George Saunders on Death, Trump, and the Trick That Made Him a Better Writer
An In-Depth Conversation with One of America's Greatest Living Writers
When I called George Saunders on the phone last week, I was supposed to ask him questions about his new novel.
Instead, I told him about an ex-girlfriend who one night had danced atop my kitchen table and proceeded to break my little heart.
This wasn’t completely extraneous. The day of the incident was the day that I’d first encountered George’s work. While I was in class, the girlfriend had slid a xeroxed copy of Escape from Spiderhead under the door to my apartment. In the margin of the first page she’d written “Read this shit. Now.” She used green ink. This was all mid-heartbreak and I loved her and I thought this was my chance.
I went right down to the floor on my belly and I read that shit now.
Saunders has since become my favorite living author, but that wasn’t the point of telling him the table story.
I brought it up, I think, to address the reasons why we read.
When reading an author as singular as Saunders—who’s work has been deemed urgent and essential and capital-I important—those reasons are many. But he’s most commonly celebrated for the compassion, empathy and generosity that his stories inspire.
His characters are losers and grumps and rejects. They are murderers and sad-sacks. In the novel, they are dead. But in every story, they are treated like friends. More, Saunders treats them as he would himself. As we would ourselves. Like us, these are complex and contradictory people, down on their luck, simply trying their best in a world that, too often, doesn’t care.
I suppose this interview gives me an opportunity to urge you (in green ink, perhaps) to read Saunders’ work—in particular this new novel—and to read it now. A chance to showcase his interests and perspectives and highlight the painful, tender truths that he presents in his stories. To slide these truths under your door with the hope that encountering them will expand your mind, stir your notions, and fill your heart.
This interview ends with some thoughts about death. Taken most basically, that’s what Lincoln in the Bardo is about. About a man stuck in grief and a group of souls learning how to die. In life, it’s easy to ignore the fact that that’s where we’re all headed. To cease to ignore it, that’s feeling.
Saunders says that if a novel does its job, its readers will look up from the page and find the “real” world more interesting and layered and dynamic and full of potential.
I believe with this novel, Saunders has done his job. Masterfully so. It’s a beautiful book, it really is. A beautiful book about death, and, so by definition, a beautiful book about life.
Mike Matesich: In your Author’s Note to the anniversary edition of your debut collection of stories, you talk about finally reaching a place of total artistic freedom. The kind that’s only afforded to the amateur, the doofus. Things have obviously changed for you. How do you keep that purity and authenticity at this stage in your career?
George Saunders: Well, there’s a kind of space that’s not really connected to anything like my age or life-status. What I’m looking for is fun. You could also call it a certain energy—or a deep-well—but whatever you call it, it’s just the space where, when your mind goes there, you don’t get filled with dread. Where instead you go, “Oh, that. That’ll be fun.”
And that’s still the same for me. I can remember way back when I was writing CivilWarLand, this all was a big revelation to me—to be able to shuck off that big backpack with all those conceptual or academic expectations. To be able to see that there’s a person on the other end of these stories. So all I’m trying to do is honor that person’s attention with my attention. But since she’s not in the room I have to honor her with what I put on the page so that when it comes off the page, she’ll feel like: Oh, there’s a person here talking to me.
It sounds really simple and it was actually. It was just this little mental move. There’s a moment when you become aware that you’re carting around a lot of bullshit ideas and the move is the consent that you make to wriggle free and drop them. When you’re able to just see writing as this simple dialogue and you say: I consent to my role as an intimate partner in this exchange.
But, of course, at different stages of your life, different bullshit is leaping up to cling to you. So for me now, with a career behind me, in addition to all the usual bullshit, you have another voice that’s saying: “Hey, this is what you do… this is how you always write… this is what you’re known for.”
And that voice is tricky, because it’s not entirely wrong. If you spent 20 years cultivating a certain way of writing, you might have found something reliable there when you take that and you dive deep. There’s definitely some legitimacy to that approach.
But when I thought about writing a follow-up to Tenth of December, I got a sad feeling. I felt that I knew that approach too well. Then this new material for this new book came along and said: “Okay, well, if you really want to try something different, how about you don’t get to use any contemporary voices…”
So it doesn’t really change. But when you’re 25, the bullshit that clings to you are these pressures. This kind of fearful lineage. That goes away once you’ve already done some things that you’re happy with. But then these other things come up. So it’s an ongoing struggle, I think. Same as always.
