Upstate in Syracuse, N.Y., sitting in his cozy country-style kitchen, where colorful crayon scribblings and photos of grinning girls decorate his fridge, George Saunders recalls his first foray into juvenile gibberish. "The little fuzzy bunny, la, de, da, de, da," he says in a sort of singsong serenade, and then winces. Even his daughters, ages 9 and 12, sensibly sharp and brooking no baby talk in their house, roll their eyes at his early, misguided efforts to spin tales of w and wonder for the Harry Potter crowd.
"I'd written two alleged kids' books," Saunders says in his soft-spoken way, referring to the "little fuzzy bunny" bit, now a long-discarded relic of one of those misbegotten yarns. "But I made the mistake of making them too juvenile. My girls would just look at me and say, 'Dad, that is really lame.'"
Finally, after years of creative consultations with his inner child--not to mention his eminently wiser offspring--Saunders, the author of two books of short fiction for adults, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (Random House) and the recent Pastoralia (Riverhead Books), has produced a book for children of all ages, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (Villard). Illustrated by Lane Smith (The Stinky Cheese Man and James and the Giant Peach), it's a most gripping tale of orange, burr-like creatures with multiple eyes (the Gappers) that attach themselves to goats, letting out joyous shrieking sounds upon being fastened to the animals they love. Yet for the beloved goats, who lazily reside in a town called Frip, such unbridled ardor proves anything but joyful. The Gappers' incessant shrieks cause the poor animals to stop eating and sleeping, transforming them into famished wastlings, unable to produce milk and utterly useless to their human owners. Fortunately, there is a girl named Capable....
Indubitably, it's the sort of story that only Saunders could spin. Lean and fit, with a dirty-blond beard and thinning hair, George Saunders is an attentive man, prone to self-effacing comments and exuberant fits of enthusiasm. His blue eyes twinkle with childlike glee when amused, making him seem much younger than his 41 years. Frankly, it's hard to imagine that Saunders would have any trouble writing a children's book, since all his imaginative, fantastical stories thus far could easily be described as sophisticated fables for adults. His first collection, CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, was published in 1996, and it stands as a reminder of just how wonderfully wacky and adventurous fiction can be. Consisting of six short stories and one novella, CivilWarLand encompasses artificial universes, see-through cows, vengeful spirits and one very bitter 400-pound CEO. The broadly comic characterizations and wildly imaginative settings led one critic to praise the book as "Walt Disney on acid." Saunders's second collection, Pastoralia, published in May, continues to mine the alternate realities percolating within the author's fertile brain. The title story concerns a man and woman hired to live in an isolated community and reenact the everyday life of a primitive society for a paying public that never comes. "Sea Oak," a 1999 O.Henry Award winner, is about an overworked and underappreciated elderly lady who dies a penniless virgin but comes back to life and urges her stripper nephew "to show his cock" to get ahead in this world. While Pastoralia may feel a tad more "realistic" than CivilWarLand, both are wildly quirky works of trenchant satire. Invariably, for all Saunders's surrealistic mind-tweaking, there is some very astute social commentary going on.
"I always think that art should comfort the oppressed and oppress the comfortable," says Saunders. "And I think with CivilWarLand and Pastoralia, I was trying to oppress the comfortable, even in myself. Chekhov has that great line that every happy man should have an unhappy man in his closet with a hammer, reminding him by his constant tapping that not everyone is quite so fortunate."
Saunders was born in Amarillo, Tex., but raised on Chicago's South Side, where his dad sold coal to apartment buildings. "He'd come home with coal stains on his shirt," Saunders recalls. "And he'd have all these stories from his day out in the field. I remember when Martin Luther King was killed, my dad was held up against a Coke machine with a gun to his head. He was saved by a black woman who grabbed the guy and threw him across the room." As if such tales weren't enough to stir a young man's burgeoning imagination, his father would bring home books by Machiavelli and Upton Sinclair and tell his son: "Here, read this!" "I just worshipped him and he worked a lot of hours," Saunders says. "So those were like dispatches from somewhere else."
Saunders says his father instilled in him a desire to write, but, coming from a working-class background, he never saw writing as a potential career. So at 18, he applied to the Colorado School of Mines for a degree in geophysical engineering. After working in Indonesia's oil fields for two years, he returned to the States and held a series of jobs, including that of "knuckle puller" at a slaughterhouse. Although he continued to write on the side, it wasn't until he discovered Stuart Dybek's stories about Chicago's working class that he saw the literary life as a viable vocation. "Until then, I had no contemporary models," he says. "The diction I was using was 19th century: sort of Somerset Maugham on Quaaludes. When I read Dybek, I said, I know this city, I know the people and I saw what he was doing with it." He applied to Syracuse's MFA writing program and began studying with Tobias Wolff.
After graduating, he began sending out short stories--and receiving rejections. His lucky break came in 1992 when the New Yorker published his story "Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz," a bizarre yet brilliant tale about a man who downloads his and others' memories off a computer and then sells them. It got him an agent, Esther Newberg at ICM, and he's remained with her ever since. "She is really the best," he says. "She frees you up from having to worry about anything professionally." And, of course, that leaves Saunders more time to explore the creative crevices of his imaginative mind. Unlike some authors, Saunders says he doesn't map out his stories beforehand; rather, he lets language guide him. "For me, learning to write was to just let it come out without editing myself," he says. "That was hard, because I always thought writing was an intellectual and analytical process, but for me it's not. It's more of a verbal thing. So if the language coming out is exciting, then usually it brings ideas with it; whereas if I try to make ideas happen, then they're usually lame and the language pretty tepid as well."
