Why Fiction Matters: An interview with George Saunders
Tenth of December, a collection of short stories by George Saunders, is the Catholic Book Club selection for May 2013. The book club moderater, Kevin Spinale, S.J., took part in a conversation with the author by email.
Kevin Spinale: In your story “Puppy,” Callie, a troubled, desperate character, offers the following claim about love twice: “Love was liking someone how he was and doing things to help him get better” (43). In “Escape from Spiderhead” also, you tinker with the idea of love and desire—can such human realities be manipulated by medication; are they quantifiable? Then, toward the end of the book, you offer a most eloquent thought about love in “Tenth of December.” Don Eber, rotting with cancer, saved from freezing to death, and reunited with his wife, offers the following insight about meeting his wife after he attempts to “preempt all future debasement” by committing suicide. Eber describes the nature of love between him and his wife as filled with, as you write, “that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you expanding to encompass whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you, that was the deepest dearest thing he’d ever-…” (251) Human love seems to include tenderness (as you write in “Escape from Spiderhead,” 69), compassion, forgiveness, and the willingness to submit oneself to the care of others—as returned soldier in “Home” says to his family who he has threatened with raw violence: “bring me back” (201). There is more humility in love than heroism, it seems.
And so, I ask, how hard is it to write honestly above love? When do you know, as an author, that you have encountered a text that conveys something authentic about human love? In what texts—if there are any—have you encountered some deeply honest account of human loving that affects the way in which you love?
George Saunders: Well, it’s hard to write honestly about anything. But my approach is to focus all my attention on the sentences—try to get them as good and honest and interesting and funny as I can—trusting that the bigger issues will then take care of themselves. For me, the process of writing is always to move away from the abstract and toward the embodied.
The fiction writer’s job, as I see it, is to make a vivid representation of life as he’s known it. And that starts with things and places and specific thought-states, specifically described. Hopefully this representation will ring the reader’s bell. It doesn’t have to be a linear representation (my stories are clearly not linear representations of “life in general,” but are darker, more compressed, and crueler, arguably) but it has to somehow speak, even if in an exaggerated way, to the reader’s experience of life. (So, although none of us has been a coyote endlessly seeking a roadrunner, that cartoon speaks to us about, say, the futility of desire.)
The way to write about love, I guess, is to get some of it in the room, so to speak: have a character who loves, or claims to love something or someone or some idea, and then put him to the test. If we stumbled upon some mystery material, and wanted to know what it was, we might first ask: What are its essential properties? And then proceed to put it through some end-condition tests (extreme heat, stress, etc). I think fiction can do the same—and that mystery material is…us.
In that vein, two of my two favorite stories about love are “Master and Man” by Tolstoy and “Lady with Pet Dog” by Chekhov, because both ask: Well, what IS this thing, love, that we are always talking about, anyway? When does “love” depart from “self-interest?” When do two people really become one? Is this even possible?
In both, a selfish person moves in the direction of becoming a more loving person, by way of following his selfish interests—and then, at a critical moment, the reader and the writer ask: Is it love yet? That is: have that person’s feelings truly been shorn of selfish interest? And what interests me about those two stories is that I think, finally, the answer in both is: No. Or: Meh. That is, we get to the point where we find ourselves asking: Why is it so important that love be entirely selfless? Is that even possible? Desirable? Isn’t that sort of oxymoronic? Isn’t that construction just the residue of our faulty understanding of this thing we have labeled “love?” And so we get transported to this lovely place where we feel the disjunct between our concepts about love and the thing itself—which is so much bigger and divinely inflected and unknowable than our puny ideas about it.
So those stories don’t answer the question, but cause it to “open out,” so to speak. I love that.
K.S.: Second, is it the case that any authentic expression of human love must necessarily contain sacrifice or suffering on the part of the lover? Is there any literary account of love that succeeds in communicating truth about human loving that does not involve sacrifice or forgiveness or suffering in some way?
