WAMU 88.5 : The Diane Rehm Show

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George Saunders: "Tenth of December"

"George Saunders has written the best book you'll read this year.” That was the title of a New York Times magazine article last month about a man widely recognized as a master of the short story genre. Saunders won a MacArthur "Genius Grant" in 2006, which comes with a $500,000 prize. He continues to teach writing at Syracuse University and plug away at his stories. He's not prolific; he writes on average two stories a year, and one story in his new collection took 12 years to finish. Join Diane as she talks with George Saunders about his unconventional path to becoming one of America’s most celebrated writers and why he loves short stories.

Q&A With Author George Saunders

George Saunders answered listeners' questions about the writing process, his body of work and his new book, "Tenth of December."

Q: Could you ask Saunders to talk about his process and how he uses other writers' works provoke his own creativity? – From Twitter user @LongJoshuaB

A: The one writer I go back to again and again for inspiration is Nikolai Gogol – especially “The Nose,” “The Overcoat,” and “Dead Souls.” I don’t know why except that these stories are so insane and compassionate and impossible to categorize – they’re funny and a little mean and then again full of love.

Q: Did I miss the title explanation; why the 10th of December? Curious: it's my deceased father's birthday - From Twitter user @roldiefingers

A: I think we may have talked about this a bit at the end. Basically, I picked it just because I love the sound of that phrase. I try not to invest too much metaphorical of extra-textual meaning into titles of character names and so on. As for your father – God bless him, and you.

Q: I have trouble expressing my ideas in stories without sounding preachy (sometimes I sound very preachy when I express myself in stories and poetry). What ideas influenced your guest and how has he expressed those ideas in his short stories? - From patteso via web

A: It’s a great point. I think nearly every writer has that struggle. I have a lot of political and ethical and spiritual ideas but I’ve found that stories aren’t a very good vehicle for expressing those – sort of like making a hammer out of Jell-o. It seems to me that you have to really see what the story wants to say, and to honor the situation and people you are making. The great danger is that the writer will (in his quest to express his ideas) overpower the actual energy of the story – and in so doing, will fail to be interesting. He’s just backed the big manure truck containing His Ideas up to the reader and let it rip. Which is sort of static and condescending – doesn’t take the reader’s experience into account, we might say. Maybe the trick is to lose the notion that you are writing your story to express an idea, and embrace the notion that you don’t quite know why you’re writing. Or: you’re just trying to get some truthful and undeniable energy into the prose, and tell a story that is compelling. There’s a sort of naughty saying attributed to the poet Gerald Stern, which I use often because it’s so perfect, and which I’ll clean up here. He said: “If you set out to write a poem about two dogs making love, and you write a poem about two dogs making love – then you wrote a poem about two dogs making love.” (And that last bit should be said in a disappointed tone.) His point is that a work of art that too neatly satisfies the expectations it sets up early, will actually be a bore for the reader (who got those expectations and was expecting more – surprise, escalation, deepening). I think the thing to avoid in writing is condescension – this idea that the reader is a passive recipient of whatever it is the writer wants to administer.

Q: I want to share a great quote by a famous author (don't remember who) about the process of writing. "Writing is like driving at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you end up making it to your destination." (That may not be the exact words). Love the show! - Email from Odette

A: I think that was William Styron, and that gets it perfectly. Thanks for that, Odette.

Q: *In the introduction (p. 1) to his book, "Getting the Words Right," (1983, 2005), Theodore A. Rees Cheney relates a story to explain where, by "direct theft on my part," he got the title: A 1958 interview of Hemingway by George Plimpton for The Paris Review:

Paris Review [Plimpton]: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending to "A Farewell to Arms," the last page of it, 39 times.

Paris Review: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.* - Email from Stephen

A: Yes. And he got most of them right, I’d say. But this is interesting – it’s a timeless problem, when a writer tries to talk about his process. I think it’s because writing is maybe more akin to playing a sport or improvising on an instrument – lots of intuition and iteration and adjusting-on-the-spot. We tend to think of it as an intentional and intellectual process – the writer has an idea or a plan and just executes it. And this is how we talk about it, mostly. It’s some version of what’s called “the intentional fallacy” – this idea that the writer has an intention and executes it. But in my experience, that way of talking has a little built-in falseness. Hemingway is doing a very neat evasion there...very smart.

Q: George Saunders's description of how he works on a narrative construction illustrates his (supposedly abandoned) engineering imagination. Engineering is usually the manipulation of learned science rules, in the mind, to construct something new and useful, often followed by sketches of embodiments before realization. In the same way, Mr. Saunders manipulates the human interactivity and behavioral rules that he has learned, to construct his stories. Short stories are the intoxicating distillation of long stories, which themselves are more filling. - Email from Randall, an engineer

A: Randall, yes, I think you’re right. I often remember the old engineering idea that, when starting an experiment, you don’t care how it turns out – you just want to run the experiment honestly, and see how it goes. Same with stories – you might start out with some direction in mind, but woe betide you if you ignore the ‘experimental evidence’ (i.e., the actual energy of the story) . The other deep benefit for me of my engineering education was the idea of rigor. At the Colorado School of Mines, where I went, you were taught early that effort was necessary but not sufficient – didn’t matter how long you studied, if an answer was wrong, it was wrong, and that was that – great training for writing, actually. If you’ve done 200 drafts and it still stinks, too bad. Go do 201. Argh.