MM: Well it seems like you’re really well equipped to approach that struggle. In that Author’s Note, too, you give a definition of what you think a book is. It’s pretty existential. You said that a book, necessarily, is a failed attempt. That has to be freeing…
GS: So I was just listening to some Elliot Smith. And he makes these gentle little songs with just the guitar and his vulnerable voice and they’re so beautiful. And then, after that, I went and listened to some Electric Light Orchestra. Well, Elliot Smith is failing at being E.L.O. And E.L.O. is failing at being Smith. But in order for those two artistic ventures to become what they can be, they have to agree to that. I think it’s the mediocre person who says, “No, I can do it all. I can be Elliot Smith and E.L.O.”
So, I don’t know if it’s failure in the traditional sense. I think you burn through the model of the book that you’re working on. When I completed Tenth of December I was really happy with it but I was really done with it. So, you look back at something at you say: “Hey, that’s all right. But…” and I think it’s in that but where the next project comes from. Are there tonalities in this last work that I didn’t quite hit? And that allows you to pivot to the next thing.
It’s not different from relationships. A relationship ends and maybe you’re in pain, but it’s still not necessarily something that you would ever take back. You’re in pain but in a way, maybe, you’re sort of proud of it a little bit. Like, wow, I was really living during that period. But you’re still able to say, too: “Okay. That’s done.” Whatever that unique set of circumstances was, let’s put that behind me and now what’s next?
I’m an obsessive writer. And what I try to do in the revision years is to rule out the easy failures. There are certain ways to fail that have to do with the initial DNA of the story. Even when you take a story I really like, like Spiderhead. That story, from the very first few sentences, it’s got a sound, it’s got an ethos. It’s not going to be Wuthering Heights or War and Peace. That wouldn’t be true to this particular story. You don’t necessarily know exactly what it is, but you have to stay true to whatever that DNA is and enact it through the entire arc.
That’s part of the contract you enter into as an artist. You say: “I want to do something but in order to do something, I have to agree to not do all these other things.” So, to me, I try not to think of any artistic thing as a failure, but just as a noble attempt. But an attempt that from the very beginning, it tries to do something. Something specific.
I think it’s the mediocre person who says, “No, I can do it all. I can be Elliot Smith and E.L.O.”
MM: I’m worried about my sister and I want to see what you think—if I’m just paranoid or cranky or what. Over the holidays, we were both home, both eating lunch. And over the course of the lunch she took no fewer than ten photos of her Jimmy John’s sandwich. The sandwich, an action shot of her eating the sandwich, then one of just herself, the sandwich again…
What worries me, I guess, is that I think that whatever the itch is that pushes her to do this, is the same itch that might push someone to create or engage with a work of art. Boredom, loneliness, a longing for connection or validation, curiosity. I think I’m worried that she’s not going to dive into what I (maybe pretentiously) would say are deeper, more meaningful pastimes.
GS: Well I try to approach these things by pre-agreeing to see both sides.
On the one hand, yeah, people are channeling a lot of time and energy into social media and the internet. But, in a way, that’s the human moment. So as a writer, I try to say: “Oh, okay, that’s what we’re doing. That’s interesting.” And there should be a way to write a story that somehow uses that energy.
To go to the other side, also yes, it is a different way to use those energies that you mentioned.
I’ll tell you what strikes me. The time I spent engaging with this novel was one of the most enjoyable artistic times of my life. It was so difficult and it involved the use of so many different muscles that I’d never used before. And in the end, I came out with a 300-page system of meaning that, if I’ve done my job right, is really talking to itself.
A novel (or a symphony or a poem sequence) is such a complex object because of all the human attention that’s been put into it.
So I came out of that period of four-and-a-half years and it was all very positive. Every part of it was truly beautiful. I found different tones of thought in myself. And the book gave me rewards I didn’t know it would give me. It was an amazing adventure…
And I went right from that into that Trump piece for the New Yorker. And that meant I had to really go ass-deep into cable news and social media and all of that.
And I just noticed the difference in how my mind was working in these two different modes. I don’t even want to judge it yet—I just noticed how much more anxious and hopeless and less generous I am in that latter mode. The energy is more antagonistic and defensive. And on social media I always feel like I fail to express myself. That is, bring my whole self or perspective to the discussion.
I try to use writing to train myself into a higher version of myself.
The other way of looking at it is this: We as human beings have always had many different modalities in which we can function. I think it’s important to remember that artistic engagement is a very high-level way for the mind to work. And it seems to make us more patient and loving and empathetic. At the very least, it seems to make us more curious.