G.S.: Hmm. This is getting philosophical now. :)
I think the question is somewhat tautological. Since we generally define love that way—as being indicated by abnegation of self, focus on the other, etc—I guess you’d have to say that, yes, all stories about love would necessarily contain sacrifice et al. Otherwise we wouldn’t recognize it as being about love. But this also raises the idea that we have too few words to describe the multiple things that we lump together under “love.” Could we “love” something and yet treat it as an object? Uh, I think so. Could we love someone and not suffer at all? I hope so. So it’s a kettle of fish—but not one I fret about much. As I said before, I’m more interested in creating specific embodiments of all of these larger conceptual ideas, and that takes all of my time, just to get that somewhat right—and I find that the process actually goes better when I deflect my mind away from the bigger conceptual questions at the time of writing.
K.S.: The stories in your collection offer many insights into parenthood. There are the overbearing parents in “Victory Lap” that warn their son against intervention in a bullying incident at school: “That was none of your business. You could have been badly hurt. Mom had said, Think of all the resources we’ve invested in you, Beloved Only. Dad had said, I know we sometimes strike you as strict but you are literally all we have” (17). There is the “successful” mother in “Puppy” reasoning that her children need not, as you write, “have to feel what you[the parent] felt; they just had to be supported in feeling what theyfelt” (32). There is also the unsettling passage in “The Semplica Girl Diaries” penned by a struggling father and addressed to future readers of his diary:
When kids born, Pam and I dropped everything (youthful dreams of travel, adventure, etc., etc.) to be good parents. Has not been exciting life. Has been much drudgery. Many nights, tasks undone, have stayed up late, exhausted, doing tasks. On many occasions, disheveled + tired…hair shaggy because haircuts expensive, unfashionable glasses slipping down noses because never had the time to get glasses tightened (165-166).
First, please help us understand this father’s angst. How common do you think this type of parental drudgery is? How do you think your readers might respond to such a lament? Is this father’s lament vile? Is it terse and lacking in every way but for its self-absorption and immaturity? Or, should the reader accept the father’s words? Instead of the urge to tell him to buck up and be a better father, should one cultivate compassion for this honest exasperation of a parent that is underpaid and overtired? (I recall the line in “Exhortation”—“What is my purpose? To get paid.”)
G.S.: I think that level of drudgery is pretty common. It was for us, anyway. And I don’t find him at all vile, since I modeled him on myself. I think he’s tired. It’s the end of a long day, and he’s writing in his diary, barely able to stay awake. I think he really, really loves his kids—this is evidenced everywhere in the story—he’s constantly thinking about them and trying to make the best life possible for them. When I read these lines, I really feel for him—he’s doing his best. And he’s just trying to be honest about the toll it’s taking on him. My wife and I went through this, when our kids were small and we had very little money. We got caught a little by surprise re the financial demands of parenting. “Capitalism,” said Terry Eagleton, “plunders the sensuality of the body.” This was certainly true for us. I was always tired, a little pudgy, badly dressed, etc., etc. I was in this state becauseI loved my kids—I was working a job that I wouldn’t have otherwise chosen to work. I did it happily and proudly—but still, the costs were real. So, our narrator isbucking up—he is going to work every day, being generous with his kids, sacrificing for them, trying to be present for them and so on. If there’s a flaw in his parenting, it’s that he’s too focused on them, I’d say—he responds to his guilt about their limited circumstances by sporadically overindulging them, in compensatory ways that turn out to be bad for them.
K.S.: Secondly, what of Scout’s parents who tell their son: think of all that we invested in you—you are literally all we have? These words sound like suffocation rather than love. Is part of Scout’s heroism—perhaps the better part of it—the overcoming of such unbearably selfish parents?
G.S.: Well, I think love can manifest as suffocation. Just because we feel love, that doesn’t mean we are going to export that feeling perfectly. I think most bad parenting comes out of a situation where a positive feeling gets expressed dysfunctionally. You know: “I love you…so I will throw you a $50,000 prom.” Or whatever. So I think these parents really love their son AND that this love is finding its expression in their extremely controlling mindset—which is very bad for him, and hard on him. I’d suspect that any parent has experienced some version of this—we love, and therefore we want things to come out well for our kids, and therefore, since we are older and know a few things, we are going to “help” them, by giving them some “advice,” which we will codify with some “rules,” which we strongly suggest they follow, etc., etc.—and just like that, a good impulse has transformed into a bad action. So it all comes down to a matter of proportion. The idea would be, you know: help just exactly the right amount. Ha.
