George Saunders: "Writing feels like a high-wire communication"

The Books Interview.

George Saunders in 2009
George Saunders in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images

Your stories are often told through American voices, not an objective narrator. Why?
I had been trying so hard to be literary, which to me meant doing the thing I couldn’t quite do – beautiful nature descriptions – and as a writer you hit that moment where you go, “Oh, so my actual way of being might not be irrelevant to how I write.” In real life I’d always been trying to be funny and it also turned out I viscerally knew the way that Americans mistalk. That ability was there all along, I just hadn’t understood it as a literary ability.

Are you more compromised when you speak through a character?
I think that’s right. You’re contouring those people’s personality with a lot of honesty. That makes the reader lean in a little bit. If I show you some dorky guy having an inadmissible thought-stream and part of you thinks, “Yeah I’ve done that, or I could imagine myself doing that,” then suddenly you’re melded with the character and with me, in a sense. For me, fiction writing has come to feel like a high-wire communication.

Do you worry about sacrificing beauty?
That was a hard concession to make. I’m not giving up on beauty, I’m just going to redefine it a little bit. I remember hearing something that the writer Robert Stone said. He was on a navy ship off the coast of Vietnam and they were doing a bombardment and he said it would be wrong to call it beautiful but it was sublime. If something is intense enough, or refined enough, or exaggerated enough – maybe our previous definition of beauty was a little bit dusty.

There’s a relish in the language. How aware are you of the shape and pattern of the words on the page?
Very aware. A lot of the stories seem vernacular but I revise like crazy. You can make a simulacrum of casual talk that is very, very structured. I grew up in Chicago – not exactly working-class, but there were a lot of people in our neighbourhood that were lovely, emotional people who weren’t educated, say, and didn’t have the resources of language to express themselves fully. That opened my mind to the idea that poetry is just any diction that gets overfull. Even halting imprecision is a mode that we can perfect.

Do you find yourself writing by ear, then?
I realised that writing is probably a little more like music or sport – there are certain reactions that are instantaneous. What you’re trying to do is train yourself to have a good instantaneous reaction, with the proviso that you can go back and revise infinitely. I don’t know how it is [in Britain] but here the culture has trouble discussing art in a way that makes sense to me. It’s always assumed that the writer had this big intention and executed it and my experience has been completely the opposite, so it’s kind of a buzz-kill.

Zadie Smith described you as a satirist.
I’ve heard that word applied to me a lot and in some of the earlier books I think it’s more pronounced. I think often it’s just an edge, or a moral component. My early dream as a writer was to be Chekhov but for me that’s not separable from being funny. If I try to be very straightforward and Chekhovian I can’t summon up any energy in the work. I tried it. So for some reason I have to come at it from the side to get the necessary energy in the prose. Flannery O’Connor said something about you can choose what you write, but you can’t choose what you make live.

Where does morality lie for you in fiction?
For me, the moral part of it is what happens to you during reading and then for minutes afterwards when there is some kind of alteration. When I read a story that gets me, it sounds so corny, but I feel the world is new again. Here, when you bring morality up in relation to fiction, people think you’re propagandising and that, I think, is totally anti-art. But that intimate relationship with your reader – that seems like very high-level engagement. When I read a Chekhov story, I always feel that this guy, who’s been dead for all these years, gotme. He had a high vision for me and there’s a feeling of living into that vision. Something like that.

Interview by Sophie Elmhirst George Saunders’s “Tenth of December” is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99)