George Saunders on How You Know When the Talking Spider Belongs in the Story
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
George Saunders is the guest. His new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is available from Random House.
From the episode:
Brad Listi: There are imaginative feats that unfold in the fiction of certain writers that feel extra impressive to me. And it might be because my natural tendency is more realist. It’s something I’m actually working on—I’d love to do something that’s more purely imaginative and fantastical at some point, if I could unshackle myself, is the way that I would put it. I want to talk to you a little bit about this idea of psychological physics, as you put it in your book, and the way in which a writer can execute on the page having something impossible happen and doing it effectively. This is something you’re really good at, and I’d love to hear you describe how you do it.
George Saunders: Well, thanks, Brad. One thing we haven’t talked about is the role of necessity in a piece of fiction. I always thought that you could get away with these fantastical things in proportion to how essential they were, how necessary they were. In other words, sometimes I’ll get a letter from someone who says, “I really love writing crazy stories.” And I always want to say, well, but is the crazy necessary? I feel like whatever we do, whether it’s realism or not, it should always be subjugated to some emotional intention. And again, it’s a vague, emotional intention. We don’t have to know exactly what it is.
For me, my intention is I really want all my stories to speak to those moments in our lives when the scrim drops away and we’re confronted with the brutality of this life that we’re living in. And also the beauty. But I want my stories to be comforting in the sense that they won’t be full of shit if you read them at a low moment. That means that I don’t want anything in a story that doesn’t serve that purpose, or another way of saying it is I don’t want anything weird to happen until it’s going to do that kind of emotional work. So my default is there’s no weird shit allowed. I’m basically a realist at heart. But every so often you get to a place where a story is saying, “If you will just let me have the talking spider, I will be more profound.” Or often what it does is it says, “There’s a question that I have to ask here in this story, but I can’t do it without the talking spider. Would you allow it?”
It’s a little bit like the scene in the first Star Wars where they go into that bar and there’s all those crazy drinkers. One of the reasons it works and one of the reasons we buy it—there’s two reasons, actually. One is because we’ve seen that scene in every Western. You know, they go into the saloon. So we see them going toward the saloon and we go, oh, yeah, I know this. This is familiar. In that way, it’s necessary in a certain way, or it’s normal. Then when you go in, the trope is illuminated by the cleverness of the different creatures.
Weirdness doesn’t sell any differently than the quotidian, actually. If I say a white horse stood in a corral, that’s realism, but if you give that notion to Cormac McCarthy, he’s going to make that sucker come alive in four dimensions with the sentence that he uses. We have the same job trying to describe a white horse as we do trying to describe a talking spider. It’s sort of a sales job in a certain way. I don’t really make that much of a distinction, and I’m real comfortable—like in this book I’m working on now, it’s going to have some stories that are very realistic and some that are really crazy, and what unites them, I hope, is that they’re all trying to do this emotional work I talk about.
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George Saunders is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of ten books, including Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize; Congratulations, by the way; Tenth of December, a finalist for the National Book Award; The Braindead Megaphone; and the critically acclaimed short story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and In Persuasion Nation. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.