K.S.: And so, what of modern parenting: is it frightfully self-absorbed and crippling of children? What are its flaws? How can the love of today’s parents be washed of drudgery, sadness and self-regard? Or, am I offering a distorted critique of family?
G.S.: Well, I think you might be attempting to offer an overly generalized critique. That is: I suspect that out there, as we speak, there are manifestations of every sort of parenting: self-absorbed, selfless, crippling, wonderfully empowering, tone-deaf, sensitive—you name it. And, you know (“same as it ever was”), that has always been the case, in all times and places. I don’t think there’s anything particularly unique about today’s parenting. We might think of parenting in a given time as being like a rose bush in various different conditions—sometimes the bush is over-watered, sometimes under-watered—but the essential “rose bush energy” is the same. So parenting has been hard in all times and places, and all times and places have put their unique (and imperfect) spin on it—parenting being hard because living is hard.
Having said that, I suspect that the particular flavor of parenting in our time has something to do with our relative affluence—I think we live in a time of just soul-crushing materialism. And by this I mean both that (1) we value material possessions way too much and (2) we believe way too much that the only true or real thing is what can be immediately seen and measured—that is, we live in profoundly anti-spiritual times, and operate under the unfortunate de factoassumption that we just happen to be built such that our mental abilities enable us to know exactly everything there is to know about the universe, just as we are, no strain or work or faith in the reality of things unseen. This is a fundamentally worldly and limited viewpoint: what we see is what there is, period.
K.S.: You offer a fascinating paragraph on the origin of cruelty in people in “Escape from Spiderhead.” The main character, Jeff, reflects on the emergence of meanness in people. He considers several fellow prisoners, all killers, and thinks to himself:
At birth, they’d been charged by God with the responsibility of growing into total f---ups. Had they chosen this? Was it their fault, as they tumbled out of the womb? Had they aspired, covered in blood, to grow into harmers, dark forces, life enders? In that first holy instant of breath/awareness (tiny hand clutching and unclutching), had it been their fondest hope to render (via gun, knife, or brick) some innocent family bereft? No; and yet their crooked destinies had lain dormant within them, seeds awaiting water and light to bring forth the most violent, life poisoning flowers, said water/light actually being the requisite combination of neurological tendency and environmental activation that would transform them (transform us!) into earth’s offal, murderers, and foul us with the ultimate unwashable transgression (79).
There are harmers in your stories. In “Victory Lap,” Alison’s kidnapper is a harmer. Earlier in the story Alison asked rhetorically: “Is life fun or scary? Are people good or bad?” (9) By the end of this story, Alison and Scout have learnt much about human complexity and propensity for violence. Jeff, who utters the large quote above, was also a harmer. How much are harmers a product of a community—or is this a false question? That is, should we look toward God or our own flawed nature (genes, some sort of psychological defect) in order to explain human malice? For a Christian believer, Jeff’s critique of an omniscient, omni-benevolent, omnipotent God is quite strong.
G.S.: Well, I think we are all harmers. It’s just a question of magnitude. We are harmers because we misunderstand our place in things. We think we are central and separate and permanent. So we behave selfishly, in ways large or small. The big-time harmers buy into these delusions more energetically, maybe.
K.S.: In your story, “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” is the father—by virtue of his failure and exasperation—a harmer? Does he harm his family through immaturity and bumbling? Or, there again, is it entirely his fault? Do the market, the economy and envy and greed evident in all social classes from the working poor to comfortably rich have a role in harming this father and his family?
G.S.: I think he, like any of us, is both harmer and helper. And the two things are closely connected – he is helpful because he loves his family; then he gets slightly off track and is harmful—because he loves his family. A lot of his issues, yes, come from material paucity—but he also has a pretty good dose of the materialist ideas mentioned above. He believes too much that if he only provides sufficiently, all will be well. That is, if he had a different relation to the world—a more spiritual view, say—he would deal with that paucity from a different place.