So I’m really doubling down on art to steer us through these times. Not because that’s what I’ve chosen to spend my life doing, but because I would say it’s the highest thing that a human being can do with his brain and with his heart. So as we’re faced with this more negative energy, it’s important to remember that we have this other mode in which we can function.
It’s like if you’re trapped in this little coffin with a window and you can’t really move but you look out the window and you see somebody dancing—it’s really useful to be aware that our bodies can do that, too.
There used to be that commercial with the egg—this is your brain—and then the egg in the frying pan—this is your brain on drugs. It’s kind of like that. This is your brain on novels vs. this is your brain on social media. And the point isn’t that one’s better, it’s just that they’re different.
I think people tend to burn out on stuff that’s not good for them. It might take a while. I still have to remind myself of this, though. Because I have the tendency to be a bit of an alarmist.
MM: Well, for me, that can be so difficult. I’m not perfect by any means, but if you’re someone so consciously aiming for awareness and improvement, it can be frustrating and exhausting to watch so many people be so seemingly, I don’t know, unaware.
GS: What I find hard to remind myself of sometimes is this notion that there is joyfulness in everything. Even in our mistakes.
Your sister, she’s in this period where she’s really enjoying and engaged in social media. There’s something beautiful about that. That’s one thing that human beings can do. For instance, when I was a kid, I was an obsessive baseball card guy. Now, if you hold my baseball card collection up against literature… well, I probably should have been reading Charlotte’s Web. But in the beginning of one of Tom McGuane’s books there’s a beautiful quote that I always mangle that goes something like: “Man is magnificently well made and enthusiastically lives the life that is being lived.”
So in the absolute perspective, the God’s eye view is—whether it’s baseball cards or high art—is to be able to say, “That’s interesting.”
The relative view is different, of course. You can deem a guy eating nine bags of french fries a day fascinating, but if you’re that guy’s dietician, you might suggest he do otherwise. I’m working right now on trying to keep both of those ways of thinking available to me. Doing so makes me a little a less judgmental.
During those Trump rallies I got on an elevator. And there was this family at the hotel, this multi-generational family, from a great-grandfather to this little kid, on the elevator with me and… it just seemed like all of them were drunk. They weren’t even there for the Trump stuff, they were just crude, talking a bunch of nonsense.
And of course my knee-jerk response to myself was: “My God, we’re going to hell in a hand basket.” But there’s another reaction to it, a trained reaction that says: “You know what, this also exists in the world… How would I write that?”
We all have our tendencies. But the supreme artistic move is to be able to take that camera that we use to observe and judge the world and turn it back on oneself. To be able to say: I am not ground zero. I’m just one weird, interesting human manifestation. So what are the things that I might be taking for granted? As David Foster Wallace brings up, what’s “the water” that’s all around me that I might be missing.
MM: Absolutely. But, as DFW says in that same address, that’s really hard. Last month, I read “The Braindead Megaphone” for the first time. You so clearly map out all the forces that we’re up against as a culture and it terrified me. By the end, you offer specificity and awareness as a potential solution. But, yikes, what we’re up against, what gets our attention… it’s really complex and addictive.
GS: Specificity and awareness is still the right prescription. Now, at this point, whether or not it’s going to be sufficient, I don’t know. It might be like an aspirin during late-stage cancer.
But it all goes back to the importance of art. I think there was a time in my life where I unfortunately agreed that art was a little bit extraneous. I knew from experiencing years of indifference that most people aren’t reading literary fiction and my response, I think, was to sort of shrug along and just accept being in this role of a skilled craftsman in a fading field among other really wonderful aficionados.
Looking back I can see that that attitude is really pretty stupid. Because art is right in the middle of the road we have to go through to be full human beings. And a culture that lets art slide to the periphery or, as ours has, one that replaces it with materialism or blockbusters or with social media—that culture does so at its own peril. Because doing so means we’re going to be in “stupid-mode” for a higher percentage of our cultural time.
And that’s really dangerous. I would even go on to say that the reason that we’re here is because of the fact that we’ve marginalized art. We bought into the idea that art is a frill from weird people who do it all on the side while wearing berets or something. Healthy cultures don’t believe that.
So if I could rewrite the ending of that essay, I’d replace it with a more muscular idea about art. David Foster Wallace read that essay. And he liked it, but he told me that he thought the conclusion was a little tepid. And I think he was right. Art is not this namby-pamby thing.
