American author George Saunders on science fiction, collaborating with Ben Stiller, and how Ayn Rand almost made him an architect.
George Saunders might have been an architect, if his love of books had stopped at Ayn Rand. We would have lost an author Thomas Pynchon described as “an astoundingly tuned voice—graceful, dark, authentic, and funny—telling just the kinds of stories we need to get us through these times.” The author, most recently, of In Persuasion Nation, a collection of stories, The Brief and Terrifying Reign of Phil, a novella, and The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, a children’s book, started his career in engineering school, after reading the Fountainhead. Not until he discovered Thomas Wolfe and a string of contemporary writers (not to mention Monty Python) did Saunders consider becoming a fiction writer—and now a screenwriter: Saunders’s first book, Civil War Land in Bad Decline, has been optioned for film by Ben Stiller.
“It’s one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the six other Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.” Thus begins The Brief and Terrifying Reign of Phil, a hilarious, withering spoof on nationalism. If you were to judge the 21st century by Saunders’s stories, as Pynchon suggests, our moment is every bit as absurd as you might have found reading the news or listening to the president—our memories are outsourced, we’ve already ceded far too much territory to the twin machines of nationalism and capitalism, and the emperor (the kingdom) is not just naked but disfigured with corporate logos. Yet times are also a little more hopeful than you might have held, and they’re a lot funnier—not in the easy punchline style of the talk shows, but built on a scaffolding of ridiculous contrasts. In most of Saunders’s stories, the good news is that the worst has already happened.
—Joel Whitney for Guernica
Guernica: What was your childhood like?
George Saunders: It was very happy. I grew up in Chicago on the South Side, and had a ton of freedom, just did whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. At the risk of sounding dopey, I would say it was blissful. When I was little we lived at 55th and California, which is kind of more in the city, and then around first grade we moved to a suburb called Oak Forest, which is kind of down Joliet-way.
Guernica: Is Oak Forest where the Frank Lloyd Wright houses are or is that—
George Saunders: No, that’s Oak Park. I think maybe Oak Forest adopted its name to try to get some associated cred. I don’t know how to describe it. Mostly, it was an old farming area and then it got subdivided like crazy. So one of the funny things growing up was we lived in this subdivision called El Vista. And there were four different types of houses and they all had these sort of Spanish names, you know. There were only four floor plans in this subdivision, but they would do the mirror image of those floor plans too.
So at one time all my best friends—a group of four or five of us—we all lived in the same type of house, something like “La Contesa del Mar”—I don’t know, something like that. But by chance we all had the same relative room in the “Contesa del Mar.” So you would go to your friend’s house, and of course you would definitely know where the bathroom was. It was kind of strange.
Guernica: So that was a big change, moving from the South side to this subdivision?
George Saunders: Yes, it was. I remember walking into that house and thinking, “My god, this is a mansion.” It was just so immense. But I think, as I understand it, a lot of the people in that subdivision followed the same path we did, which was: lifelong Chicago residents for two or three generations back, and then this kind of early 60s flight out to the suburbs. In a way it was kind of a strange subdivision, in my memory not really a Keillor-esque kind of suburb; it was something else. It was basically a city neighborhood just kind of picked up and moved out into this Brady-looking environment.
Guernica: I don’t want to force this too much. I’m struck by how I could imagine the idea of a subdivision in one of your stories. And your journey out of the city does seem like the path of some of your characters, who are trying to get out of some kind of enclosed community. As with Jon, in the story of the same name, there’s this curiosity and awe and maybe fear of what’s out there beyond the woods.
George Saunders: Yeah, well I think that’s a great trope of literature, which is: I’m in a box; how do I get out of the box? I really wanna leave the box. How did I get here?
Guernica: Who were some of your first favorite writers? I know you wrote a children’s book recently. Who were some of your earliest favorites, and then when you were an adolescent—what the market might call young adult—what did you read then?