K.S.: Your title story, “Tenth of December” engages questions of faith. There is an exchange that occurs within Don Eber’s head: “He was a father. That’s what a father does. / Eases the burdens of those he loves. / Saves the ones he loves from painful last images that might endure for a lifetime.” (224) And, later, Eber’s thoughts continue: “Spare us? Or spare you? / Get thee behind me. / Get thee behind me, sweetie.” (226) Perhaps I am mistaken, but this passage carries me directly to Mark 8:33. Peter has just confessed Jesus as the Christ, and as Jesus begins to reveal what his Messiah-ship will entail—namely, suffering—Peter tries to prevent Jesus from even considering such suffering. In response, Jesus says—“Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus forcefully rejects Peter’s attempt at shaping the nature of his public ministry. Jesus will not conform to Peter. It is fascinating that, in your story, the dynamic of suffering is an inversion of the Gospel pericope to which, I think, your story alludes. In “Tenth of December,” the person who says, “Get thee behind me,” is rejecting suffering with the belief that it will mollify the suffering of those who love him. Eber rejects the care and concern of his family out of his concern that his incontinence and rot will scar his family. Eber rejects their care and plots his own “clean” death.
What do you think? Is this interpretation far too overwrought with the filigree of belief? Are such allusions to Scripture significant in your stories? How much do the gospels weigh upon you as you construct stories that deal with the essence of human dignity and the reality of human death?
G.S.: I definitely had that quote in mind, but its function is simply: He really thinks he is right in doing this thing, and therefore is on guard to any voice that might try to stop him. So just as Jesus, knowing what he had to do, addressed Peter with that harsh term, Eber does the same—he’s addressing his wife here—or, rather, he’s addressing something he’s imagining his wife saying to him regarding this thing he’s about to do. He’s been to church, so knows this Biblical story, and at the critical moment, that line just pops into his head. Just as earlier, he spontaneously quotes Chief Joseph (“I will fight not more forever.”) I suppose there’s a slight element of humor here—he’s thinking of himself pretty grandiosely. On the other hand, why not? This is the day of his death. Or so he thinks. If you can’t be grandiose on the day of your death, when can you be?
K.S.: I was also struck with the sincerity of Don Eber’s lament. He is a 50 year-old man that will soon die of cancer. As he absorbs his diagnosis, you write of Eber:
He kept waiting for some special dispensation. But no. Something/someone kept refusing. You were told the big something/someone loved you especially but in the end you saw it was otherwise. The big something/someone was neutral. Unconcerned. When it innocently moved, it crushed people (231).
This is quite a statement about human suffering. Like your words regarding the origin of malice, Eber’s words seem to reach up to God in Job-like urgency asking: where is this loving God? Is this God, this big something/someone diabolically neutral and unconcerned?
G.S.: I think one thing Eber has done—and that I suspect we all do—is believe that “a loving God” means “a God who will always make sure things turn out the way I want them to.” So he has essentially under-imagined God. My sense is, we are here to gain (to the extent we can) the proper measure of God, so to speak—to regard the world with an open mind and heart, not editing out data to suit our preconceptions—and thus we will gain some understanding of God, in all of God’s enormity. This does not mean judging God by how well He’s done for us. But, rather, saying: Well, whatever God is, is completely beyond my normal grasp, so I am going to try to open myself up, so as to take in as much as I can, and be continually adjusting my understanding of God, and I am going to remain humble re my ability to grasp God, and when strange of surprising things occur, I am going to add them to my basket, so to speak; I am going to say (or attempt to say): “Ah, so this too is God.” And when I am surprised in this, I am going to “blame” my previous and too-small conceptualization of God, rather than, uh, God.
K.S.: And so, my question regarding faith is this: do Eber’s realizations about his own suffering satisfy these questions? Does the love Eber identifies and his own willingness to accept indignity and pain exist as a result of a big something/someone or does such love exist in the void of a viciously neutral God?
