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: Do you read aloud while you’re writing?
GEORGE SAUNDERS: I don’t. And partly because my voices are so kind of blunt. They’re not as interesting as the ones I’m hearing. So, you know, because part of the thing with voice, too, I think you discover one. But if it stays static too long then that’s no good either. So you discover one, then in the process that voices teaches you its next—its highest register, in a certain way. So if I was reading them out loud I’d be too focused on trying to maintain it. But somehow when it’s on the page and you’re, let’s say, engaging it through a vision, then a certain voice will suggest a sub-voice. So, in the best case, the voice will continue to evolve through the whole piece. You can identify it as being related to the beginning but it’s not just a duplication of that.
BLVR: When you say a “sub-voice,” what do you mean by that?
GS: Well, I’m trying to think. OK, so there’s a story, the title story in Tenth of December, there’s a kid who’s… broadly stated, he’s kind of a reject. And the way I stumbled on him was to say, “Oh, I need a kid,” and then have him start talking in this kind of like… I can’t do it…but kind of a slightly [pronounced with a fake voice]… no I can’t even do it.
GS: But it’s a nerdy voice. It’s a nerdy smart-kid voice. A little superior. So I started doing that, but in the process the sub-voice was he veered off in this kind of consistent pattern of fantasizing about rescue, which… I didn’t know that he would do that. But just from continually lowering myself in his voice you get a little bored with what you’ve done and also in a… not in a mystical way, but in some kind of generative way, doing a voice suggests just tonal variations—which, when you think of it, a tonal variation of a voice is identical to character, you know? I feel if I can get into kind of a good vein of voice then all kinds of exciting things happen, whereas, if I’m trying to dictate the story’s progress by some kind of conceptual mechanism, then the energy doesn’t get engaged.
BLVR: So it sounds like voice leads to character then leads to stories, in a way.
GS: Yes, exactly, right, yeah, yeah. Originally in the story “Victory Lap” I just had the idea of starting a little sketch à la Chekhov in this thing called “After the Opera.” It’s a little beautiful five or six page sketch of this young girl coming home from this social thing. But in the midst of my story, she uttered—she made a statement of belief, you know, that was basically kind of like, “If you want to be good, all you’ve got to do is be good.” You just have to be strong. And I thought, Oh, you little smarty-pants. She believes that and I believe that she believes that. And I kind of like her for believing that. But then as a storyteller your job is to poke that a little bit and say, “Really? Is that right?” And then that’s where what we call plot comes from—in that case. And she just blurted that out one morning when I was farting around trying to make her voice, you know? So, it’s kind of mysterious.
BLVR: And in that story that statement ends up being true, but not directly. It’s kind of…
GS: Exactly. You’re right. Exactly right.
BLVR: It disproves its self then sort of proves its self again.
GS: Right. Which again, not—not by design, but by, um… my thing is just iterative, just doing so many passes through a story that you kind of get to know it as, almost if somebody, how somebody had been rebuilding an engine for six or seven years and really knew what every sound meant. But if you… if I go through a story that many times, by the end of it, it’s almost like a diagram. I can see, OK, that’s where we establish this. This is where the counterweight is. This section is a little weak. We can maybe do something more there. But it’s the iterative process that makes all these kind of weird, unexpected things happen. Which kind of sucks because that means, you know…
BLVR: Lots of work.
GS Lots of work, yeah.