A black and white photo of George Saunders sitting with his elbow propped up on a wooden picnic table
Photograph by Chloe Aftel

George Saunders on Writing

The award-winning storyteller sat down with our editor to talk craft, darkness, and how perspective shapes environments

You might see George Saunders’s first four books of short stories as a whole life’s creative growth compressed into a dozen years: discovering voice, developing characters, settling into themes, and guiding the reading experience. He seemed to have cracked a sort of code, allowing him to write from somewhere beyond enlightenment with a kind of deathbed gravity while still feeding off the drab plastic minutiae of daily life. The end of that period contains works of impossible perfection. A teacher of mine once told me that if I wrote only one short story in my entire life and it was as good as ‘CommComm,’ it would be an enviable career.

It’s no surprise, then, that the past decade has been a period of restlessness for him. He published his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which contains a thousand or so little chapters. He wrote a book-length lecture, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which gets into the mechanics and ethics of reading. He moved to California. So when he began writing short fiction again, and when news came out that his fifth collection, Liberation Day, was soon to be released, the question hanging over it all was: what’s the project now? What’s left to explore in the world of the story?

I posed that and other questions to him a few weeks ago, and he was kind enough to answer with the fullness of his strange, rich mind.

Sumanth Prabhaker: Where do you write? Dumb question, I know, but I still like to hear how people answer. How do you position yourself within your setting when you’re working, and do you see that manifesting at all in the actual work?

George Saunders: At the moment (I’m writing this not from my usual writing place) I see a cluster of four redwoods and a sunlit path leading up to them.

I think, these days, where I am feels like it matters less than it used to. I have a shed up on the hill here in Corralitos, California, and, for sure, stepping in there has the effect of telling my subconscious that it’s, you know, show-time or whatever. But I wrote my first book at work and the same thing happened there – there was this certain keyboard and when I was on it… things went better. For me, now, I just sort of say “go into that mode” and find that I generally can. And part of that is (I think of it this way, although I don’t know why) “letting my eye fall” on whatever text I’m working on. I just started lightly reading it and then I feel my opinion kick in (“cut that phrase, for sure”) and – voila! – I’m “writing.”

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SP: The way your eye falls is one of the (many) defining characteristics of your work – even just a fragment of a sentence carries your vision so clearly. You write of your worlds the way birders talk about birds, and you’ve done so at such length that it feels second-nature. How much does that carry into the way you absorb the real world?

GS: When I’m imagining a character and am about to do some interior monologue, I lower myself into that person and have a look around. What’s he seeing, how’s he standing, and so on. So that character becomes an amalgam of his intended function in the story so far (as determined by me), plus … me. This is good because, whatever I’ve decided his function is to be in the story, that will tend to be too simple. I’m too much in control of him. There’s the danger that he’ll just keep being what I want him to be. But when I leaven him with me, it gets a little confused, in a good way. I might not be quite so sure of who he is now. He has, in a weird way, more autonomy. He’s indicating more multiply. So, this makes uncertainty in the story – or, to say it another way, it undercuts my plan.

And, of course, when I say “leaven him with me,” that’s not exactly right. I’m leavening with… well, with a voice I can do – a voice that, at that moment, it occurs to me to do.

I like to do voices, always have. This used to be a good way to get some status when we were kids in Chicago – imitating teachers and people on TV and so on. So, having lowered myself into that character, I start doing some voice.

Of course, a person’s view of the world and his language are… well, they’re really the same thing. And voice is character-indicating in such a nuanced way. Like, if I ask a person if he wants some tea and he says, “Very good, many thanks, I’d adore it,” that’s one guy. If he says, “Uh, sure, I guess? Whatever,” that’s another. And when we allow ourselves to narrate interior monologue, this superpower gets exponentially multiplied (since that is basically a person talking, without reservations or the burden of actual speech, to herself).

SP: How would you characterize your relationship with the natural world?

GS: As a writer, the work is always particularization – to move from mere concept (tree, forest) into specific descriptions that sort of take that thing apart and then cause a new and more intense perception of it to occur within a particular mindstate (usually that of a character). So, what really happens is that you start to dissolve the traditional distinction between the natural and man-made worlds – it’s all “natural,” in the sense that it all “has come to be.” And this process of particularization is somehow related to “increased tenderness for.” Which, in turn, I guess, is the ultimate environmentalism – like, a fondness for everything that is, and an enhanced recognition that it’s actually all one thing, all interconnected, and if we like any of it, we’d better feel tenderness for all of it.

SP: One moment in the new book stood out to me and kept me awake for a long time last night. It’s near the end of the story “Ghoul.” The narrator reflects on certain horrors he’s witnessed, and at that exact moment, for no ostensible reason, he realizes the depths of his love for his girlfriend – as though she is his liberation. In what environments, if any, do you feel liberated?

