Entertainment

Our Writer on Meeting his Hero of Fiction, George Saunders

When Greg Hudson makes a pilgrimage to his hero of fiction, all the turns in his own story start to make sense

Photo by Marion Ettlinger/Corbis

Photo by Marion Ettlinger/Corbis

George Saunders, author and MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow, smiles politely when I show him a picture of my dog. He only looks mildly uncomfortable when I tell him that my dog’s name is Saunders. Named, of course, after him. I can imagine the discrete calculations he’s making in his head: total time he’s committed to this meeting, multiplied by his inherent generosity, divided (suddenly) by my uncomfortable hero worship. “Oh,” he says, “well, thank you.” It’s as if he’s never talked to someone who’s named their dog after him before.

This is happening at a sushi restaurant near the campus of Syracuse University, where Saunders—the author, not my dog—teaches creative writing. This is months before his book, Tenth of December, would be published, and months before the New York Times Magazine would predict that it would be the best book you (yes, you!) would read this year. It is, in fact, before we’ve received our avocado salads and sushi. He’s devoted much of his day to me. Before this, he let me sit in on one of his classes. We discussed a Margaret Atwood story. Or, the class did. I sat with my arms crossed, supremely envious. After this, we’ll go to his office for a proper interview, ostensibly for Sharp, the magazine that is my day job, but I have ulterior motives. Right now, I am attempting to make small talk over lunch with my hero. He has dogs, too.

3-George-Saunders-Dog

Saunders, the namesake dog; Photo by Greg Hudson

This is not something that happens every day.

George Saunders writes short stories. He is one of about two authors (that I can think of) who earn a living this way. “The book is actually selling,” Saunders will later tell me in a follow-up email, after I send him the article I’ve written for Sharp. For any book, let alone a book of short stories, that’s something. But it isn’t surprising.

His stories will change you. With their inspired, loopy language and their twisted, funny and bleak futurescapes, they will make you feel the head-shaking, sad absurdity of our modern, materialistic, corporate-owned world as if for the first time. But, at the same time, you will want to be more interested, more human, better. It’s a contradictory feat; Saunders can make you see the darkness humans have wrought while reminding you of our potential. This was true of his three previous short story collections and his book of essays, but it’s especially true with Tenth of December. It’s a book of modern parables, each a warning and a consolation: Here is how life will knock you down, and here is how to push back against the blows.

Maybe it’s because I, unjustifiably, often feel knocked about by the world that I took so quickly to his writing. Maybe that’s why so many have. But somehow, Saunders took on a greater importance to me than your Jonathan Franzens or Michael Chabons. It’s why, in addition to talking to him as a journalist should—about inspiration, the craft, how he writes—I’ve come to talk to him about life. His life. And mine.

But first, some heartwarming background.

The best gift I’ve ever received came from Nicole. That Christmas, she was my girlfriend. And like all good girlfriends, she had a keen knowledge of my interests—though I’ve never been the type to keep my passions a mystery. Still, her present was miraculous.

She had hyped it up impossibly. Unwrapping it, I silently rehearsed the enthusiastic reception that seemed to be required, even as I doubted any gift could warrant it, or that I would be up to the acting challenge so early in the morning, in front of so many eager faces.

There were seven books in all. Saunders had written a small message in each of them. Some were English editions of his books that hadn’t been printed in Canada, others were from France and Italy. There was a card (written in Nicole’s hand, but from Saunders) that said if I would send him some of my writing, he’d read it and provide notes, and that if I wanted to, I’d be welcome to visit him in Syracuse, N.Y., to sit in on one of his M.F.A. classes. There was a note, too, about how obviously lucky I was to be loved by Nicole.

I couldn’t say anything except to ask Nicole how she did this. I started crying. How did she do it?

All I gave her that year was an engagement ring.

Saunders is clearly a sucker for, if not romance, then love. “We’ve been in contact before, right?” he asks while we’re walking to the sushi place. I’m impressed. The Christmas gift—which came about via an email from Nicole— was nearly two years ago, and it is nearly that long since he read the short story I’d sent, and dutifully sent back notes. This visit isn’t technically part of the gift—it was set up through publicists and publishers, the way interviews are—but, it kind of is. He remembered me. And Nicole. “And your wife’s emails were just so loving,” he says.

My marriage is on my mind while I’m talking to him. It’s the ulterior motive. This trip is for my job, but it’s also a pilgrimage. There’s something transcendent about heroes.