George Saunders: I wasn’t one of these kids who read everything when they’re six. I remember reading Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes—and that was a big deal to me. I read that in third grade. But then I had a reaction against the books they gave us in school. I remember getting on this roll of reading books about World War II and baseball. They were a series of books that were just cranked out, and they were all kind of in the same tone. And I was a really fast reader. But that’s all I read for a really long time, just kind of this genre stuff. And then really—it’s funny because I don’t remember reading any book in high school that really stuck with me except Walden. I read Walden and that was really something.
I read Rand and thought, “I want to be one of the earth movers, the scientific people who power the world. I don’t want to be one of these lisping liberal artsy leeches.” So I was working against my actual abilities.
I think I was getting my literature through other media—like music, and especially through television; Monty Python was really a big influence. And then actually when I was a senior in high school I really wasn’t planning on going to college. But one of my teachers gave me some Ayn Rand, like Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. And that really was a big deal to me. So I think I had kind of a funny background—I wasn’t reading any of what I would call real literature, certainly not until I went to college.
Guernica: So you don’t consider Ayn Rand real literature?
George Saunders: Not now. At the time, I thought she was a god, and that everything she said was perfect. And I was reading Khalil Gibran and Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I didn’t really know that that wasn’t mainstream contemporary literature. But I loved it. It definitely went directly from the page into my heart. I think I was a really good reader in the sense that I was a desperate reader, desperate to find out what was good, what was true, how a person should live. And those are the first books that really spoke to me.
Guernica: Did Rand influence you much in your decision to study engineering in college?
George Saunders: Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. I read [her books] and I thought that’s what I want to do; I want to be one of the earth movers, the scientific people who power the world. And I don’t want to be one of these lisping liberal artsy leeches. So I was kind of working against my actual abilities. I went off to this engineering school in Colorado and really it’s comical to me now to see how powerful that internal life was, the fictional life—my habit of projecting myself as a character in an Ayn Rand book. Seeing the world in that way was just pervasive at that point, and not ironic at all. If you read Toby Wolff’s novel Old School, which I thought was wonderful, there’s a section in there where he talks about the main character’s relation to Ayn Rand, and it could have come out of my head—perfect!
Guernica: Did you go right into college after high school?
George Saunders: Yeah.
Guernica: Were you writing short stories or anything in high school or college?
George Saunders: No. Not at all.
Guernica: So you started relatively late, no?
George Saunders: You know, one of the things I did was I discovered Thomas Wolfe—not Tom Wolfe, but the Look Homeward, Angel Thomas Wolfe. And that really moved me a lot. Maybe it was the first time that a literary writer got under my skin. Again, you know, not ironically, and not aware that I was being kind of a weirdo. I would do a lot of imitations of him, you know—try to write in that sort of lyrical voice, and—
Guernica: And what happened to those writings?
George Saunders: [Laughs] I hope they’ve mildewed into nothingness. I wrote a lot of those things—“O this” and “O that”. And I was in love with this girl and would write these long, crazy, purple poems. But I hadn’t at that point read any short stories. I remember once getting a copy of de Maupassant, because I think he was mentioned in Hemingway. And I went down to this river in Colorado and read it. “Yeah, it’s ok,” I thought, “It’s kinda cool. But it’s not as good as Wolfe—it doesn’t have the high-flown farty language of Wolfe.”
Guernica: None of these writers remind me much of your writing. So how did you get from reading Wolfe at a college engineering program to Syracuse’s MFA and then writing what you write—about reality TV shows and trend setting test tube models?
George Saunders: I had a long saga. I went over to work in Asia and then came home and kind of beatnicked around a little bit. And then only when I was about 27 I learned that there was such a thing as an MFA program, and I applied to Syracuse and came here. So there were about five or six years when really what it was was me finally getting off my butt and encountering this series of increasingly sophisticated writers. Or at least increasingly contemporary writers, like Hemingway, Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe. Then from there I went to Kerouac and Mailer, and finally at the end of that cycle I went to [Stuart] Dybek and Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver.
But in each phase I was trying to take whatever writer I was reading and try to make my life look like that. (And of course, there was a Kerouac phase.) So, really, in retrospect there was kind of a slothful person who didn’t really want to face the real job of being a writer, and wanted to live the drama, the sidestories, without doing any of the work or reading.