One frequent theme in his work is capitalism's devaluation of the labor force and dehumanization of workers. In Pastoralia's title story, "office" politics cause the faux-primitives to turn on each other. The story "400-pound CEO"in CivilWarLand tells of a corpulent corporate cog destroyed by the self-serving values of those around him. In Saunders's fictional world, equality and community are impossible when people are pawns in someone else's game of gain. "Capitalism implicitly states that if you have more, you're better," he says. "And then there is the really frightening leap, which is to say, that success equals virtue. If you're successful, you must have more access to moral information than I have. And we do that all the time, with movie stars, businessmen and athletes."
Not surprisingly, Saunders's social concerns surface in The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. As the book begins, the Gappers divide their affections equally among all of Frip's goats. The town residents collect the orange creatures and dump them in the ocean, after which the tiny but tenacious pests inch their way back to shore, beginning the cycle over again. Finally, the dim-witted Gappers become a little less dim and realize it would be much more efficient to attach just to those goats nearest the sea. As Capable's house is closest to the shore, her goats becomes the favored targets of the livestock-loving Gappers. The story then evolves into an allegory about people who blame the downtrodden and take credit for auspicious events beyond their control.
"When the Gappers move to Capable's goats, everyone wants to pat themselves on the back for not having misfortune," says Saunders. "Their attitude toward Capable is, 'Oh, if only you lived differently.' And the core hypocrisy of America to me is that we always assign blame to misfortune." Still, the story avoids overt moralizing, is quite funny and is thoroughly forgiving to all involved. "I think that art is a form of paying attention and, for me, attention is love," he explains. "My particular kind of attention is satirical. I love America, but I'm suspicious of it: it's the fat kid with all the toys and needs to be looked at honestly."
While Saunders's growing critical and financial success as a writer is beyond anything he could have anticipated as a boy on Chicago's South Side, he remains attuned to America's economic class divide. Like many authors of his stature, he teaches creative writing (in Syracuse's MFA program) to help support his family, which includes his two daughters and his wife of 13 years, Paula, a screenwriter. But there were periods when money was tight.
"Even two years ago," he says. "I sat at this kitchen table reviewing my bills, going 'fuck, we literally can't make this come out.' And then the next week I sold that story "Pastoralia" to the NewYorker. That let us keep the kids in private school, but it's awkward being on the phone with an editor and asking, 'Is that check out yet?' And they say, 'Oh yeah, it's going out, very soon.' To them, 'very soon' might be three weeks, but to you it needs to be four days. "There was a time when there was something honorable about being poor, especially for an artist," Saunders says about our country's current attitude toward money. "I don't think that's true anymore. Being poor has become a bit of an embarrassment. It's a recent and strange thing and very unholy. You can talk about your sex life before you can talk about money in this country."
Of course, that is why writers have agents--to talk money. And money is one reason why Riverhead Books, not Random House, which put out CivilWarLand, published Pastoralia. (Riverhead Books also published the trade paperback edition of CivilWarLand.) According to Saunders, there was "a bidding thing and Riverhead came out enough ahead that the switch was worthwhile." Plus, Chris Knutsen, the editor of Pastoralia, was "very persuasive in his enthusiasm for the book." The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, however, reunites Saunders with Random House and CivilWarLand's editor, Daniel Menaker.
"He was the first editor to receive the manuscript," says Saunders. "He immediately liked the story. Then Lane, who had read CivilWarLand, got involved and did some early sketches, at which point Menaker basically gave us carte blanche on the project." Indeed, Villard plans an initial print run of 100,000, substantially larger than the author's two previous books. Saunders attributes the strong launch to the past sales success of Smith's other illustrated works, including Jon Scieszka's The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! (Kestrel, 1989), which tells the time-honored classic from the wolf's point of view, and Roald Dahl's 1996 edition of James and the Giant Peach (Knopf), which was also a 1996 animated film.
"We got so lucky," says Saunders of Gappers. "Lane and I really hit it off, personally and professionally. We both shared a Dickensian vision of the story since the town is really poor. As for Dan, he is a really good writer, and he's funny. He writes a lot of great comic sketches, so he understood where I was coming from. He never said to tone it or dumb it down."
Of course, if he did, Menaker might have had to answer to a higher authority: Saunders's kids, whose feedback the author relied on in shaping his tale. "I could go on the most super literary tangents and use complicated diction--and I never lost them," he says of his girls. "They liked the challenge. So I thought, I'm not going to limit myself. If I want to be really sophisticated in the comedy, I can do that. In the end, I was imagining a witty audience, whether nine or 90, but one that's hip to satire, and understands language as something fun and playful.
"After this, I think I want to move more in the direction of making things up totally," he says. "It's very liberating."
David Bahr is a New York-based writer who contributes to numerous publications including the New York Times, Poets & Writers, the Advocate and Madison.