A Hundred Visions and Revisions

Reader's Digest speaks with award-winning author George Saunders. 

Shreevatsa Nevatia Updated: Nov 22, 2022 20:35:09 IST
A Hundred Visions and Revisions Chloe Aftel

George Saunders says he can revise anything he has written, making it better, even if marginally. His confidence is not bluster. If Saunders writes the way he speaks— with generosity, with attention—anything must be possible. He makes you think the secret of good writing isn’t diligence, but kindness. During an interview with him last month, we did quiz the American author about his new collection of short stories, Liberation Day, but he also took questions about his craft and Buddhism. The dystopias Saunders creates can be discomfiting. Reading them, one sometimes feels the walls closing in, but Saunders ensures that even when he cannot afford his characters heroism, he will gift them truth.

The question is obvious: What makes George Saunders, a Booker winner, so likeable? “In this life, any kind of good manners will get made into a moral virtue, just your basic good manners even,” he smiles, waiting patiently for his writing students at Syracuse University.


You are not just a popular writer. You are also very, very loved the world over. Does that kind of affection ever come with its own set of pressures?

It does, yes. The biggest pressure is that I might believe it, and I am very inclined to that. But I love it. So, I am just starting this book tour here, and one of the things I’m telling myself is ‘just watch your mind’. I always say, ‘If you eat a lot of beans, you’re gonna get farty.’ And I am about to eat a lot of beans, so that is the danger. Aesthetically, though, not so much, because when I get home and start writing again, I have so much insecurity that the anxiety translates into energy by the time I get in front of a computer. So, while I am not too worried about it on the aesthetic front, it can sometimes take its toll. The ego is so clever. You go on tour, and you are talking about yourself all the time. Who doesn’t love that? And then you start flattering your- self for hamming it so well. That’s the only part I’m wary of. To be praised is alright. But it’s not necessarily good for a person to be loved in that way, because they’re really only loving a part of you. They don’t know the part of me that wakes up grouchy.

You say writing anxiety becomes writing energy for you. Do you ever face a blank page, or do you always approach it with something in mind?

Right now, I don’t really feel that the well is full, so I’m not too worried about not writing. Once I start, if I am feeling a blank page, I just fill it up. And that’s because I have confidence in my revising abilities. So, if I put out a bunch of garbage, that’s okay. If there’s one good sentence, then I’ll take it and leave all the rest out. I don’t have writer’s block because I know I can revise anything. So, for me, writing mostly is reacting to what I’ve already done. You can always react to something and make it three per cent better.

I remember you saying that all writing is basically just going back with a pen to what you wrote yesterday ...

For me, that’s helpful. So many of my writing dictums have to do with reducing anxiety around it. I just write better when I am relaxed and happy. If I can do certain practices that lower my anxiety, that’s good. I think David Foster Wallace once said that writer’s block is just the writer having stupidly elevated standards for herself. So, I feel if you have no standards at the time of writing your first draft, you are safe. You are just trying something, seeing what might be there.

Your novel Lincoln in the Bardo was celebrated everywhere. It won a Booker. You followed it with A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, a book that analysed stories by Russian masters. You have just released Liberation Day. What about the short story form keeps you coming back to it?

I think it was just my first love. Artistically, it was the first thing at which I made sudden progress. It suddenly just opened up to me when I was in my early thirties. So, I think if you do something that long, it’s just deep. You have, I think, hidden gifts in your subconscious for that form. Intuitions that you don’t even know you have. It feels very like home. Also, it is amazing to be 63, and work on all those Russian stories and go, “Oh my god, I haven’t done anything yet!” It feels like you’ve been messing around in a little garden, you know, and then you look up and see there’s this huge meadow that you could be romping around in. So, yes, I think the form gives me a feeling of comfort, of possibility, of a really nice familiarity with it, but not too familiar. It’s a familiar form that keeps kicking my butt.


image-88_112222083258.jpgSaunders, after winning the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction in London; Photo: Indiapicture/ReutersPicture/Copyright©:Mary Turner


But having written a novel, would you want to return to that form?

I would love to, because it was a really wonderful experience. But I am also kind of just waiting to get that feeling about a novel again. When I started that one, it was with this kind of a reckless feeling—“Even if I mess this up, big deal! I have had a good run so far.” There was so much depth to that material, because I had been thinking about it for a long time. What I do not want to do is try to write a novel. I don’t want to try. I don’t want to construct it. If something comes to me naturally, I would really love that. Because Lincoln did allow me to get into a lot of new spaces, and that was pleasurable.

Social media feeds often present narratives in a disjointed form. Every post differs from the other. Given the different styles you employ—sudden capitalization in one story, straight punctuation in the next—can the same be said for your story collections?

I think that this move you are talking about is a way of exploiting the form fully. If you have nine chances in a book of nine stories, then I like the idea of having each one of them occupy a different part of a room, of sounding different, of having a different basis. It is then that you get the most out of that form, exploit it most fully. If you were a guitarist, wanting to make an album of nine songs, and you decide to do them in nine different genres, it will let you show your range. But, also, I guess the idea is that all of those nine would also be diffracting light down from some central source, down at some common thing. These stories are all coming from me. They are all being intensely revised, and they all are kind of contributing to the process of saying one thing, in a certain way. But, having said all of that, it might just be that I get bored, too. I do not have a really wide range as a writer. It is almost like I keep putting on different costumes, so that I do not bore anybody.

In Liberation Day and Ghoul, how did you ensure that your characters keep a voice of their own even while your stories were taking that voice, their language, from them so forcefully?

