An Interview with George Saunders

George Saunders has been his name from the beginning, and he wears a big coat to protect himself from harm. In the evening, he is unfazed, with no coverings, and a father to his family. His look has changed over time, with a mustache, a beard, and a bald head.

 The place where he lives is harsh and frigid, with many isolated people. Despite all this, he still lives a typical human life, sleeping and eating as normal.

Saunders may not accept it, but for a period of time each day he is a hero. His humility, kindness, creative thinking, and ability to evoke feelings of tenderness make him a hero.

However, this heroism has its drawbacks, preventing Saunders from realizing the impact his writing has had on people around the world. His books, such as CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, explain the sight of distant fires in the Northeast.

Others may refer to his work as “stories,” but they are more than that. They are bodies of knowledge, enabling readers to gain a deeper understanding of life.

Anyone in your home may be wearing one of Saunders’ “bodies” right now, and if they appear transfixed, you now know why.

The following dialogue occurred on an antique Toshiba calculator.

— Ben Marcus declared


When I made a stop at Syracuse, New York, I was prevented from sleeping all night due to the loud cawing of the crows outside my motel room. It was so loud that I was concerned for my safety.

I later discovered that other guests had experienced the same issue. What could be the cause of this?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Our municipality is making a concerted effort to become the West Nile Virus Capital of the Northeast, and part of this includes inviting crows from all around the United States.

We’ve provided them with “GlamorNests” to live in, and present weekend-long Heckle & Jeckle fests at our local movie houses.

One of these crows had a habit of calling my wife’s name (“PauLA! PauLA!”).

After we called a translator, we learned that the crow was actually saying, “I could sure use some freaking grapes! I could sure use some freaking grapes! If I don’t get some freaking grapes, I’m going back to Cleveland.” So it turns out the crows are quite loud up here.

What is the origin of the name George Saunders?

GS: My great grandfather, who had left his homeland of Greece, was being ridiculed for his name, Vlahakis, and his accent. He was working as a fruit seller then, which could explain his decision to go with a very British name. Unfortunately, he could do nothing about the accent.

He was a real rebel; he abandoned his wife and children for two years to fight the Turks and then, upon his return, eloped with a waitress to Napa Valley.

Rather than ask who your ideal reader is, seeing as I have encountered your ideal reader and he hurt me.

I wanted to inquire about how knowledgeable you are with providing entertainment, as a special offering to the reader, and if there is ever a struggle between what you deem you should do as a writer and what you actually do.

This is not an inquiry about succumbing to a general notion of what a reader may want, but a query about a potential divergence between what may give you pleasure and what you believe will please others.

I am struggling with this question because it makes me aware that I don’t differentiate between what I like and what a reader may like. My outlook is that literature is derived from the uniformity of all our brains, meaning that first love in 1830 and 1975 will have the same neural experience.

This is why a reader can relate to what the writer is expressing. I believe in the concept of a universal mind, due to the similarity in all individual minds. So, if I am writing something that pleases me, it will likely have a similar effect on the reader.

Nevertheless, I do think that there are certain components in prose that will have a more powerful impact, like efficiency, action, and clarity. This is also what I consider to be style.

When I write, I am aiming to be entertaining and engaging, and take into account the fact that life is fleeting.

My ideal reader is a good person, but they don’t get out much and they express themselves through physical actions like punching.

The concept of a universal mind as proposed by you is connected to Buddhism, which influences your views on fiction.

GS maintains that Buddhism, as well as writing, is a way of recognizing that all things are precious, suffering is real, and death is inevitable. Chekhov said that art can lead us to tenderness and Buddhism can offer a similar experience.

With respect to their practical applications, both Buddhism and writing emphasize honesty, openness, and detachment.

For example, if a writer begins crafting a story with a particular perspective in mind and then finds that another character has a more compelling story to tell, then openness would dictate that the writer should follow that character and develop the story from their point of view.

I once had a cross old man tell me that it was impossible to teach writing and I replied equally crossly that he couldn’t teach it. Unfortunately, non-teachers of writing are often quick to label the entire endeavor as a scam or a money-waster.

Book reviews often shorthand this critique by pointing to the so-called ‘workshop stories’. An article in the Village Voice recently argued that Jonathan Safran Foer’s originality was partially due to his not attending an MFA program.