There is the hope— and, like all hope, it’s so, so fragile— that from the pedestal we’ve built and put them on, that from that height, these heroes will know more, not just about their respective fields (writing, dancing, scoring touchdowns), but about life. Or, maybe that’s just true of Saunders, whose stories are full of struggling men trying desperately— against a heartless society and their own limited abilities—to care for their families, their precarious relationships. In his stories, that means dark stuff: spending all of their money to buy four foreign girls as lawn ornaments to keep up with the neighbours, for example.

So, while it may be a stretch (and it certainly isn’t what Random House’s publicist had in mind), I want Saunders to give me marital advice. The first year of marriage is the hardest, they say, but some of those first-year challenges seem to be awfully resilient. Put simply: I feel alone a lot. It’s not a word I imagined I’d associate with marriage. And since Saunders has accidentally worked himself into the short mythos of mine, it seems only right to seek wisdom from him. Because he just seems to have it.

Saunders's Tenth of December (Random House, $29)

Saunders’s Tenth of December (Random House, $29)

One of the things I love about his books are his acknowledgments to his wife, Paula. They are perfect nuggets of gratitude, sincerity and love. (For example, from his book of essays, The Braindead Megaphone: “Paula, Paula, Paula. Odd to thank the air one breathes, but crazy not to,” or from Tenth of December: “Paula: …Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something really freaking good.”)

“I’m going to do a whole book of those,” he says in his (I’ll say it) adorable Chicago accent. So, I ask him about his marriage. He tells me it’s a mystery, that they met at Syracuse as students and were engaged after three weeks. “It sounded crazy to everyone else, too. But not to us. She said, ‘If we date, we’re probably going to break up, right?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘So, why don’t we just get married?’” So they did.

Honestly? I had hoped that he would say something about how marriage was a bitter struggle, but that those dedications in his books were evidence of the fruit of all the hardship. See, I’d think, and I’d feel like rough marital waters are not only normal, but they create artists. But no.

“I think we’re just really suited to each other,” he says. “I really care what she thinks, more than I care about anyone else’s opinion. I think it’s mostly that I’m really fascinated by her, and continue to be, and really want her approval.”

And I’ll just let him say this bit, because in his syntax, there’s something incredibly earnest and true; it’s evidence that the person who writes with such heart has an incredibly large one: “The funny thing, it’s kind of weird, because it does make you think that there is something that goes beyond this life. Because to say I want somebody’s approval, you think, ‘Really? Can’t you think for yourself?’ but with her, when I get into a situation where I’m somewhat lacking, what she thinks is best, and if I improve it, I really improve as a person. And this is true in my writing. Because my standard is always, ‘Does it move her?’ If I write something and it moves her, then I know I’ve done my best work. And so it’s almost like she somehow pre-existed to bring me up to speed, and I think she’d say the same thing. And it hasn’t always been peace and calm, we had a lot of challenges from the beginning but, always I’ve felt that the parts of me that needed improving were exactly the parts of her that I could model myself on, and just come up, you know—and writing is one. I just wasn’t rigorous enough. And I never started moving her until I became rigorous.” He says, “It’s really cool. And very nice.”

It’s also, of course, what I probably need to hear.

My life can be broken down into a series of mild obsessions. They are as well-defined in my personal history as presidential administrations are for Americans. Example: I may have been the only straight Edmontonian male to openly worship Robbie Williams, Michael Jackson and (oddly) Pierre Trudeau in high school (odd since I graduated from high school in 2001). I even thanked all three in my graduation quote. When Trudeau died, classmates stopped me in the hallway to offer condolences.

This is something men do. We pick people to live through, to emulate, to honour. Who we choose says something about us. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to figure out that a 15-year-old Mormon kid infatuated with the alcoholic, drug-addicted, Lothario Robbie Williams maybe felt a little restricted? When I believed in God and followed the tenets of my religion, my heroes were noticeably, cartoonishly arrogant and egotistical. Now that I don’t, my hero is noticeably, cartoonishly kinder.

After the restaurant, we’re in Saunders’ office. It has cathedral-high ceilings and bookcases lining one of the walls. On one, there is a framed picture of him meeting Nelson Mandela. Former president Bill Clinton is in the picture, too (Saunders wrote a piece for GQ about Clinton and his work to support the AIDS fight in Africa). I notice that, since then, Saunders has subtly, but successfully, updated his look. In the photo, his clothes are looser, ill-fitting. He shares the same sartorial affect as many authors who remind you, slightly, of home-schooled children. Now, he’s got a kind of college-town version of a lumberjack look going on: a long-sleeved shirt underneath a light plaid button-up and suitably modern khakis. His glasses are on trend: thicker, more intentional. His beard has grown out. He’s doing a blown back thing with what is, frankly, a risky hairline. It works.

