I grew up in Chicago and one of the things you can do for credibility there is—not really imitations, but you could sort of riff on an invented character. So somebody would make up a guy and give him a goofy name. And then we’d banter back and forth in his voice. You only did it with people you were really close to because it was easy to step over into humiliating territory. But that was kind of a fun thing to do, a kind of improv where you’re not only doing a funny voice but you were characterizing as you went. I was on a basketball team but didn’t play, so me and my friend, we made up this whole back-story for this team that we were sort of rivals with and we had, you know, we literally had sheets of paper with their home life on it and the names of their siblings. And these poor kids, they had no idea. So they’d come out and we’d do their voices. It was not that funny, actually. Our teammates got irritated with us because we were kind of being, you know, a little bit thespian-ish and it didn’t seem to be affecting the outcome of the game.
BLVR: It sounds a little bit like the beginnings of fiction writing.
GS: It really was, because there was such weird pleasure… So we had this one guy, he was a rough-looking little guy, so we decided his name was gonna be Louie the Lizard. So whenever he’d come out we’d both shout, “It’s Louie the Lizard and the Sewer Rat Gang!” You know? Which made no sense, but then the fun part was to go home and to kinda say, “What was his mother like? What would he do if he got in trouble at school?” It sounds insane but it was definitely fiction writing 101.
BLVR: The fiction comes out of the voices.
GS: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah, for me that’s really, really true. The quicker that I can forget about concepts and themes and intentions and just lose myself in some kind of riffing, the better I am, because then the energy gets up. I think it encourages more communication between reader and writer. And then the other stuff, like the theme, it does come in. But it comes in sort of honestly and from the side, instead of the writer kind of shitting it down. But when I was younger my mode of storytelling was I had something I had to tell you and you were supposed to just sit there and take it. And I was going to stage-manage the whole thing whether you liked it or not. And that, anybody who’s tried that, it’s a very low-energy thing. So for me now, if I can get lost in the voice, especially, that’s kind of like 80 percent of the struggle. Lose yourself in it and then, of course, later you cut it back in shape. And you start sniffing the air for, not so much for theme, but for the next interesting thing that might happen, given what you’ve already done.