Every writer knows that when you’re imitating somebody—you know, you’re sounding like Faulkner—you’re doing pretty good, but your life in Hoboken isn’t Faulkneresque.
Guernica: Sounds like you became that liberal-artist-leech type…
George Saunders: Exactly. [laughs] Except all that time I was earning a living. But it was kind of a problem of not being able to say, “Ok, dumbass. If you want to be a plumber, you have to go under the sink.” I always thought that, well, I have such vast abilities that I don’t have to get under the sink until the last minute.
So the whole period which was basically my twenties was me doing these different things. And as I did, I would leave these different approaches behind. You know, saying, “Now I’m not gonna write like Khalil Gibran because I kind of understand that he’s a little bit cheezy.” I worked my way through it until I was finally about 25 or 26 and I read a story by Stuart Dybek that made me go, “Oh, God, so that’s what literature feels like when it’s a person right now writing it, about the world right now, and not full of shit.” That was a kind of clarion call to get under the sink a little bit. And that’s when I came to Syracuse.
Guernica: When you were 27.
George Saunders: Yeah. Then I read Celine and Lee K. Abbot and Barry Hannah—those three together. I was reading them thinking I was finding a link between the minimalism I loved in Carver and Hemingway and, at least in my epistimology, Monty Python. That kind of, “Oh, you can be minimal and crazy and literary. Huh, ok.” And that was when I became aware that I wanted my writing to have something to do with the essential issues of my life.
Every writer knows that when you’re imitating somebody—you know, you’re sounding like Faulkner—you’re doing pretty good, but your life in Hoboken isn’t Faulkneresque. So you get that kind of shortfall between the actual experience of the writer and the things he’s hungry to express and the voice itself. So that group made me go, “Oh, ok—you can be funny and lean and fast and irreverent and still be literary.” And at that point this door kind of opened and my family and childhood came flowing in, which [made clear]—if you want to express emotion there’s more than one way to do it.
Guernica: So besides those absurdly plausible settings you come up with—which I do want to talk about—your dialogue seems to be the most (if you’ll allow me) “Saunders-esque” of all your traits. And it seems like there’s this great, weird mix of teenage slang with self-help/motivational lingo with technical jargon and with advertising lingo all sort of thrown together. And you even have some characters maybe doing all four of those at the same time—
George Saunders: [laughs]
Guernica: —and that’s where a lot of the humor and levity come from. Even in your first story collection it’s there already. Is that something that came from the workshops, from reading…
George Saunders: No. I think what it came from was the childhood and teen years where that was a mode of power in the community. In other words, if you were at a party and you could suddenly imitate a teacher or just start talking some crazy shit, and fill it with crazy lingo that didn’t seem random, that was a form of being kind of powerful. So I think that is just something I love to do. I love to create distinct voices.
It’s almost like there’s a little valve in my head and if I can throw it on a given day, something will come out. It’s never planned. It’s just kind of a blurt. So in a sense my whole life as a writer is trying to find structural ways, or formal ways, to permit that outflowing so it doesn’t just look like crazy output. In other words, if it turns out that you can do a given voice, that’s just kind of inclination. But then if you can find a way to put that voice in a story so that the voice serves a purpose, then I would say that’s being a writer. You know what I mean?
Guernica: So then the settings are sometimes created to facilitate these voices?
George Saunders: Yeah, but not consciously. It’s more like—it’s kinda like (this is gonna be a bit stupid) but let’s say you’re walking along the road and suddenly you sprout a third arm and the third arm is fused to a shovel.
George Saunders: It just happened. You didn’t plan it; it just happened. Well, it could be argued that the next thing you should do is find a hole to dig. Right? So you start digging a hole and then somebody brings a body along and puts it in. That’s what a story must feel like to me. It’s not that you say, “I want to write a story about a gravedigger.” But you’re walking along and “I don’t know what I’m doing here in this story,’ and—boop! a shovel. “Oh, interesting. Ok, what does one do with a shovel? Digs a hole. Why? I don’t know yet. Dig the hole! Oh, look a body.”
