A Conversation with George Saunders

A Conversation with George Saunders

George Saunders writes short stories, essays, novellas, and childrens’ books. Born in Texas and raised in Chicago, he graduated from the Colorado School of Mines in 1981 with a degree in geophysical engineering. After working in Sumatra for a few years he attended Syracuse University for an MFA in creative writing. Since then he has published multiple short stories with the New Yorker and travel pieces with GQ, among many others, and has written several short story collections. His work has appeared in the O’Henry Prize for Fiction, Best American Short Stories, Best Non-Required Reading, Best American Travel Writing, and Best Science Fiction anthologies. He was named as one of the top 100 most creative people by Entertainment Weekly in 2001 and as one of the best writers 40 and under by the New Yorker in 2002. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has also appeared on the Charlie Rose show, Late Night with David Letterman, The Daily Show with John Stewart, and The Colbert Report. He currently teaches at Syracuse. After reading everything George Saunders has accomplished, you might wonder how a small arts journal from a small engineering school was able to get an exclusive interview. In 2015, the editors attended the AWP Conference, the world’s largest conference for writers and writing programs. While sitting at our High Grade booth, one of Saunders’ students approached us and said his professor still speaks fondly of his time at Mines. We found his publishing house website and left a quick comment, thinking not much - if anything - would come of it. Next thing we knew we were directly corresponding with Saunders himself! The High Grade team compiled a list of interview questions about his time at Mines and how his experiences contributed to his career. Please enjoy our conversation with this great American writer who makes us laugh and reflect as he strikes inspiration for any CSM grad who wants to pick up a pen and imagine new worlds and indelible characters.

Q. Since we have all heard the mantra “write what you know” our readers would like to get a sense of who you are, beyond the obvious: an award-winning author who writes fabulous, and often satirical human stories. Can you share an epiphany or an awkward memory from your life that has inspired your writing?

A. I think a lot of my writing came out of my post-Mines twenties and early thirties, when I was realizing for the first time how pervasive the influence of money is in our culture – especially a shortage of money. It wasn’t one particular moment but an accretion of moments, where a series of lights went off concerning the relation between material well-being and grace. Then, a few years later, when we had our kids, the final light went on – this notion that the great unspoken story of America has to do with class and striving and the different ways wealth colors every moment of our lives. And running parallel to that was a sunnier, less buzz-killy track that had to do with realizing that I had a very opinionated relation to language – that whatever I was going to do in art would be coming out of my sensitivity to language (rather than, say, plot or theme or politics). All of this culminated around 1990, when I was working a tech writing job and working on fiction in spare moments at my desk – and started searching for a newish language in which to describe the corporate culture I found myself in. That ended up being my first book, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.”

Q. What would be your “I got to say it was a good day” day?

A. Well, I try to feel that way about every day – if we’re here to learn, then theoretically any day is as good as any other. Even a bad day might open your eyes to something. But one recent memorable day was the one in which I sent off my first novel. It was a nice, clear feeling afterward, for sure.

Q. You’ve been interviewed on many late night shows such as The Colbert Report and the Daily Show, which has been hugely popular to a wide audience. These outlets are also where many young people get their news. What was your favorite moment on late night tv?

A. I enjoyed a recent moment on The Late Show, when I commented that I felt I looked like a Muppet, and Stephen Colbert said something about it not being easy for me to have had Jim Henson’s hand up my…you know. That was a shining moment. I was sad, however, that I missed the obvious follow-up line (“Well, it was no picnic for Henson either.”) But seriously – I have really treasured the experience of being onstage with Colbert. None of it is scripted, so it is an unique and terrifying improv opportunity – similar to being put in a cage with a tiger. He is just lightning-quick and has this ability to sort of sculpt a structure out of the conversations as it’s happening – to pick up on an image or notion and grow it out into something bigger. Really a genius, and incredibly generous. Being on the show is always a little scary but I really feel it enlarges a person, to try something like that.

Q. We enjoyed reading your piece for the NY Times (“My Writing Education”) – any way we can get you to tell us what Doug Unger’s advice on writing dialogue is that you wouldn’t originally share?

