For George Saunders, the lines between utopia and dystopia, between realism and science fiction, between humor and horror, have always been fine. Never is it more true, though, than in his new collection of short stories, “Tenth of December.” Saunders has stripped these stories of the skewed settings that marked his earlier works, concentrating instead on rendering a very real, very genuine world and all the emotion that flows within it. A streak of absurdity still runs through it, but it's much more organic in nature.
It has been 20 years since The New Yorker first published Saunders' work. Since then, the MacArthur Fellow has written three short story collections, a novel, a children's book and a collection of essays — and mentored a new generation of writers at Syracuse University (including Adam Levin, author of "The Instructions"). Saunders, a Chicago native, will appear Tuesday at Lincoln Hall, for a reading and conversation with Levin.
We caught up with Saunders by phone last month to talk a bit about "Tenth of December" and why his latest stories are more grounded in reality than his earlier collections. Here's an edited version of our conversation.
Q: What inspired the shift to realism?
A: It wasn't really conscious. In writing it, I'd get to a certain point and I would know how to do it more realistically than I could've done it four or five years ago. I'd get to a place where there was a certain emotional thing happening and I just knew how to proceed. It's almost like over the years my subconscious has grown in a certain direction, and so when I turn to it, it just sort of led me there. I don't really plan things out before I do them very much, even on the story level. I just try to be entertaining for 20 pages. To some extent, it just might be that I'm 180 years old now and I'm more sure of what matters to me, so when I get to a place in a story where there's something really important going on, I'm less tentative about just going there.
Q: You've written nonfiction since your last collection of stories; did that influence this work?
A: I did six pieces for GQ that were travel related, and that was a real eye-opener as to how much power the simple detail could provide. It was so fun just to imagine someone who hadn't been to Dubai, say, and my job was to tell them what it was like — plain and simple, nothing fancy. I think that sort of made me aware of certain muscles I didn't know I had maybe in that way, and there's just a kind of simple pleasure in saying, "Once there was a parking lot," and actually making the parking lot real to readers.
Q: The realism in "Tenth of December" makes it all the more unsettling when dystopic elements crop up. Was that intentional?
A: That fits my view of things, because I think in our actual life the dystopic or absurdist elements happen sort of sneakily. They get in there on a normal day, and I guess as I'm getting older I feel like I'm honing in more on this question of good and evil and what does it actually mean? If you look at the end conditions — Auschwitz — OK, that's one thing. But what does good and evil look like and feel like on a given day?
I'll tell you the honest thing: On this book, the one mantra I had was I wanted to really connect with the reader in a very deep kind of intimate emotional way by any means necessary. So as I was writing, I was always thinking about this imaginary reader: Am I doing my best to really connect with her on a friendly, intimate level? Maybe I'd put aside cleverness if I had to or I'd use humor as necessary, but I'd always try to keep an eye on the reader as you would in a nonfiction piece to say, "I don't have time for shenanigans. I really have to communicate something to this person." What I really want to do is to move you. I want you to feel like we're interested in the same things and that our lives haven't been that different and that what you care about is what I care about. It's that close channeling that fiction is so wonderful in doing.
Q: Had that not been your goal in the past?
A: Yeah, it had. But you're always writing to what feels urgent to you at the moment. When I was younger, I think what was urgent and surprising to me was that life could be so hard. It never occurred to me somehow. My wife and I got engaged in three weeks and then she got pregnant on the honeymoon and she went into labor at four months with our first daughter. We thought we were still hippies or beatniks or whatever we were, and then suddenly, well, this also happened with our second daughter, and both times she had to go to bed for five months (to carry to term). So by the time we'd known each other three years, she'd been in bed for 10 months and we had two kids and we didn't have any money. I was thinking I was Kerouac, and then suddenly I found out that I had no interest in being Kerouac. I didn't want to be a freebird. I just wanted to be a good dad and husband, so I started working these jobs I never imagined myself working.