So certainly the voice thing is the most powerful impulse I have. I was just writing a little while ago and the thing that I wanted to do was sit and stumble on some little hidden voice that I could just quote-unquote do naturally and to good effect. And then, having done it, figure out who it is and why he’s saying that. Or, it can go the other way too. You can come to a place in a story where you need somebody to break the news that the mother is dead. Now I could have somebody come up and go, “The mother is dead.” And, ok, that’s alright. But what I love is to say, “Ok, now who’s saying that and how do they talk?” You know? That’s exciting to me. And I have no idea why that’s exciting to me, but it is.
George Saunders: And I think the settings—the theme parks and all that—are almost like a mechanical way to force me into those weird situations where some voice has to come. Or, another way of saying it is it forces me out of some more conventional approach that wouldn’t yield as many interesting voices.
Guernica: It sounds then like you can’t be writing from the Aristotle 8-point story arc, the old I’m gonna sort of mess around with the traditional structures thing?
George Saunders: No way. No, I couldn’t do it. I’m too literal. It’s I think why I haven’t written a novel or something that long, because I really am improvising all along and the story is growing new limbs to do what it needs to do. So there’s very little planning. There’s a little planning where I say, “Well, it looks like I’m going in this direction, ok, good.” But there’s very little forethought or intellectual justification: “Oh, look, I’m putting in a theme park because that represents dystopian America!”
Guernica: So you’re not practicing themes with your… sorry… theme parks.
George Saunders: No, no way.
Guernica: But you do end up—I mean even your novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, was called by the publishing house “a political novella.” There are ideas. Are you comfortable with those who call your work allegory?
George Saunders: I’m comfortable with anything after the fact. I think that most—and I see this up here [in the Syracuse MFA program for creative writing] too—for most young writers, maybe for most writers, “theme” is a word they should just strike out of their vocabulary. Because if you think about it beforehand, what you’re really saying is, “I’m gonna control this bastard. This book is gonna be about the impression of the masses [held] by the elite.” Well, the book just died. Because you know too well. And anytime you get to a place of mystery you have an answer—boom!
Guernica: This sounds like the Triggering Town, by the poet Richard Hugo. I don’t know if you’ve read that.
George Saunders: No, I haven’t.
Guernica: It essentially says that when you start a poem with a pre-conceived topic, that topic is actually just a trigger for your real subject. Which you may get to only by writing toward it, and without really knowing where you’re going. You might find the kernel in the center of your poem or story. It says that you should then restart with those few sentences that leapt out at you mysteriously and work forward from there.
George Saunders: I think that feels like it to me. I mean whenever you talk about writing I think you have to remember that it all has a big question mark over it—every word has a big question mark over it.
Guernica: As soon as you know what you’re doing you’re lost…
George Saunders: Yeah, because if I’m writing a story and you’re reading it, or vice versa, you took time out of your day to pick up my book. I think the one thing that will kill that relationship is if you feel me condescending to you in the process. And how does that happen? Well, it happens when I know more than you do, and when I know that I know more than you do, and I’m holding it back from you. So that I can then manipulate you at the end. You know, you think about like in a dating situation how terrible that would be, it’s the same thing with a book.
I think the trick of being a writer is to basically put your cards out there all the time and be willing to be as in the dark about what happens next as your reader would be at that time. And then you can really surprise yourself. There’s that cliche, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader!” I think that’s actually very very true on a moral level. Like maybe you go to a national park by yourself and it’s gorgeous and beautiful, a transformative experience that day of your life. You go get your girlfriend and you show her; it’s different. You know? I think that’s a little bit like what this reader/writer thing is. If you already know what you’re doing then all you can do is what you thought you were doing. But in fact most of the time the thrill of writing is that while you’re gonna do thing A, then suddenly thing B (which is much more complicated and interesting) appears. And you have to have the courage to go in that direction.
