George Saunders: Why the Revision Process is Critical for Building Fictional Worlds
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
George Saunders is the guest. His new story collection, Liberation Day, is out now from Random House.
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From the episode:
Brad Listi: Here’s a question: “Liberation Day,” like other stories in this collection, with these AIs and this entire world that you’ve built, is a real flight of the imagination. And the only way that any story works is if it has an internal logic to it that holds. But to build the internal logic of a story that is this imaginative and that has this specific of a voice, I’m wondering, how do you get there? Where you feel like the rules of the story are being adhered to so that the world holds together?
George Saunders: For me, it’s in the revision process, and you’re doing two things. One, you’re trying to get those rules to reveal themselves, and the way they do is that the prose will suddenly be good in a certain place, and then you’re in the story. And therefore I have to stick to whatever rules you’ve just told me about. For example, in this story, at one point I use the word pinion. I am pinioned to this wall. And it sounded cool, because it has a weird register. He’ll be talking pretty casually and then he’ll suddenly use a strange diction.
So I said, okay, pinion. You’re in the story as a word. Well, then it means that they’re pinioned, so that’s a rule. You can’t forget the whole rest of the story that their baseline is somehow attached to this wall. Revision is a process of doing that, and, at the same time, you’re aware that you bit off a pretty weird concept. I mean, even just hearing it described, it sounds crazy. Then revision is also based on me imagining you over there, reading it, and trying to imagine your resistances at certain points. Like at some point, is this thing so crazy that you’re going to bail?
If so, I better run up and beat you to the pass and give you something to hold on to. In a sense, that’s what worldbuilding is. I’m anticipating the places where you feel that this is just indulgent, or crazy for the sake of being crazy. And then I’m going like, no, Brad, it isn’t, because let me tell you something, and I give you a little more information and then you’re like, well, okay, it’s starting to make sense to me. These questions you’re asking, for me, that’s completely what the revision process is. It’s anticipating those resistances and also seeing it as a way to discover the rules of the world and then swear to adhere to them.
George Saunders is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of eleven books, including A Swim in a Pond in the Rain; Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Booker Prize; Congratulations, by the Way; Tenth of December, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the inaugural Folio Award; The Braindead Megaphone; and the critically acclaimed collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and In Persuasion Nation. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.