In that period, which was "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" and "Pastoralia," I was kind of taken aback maybe by, wow, life can be kind of surprisingly difficult. I knew I wasn't in any really difficult position, but even from the small hardships we were experiencing, I had that growth of empathy. For example, I realized how harsh capitalism could be. Those were the kinds of things that were urgent to me at the time. They were making their way into those books, and it seemed to me that the best way to do it was to maybe exaggerate that a bit. But then over the years, the urgent thing has changed a little bit. I still think capitalism is still harsh and life is harsh and all that, but I guess I've been more struck by the human ability to make happiness within that construct. You write out of whatever happens to be true for you for the moment, and right now, this book is a pretty good representation to how things are looking to me.
Q: Have your kids influenced the way you see the world?
A: Absolutely. They're wonderful kids. I can see that the love and the care we put into them paid off. It wasn't like we always did the right thing — it wasn't always perfect — but they're very flexible vessels and incredibly intelligent people. It left me thinking, well, that's interesting that actually worked out. The ultimate aspiration is to get a really rich picture of what life is actually like, and I noticed that the representation I'd made thus far wasn't fully accounting for the richness of my life now. This book is still not any big hoot — it's not like a Disney book. I'm trying, trying, trying to get some of that to the table, but it's hard, it's technically hard, to show those aspects of life without becoming sentimental. It's easier to sneer, but harder to praise.
Q: You mentioned your earlier work reflected your views about the harshness of capitalism, but doesn't this book pursue similar themes? I'm thinking of "The Semplica-Girl Diaries," in which a family preparing for a girl's 13th birthday party installs people from developing countries as lawn ornaments. It seems just as rooted in the tension created by middle-class aspirations.
A: I don't consciously go into any story for any kind of thematic reasons. The last 15 years of my life, we had our girls in a private school in Syracuse we really couldn't afford, and we were fighting to get the money. Our philosophy of child-raising was, let's raise them like they're richer than we are and then pay it off later. We were always in crazy comical credit card situations, but the way that story came out was, I just had a dream. We were living in our house, and there was this window that actually isn't there, but in the dream I woke up and was kind of restless and I went to the window and I looked out and there was a line of those (human lawn ornaments) out in the yard. The part of the dream that was so scary and weird was (that) the person I was in the dream was not horrified. He was thinking, "Oh, we are so lucky. This is so great we finally did it."
You know in a dream when you fall in love with somebody, the emotion is so strong. In that dream, the emotion was just gratitude that I could finally get to a place in my life where I could get those Semplica Girls in my yard. I think a lot of the story was basically compressed in my subconscious just by the life I was living and then it became a matter of just scrolling it out, almost like those little sea monkeys — you put them in there and let them expand.
I guess my point is, I know I write about class, but I try not to think about writing about class because then it can be reductive. Suddenly you're a crusader, whereas if you let the subconscious lead you, it often is about class and about something else. That guy (in "The Semplica-Girl Diaries") has class issues, but he also has personal issues and you kind of don't know what they are until you let him talk for 30 or 40 pages. I do think in American life, work and scarcity — or maybe paucity — and the possibility of failure has always been just huge for me. I suspect it's the same for a lot of people whether they're wealthy or poor.
Q: You're originally from Oak Forest, south of Chicago. Do you think that your attitudes about work and class came from where you grew up?
A: We had an interesting childhood because my dad was vice president of Petersen Coal, so we always had a lot. It never felt like there was any scarcity. The one thing that was true was that everybody was working all the time; we didn't know anybody who was just hanging out at their house. Everybody had a job. When we were in high school, my dad owned a restaurant called Chicken Unlimited, and we all went to work as soon as we turned 16.
When I went to college (at the Colorado School of Mines), there was an interesting thing where someone would say, "What are you doing for the summer?" And I'd say, "Well, I'm going to work. What are you doing?" And they'd name some really cool exotic internship or something that obviously wasn't lucrative. And of course in American etiquette, you don't get to say, "How do you pay for it?" You just say, "Oh, that's cool, man." There were a lot of really wealthy kids at the school, and I kind of became aware of that thing.
For me, the place where class started to be vital was when I was in my 20s on my own. I'd been in Asia and worked in the oil fields and quit. After I quit, the oil boom went away, and my degree got a little bit invalidated. I'd been roaming around for a year and suddenly I wasn't able to get any kind of decent job. It wasn't that catastrophic because I was single. But I moved out to L.A. with a girl I really cared about and just kind of blew it just by being poor, just by not having any money. All those things really hit home when I got married and we had our daughters. Once you have children, it's kind of like, wow, I don't mind if I humiliate myself, but I really don't want them to be humiliated. The possibility you could fail the people you love, that looms large to me.