A. It was basically just the idea that, when two people are talking, they are both doing so out of their respective thought-clouds – so the resulting exchange is often a little askew and non-linear. Also, that dialogue on the page has the same burden as the rest of the prose: to be fast and smart and charming (i.e., not so important whether it is “real” or “accurate,” except in spirit). Sometimes, especially in the arts, the magic teaching moment is a combination of what is said and where the student is in his arc – that moment was like that for me. He said just what would be most beneficial for me to hear at that exact moment.

Q. We’ve always loved the “one-off-ness” magic of the people and places you create. Many of your stories live in worlds very similar to ours with one or two science fiction, or what Jerome Stern called “Blue Moon,” elements. How do you develop the significance of these ideas and their effect on the world?

A. In a word: rewriting. Revising a piece makes it better in ways you couldn’t have imagined at the outset. We might start out with certain theoretical thoughts about a piece, but those are always going to be lame compared to what our minds will produce via iteration and incremental improvement. In this, writing a story is not so different from doing an experiment – you start out with one intention, but also open to the experiment going off in a new direction and yielding results you didn’t expect. So it’s that quality of openness and curiosity that makes a good writer/scientist.

Q. Would you like to see one of your stories made into a film or theatrical performance? If yes, which piece do you think would work best and why? Who would direct the production?

A. I’ve had a few plays made and a few close movie-calls – but at this point I’m less invested in that possibility. I am starting to realize that my one true love in art is fiction – I love the honesty and strangeness you can get away with, and the fact that you don’t need a team or any “financial viability” to get the work done – it just takes a computer and a vision. The TV and film worlds are very, very dependent on a financial payoff, and that can morph (aka deform) a story. I have a lot of confidence in the ability of prose to get at the deep and essential truths of the human condition, better than any other form.

Q. Do you feel that your time spent at CSM had a positive effect on your writing and literary career?

A. Incredibly positive. The main thing I learned was to work hard, without complaint, and without confusing effort for results. At Mines, if I studied 17 hours a day and got a 31 on the test, that was still an F. End of story. Likewise, in writing, if you work on a story for three years and it still isn’t working – well, it isn’t. Another way of saying this: I learned that persistence and faith can be transformative – we are not stuck in whatever the current reality might be. Work can cause self-enlargement. And change can come in small increments which, over time, take you to some new and exciting outcome that you couldn’t have predicted – true in the arts and true in engineering.

Q. Mines has changed a lot since your time here in the 1980s. The humanities and arts have been expanded in the types of courses offered, and there are more student clubs such as the Creative Writing Club and Anonymous Right Brains. There’s even a themed learning community in the freshmen dorms for the visual and performing arts. What advice would you give Mines students about how to balance their STEM curriculum and science careers with the desire to create and contribute to creative arts?

A. Well, I think I would challenge them to imagine that these things are not really different at all – they are just two manifestations of the same thing: an open-minded quest for truth. The arts, you could say, access a different set of human capabilities in that quest– intuition, iteration, access to the subconscious – but that set of capabilities is just as real and valuable as logic, induction, etc. In a sense, we want to be engaged in a sort of “ultimate empiricism” – trying to use every part of ourselves and every ability we have to get closer to the huge and unknowable truths of existence.

Saunders during his time at Mines (circa 1980)

Q. What should every Mines student read?

A. I wouldn’t presume to say – but I would definitely say that every Mines student should throw themselves into reading something, in whatever mode he or she is drawn to. It’s an amazing mind-expanding experience, even if it doesn’t come naturally to you (as I know it doesn’t to some subset of “natural” engineers). What I find wonderful is the idea that through books we gain direct access to minds now gone, who had experiences that we otherwise would not have access to. A good book is an incredible act of generosity from someone far away (in space or time). And odds are, there’s some writer out there who is going through just what you are. And the experience of knowing that you are not alone in history can be comforting and energizing, I think. I’d also stress that reading well is a learned capability – just because it doesn’t come naturally doesn’t mean you can’t acquire that skill. It’s no sin to have difficulty reading, or to take no pleasure in it – but as someone who took no pleasure in differential equations and had a lot of difficulty with it, I can say I am glad I tried to master it – that process made me a bigger person.

