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George Saunders: “We’re in this intimate tennis game, the reader and the writer”

The Booker Prize-winning novelist on the Russian masters, the shortcuts to great work, and his new creative writing Substack.

By Leo Robson

In George Saunders’s most recent short story, “The Mom of Bold Action,” which appeared in the New Yorker in August, a woman whose son has been the victim of a random attack sits down to write an essay called “Justice”. “It was easy,” the narrator records. “It just flowed.” The following morning, she finds her husband Keith reading the essay. Then he says he is going for a run. The mother concludes that this “was what good writing did… you said what you really thought and it made a kind of energy”. But it turns out Keith hasn’t gone for a run. Inspired by her polemic, he has gone to kneecap the culprit. Except he gets the wrong man.

When I recently spoke to Saunders, on the phone from Santa Cruz, California, he said that the mother’s sentiment about writing is “actually true, I think”. But, he added, “I think she’s not a very good writer. Or she was writing that piece out of too much emotion. And… you know, she didn’t go back and look at it.” When the mother reads the essay again, she reflects, “yes, it sort of flowed, but when you really broke it down…” So the story is, among other things, a parable about the dangers of the first draft – and, by implication, the painful necessity of revision.

“The Mom of Bold Action” marks a stepping stone between two projects more overtly concerned with questions of craft: Saunders’s book-length study of Russian short stories, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, which came out in January, and his Substack newsletter, Story Club, which launches today 2 December (his 63rd birthday). It seems an unmissable offer – serial thoughts on method from a fiction writer who must be counted among the most respected in the English-reading world, and the winner of the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the short story, the Folio Prize for his most recent collection, Tenth of December, and the Booker Prize for his only novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

[see also: “Our sense of who we are is constantly shifting”: novelist Katie Kitamura on Agatha Christie and being a reluctant critic]

Saunders said that when he started as a creative writing teacher at Syracuse University in the late 1990s, he realised that all he had to offer “was that somehow I’ve worked with my peculiar mind and learned how to start with something and revise it until it was publishable, and I’m just going to be real honest about how I do it, including how I read Russian stories for benefit. I figured that out within the first couple of weeks. The next 20 years were kind of a process of saying, ‘how honest can I be? Is there a way of teaching a Chekhov story by recreating my line-to-response?’ And it turned out that there was.” His role as an instructor, he said, is “to midwife and facilitate rather than dance”. He is hoping to recreate “the ambiance” of his Syracuse workshops on Story Club.

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At this point, after 35 years and nearly 50 published stories, Saunders said he can tell almost immediately whether an idea is worth pursuing. “If this thing has come to me, out of the cosmos, out of my subconscious, and I can get a little bit of charm going, a page or so that’s kind of working, then I just make a contract with it: ‘I commit to you 100 per cent, and your part is to gradually reveal why you’re making such a fuss.’” The aim, broadly put, is to “remember why people would come to read this by you”. He said it can be disheartening to realise that “your aesthetic move at this point is the omission of a description of a river”, but if you “decline to do the things you only do so-so”, your unique voice – in his case, zany and meditative, impudent and open-hearted – begins to emerge.

And yet despite this confidence about what he’s striving for, Saunders still regularly finds himself asking the question, “Why am I so inept?” His current work in progress was recently rejected by the New Yorker for the second time – “and I still can’t figure it out”. Saunders accepts that he “can talk a bunch of stuff, be the ‘guru of revising’”, but the process is “too hard for any person to have under control. I can get to a point where I’m absolutely positive, based on my years of experience, and my years of excellent shtick, that I’ve revised something perfectly, and then the world will say, ‘You haven’t.’” He pointed to the idea that “we believe that you do something long enough, you achieve mastery, and you can rest. But in this, I’m finding that if there’s any mastery, it’s knowing that you’re always going to get your arse kicked pretty soon. My constant desire to see myself as a ‘really good writer’, for sure, is always getting undercut.”

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Saunders believes that it reassures would-be practitioners for a published writer who is also a professor to acknowledge that the practice “is inordinately hard for reasons we can’t quite understand”. But he possesses a theory of sorts. “We’re in this intimate tennis game, the reader and the writer. And if I’m just using a limited part of myself, on the other end you’re going to feel that I’m holding something back. So you could say that the craft process involves a person trying to figure out how to get all of themselves to the table, which is harder than it sounds. Because you have to get your subconscious, but also your organising self, and your intellectual self. You’re getting your arse kicked until you’ve actually brought everything to the table.”

There is, it turns out, one potential shortcut: analysis past masters. Writing “A Mom of Bold Action”, for example, was “weirdly straightforward. The things that would normally take me months of revising to find just popped in front of me. I have a feeling it had to do with writing the Russian book. Working on that for two years sort of freed something up in my understanding of stories, and when I finished it, they just sort of flooded out of me.” Then he added, with extreme understatement: “So I’m sort of interested in keeping up that practice.”

[see also: Bernard Cornwell: “I always had the insane ambition to be a novelist”]