Q: I've read all of your books and just acquired Esther Forbes' "Johnny Tremain" that you cite as an important influence. Your book of essays “The Braindead Megaphone” touches on important issues so deftly and intelligently. Is there another book of essays on the way, one that might touch on drones, for example? - Email from John

A: There isn’t, really – I have two essays I did for GQ that haven’t been published yet – one about a trip I took to Africa with Bill Clinton, and one on an experience I had living incognito for a week in a homeless tent camp in Fresno. But for the foreseeable future I think I’m going to just keep working on fiction - life is short and art is long , etc., etc, and I haven’t found anything as enjoyable as stories.

As for drones – well, yes, I have some thoughts on drones. If you haven’t read it, you might have a look at the late David Foster Wallace’s essay on the war on terror – I think it’s called, “Just Asking.” In that essay, he basically says (as I read it) that it might be more heroic and brave and judicious to just accept that we will have a certain number of casualties due to acts of terror than it is to sacrifice our basic moral principles (by torturing, violating due process, etc.). A bold idea, as so many of his were. My guess is, he would have included these drone strikes in that list as well.

Feels to me like there’s been this weird and sad slide into a very scary moral place, where (1) pragmatism justifies everything and (2) we have really forgotten to imagine the viewpoint of the innocent victims we are always making in these sorts of things and (3) war has become more a corporate move than a military or civic one – we just farm it out. And our logic gets wonky: instead of feeling, “My God, war is the absolute last resort, used only when completely necessary to forestall invasion,” we now seem to always be asking, “Would now be a good time for a war?” We’re like some tough drunk guy outside a bar, always looking for an excuse to throw a punch. And then people with any pacifist tendencies (i.e., good sense) are put in the position of having to make the case against war.

I said in an essay that the war in Iraq was a failure of literary imagination – we failed to fully imagine the forthcoming casualties and the effects of our actions. I think we’re still doing that – exposing thousands of our young people and Afghani people to so much violence. I know the Taliban’s no picnic and so on – but it disturbs me that over here life goes on as normal while so many people are mired in violence and aggression.

Violence is toxic – all of the great sages have said so. It scares and saddens me that we’ve slid over into this space where some very violent acts and attitudes have become commonplace, and acceptable.

So – if we can imagine the experience of some kid at a wedding or village gathering as the drone controlled from Langley comes over and fires a mistaken rocket – well, I think we should do that. It’s real. It’s as real as anything said on some talk show about expediency and so on. It’s as real as the death of a “high-value target.” What terror that kid must feel, and what rage. I’m not really all that political a person – my logic is too vague and I spend all of my time on writing and teaching – but I do think we have to be honest. That is, we have to remember that kid and hold his/her experience up very rationally against the importance of killing that “target.” They both deserve to be in the argument.

Q: My daughter is constantly writing, everything from columns for her school newspaper to a novel she's been working on for years. She never wants to talk to me about what she's writing, saying only that she wants the writing to speak for itself. Is this a common feeling among authors? - Email from Susan

A: You bet, 100 percent, a totally honorable impulse. I think what she’s showing you is dedication and pride in her work. Bravo to Susan’s daughter, I say. And bravo to Susan, for being thoughtful enough to ask the question.

Q: I haven’t the nerve but hope to get it and write a book. I inhaled books as a kid and still do at 63. Now, I have a 7-year-old granddaughter who is already published on Amazing Kids.com. The short story is called The Burglar. She is already a prolific writer and her parents bought her an electronic diary to help keep her stories. She is in 3rd grade gifted class and was tested in kindergarten to read on a 6/7th grade level. As a black family of over-achievers, we support them all as our parents supported us. - Email from Joane

A: Hi Joane. That is really wonderful. Congratulations to your granddaughter. I think there is nothing as empowering as written language. We can use it to grow ourselves outward, to communicate subtly nuanced ideas that we could never speak, to become more empathetic, to stand up for ourselves and others. So great that your granddaughter is being supported in this. But I do think you should get started on YOUR book. Put it this way: if you sit down for 10 minutes a day, even if you don’t write a word, then you’ve begun writing your book. That’s why we call it “process.” Even just sit by the window and think about writing your book – and you’re already writing it. Might be a great start to just imagine yourself telling that talented granddaughter of yours what life was like for you when you were seven. I bet she’d love to know.

Q: I don't know if the emailing critic [an email Diane read on air] was ever a 15-year-old girl, but I was; sounds an awful lot like my mind racing then.... I welcome such an alive writer to my inner horizons. - Email from Jhana

A: Thanks, Jhana. One idea that gives me a lot of comfort – and I’m aware it sounds corny – but I like the thought that any of us could find a sort of fictive corollary, in our minds, for any other of us. That is to say, since one person’s brain is actually very physically similar to any other brain, and because the neurological processes are similar, we are more alike than we might think – and fiction (reading or writing it) is a way to remind ourselves of that fact. When Tolstoy describes childbirth in “War and Peace,” any of us who’ve been through that get a weird jolt of recognition. And what a weird thing that is – some guy who died over 100 years ago is causing intense activity in your brain. Magic, really, and hopeful – since that implies that deep & profound understanding of another’s motives and feelings is not only possible, but probable, if we just lean into it a bit.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from TENTH OF DECEMBER: Stories by George Saunders. Copyright © 2013 by George Saunders. First published in the New Yorker and excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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