In some of those stories, what I tried to do, subtly, was to show the process of them getting their language back. Their voices get, maybe, more human and full as the story progresses. There’s a kind of statement in there—even shorn of concepts, of programming, there’s some inclination towards truth that is innate in human beings. Somebody recently told me a story about someone who had Alzheimer’s. This person was being cared for by her adult daughter. And there was this photograph of the mother and daughter when they were young. The mother with Alzheimer’s pointed to the baby and said, “Me,” and then pointed to the mother and said, “You.” They had reversed roles, and she knew this and was making a joke about it. I thought it was moving that even at that stage, she had wit, she had judgement, and also a kind of sense of moving towards what was true.

You recently said in an interview, “A story wants to complicate a type into a particular, and when this happens, the character becomes, if not more lovable, at least more considerable.” Is that a shift in your writing then—have your characters moved from being ‘lovable’ to more ‘considerable’?

I don’t know if we find any of Flannery O’Connor’s characters lovable, but you are slightly tenderized when you see them in more dimensions. That’s maybe even a higher goal than ‘lovable’, because sometimes you just know you cannot love a person. But, considerable? Yes, you can do that. You can say, ‘I still don’t like her, but I see more about her. I am more with her.’ And then, if you have the bandwidth, you start to think about cause: ‘How did that person get like that? Why? The world seems right to her, even though I know she’s completely wrong. How does she fall into that state?’ So, that at least gives me a basis to work with the person, or maybe, more importantly, it makes me feel better.

We know your inner nun doesn’t take well to you getting too ambitious, but does she have anything to say about these dark dystopias you create?

She is good with it, because my inner nun is very sophisticated. It is funny. I recently got a letter from my first-grade teacher who is a nun, and it made me feel kind of bad for all of the cheap jokes I have made over the years about nuns and convents, because she is a glowing person. She is a spiritual dynamo. She has read all my books, and to her, they are reflections of Christian thought, you know, and I, too, think they are. So, I have a high vision of my inner nun. She just wants me to make good dystopian stories, that pose non-trivial moral questions.

‘Try not to be selfish’—can one ascribe that message to your vast body of work, perhaps?

I love it. Put that on my gravestone, because that encompasses everything. Why are we selfish? Well, because we believe in the self. Of course, we do. We are born that way. But while that belief is Darwinian, I would say it’s also delusional. The self isn’t real. It really isn’t. So, I guess the idea is to get in proper relation with this very naturally occurring thing called ‘the self,’ such that we can enjoy it without believing in it too much. That, I think, would be the definition of not being selfish.


image-86_112222083449.jpg(From left) Actor Greta Gerwig, George Saunders, musician Carrie Brownstein and actors Josh Radnor and BD Wong at the Symphony Space presents Selected Shorts: An Evening with Carrie Brownstein and George Saunders in 2016; Photo: Alamy/Copyright ©: Zuma Press


You’d once asked the students of Syracuse University to “err in the direction of kindness”. Do you maybe think the world and its politics might be making that advice hard to follow?

I think it’s making it harder, but I think it is also making it clearer that it’s true. I wrote that speech very quickly, made it to a relatively small audience, and it went out. Afterwards, it gave me occasion to think more about what I meant—what is kindness, really? What I have come to conclude is that it’s actually positioning oneself to be of the most benefit to people, especially those in your immediate circle, and also maybe larger. But how do you know you are being beneficial? That question just opens up into all kinds of deep water, philosophically—questions about awareness and alertness, about being aware of one’s own pre-existing needs. But yes, I still stand by it. I just think we all have to look a little closer at what kindness means. It does not just mean being friendly. That might be very nice but it is not sufficient.

How does teaching fiction and the work of your students help your craft?

It is just humbling, because they are very wonderful writers. You have to read their work closely, so you can discuss it coherently. And they’re so good that if there is any vestige of phoning it in on my part, I’m going to fall on my face. So, it keeps me very alert. And the other thing is it reminds you that talent is eternal. There’s no generation that isn’t talented, isn’t curious, isn’t hungry. You could call it a ‘fountain- of-youth’ effect. It’s wonderful to be in their presence. Also, to try and help, you have to really open up. We were talking earlier about the ego. So, I’ve been teaching for 22 years—but I have to forget that when my students walk in through those doors. That’s wonderful! I have to always be a beginner, be that alert and open. Or try to be, anyway.

Does your Buddhism and your writing ever meet—in theory or in practice?

A 100 per cent, I think so. It’s a small thing, but when I’m working on a story, my rumination goes way down. The monkey mind gets really quiet be- cause I’m concentrating. And then if I do that for two or three hours, I just come out feeling better. I feel happy. So, I think there’s some crossover. Also, there were several times while writing this book, where I got to a certain crossroads moment, and my habit was to take the story in a certain direction—sometimes by putting the character under more duress, sometimes by conceptualizing a moment of heroism. So, I think what’s similar to meditation is that you are at least aware you’re about to do a habitual thing. Then you can kind of notice that, and pull back and say, ‘All right, well, that’s fine. But let’s look at the whole field of play. What are the other choices here?’

So that feeling is familiar to me from when I first started meditating, and our kids were small. I didn’t know what I was doing but I would sit still for about an hour a day. And then I noticed there was just a short, very, very brief delay between impulse and response. And so, suddenly, I was a better father—I was listening more, I wasn’t trying to constantly guide them. I would just let them be. Or, you know, I would guide them less out of habit and more out of presence, we might say.

So, there’s a similar feeling in writing. If you can de-habituate yourself, you become aware that your mind is full of habits. And this thing that I often think of as ‘my self’ is actually just a collection of tendencies, habitual tendencies. These habitual tendencies feel like status quo, but what a relief when suddenly you realize, “Oh, that’s not me. That’s just a cluster of habits. Those could fall away, and I could see more possibilities.” I think that is what happened when I was meditating more often. It just seemed like the field of play was wider, and I was aware of certain negative or snarky tendencies. I was free to choose not to go there, which was lovely.


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