This made me think of you, Charles Baxter and Aimee Bender, all of whom have a reputation for being great teachers of writing and being incredibly productive and original writers.

I’d be curious to hear your opinion on teaching, what its value is and why writing instruction is more often subjected to criticism than other artistic studies such as painting, theater or music.

GS suggested that the Cross Old Man was implying that the odds of a young writer getting a book out and having it last in some capacity are extremely slim. Therefore, why are instructors in writing programs still offering encouragement to these aspiring authors?

It’s a rarity that a person is able to write an enduring work of literature. However, the Cross Old Man is too focused on the career outcomes of writing for the young people, instead of the process of writing itself.

Even if the original thousand do not produce something that gets out there, it is still a noble process. It is a way to break habits, and to work through the craft, worldview and ego issues which builds character.

I have seen this in my own writing, and believe it comes down to the individual’s motivation. If the student wants to become famous, they will always lose in the end, but if they want to gain insight into life, then they cannot lose.

It is a constant struggle to write for the right reasons, and there is a type of instant karma that comes with it.

In my opinion, it is possible to “teach writing,” in the sense that an experienced writer can help a novice progress in their personal journey.

If I were to imagine it, it would be like a novice writer skating on ice through a snowy forest, and then an MFA program would be like encountering a frozen lake, allowing them to go faster.

However, the danger of a workshop setting is that it can lead to groupthink, which can impede the goal of being original and captivating. It is possible to be mindful of this tendency and use it as an opportunity to challenge it.

Ultimately, I think the success of the MFA program relies on how closely it resembles a salon or close-knit group. Smaller numbers, longer residence time and financial support are all important for this to happen.

I have found that the best teaching moments happen when I have a personal connection to the student and can make intuitive leaps with them that aren’t dictated by the work.

As an aside, I have just sent my ideal reader over to “kiss” the Cross Old Man next door. I’ll let you know how it turns out!

Do you mind if I follow up with you? I’m curious to know your experience as a student in a workshop. Did you ever workshop any of the stories that are featured in The Age of Wire and String and how was it received?

In other words, if some of your stories were met with resistance, would it have mattered? This is particularly relevant given the extreme originality of the book and its adherence to its own metrics.

I had the privilege to be in a class Robert Coover taught called “Ancient Fictions.” It was a literature class with the option to write fiction instead of critical papers.

The assignment was to create new mythologies of creation myths, and a few of the earliest pieces in The Age of Wire and String originated from that. We did not discuss the pieces we wrote, but merely read them out loud and nodded understandingly.

It was the best course I ever took pertaining to fiction-writing.

When I attended the workshop with other teachers, the atmosphere was generally lax and little teaching was taking place. I have since attempted to do the opposite of what I encountered as a student in my own teaching.

Nowadays, pupils anticipate more than I or my peers ever did in terms of line-editing, carefully composed written feedback, conferences and then critiques of their revisions. We were fortunate if the teacher was present and said anything.

At the time, their lack of communication felt like a sign of brilliance, but I’m not so sure now.


In your more imaginative works, a strong moral code appears to be present in the characters and the intense desire to do something good is what produces the story. This often brings with it considerable sadness, which can generate moments of clarity or incredible endings.

Is this connected to your ideas about the characters, or does it come more from your view of what might drive a story? Or neither?

GS advocates for the reader to come away from a story loving the character by writing a character who is as good as the reader. This means avoiding forcing the character to service any prejudice, prove a point, or fulfill some secret hope for the story.

Instead, the character should have the same basic nature as the writer, though this can be tempered or complicated by the events in the character’s life. Even if the main character is Hitler, the writer should believe that they could also swell into such proportions.

Ultimately, this ethical tendency should be a strategy to get more warmth into the story.

From a young age, I was drawn to philosophy and religion, which, through my early experiences in the Catholic Church, gave me a sense of life’s gravity and that the purpose of one’s life was to help others in need, regardless of one’s own desires.

The narrative of Christ’s self-sacrifice to benefit all was particularly moving. This naive view of life and its questions stayed with me throughout my educational journey and even when I started working on CivilWarLand, it re-emerged.

It made me realize that the things that happen to us matter and that literature can help us explore those questions. This led me to write stories focused on moral dilemmas, which can sometimes become oversimplified, preachy, or even fascist.

