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: I’ve heard you talk a lot about the literary influences, but do you ever pull your voices from unexpected places, like cartoons or movies or…
GEORGE SAUNDERS: Oh, I think constantly, yeah.
BLVR: …or comedians…
GS: Yeah. Yeah, but the pulling is more, you know, it’s almost more like you spent your life filling up this imaginary kind of basket that is over your head. Whether you want to or not, you hear a guy on a bus or you see a cartoon and then the interesting thing—and I don’t really understand it—is at some point you know you’re writing a story and a guy gets a coffee at the coffee shop. The coffee-shop person has to say something, and there’s that weird moment where you reach up into that basket. Now I don’t really understand how that works, but often a voice will just supply itself to me. And the quicker it does it, and the more naturally, and the less thought-laden, the happier I am. Somebody just starts talking in a Boston accent… like great… good… there’s a reason for that. You know? For me, the funny thing about writing is that 99 percent of what I’m doing is real intuitive and kind of hard to talk about. It’s just like, well, I dunno: you just pull the switch. Or you—sometimes you’re tempted to go beyond that and be more reductive, but in truth, it’s a much more, for me, a much more playful, kind of an ornery thing.
BLVR: The voice in general is this distinctly American vernacular, but it’s not specific. It’s sort of just this soup…
GS: Right. [Laughs]
BLVR:… of American dialect. Is that how you think of it, or do you ever try to point to, like you said a moment ago, you said Boston—
GS: Yeah that one, even as I said that I said, “That’s bullshit, you’re not… you could never do a Boston—a Boston [pronounced with Boston accent] accent. You know, I can’t do it.
GS: So, no. I really can’t do a regional accent. I don’t have that much interest in it, and I can’t really do it. So then the default is to do a… if you can get the language to feel, I always say “jangly,” to look and feel jangly, I’m not too worried about what the referent is. If there’s some kind of weird dialect but no one can say what it is, I kind of feel like, yeah, all right, well, it’ll eventually show up. It doesn’t have to have a linear sort of connection to anything that’s actually spoken. Um, yeah. And so I guess I sort of like the idea… I always talk about this idea of this overflowing addiction. So in other words, if somebody is—as they are in a lot of my stories—not very articulate, that’s fine with me. You know? I want to respect their mode of inarticulateness but then say to myself at some point, OK, even though this guy can’t communicate, it doesn’t mean he’s partial. As a human being, he’s as full as the most brilliant person in the world. But he’s got kind of a clogged output valve. You know? So then the idea would be, if you had a really full human being who couldn’t express himself, how would he poorly express himself? And my working model is that that’s poetry also. You know? Or maybe that’s poetry, period. So, uh, that’s kind of the working model.
BLVR: Do you try to specify place ever, or give yourself specifics, or do you like to leave it open-ended?
GS: I really leave it open-ended. I like that. I love the idea of, say, a cycle of stories set in the same town, but I just don’t…. Somehow whenever I do that I feel like it clips me off a little bit. Like for a while I lived in Pittsford, New York. And it was a beautiful little Erie Canal town with an old history. And I thought how it’d be cool to write a story that was basically all the ghosts of the town graveyard kind of talking. You know?
So I did a lot of research about upstate New York. And every time I’d start to write it I felt like I was in a little tiny room. I’d have a funny idea and go, “Well, that wouldn’t actually happen in upstate New York.” You know? Or, “They didn’t know about, you know, balloon animals in nineteen….” So I found that the best thing for me to do was to just say, “Place, meh. It’ll show up.” You know? So about as far as I’ll go is I’ll sometimes need a city name. And I can… all right, I can put ’em in upstate New York. You know? That kind of thing. I came across this quote of Flannery O’ Connor’s that I’m now parroting all over the place… It’s something like, “A man can choose what he writes but he can’t choose what he makes live.” So that has been a real true thing for me, that you might have an idea that you’re gonna be the great poet of the upper middle-class or the Boston bard or something, but I think your talent will tell you what you can do and what you can’t do. And if you can make the story come alive, then that’s your thing. I wanted to be a real somber realist when I was a kid. I mean, that was really what I had in mind. So place for me isn’t so… place sort of, um… again, it appears on its own and I don’t care that much about it, really.
BLVR: Yeah, you don’t have to worry if the blue heron really exists in Poughkeepsie.
GS: No. No, I don’t care at all. Which sometimes is fun with fact-checkers.
BLVR: Do you feel the same way with time? Because I’ve noticed, especially with the more science fiction-leaning stories that it’s unclear at what point the story takes place.
GS: I feel like you’re just making an alternate space and it’s primarily a language space. So, I guess the thing I’m mostly concerned with is if a reader at some point went, “Wait a minute. What year is this?” Then I’d want to address it. But mostly it feels like… like in Tenth of December, “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” it’s future, kind of. You know? My imaginary reader would never say, “Wait a minute. When is this?” They kind of go, “Yeah it’s sort of a little bit down the line, but not too far.” So I don’t really…I think you’re making a little machine, a little language machine, and that thing acts on the reader and you don’t even, I don’t think you really even know what it does. I mean, you know in real time, line to line, whether it’s doing what you want it to do. But in the end, I think the most fun I’ve had with writing is when I get to the end and I go, “What the fuck? I have no idea what that’s supposed to do.” You know? Except I’ve been through it enough times that I’m pretty satisfied with whatever it’s doing. Or I’ve kind of worked through its internal logic enough times and taken out the dead wood and put in some more lively wood enough times that I feel like it makes a pretty good carnival ride. You know? Especially out on the other end and your hair is sticking up and you’re kind of excited but you don’t really know why. That, to me, is probably the most honest model of what a story would be like.