G.S.: Oh boy, that’s a big one. The story doesn’t (can’t) answer that. I think he comes to this conclusion using his mind and a certain innate intelligence that he has– he gets exhausted and scared enough to allow the overturning of his previous concept (i.e., it is right and kind for me to die today). Something good wells up in him, for sure. We could just say he pulled his head out of his rear. But how else would God work but through logic and intelligence and the gradual erosion of a bad idea, and/or the presence of a very real Beloved in one’s life, to set one’s thinking straight? Here, we might note how hard he’s worked throughout the whole story to beat back all concrete thoughts of his wife and kids. But they come just the same, these thoughts, with increasing specificity as the story progresses—and they save him. Is this God acting? Is it human love acting? Is it human intelligence exerting itself? What would be the difference?
K.S.: Does the love and the acceptance of love and forgiveness manifest in the following quote bear the trace of a loving God? You write:
[H]e saw it now, was starting to see it—if some guy, at the end, fell apart and did and said bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange and disgusting? Why should the s--- not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and the bending and the feeding and the wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—had never been—his to withheld…Withhold (249).
These are rich words. Thoughtful. They affect me as a believer because they embody what I deem to be God’s care for his creation and, more importantly, the goodness of his creation that willingly cares to care for those who are least parts of it, the ugliest parts of it.
G.S.: Again—this is how God would work, I think—by inflecting Eber’s mind toward truth and love. That, for me, was what the story ended up being about—this good man’s desperate attempt to get into relation with truth before it was too late, there in the snow and the cold, with death coming fast.
My job is to make what happens within the story convincing and accurate and compelling and believable – and if I am a decent observer of human nature and the world, all theological ideas can find a home here.
That said, the story doesn’t comment, really, on these larger theological questions. I was raised Catholic and am now a Buddhist. And as a fiction writer, I pretty much say: Well, my job is to make what happens within the story convincing and accurate and compelling and believable – and if I am a decent observer of human nature and the world, all theological ideas can find a home here. That is: if I make a good simulacrum, it will accommodate many ways of conceptual thinking.
K.S.: As I mentioned at the outset, I have been sent to far too much school, and there is more in my future. I have studied philosophy and theology, and I continue to be haunted by several questions that have haunted philosophers—nonbelievers and saints—since the time of Homer. I have come to the conclusion, at this point in my life, that fiction is a much richer mode of human thought for the exploration of such questions: God and evil, why men and women hurt others, what constitutes authentic human love and happiness. I wonder, do you agree? Does fiction provide a fuller account of such questions and anticipate better their answers?
G.S.: I think so, yes. Because fiction, as Chekov said, doesn’t have to solve problems, it just has to formulate them correctly. So a good story can answer “the question” in several contradictory ways, and just let those answers hang there, resonating beautifully—and that IS the (larger) answer: that field of contradictions. When we have to choose one or the other, and eradicate the other truths, then we start making mistakes. My sense is, the longer we can abide in a space of not-knowing—or letting the many truths hang there—the better off we are. If, eventually, we have to act (as, of course, we sometimes do) that action will be a better action for the longer period of waiting-to-act. The longer we abide in ambiguity, the wiser we get.
K.S.: What questions haunt you? How do these questions penetrate your art?
G.S.: The one question that haunts me is this: Given that I have a pretty good sense of what is right and what is wrong—a pretty good notion of how I’d like to behave—why do I so often fall short? My conclusion is that there is a big difference between conceptual ideas and visceral presence. My goal is to be a kinder, less anxious, more patient person, in my mind and my body, but I’m realizing that I can’t thinkmyself into this state—there has to be an ongoing and rigorous spiritual practice.
K.S.: Where do you go for nourishment? Who or what do you read for spiritual enlightenment? What fiction do you devour or savor when you are hungry for answers to the most meaningful questions of human life? What works of fiction move you?
G.S.: Well, as I mentioned above, I am a Buddhist, practicing in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. And there are incredible resources there, going back many thousands of years. As far as fiction, I tend to go back to the classics, especially, for some reason, the Russians: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, Babel. The Russians let the big questions into their fiction—it seems that’s the whole reason they are writing.
K.S.: Lastly, in your reading of literature, what works of fiction have made you a better person?
G.S.: So many, really. But to name a few: “Master and Man,” “Alyosha the Pot” by Tolstoy. “In the Ravine,” “Lady with Pet Dog,” and the “About Love” trilogy by Chekhov; “The Stone Boy,” by Gina Berriault. “Dead Souls” by Gogol. “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison. “The Deacon,” by Mary Gordon.