Guernica: So when politics appear in one of your stories, something that seems to be suggesting pretty strongly to the reader that certain ways we’re moving forward into the 21st century are stupid—
George Saunders: [laughs]
Guernica: —that gets in there by surprise, then? It sounds like you’re saying that if it gets in there in a pat, easy way, in a too-planned way, then you would just take it out, or…
George Saunders: I hope so, although I think I’m having trouble with that as the political situation gets freakier. I’m having some trouble with that. If something appears, I think what you want to do is complicate it. So, for example, let’s say that I had a scene where a father is lecturing his dissolute son. The father is saying to his son, who’s a big drunk, “You little fucker. I spent so much money raising you and now you’re going out and you’re throwing up in front of the house and you wrecked two cars already. It’s got to stop right now or I’m gonna kick your fucking ass.” I just made that up.
George Saunders: Now, what do you think of that father?
Guernica: Well, he’s got a temper.
George Saunders: He’s got a temper, ok. Now, I just wrote that. We just wrote that. And we note in our re-reading it that the father has a temper. So I think part of what you do as a writer then is you acknowledge this thing that’s hanging over the story. So then in the next line if I have the stepfather say, “Son, I’m sorry. You know I have a temper.” Then what I think I’ve done is I’ve acknowledged this elephant in the room. You maybe had a slight aversion to the father, saying to yourself, “Wow, he is angry.” Now if he then turns to us and says, “I know, I know, I’m angry,” somehow that engages us.
What I’m trying to say is if I’ve put something political in the story, like this “Brad Carrigan” story that was in the last book, in that one I had such trouble keeping my overtly leftist politics out of it. I don’t think I succeeded, but every time that I put in something that was a little too pat and a little too easy I would either take it out or try to challenge it in the context of the story. So, in other words, if I put in a too-neat liberal verity, I would try to have somebody come along and kick that verity in the butt, you know.
Guernica: I think that’s interesting. One author I remember—either I interviewed or read—said we have to steer away from our own drift. It seems like even in these dystopias of yours, if you’ll allow me that word—
George Saunders: [laughing] Certainly.
Guernica: —most of the characters, even the ones who are sort of enacting the insane rules, are really trying to do the right thing and trying to be nice about it. And they’re the ones maybe whose self-help-motivational-speak is most pronounced. The only character who seems like a total evil bastard is Phil, maybe.
George Saunders: Yeah.
Guernica: He seems sort of like your most undisguisedly wicked character.
George Saunders: You know, you just put your finger on something I’m really wondering about at this point in my life. Because I think it was a big revelation to me earlier in my life that people who appear to be evil are actually not. In other words, nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “Yuck, yuck, yuck, I’m gonna be evil.” I think even like Saddam Hussein or Hitler would wake up and say, “I think it’s going to be a good day. I’m gonna do some really important work.” And given their definition of good, they went out and did horrible things.
So that was a revelation to me and part of what I was trying to do in my writing was explore that idea, to say, “Well, this guy seems like a bad guy, but look, he’s doing this.” Well, now that I’m getting older I’m also saying, “Yeah, but there really are unrepentant bad guys.” So, even though Hitler may have had a trace of good or whatever, in his lifespan it didn’t come out. And given his conditions, given his circumstances, he was not salvageable, he was not salvaged. So then I think, “Well, how do you do that in literature?” Because literature in a way is all about the moment at which salvation or being salvaged is possible. But if you push that too hard I think that you can end up being a kind of dopily sentimental writer—
Guernica: But literature is also about empathizing with characters. And if you know the story from someone’s point of view—even if they’re doing something wrong—you can somehow sympathize, can’t you? There was this movie recently about Hitler—what was it called [Downfall]—that was all about Hitler from Hitler’s point of view. I didn’t see it, but—
George Saunders: Yeah, I heard about it, but I didn’t see it either.
Guernica: The thing that pissed people off is that I think they did feel sympathy for the Hitler character.
George Saunders: Yeah, it’s a real problematic thing. And I think these days with the politics in the world being what they are that whole question of empathy is so huge. I saw that Martin Amis had a piece in The New Yorker recently from the point of view of Mohammed Atta, which is a pretty bold thing. The trick is to do that without really underestimating the extent to which people can be so delusional that they become what we would call evil.