GS: I don’t know that I’ve ever felt truly liberated but I’ve had brief glimpses of what that might mean during meditation practice – a quick falling away of my usual yapping monkey-mind, and so on. (But then it came right back, as I went, “Oh, wow, that was it, that is so cool, I can’t wait to write about this!”) There can be some feeling of freedom while writing too – when suddenly “I” am not really there, thinking about me, but all of my energy is being used to try to figure out how to make the story better – I’m fully in it and reacting to it and using some stockpile of truth and imagination to make it more beautiful, by instinct.

And there have been times that I’ve realized intensely how not liberated I am: for example, when I’ve lost someone dear to me and feel all of that pain and realize that all those times that I felt happy and confident and in-control were just a trick of circumstance, not a triumph of character.

SP: The environments of your work are so often claustrophobic: enclosed, labyrinthine, poorly lighted. I’m struggling actually to remember one where daylight features heavily… Even in ‘Brad Carrigan, American,’ which is often outside and occasionally on a rooftop, our eventual destination is a ‘terrifying bland gray space’ inside a van. There is a feeling of inevitability to the borders you create. As one character in the new book says, ‘You are trapped in you.’ How natural is the act of enclosure, to you? Is that aspect of your work something you think of as realism?

GS: This has honestly never occurred to me before and it makes me want to go write a story set in a sunlit meadow where a million strobe lamps are shining. But, knowing me, it would turn out that the reason the meadow was so sunlit was that the Earth had gotten too close to the sun and everyone was about to die and the strobe lights were for the Great Last Photo each person got to have of themselves.

This tendency you’ve identified is, I think, in part related to the short story form itself. I think almost every story is a “problem story.” Things are fine, then they’re not. Things are bad, they get worse. We thought this good thing was true, but no: there’s more to it than that. There’s a cautionary aspect to stories, let’s say. Even so, I think mine are particularly inclined to the dark, and, honestly, I attribute this to a technical (or maybe moral-ethical, or neurological) weakness I am trying to work on, which is a tendency to think of life as fundamentally fucked-up or flawed or problematic, and to think of virtue as “that which works to counteract the fucked-upness of things.” In truth, I know that this is just a tendency of my mind; one could just as easily make the case, if inclined that way, that life is beautiful, is in a state of constant and glorious aspiring-to-ascend, and so on.

I found early that, given my limited talent, one way I could reliably make drama was to manufacture some hardship for my character. In (sometimes) exaggerating that state (no sunlit days, at all, ever), the whole thing tips over into the comic and, in the process, the meaning seems to sharpen.

SP: I love the thought of the Great Last Photo, because that’s what we seem always to have felt is the purpose of art: to document our existence at what each generation feels is the end of the world, which follows closely the model of what you call the “problem story.” Everything was good back then, but now everything is bad. In general, your stories operate on the tension between both of those truths and lead us to some kind of moment of reconciliation, a realization of the stark discrepancy between how things are and they could or ought to be, and the determination to nudge back in the “right” direction. What I’m wondering is, why end there? Can the short story, as a form, extend beyond that? In thinking about how our current Great Last Photos urge us to become better citizens – more compassionate, more mindful of our legacy, more careful in our environments, generally less stupid – can it go into the day after and document the work of rebuilding?

GS: Yes, I’m sure that it can. The short story, I’m learning, can do anything. But I do feel that there’s something innately cautionary about the form. The story states Truth A and immediately we are waiting for…well, for change. So the story you’re suggesting might start with one model for “rebuilding” but then, because it would be human beings doing the rebuilding, there would, no doubt, be a complication. That’s what makes it a story.

I’m looking of an example of what you describe above and I find myself thinking of the last third of a wonderful Zora Neale Hurston story called “The Gilded Six-Bits,” that we’re working with in Story Club. (Spoiler ahead, if you haven’t read the story).

In the story, there’s a lovely young marriage and then…the wife, rather shockingly, cheats on the husband. That right there would be enough for a story but Hurston, great soul that she was, goes on, following the couple into what you called the “rebuilding” phase. And the story becomes a meditation on the question: “How (by what particular, incremental, steps) might we forgive?” And: “What is the relation between love and forgiveness?” and – perhaps most apropos to your question: “What does goodness look like, especially in the aftermath of trauma?”

I think that kind of storytelling is the hardest kind: to show how things might be reclaimed or put back together.

The cover for "Liberation Day".
You can buy George Saunders’ most recent story collection, Liberation Day, here.

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Sumanth Prabhaker is Orion’s editor in chief.

George Saunders is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of eleven books, including A Swim in a Pond in the Rain and Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Booker Prize. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.