In George Saunders’s fourth collection of stories, Tenth of December, the MacArthur Genius Fellow gives us 10 tales of alternating absurdity and horror; but all are permeated with a capacious feeling of humanity.
When you have such a recognizable style, is it difficult to move in new directions without fear of isolating your audience?
Kind of, yes. If you’ve got a certain rep, it induces a little panic because you’re aware of what you do and want to use the best parts of that while avoiding falling into habit. What I find is that, if I work on something very hard and continue to revise it, it sounds something like me no matter what. But you always look for opportunities to confound yourself. And if you suddenly find yourself doing something that doesn’t quote unquote “sound like yourself,” [you] kind of go: “Oh, thank God.” You want to honor what’s authentic and earned while pushing into new territories.
How do you match the appropriate voice for a given story with the content?
Different stories have different requirements for different details, different vernaculars. First determine what’s needed, then kind of reach into your bag of tricks to find the register and the knowledge. Take the geodes in “Victory Lap.” I just liked the word. You start with a tiny fragment of something and it starts to sprout tendrils.
It’s hard not to notice how sympathetic stories like “Home” and “Escape from Spiderhead” are. Has your work become more empathetic and less irony-laced?
Personally and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more patient and fond of people. Maybe that’s grandfather syndrome (even though I’m not a grandfather). In my early books, I had a pretty frank representation of the harshness of life. But aesthetically, you push yourself to try and look at the stories and ask: is there any place I failed in kindness, took a shortcut, or turned away from something because it was hard to write? Or turned away from something because of a preconceived notion about what I think literature is? The personal and aesthetic: these two should be good friends walking along together, helping each other.
As compared to a lot of fiction, people have real jobs in your fiction. Is that a moral choice on your part?
That comes out of my life experience, in that I was never able to think of morality and a workplace separately because they were always impinging on one another. In the world I live in, work is a real pressure on a person and in storytelling you need pressure. And in my life and in my stories, drama has come from the paucity of resources versus what the world wants of us.
Is it ever hard to keep up with the world in terms of craziness?
The crazy elements in my work aren’t so much set on satirizing, really, or staying ahead of the wave, as it was my clumsy way of hinting at the deeper craziness of existence.