Wednesday, May 25, 2011

An interview with George Saunders: "steer towards the rapids"

George Saunders is an author with a certain amount of humor and a dollop of menace to his work, often in the same story. He's written things scary and things humanly honest, and as any good writer should be, he is a sharp observer of human nature both in his fiction (In Persuasion Nation) and non-fiction (The Braindead Megaphone).

What makes a good story, as it is plain to read in the following excerpt from an interview at BOMB magazine, depends much on what Sauders describes as "steering towards the rapids" -- heading for the rough waters where expectation and plot tend to get twisted and turned around, and a reader's enjoyment of the story deepens as the shifting tale pulls away from easy explanations -- even in the seemingly-overworked field of horror stories.

At NPR, Goldie Goldbloom explains the shivery delight in one such Saunders collection, Pastoralia, and the warping of expectations (and elements of horror) that make her laugh out loud: "I knew I loved George Saunders' writing when I got to the part in Pastoralia where dead Aunt Bernie disappears from the cemetery and reappears in a rocking chair, giving the narrator tips on how to be a better male stripper. In the middle of the auntie's harangue, her decomposing arm falls off. Pastoralia is a collection of a novella and five short stories. They are loud, in-your-face, cigar-smoking, vodka-drinking, stomp-all-over-you-in-hobnailed-boots stories. I suspect that if George Saunders were asked what he uses to write with, he'd say a chain saw."

Here's an excerpt from the BOMB online interview with Patrick Dacey:
Patrick Dacey It’s been a few years since I was a student of yours at Syracuse, but I always enjoyed your classes because they felt more like conversations and I remember certain things you said that have been invaluable to me as a writer. A couple have stayed with me: “The moment when things get complicated, that’s what we try to move towards.” And: “A father and son in a bedroom doesn’t mean that something sexual has to happen.” Does it seem to you that writers sometimes choose to shy away from complications by going to the extreme?
George Saunders Right — those two are kind of like bookends—although also, wow, what a terror, to be quoted so accurately at such great temporal distance. You may remember some of my other biggies, such as, “Any monkey in a story had better be a dead monkey,” and “Aunts and uncles are best construed as the heliological equivalent of small-scale weather systems,” or (the mother of all advice-quote-pairs): “The number of rooms in a fictional house should be inversely proportional to the years during which the couple living in that house enjoyed true happiness.”
The first idea (“move towards the complicated”) is, I think, best understood as a habit of mind generally worth cultivating. Basically: steer towards the rapids. Say we’re writing “Little Red Riding Hood,” and we’ve just typed: “One day, Red’s mother handed her a picnic basket and told her to go see Granny, but not to talk to any strangers along the way.” So — should we have her meet a stranger? Yes. Should that stranger be potentially dangerous, like, say, a wolf? Sounds promising. Should Red engage with the wolf? (What a drag, if, at that point, she takes Mom’s advice and ignores the wolf: story over). Should the wolf she meets be evil, or a gentle, New Age wolf, who gives her some nice poems about daughter / granddaughter relations?
Looking at a familiar story like that one, it’s pretty clear: a story is a thing that is full of dozens of crossroads moments, and if we make a habit of first, noticing these, and, second, steering toward the choice that gives off incrementally more power (or light, or heat, or throws open other interesting doors, etc.), this will, over the long haul, make the story more unique, more like itself, more incendiary. (Although even as I type this, I find myself intrigued by the poem-giving wolf. ... )
George Saunders

And, of course, all of the above is mere concept—we “decide” how to write by doing it over and over, all the while trying to avoid nauseating ourselves—and then we look up afterwards and maybe try to figure out what we’ve done, and what we, therefore, must “believe” about writing.
PD So building off this idea about the present and the reader’s expectations affecting that choice, is it fair to say that in fiction some sense of realism has to be apparent for a story to work?
GS I think so, yes. I’d make the case that the whole fictional thrill has to do with this idea of the reader and the writer closely tracking, if you will. Like one of those motorcycle sidecars: when the writer leans left, the reader does too. You don’t want your reader three blocks away, unaware that you are leaning. You want her right there with you, so that even an added comma makes a difference.
And I think building that motorcycle has to do with that very odd moment when the writer “imagines” his reader — i.e., imagines where the reader “is” at that precise point in the story. This is more of a feeling thing than an analytical thing, but all that is good about fiction depends on this extrapolation. Which is pretty insane, when you think of it. The writer, in order to proceed, is theoretically trying to predict where his complex skein of language and image has left his reader, who he has likely never met and who is actually thousands of readers. Yikes! Better we should do something easier, like join the circus. ...

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