I wonder if the ethical aspect of your work is intentional? Whenever I read it, I’m filled with a feeling of openness; I’m reminded of Chekhov’s exhortation to be tender. Is that something you strive for?

I don’t think I can associate my writing with ethical behavior. The majority of what I wrote before was without characters, and even when characters did exist, they were typically interested in damaging the other characters, which is not too moral.

I used to like the idea of coldness and my writing reflected this, treating characters as if they were inanimate objects. Yet, when I do try writing characters, they’re either cruel or pitiful, but it doesn’t lead to much of an interesting story.

The cruel characters are cruel to the pitiful characters, who become even more pitiful. It’s not a riveting story, but it’s all I can manage currently. It appears the majority of people get out of this narrative pattern by third grade.

I am intrigued by the fantastical elements that are present in your tales and the odd apparitions.

A great part of your stories appear to be linked to a realism that is based on emotion, nevertheless, the places your stories take us to are either extraordinary or improbable, which creates true feelings in an unreal world.

Moreover, there are times when your stories go beyond what is physically possible (such as the dead coming back to life). Do these three writing techniques have diverse meanings for you? Is there a differentiation between realistic and fantastical writing?

GS believes that having a mix of realistic and fantastical elements in a story can help make it more believable. They recognize that realism is not a real thing since all fiction involves a certain amount of distortion and exaggeration.

They view “realism” as a strategy to evoke an emotional reaction by making the story seem like our consensus reality. GS finds it interesting that some writers of their generation have an aversion to realism.

They think the purpose of fiction is to make something happen in the reader’s core and that it doesn’t matter if the representation of the events is conventional or unconventional; the reader will have a response either way.

The senior-level accountant had a sense of contentment in their marriage. Pondering Maribeth, he got into his tan Lexus. This brings up a trepidation and uneasiness in me, thus causing me to evade it.

Your works are quite unorthodox, do you ever feel an inclination to the more realistic? If so, what is keeping you from it? What is it that you are apprehensive of missing out on by not doing “realism”? What would you need to adjust to be “more realistic?”

BM has a strong inclination towards realism; however, they are aware of the potential to create generic and dull works when pursuing it. In addition, they feel they lack the ability to properly utilize it.

They have noticed that some writers, such as Joe Wenderoth or David Markson, have been labeled “experimental” due to their usage of conceptual or subversively informational fiction as opposed to traditional narrative skins. Yet, BM finds their works to be quite realistic.

I’m at the crossroads of deciding whether it is beneficial to use “once upon a time”-type phrases in writing that is not rooted in realism, or if this would be a form of surrender.


In regard to your Pastoralia book, was the process of selecting works for it different because some pieces of yours.

Such as “Four Institutional Monologues” that was in McSweeney ‘s and “I Can Speak!” that was in the New Yorker, were not included, considering that those works were much less narrative-oriented?

GS recounted how he wrote “I Can Speak!” after completing the manuscript, which included two stories and a monologue. The monologue pieces felt easier and didn’t require as much work in terms of surprising himself.

He also noted that he liked them and was considering adding them to his next collection.

He imagined a “spine” of non-narrative pieces running through the book, similar to the way “In Our Time” and “The Coast of Chicago incorporate spacer pieces that have a distinct tone and purpose from the longer narratives.

My strategy for writing has been to draw from the same creative direction, generally for a period of three to four years, and to cut out any weaker or discordant pieces.

I’ll typically have a few starts that I don’t complete, a few that I’m not satisfied with, and a couple that I’m fairly content with, yet don’t seem to fit with the rest. They are like an unsightly lump on an otherwise even figure.

Consequently, I believe that if I take all of these pieces, which each embody a passionate journey in some way, and arrange them in a specific order, the book will be worth more than its parts.

For this next book, there is a powerful non-narrative presence and a notably political sentiment, which was not premeditated yet may have been a consequence of the years in which it was written.

When it comes to discussing fiction, the word “moral” can make me uneasy as I use it but admit that I don’t truly grasp what it implies. It appears to be associated with “serious fiction,” so it is a term we tend to use for stories that we regard as meaningful.

Is there some meaning to the term “moral fiction” that you are able to explain?

Short answer: all great fiction is imbued with the world and powered by real concerns – love, death, how-should-I-live. This was debated in the 1980s as a binary between language-driven effects and experience-driven effects, but both are true.