Q: You have a distinct written voice, almost a dialect of your own. How did that evolve?
A: I'm a pretty verbally lively person — even as a kid. My dad helped start this garbage truck company in the city, and there was a big kickoff. He had 15 white garbage trucks and farmed them out to different neighborhoods and encouraged them to put different murals on the sides of the garbage trucks. And then they had a big art show at Daley Center; all the garbage trucks were there. There's this early footage of me talking to some really important guys — friends of my dad's — and I am just going 90 miles an hour, gesturing. It looks like I'm doing some kind of mime routine or something, so I think I was always a verbally lively person.
For me, the real breakthrough was to realize you could bring that into fiction. It was a totally natural thing for me to do: If I was at a party, I would do it. Or if I was trying to charm somebody or get out of trouble, I'd always go into this loquacious mode where I'd be doing all these different voices. But for maybe the first eight years of my writing life, I thought, "Well, that's fine for the bar, but not when we're doing literature with a capital 'L.' Then we have to be serious and write in short, precise Hemingway-esque sentences." It was kind of a big breakthrough for me right before I wrote my first book to say, "Hey, wait a minute; those things are actually not different." If I wanted to make a story that was interesting, I'd have to use my own actual mode of expression. I don't know where it comes from, but for me it was a big breakthrough: If you're going to do this thing, you've gotta bring everything to the table, including the stuff you're maybe a little bit marginally afraid of. You can't be Faulkner; that spot is taken.
I think it's kind of a South Side thing, too. We used to do it all the time: It was almost a power thing to be able to impersonate somebody or invent a character and stay in that character for the day. I remember I went to St. Damian, and we played basketball. We played this one team — it was a parish team, and I think that meant the kids were a little older than us. We were in eighth grade, and they had facial hair and actual muscle tone. So me and a friend, we just made up this whole — we actually wrote it out — this whole back story of each of the guys on their team. We didn't know them at all; just based on what they looked like, we made up these family narratives, this big comic thing. We never played, so during the game, we'd just taunt them. One guy we called "hero of the beach," and his mother was a body builder. We'd taunt them, and of course they didn't know what the hell we were talking about. We thought we were doing psi Ops or something, and finally one of our teammates said, "You're really embarrassing us; stop doing that." That was early storytelling humiliation.
Q: Did it help the team win?
A: No, we could never beat them. It made us look ridiculous. They'd kind of look at us; they didn't even get mad. They just thought we were a couple mentally insane people at the end of the bench, but it was very amusing and we had such fun writing out these different scenarios. We had different voices for each of the guys. It was a little deranged.
Q: After John Updike died, you wrote an appreciation for The New Yorker. The magazine first published your work in an issue that juxtaposed the old guard — Updike — with the new guard — you. Have you graduated to the old guard yet?
A: I think I'm there. I'm just the lesser old guard, a minor old guard. You can sort of feel the switch. I'm 54, so if I'm going to be old guard, now is about the time to do it. That was a nice issue, and I remember picking it up and thinking, "Wow, I'm in there, and John Updike is in there. It's amazing." The cover was of two people in a Central Park carriage — one was this really old, distinguished guy who looked like Eustace Tilley, and the other one was kind of a punk rocker.
Part of my role was to be the naughty guy; of course, at that point, I was 34 and had two kids and was wearing khakis. I did this thing this week at The Center for Fiction where they gave an award to (New Yorker Fiction Editor) Deborah Treisman and I was the emcee. It was really sweet because a lot of young writers were there — you know, first-book people — and somebody said, "Oh, I read your book, and it really made a difference" or "I wrote you an email, and you were nice to me," and it just feels good. Everything else goes away, which of course it all will eventually, but that's something good. So bring it on; I'm ready for it.
Jennifer Day is editor of Printers Row Journal.
George Saunders will read from "Tenth of December" at 7 p.m. Jan. 8, at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave. A conversation with Adam Levin, author of "The Instructions" and "Hot Pink," will follow. Visit lincolnhallchicago.com for details.