What I’m also thinking, while I’m adjudicating his style: This is George Freaking Saunders! He met Mandela and Clinton. I’m thinking of how Saunders’s humanism spoke to a specific hunger in me. I knew, of course, growing up a Latter-day Saint that Mormonism didn’t hold a monopoly on goodness. I understood that non-religious people could be kind and thoughtful, even, dare I say, gracious or Christlike. But, it’s this (and I don’t think it has anything to do with my specific religious history): when the entirety of your life experience is filtered through a certain world view, when you model your life after the apostles, say, or from people in The Book of Mormon, when you take comfort from Christ, when you understand everyday problems according to doctrine—when that world view is shaken, it can leave you unmoored. You don’t doubt the morals you learned, but where are the narratives to reinforce them? Somehow, having his stories as secular parables surprised and comforted me.

When I tell him this, he seems about as comfortable as he was upon learning that somewhere in Toronto there is a small mammal named after him. “But I think you have to be careful,” he says, leaning back. At this point we’ve been talking for close to an hour. “Because fiction looks like a moral system, but it really isn’t. Fiction, when you think about it, what is it? It’s me making up shit. And then seeing it through to its conclusion in such a way that it seems to say something about the real world. That’s sort of an illusion,” he says.

It’s a plausible clarification, but as he goes on, it’s as if he realizes it’s not necessarily true. He mentions Chekhov, an inspiration and neer for a big corporation. And he a fellow writer he gets compared to often, and how, well, he feels morally uplifted after reading him and his Russian compatriots. It’s not that fiction can’t provide that moral guidance, it’s that he doesn’t feel comfortable being the source.

But he’s also a father, which means he’s not that uncomfortable being the source. Some people, whether they have children or not, talk like a dad: kind of goofy, kind of sincere, full of analogies, advice, patience. “I have a lot of time for people. I don’t know what it is. I don’t always like them, but they’re interesting to me. Sometimes we seek intellectual reasons, but some things are just dispositional,” he says. “I’m not really nice. I’m interested. And I think niceness for me is a way of coping with the un-niceness. If you feel dark tendencies, one responsible decision is to work clipping out the surface manifestations of your not-niceness so they’ll atrophy. That’s the conscious decision.”

And, because I’m feeling his interest—or at least his conscious decision to be nice—I ask him about my job as an editor at a men’s magazine. It’s couched in a question about consumerism and advertising (a frequent subtext in his stories is the encroach of consumer capitalism), but it’s really Greg asking Mr. Saunders how I can be happy in a job that is, finally, all about getting people to buy shit.

“Because it’s human activity and it’s beautiful,” he says. “The first exit is that ‘Commercials are Bad,’ And that’s true, that’s an obvious truth. They are jerking us around, no question. But you can stay on the highway a little longer and say, and yet! The holy words: on the other hand. They’re kind of beautiful, I cried at that Coke commercial. What the fuck, you know. On the other hand, that’s an even higher form of manipulation. True. On the other hand…” And he trails off.

Before Saunders became Saunders—and actually part of the reason he is able to write the way he does—he worked as an engineer for a big corporation. And he didn’t hate it.

“As someone who has to do it, yeah, it’s not holy in a way,” he continues. “And you won’t be doing it forever. But also, I would say that you are on the inside of it. For a novelist or whatever, it’s cool to be inside the beast a little bit, to look around and maybe see the beast is kind of friendly.”

I feel like I should thank him for the talk—especially the part where he implies I’m something more than I am now. I feel like I should pat him on the shoulder on my way up to my room.

I can’t kick the notion that none of this is relevant to anyone but me. I have a hero. I met that hero. And, contrary to the popular notion, it didn’t leave me disillusioned at all. Yes, it humanized the guy—you suddenly remember authors are real people when you’re telling them about your dog and hearing about their kids—but my admiration could take that.

Sweet story, but does it matter to anyone else?

I suppose this is the central question of fiction. Especially the kind of fiction that George Saunders writes, stuff concerned with goodness and morality, and saving people’s lives. The power of fiction is that we get to answer: It can matter! It does! We can read about a young boy trying to save a man bent on freezing to death, only to have the man turn around and save the young boy, like in the title story of Tenth of December, and we can decide to have that affect us. More than affect us: encourage us, edify us, remind us of something higher than ourselves, as stories in scripture encourage and edify believers.

And maybe you can read about a young man who has questions about whether he’ll ever not feel alone in his marriage, or ambivalent about his job or his life, and you can see how he learns that his hero is every bit as good as his writing, and that perspective might change his mood, and that good men exist. You can decide what that means.

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