K.S.: Mr. Saunders, thank you for your generosity in considering these questions.
G.S.: Thank you—they were wonderful questions.
Kevin Spinale: Thank you, sincerely, for your answers. Thank you for helping the participants in the book club to understand your stories in a richer way. Thank you for pointing us to other stories that might nourish us. Thank you for your humility—it leads us to more honest reflection about ourselves and, I think, our faith. Thank you for your thoughtful response regarding parenthood. You have helped me understand the father of “Semplica Girl Diaries” much more fully. You have helped me to empathize with him.
I want to offer a brief response to your answers and pose one further question.
I see three movements in your answers and, perhaps, underlying your stories:
First, there seems to be a movement from the abstract to the particular, the conceptual to the en-fleshed, the theoretically limited to the quite complicated concrete. Sometimes, I view literature as offering a set of claims. Sometimes, I forget that it is also about stories that trigger recognition and delight. Thank you for helping to draw my eyes again toward the particular, the real, the incarnate. Perhaps the concrete is far more—as you wrote—“divinely inflected” than theological systems. There is no episteme in fiction—thanks be to God.
Second, there seems to be a movement from selfishness to a nimble love that expands and absorbs and hopes. Thank you for helping me to understand Eber more. Thank you for writing about your own experience in working along this very trajectory in your own life. I agree wholeheartedly that one cannot move from narcissism to thoughtful, generous love of others by thinking. It takes, as you wrote, “rigorous spiritual practice”: prayer, alms and fasting. I think it also takes grace—that power that others have to shake us, make us more honest, and love us in such a way that sometimes we refuse to accept it because it is so gratuitous and unearned—so prodigal.
Third, there seems to be a movement from fixed knowledge and rigid belief to a humility about human limitations and a healthy awe for the reality of God—something that bursts all concepts. This humility extends to a healthier view of ourselves in relationship to one another and the world in which we live. Furthermore, this humility extends to our knowing as well, and it is here, I think, that imagination helps us so much. Paradoxically, we are brought back to the real through the cultivation of our imagination. (I think St. Ignatius recognized this in his Spiritual Exercises—it is in and through our imagination that the Divine encounters us in such a way that our desires, not just our intellectual commitments≤ are transformed.)
Back in January, Zadie Smith offered a beautiful reflection on joy in the New York Review of Books. She offered this definition for joy: it is a strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight. Her definition depends, in large part, on her experience of loving her husband and daughter.
I cite Ms. Smith’s lovely definition for joy in thinking about your responses regarding human loving and suffering. You write, “Could we love someone and not suffer at all? I hope so…” I cannot see human loving and the joy that seems to accompany human loving without terror and pain—exactly because we are the thing that we are: flawed and en-fleshed and mortal. And the things that we love most authentically are also flawed and en-fleshed and mortal. I do not see such things as pain and sacrifice and the terror of realizing the fragility of what we love as concepts extraneous to love or some privation of love. How could one see human loving in the particular, in its embodied instances without the recognition that somehow pain is integral to this love—simply because we are the thing that we are? For, human love is always open to loss. Furthermore, is there an aspect of humility in such a recognition?
George Saunders: Well, I agree with you, basically. I guess it’s sort of relative—I think it’s possible for us to be in a loving situation here on earth that is not dominated by suffering, or a pre-occupation with the flaws. But at a deeper level: right. For me, the suffering comes in when you realize that the person you are loving is, like you, temporary. That’s hard. But then again, maybe that’s part of our job—to somehow stretch, in order to accommodate that insight. I can even see it making love more ecstatic—when we realize we are loving a temporary and wonderful manifestation that is changing even as we are loving it. Of course, that’s easier said than done. I find it terrifying to love the people close to me as much as I do—but there we are. It might be a matter of: where is the mind? Are we going, “Oh no, I love and yet my beloved is temporary, as am I, argh, this sucks, I hate this, I am so scared!” or, you know: “Well, I love and yet my beloved is temporary, as am I, wow, that is amazing, let’s do this thing.” I think I tend to do the former, and aspire to the latter.