MM: So all of this is entirely your fault, you’re saying…
GS: Please, nobody read that essay anyway.
I will say though, as people who are against this Trumpism, I think we need to remind ourselves that we are equal citizens to people who are for him. There’s an invisible idea out there that says that those who are or are not x are somehow lesser. That’s actually not true. Everybody has equal rights. We can’t flinch at those who don’t agree or believe in what we might believe in.
We have to be forceful, articulate, specific, respectful, and peaceful. And we can’t flinch.
Working on this Lincoln book really helped me understand that America has always been a work in progress. A mess, full of failures and blunders. Almost like a drunk. A very powerful drunk walking up the street who keeps knocking shit over or insulting people, but in his hands he’s got this very beautiful gift that he has to deliver to somebody.
We aren’t the unerring champion of liberty and equality that I thought we were when I was young. But we do have something that I think the world needed and might still need. I don’t know if we know what it is yet. But I got a glimpse of it. In Flagstaff, I went to a Bernie rally and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more optimistic, egalitarian and inclusive vision of what the country could be.
GS: In Tibet they have these charnel grounds. Which is a cemetery but where the bodies are left exposed. They just hack you up with an axe and then they let the birds come around and eat you.
MM: Good, I wanted to end with some levity. But, no, obviously this book is very explicitly about death. Which I think is at the heart of most of your stories, too. They’re morbid and they dish out these uncomfortable truths. But that’s important, right?
GS: Well, those charnels are considered a really good place to do meditation.
MM: Well, I guess you’re right there facing where we’re all headed. Isn’t there something inherently depressing about that, though? The idea, as I think you’ve said before, that “we’re all walking corpses?”
GS: Here’s what I think. I think death is ultimately very hopeful.
We come into this world all tangled up with this mechanical system called the body. The body, includes the brain, manufactures consciousness. So your consciousness isn’t real, it’s just a phenomenon that gets made by this thing. But we think that we “inhabit” that consciousness. Instantly, we feel that we are real and that we’re at the center of the world and there’s this show going on around us.
And within that, there’s this assumption we’re not going to ever change or come to an end. I think that little jump, that assumption, is Darwinian. I think that’s probably necessary to live and continue to live and propagate the species. But in that little jump, that’s kind of the original sin. I think that everything that we suffer from in our lives is just the result of that initial confusion.
MM: So it’s when the thought that we’re solid and central rubs up against the reality that we, of course, are not?
GS: Yes, and death is the big boy in that equation. When we approach that, man, we really can’t believe it.
Again, it’s hopeful though, I think. Every time we’re disappointed in the world or heart-broken or hurt, you can trace it back to not the world being shitty or God being cruel, but to our own understandings as being delusional.
So in that sense, it’s a very optimistic thing to say, theoretically, that we’re able to overhaul those delusions. The pisser is that it’s really, really hard. And it takes many lifetimes, I think. But at least the hope is there, and from that hope there comes a context for what virtue is all about. Virtue, then, is anything that moves you in that direction of mastering those delusions.
MM: I read Patrick Dacey’s debut collection this past year, one of your former students. In one of the stories there’s a nice little mantra: “You were never born and you will never die.”
GS: That’s a Buddhist tenet. If you trace yourself back to your earliest origins, where does it start? It’s gradational. But, again, the trick is even if you know that, you still feel as if you were born. And so when you’re in the middle of the road and that truck is coming for you, you still feel that.
It’s the reconciliation of those two things that, I think, is the real chore of life. And I think writing is an important ally in that reconciliation, but it can also be an enemy. You write, you achieve, you feel proud, you get attention… and those things, if you don’t manage them carefully, they can make you feel even more solid and permanent. It can feed those delusions.
MM: Salinger seemed to struggle in that reconciliation. I always felt the response to his work was in dissonance to what he was really trying to say. Or maybe that all his achievement clashed with what he knew to be true deep down.
GS: Or he was just real smart. I admire that. I totally understand it. Once you get older and you recognize what’s important in all of these activities—you recognize it’s a very small seed when you consider all of the time that a writer spends doing other stuff. It’s just a very small seed and I think it kind of makes sense to excise all that other stuff. Maybe I just don’t quite have the integrity for it.
MM: Yes. Shame on you. Shame on you for not retreating into seclusion.
GS: Well, anyway, you’ve got my cell number now if I ever do.