Guernica: It’s interesting to hear you say that you don’t have an outline and don’t want to have too much of an idea of where you’ll be going when you write. Aren’t you also now just doing (or just finishing) some screenplays?
George Saunders: Yeah, I finished two of them.
Guernica: Don’t screenwriters absolutely have to know their structure?
George Saunders: I don’t think so. They say that. But both of the ones that I did were adaptations of stories of mine. I think that made it a little different. I also think—yeah, I know they say that, they have the three-act structure. But I think maybe—I haven’t given this a lot of thought but my guess is—if you look at any well told story, there’s a built-in three-act structure. In a certain way, if you keep trying to serve the story you would inadvertently or unwittingly push something into a three-act structure.
Guernica: In steering away from your own drift…
George Saunders: I think so. Someone told me once—I mean I said, “Is it ok that I don’t really know what the three-act structure is?” And he said, “It’s basically: Act 1: a guy climbs up a tree; Act 2: people come and throw stuff at him; Act 3: he gets down.”
George Saunders: It’s like that with any story. If I say, “Oh, I got so wasted last night, and I drove my car into the Mississippi and then a fish came up and bit me on the ass and luckily I was able to swim to shore,” that’s a three-act structure. I spent a lot of time when I was in my twenties really torturing myself about things like scene and plot and character and stucture—is this a story? is this a novella? So, you know, and then I realized, “Actually, dumbass, all I have to do is keep the reader’s attention for twenty pages, by whatever means necessary.”
Actually, at that point I just was so desperate to get something published I just wanted to be charming. You know, I just wanted someone to pick it up and not put it down. And it seems to me that so far I’ve kept to that mantra: don’t let the reader put it down. And a lot of these questions get answered just in the process of trying not to be dull. You’re reading along and think, “God this is a really boring section.” In doing your best to fix that you usually do things that are reducible to increasing interest in the character, bolstering up the structure, all these things.
But my experience has been that you’re just trying to make it interesting, you’re just trying to stay compelling. Again, in the same way, if you’re on a date with somebody that you absolutely had to have, what would you do? You’d watch her closely to see how you’re doing and if she starts yawning you go, “Ok, hmm. Now, regardless of the fact that this is the portion of the evening that I had designated Exploration of my Roots, she’s yawning, so I’d better move it along.” So I don’t know if that…
That’s what a story must feel like to me. It’s not, “I want to write about a gravedigger.” But you’re walking along and—boop! shovel. “Ok, what does one do with a shovel? Digs a hole. Why? I don’t know yet. Dig the hole! Oh, look a body.”
Guernica: Yes, it answers the question—you do it either intuitively or more deliberately—but it happens.
George Saunders: Yeah.
Guernica: Did I read that Ben Stiller is doing one of these screenplays?
George Saunders: About ten years ago he optioned the story “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.” So we’ve been kind of trying to get that going. I wrote a script maybe two or three years ago, and I think—as I understand it—we’re just kind of waiting for his schedule to open up.
Guernica: He’s gonna direct it?
George Saunders: He’s gonna direct it, produce it, and star in it.
Guernica: I was thinking about that on my way to my office to do this interview. Then I was re-reading your story “Jon.” There’s a section in “Jon”—I don’t know if you’ve seen Zoolander?
George Saunders: Sure.
Guernica: There’s that scene with the roommates who are really into products, when the Wham! song is playing?
George Saunders: Yeah, yeah. [laughs]
Guernica: And there’s a scene in “Jon” when he’s leaving the marketing test-tube surrogate home and the language he uses to talk about the products he’ll be giving up—it reminded me, or I could see maybe Ben Stiller having been influenced by your work.
George Saunders: Or vice versa.
Guernica: Or vice versa. I didn’t want to assume…[laughs] Yeah, but I just thought it was an interesting idea—the George Saunders/Ben Stiller collaboration.
George Saunders: Yeah, we have a lot in common actually. I had never seen his TV show when it was on TV because we didn’t have cable. And then I wrote that “Brad Carrigan” story and I was halfway through it and then I thought he used to have a little thing like that, kind of like a real exaggerated sitcom with a talking sock who was really obnoxious. I think there’s a lot that’s simpatico.