Q. In your evocative and passionate graduation speech at Syracuse University in 2013 that was so well-received it has been published as a book titled Congratulations, By the Way you say “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” You emphasized that we must dedicate thought and effort to being kinder because “kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.” Is there a particular message in there that you would emphasize for a CSM student?

A. I think one can make a pretty good logical, scientific case that what we are here to do is to get more expansive and loving – to outgrow the bounds of self. And it seems to me that this sort of thinking could be very useful to scientists, as a way of contextualizing the work we do – that is, a way to answer the question, “OK, so we can do [Scientific Task A] but why do we want to? What is the overall effect on our real mission here (which is, according to me, to grow more loving and outgrow the bounds of self)?” So, in this model, “kindness” is more than just being nice – it actually has to do with properly understanding what “self” is, and why believing in it too much is actually sort of delusional – and then adjusting our behavior accordingly. Or: coming to a more complex and scientific understanding of “self” (i.e., coming to understand, somewhat, from whence that feeling that we are separate from everything else comes) will automatically cause us to behave differently (and more sensibly/ logically). This way of thinking will have repercussions for our environmental politics, our corporate culture, in the political sphere. And ultimately it is very good science to look at things as they are (including our minds and our moral-ethical habituation) and live according to the truths we find there.

Q. Despite the jovial proclamations that the Colorado School of Mines is ranked as a top school for engineering in the U.S., CSM can be a hard place sometimes. Do you have a favorite memory in retrospect that has become really funny over time?

A. It can be hard. I remember that very well. One thing I took from the Mines experience was this notion that to be truly good at something might include some element of pain or self-denial or even torment. I think that’s ok. It’s certainly true in writing. I love writing, but when I say that, I am saying that I (also) love, or at least ‘bless’ all those horrible moments contained in the notion of “writing” – the blockages, the frustration, the feeling of never being good enough, the rejections etc. But Mines taught me that a good result might contain genuine horrendous difficulties. One good moment I remember: sitting down by Clear Creek, reading a book of stories by DeMauppasant. I think that was one of the first moments I ever thought of becoming a writer, and it was because the prose was really speaking to me – was coming alive in my mind, there with the sun coming off the water. And I could feel all of that Mines-stress falling away. And I thought, “Huh, maybe I could have an engineering degree and not be an engineer – maybe I could be a writer.” I was still committed to graduating, but I had this feeling that this mini-immersion in art was a foreshadowing of a time to come, when my life would be less about laboring to achieve an abstract goal that wasn’t all that close to my heart, and more about doing something I really wanted to do and was good at (as I was not at engineering, alas). So I guess what I’m saying is, students at Mines are engaged in an incredibly difficult and challenging task – but it’s good now and then to step out of it, and ask, “OK, what else is there?” This generation in particular, I think, has this (honorable) notion that if they do everything right, all will be well. But it’s not so, actually. You can do everything right and the world can still knock you down. Now, I’m guessing the 2016 Mines has a lot of this built- in, in a way that 1980s Mines didn’t – a more varied curriculum, and some recognition that our humanity involves more than just straight-forward calculation and accomplishment. But I have to say how grateful I was to have been dropped into the intense and rigorous world that is Mines. My take on it is that once a young person has experienced that level of rigor, she will never forget it, and everything she does thereafter will be blessed with that sense of being willing to engage and take a hit and keep going – a kind of fearlessness. Mines toughens us up, and I’ve been amazed again and again by what a powerful gift that is, in a culture that increasingly shies away from being tested, or tends to see hardship as necessarily indicative of unkindness or abuse.

Q. Rumor has it that one of your first short stories was published in High Grade. Do you remember what it was called and what it’s about? We believe it was published under a pseudonym, but the mystery just makes us want to know more…

A. I’ll take the Fifth on that one. Luckily I don’t remember the pseudonym, even. At that time, I was doing this dumb young-writer thing of writing when I had never really read anything. But it was a nice feeling, to have something I’d written in print. It was also a nice feeling, given how crappy it was, to not have published under my own name.