Fiction is instructive in a deep way, not because of a writer’s desire to instruct, but because of their exploration. It leaves the reader baffled and humbled, and makes them move more carefully through life.

For writers of our generation, moral fiction has taken on a deeper fear – the fear that the assumptions we have made about writing are self-limiting, and that our approach may be omitting significant aspects of our experience.

Post-9/11, we are questioning if what we are doing matters, if our writing is big enough and if we have sufficiently described the wonders of living in our time. Are we accounting for both the good and the evil? Life has knocked at our door, and now we are reconsidering the venture.

Not everyone needs to write a Kosovo novel, but we should be looking at what life is teaching us.

One may argue that American fiction has become isolated by relying on a self-centered perspective, where all the answers are pre-determined, the political spectrum is set in stone, and the purpose of the literature is to simply reinforce those ideologies.

Such behavior is not only selfish, but it has caused fiction to ignore the fact that the world is a collective unit and has instead adopted capitalist ideals that assert the individual is the most important thing. Not sure if this is true, but it has been something I have been considering a lot.

Do these thoughts make any sense? Does anyone else feel this way? I guess what I’m trying to say is that I wish to develop a better writing style in the future. Also, I just came back from the Cross Old Man’s house, and he has finally admitted that writing can be taught, after many kisses from Max.

BM: I fear that if we inundate an elderly person with affection and arouse their libido, they will confess to anything. Those who are alone are primed to deliver what we are hoping to hear.


What can you tell me regarding the film project you are currently working on?

Back in 1997, Ben Stiller acquired the rights to CivilWarLand, and I spent the past year drafting a script with him.

Writing for films is more about constructing the structure than creating the language, as you can just state, “Tens of thousands of chimps emerge from mobile phone booths, speaking French,” and that’s all.

This has forced me to use a different approach to writing, as I am now focusing on how I can put A, B, and C together to form a Meaning D.

It has been an interesting journey, as I got to understand the process of movie-making, how to attract a broad crowd, and the implications of working within a corporate framework.

During this process, I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to go for the dark and nihilistic, which has been made more obvious when writing for films.

This brings me back to something we spoke about earlier: how much of our art-fiction is based on deep truths and how much of it is due to our limited writing abilities and/or laziness?

I do believe that there are truths in our time that are dark and daunting, but I also think that not every dark move in fiction needs to be a reflection of real life. As Tolstoy once said, “Happiness writes white.”

With two impressive and widely praised collections of short stories, is there pressure for BM to compose a novel?

At times I do. I recently read Appointment in Samarra and Revolutionary Road and these books really made me want to write a novel as they were so intricate and depicted America in such a delightful way.

My difficulty is that the skillset one requires to compose a novel is not the same as the ones I possess. I appear to be adept at compressing but not so much at elaboration. Therefore, I’m simply allowing myself to do what I enjoy, which is penning stories.

The one thing I would love to do in a novel is to display the world as a grand, stunning, paradox: to present Truth A in its entirety, then show Truth B (which contradicts Truth A) in its entirety.

There is a beautiful story, which appears to be a joke, as it starts with: “Once Tolstoy and Gorky were walking down the street.”

As Gorky wrote in a memoir about Tolstoy, a gang of hussars came marching up the street and Tolstoy launched into a brilliant monologue regarding how that type of man – oppressive, confident, militaristic .

Represents everything that is wrong with Russia and Gorky was convinced.

After the hussars passed, Tolstoy pivoted and gave an equal but opposing speech about why that sort of young man – vibrant, masculine, passionate and spontaneous – was the hope of Russia’s future and Gorky was convinced again.

That to me is the greatest ambition of art: to demonstrate that nothing is true and everything is true. To serve as a type of ritual modesty and ritual homage to all that is.

Being likened to literary giants such as Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson and having inspired numerous younger writers, does this have any impact on your creative process?

I don’t think it’s completely accurate to say that, but it is kind of an honor. As I get older I look back and see my work as “young” but in a good way. It’s funny how I would take someone else’s work, like Red Cavalry and In Our Time, and try to put my own version of it into my life.

This process helped me realize that there is no such thing as objective reality. It is all just your own version of it, and it should be in your own language.

It made me think that Hemingway’s voice wouldn’t work in a situation like a Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve when you have an STD and your uncle is drunk trying to buy his new girlfriend an O-Jays record. This is why it’s essential to have different voices.

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