Guernica: Is “science fiction” a label you embrace or shy away from?
George Saunders: I’m happy with it. I didn’t really read a lot of it when I was young. But I had a big moment with—well, I watched a lot of Star Trek. I didn’t really like it at the time but I think I absorbed it. And there was one moment in Star Wars, when the first one came out in 1560 or whenever it was, I remember being in the theater and there’s that one scene where the ships fly over your head and you can see that they’re all kind of junked up on the bottom. They’re all scraped up and there’s like rust and everything.
And something about that—I can’t really explain it but that moment—was when in a certain way the genre science fiction just fell away from me, because I thought, “Oh yeah, no matter how advanced we get—whether we have robotic cars or whatever—we’re still gonna fuck everything up with our human-ness.” Like if we have holograms, we’re gonna use them for porn. If you have a guy with a chip in his head, he’s gonna be used for marketing. So that was a moment for me when I thought it’s all science fiction. I mean, think about the concept of the i-pod. You know ten years ago that was unthinkable. So now we have these i-pods, and even old farts like me have i-pods. Yet, maybe I’ve got REO Speedwagon on there. So—
Guernica: [laughs, long time]
George Saunders: I don’t see a real distinction between science fiction and fiction; it’s all the same—
Guernica: In a lot of the interviews with you that I looked at, the interviewers or maybe reviewers were trying to get a handle on whether your stories about the near future were hopeful or “dark”—this was the word many used. I have my take, but obviously now I’m more interested in your take. Is the future bright or is it the dents on the bottom of the Millennium Falcon—or worse?
George Saunders: Honestly, what I’m coming to think is yes. When I was younger—and this is just egotism—I thought that I of course, being me, had been born at the precise moment in human history when things would deflect one way or the other. Either we would all be saved or all be damned.
Guernica: You mean that’s not true?
George Saunders: [laughs] So, no, then at 47 you say, “I’m gonna be dead, and it’s gonna keep going. It’s gonna be just as fucked up and beautiful as it is now.” And depending on where you are and who you are, it’s either absolute nirvana or it’s the worst hell imaginable. And you could even be in the same house. And so I think one of the sort of sad but mostly liberating things you realize is that it has always been thus. And it’s not gonna change in our lifetimes. And the exhilarating part for me is to think, Gee, if that’s true, then the world as I’m experiencing it right this minute in my kitchen in Syracuse, New York, is exactly the same basic apparatus as Shakespeare experienced or Jesus experienced or Buddha experienced or whoever, that there’s a kind of liveliness, a kind of vitality in every moment, that I think is very exciting and also scary.
It’s not the case that we’re gonna cure all our problems. But it’s also not the case that all our pleasure will ever vanish. I think at the very last minute of the world, after we’ve global-warmed ourselves, and it’s 400 degrees and only the elite can live in these little refrigerators with plasma TVs, the people who are burning to death outside are gonna kind of be reaching for the hand of the person next to them or having a memory of childhood or finding some way of knowing pleasure in that. So I think in a way it’s sort of a hopeful vision. The most hopeful thing in the stories, I hope, is wit. I make it up. If I make up a world in which we’re ruled by big talking turds, it doesn’t mean that we are. So you shouldn’t feel depressed…
Guernica: I sort of was leaning toward an inclination that we are—
George Saunders: Yeah, right [laughs]. But what’s hopeful is this guy who is talking about it at least in a way that kind of lights you up a little bit when you read it. That would be the hopeful thing. Because everything else is just invention anyway. So, anyway, what do you think?
Guernica: So it’s wit as pleasure, eh? Sounds good to me.
George Saunders: Yeah, and it’s hopeful because it’s one human being talking to another in a non-condescending, loving way, saying, “Isn’t this a pisser? Isn’t this amazing what we got ourselves involved in here when we were born? Isn’t it sweet? Isn’t it horrible, isn’t it funny, isn’t it terrifying?” And I think just that connection—saying that—is really what literature has to offer.
Editors Recommend: George Saunders was Guernica’s guest fiction editor.
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