Friday, April 29, 2011

George Saunders Interviewed

One of my favorite living writers was recently interviewed on Bomblog.

From the post...

Patrick Dacey

It’s been a few years since I was a student of yours at Syracuse, but I always enjoyed your classes because they felt more like conversations and I remember certain things you said that have been invaluable to me as a writer. A couple have stayed with me: “The moment when things get complicated, that’s what we try to move towards.” And: “A father and son in a bedroom doesn’t mean that something sexual has to happen.” Does it seem to you that writers sometimes choose to shy away from complications by going to the extreme?

George Saunders

Right—those two are kind of like bookends—although also, wow, what a terror, to be quoted so accurately at such great temporal distance. You may remember some of my other biggies, such as, “Any monkey in a story had better be a dead monkey,” and “Aunts and uncles are best construed as the heliological equivalent of small-scale weather systems,” or (the mother of all advice-quote-pairs): “The number of rooms in a fictional house should be inversely proportional to the years during which the couple living in that house enjoyed true happiness.”

The first idea (“move towards the complicated”) is, I think, best understood as a habit of mind generally worth cultivating. Basically: steer towards the rapids. Say we’re writing “Little Red Riding Hood,” and we’ve just typed: “One day, Red’s mother handed her a picnic basket and told her to go see Granny, but not to talk to any strangers along the way.” So—should we have her meet a stranger? Yes. Should that stranger be potentially dangerous, like, say, a wolf? Sounds promising. Should Red engage with the wolf? (What a drag, if, at that point, she takes Mom’s advice and ignores the wolf: story over). Should the wolf she meets be evil, or a gentle, New Age wolf, who gives her some nice poems about daughter/granddaughter relations? Looking at a familiar story like that one, it’s pretty clear: a story is a thing that is full of dozens of crossroads moments, and if we make a habit of first, noticing these, and, second, steering toward the choice that gives off incrementally more power (or light, or heat, or throws open other interesting doors, etc.), this will, over the long haul, make the story more unique, more like itself, more incendiary. (Although even as I type this, I find myself intrigued by the poem-giving wolf. . . . )

That’s where the second idea comes in: as we try to steer toward the rapids, we sometimes do so reflexively, thus overriding reality, or probability, or story-power, in a way that can seem like a tic. We often auto-choose the naughty, the verboten, the violent, the coolly uneventful, the “literary.”

For example, a few years back, in our admissions pile at Syracuse, we were getting a gazillion stories where everyone over 40 was a pedophile. Or, you know—if he/she wasn’t a pedophile, it was through sheer act of will. And I started feeling that move as sort of habitual—it was what a young writer did when he/she didn’t know what else to do: throw a pedophile in there. So that decision—which must have felt, to those writers, like “steering toward the rapids”—was actually the opposite: it had become the lazy, go-to solution—a way of avoiding complexity.

That second bit-o’-shtick you mention in your question (“A father and a son in a bedroom. . .”) might refer to a larger principle, namely: we have to know what our reader is expecting and take that into account. If, for example, we make that father a Father—i.e., a priest—and have him call that kid into the dark, secluded back room of the church—well, at this particular cultural moment, certain expectations arise. And as writers, we have to know those, and deal with them somehow. If I say: a priest summoned an altar boy into the back room of the church—well, at some level we “expect” a molestation. We just do. Maybe in 1931 we didn’t—but we do now. (And “expect” might be too strong a word. Let’s say “molestation” comes into the realm of likely narrative possibilities.) So the writer has to know this, and respond accordingly. The molestation could occur, of course, but we’d have to make it occur in a way that somehow takes into account the fact that molestation-by-priest has become a trope and a Tonight Show punch line.

We all know that nice feeling that happens when we are expecting Thing A from a writer and we go, “Oh no, not that, that would be just too obvious,” and then she delivers, instead, Thing B, and Thing B evidences a bigger heart, or a wider experience, or just more attentiveness on her part, etc., etc. So: there in that back room, the priest might do or say something that suddenly reminds us that “priest” is a category that contains multitudes—from molesters (yes, sure, O.K.) to Merton-like spiritual beings of great kindness, like that priest at (I think it was) Auschwitz, who sacrificed himself so that some other people could live, and was then starved to death in a pit, and the others heard him singing hymns literally to the very end.

(Or, for that matter, the priest might do something that reminds us that “molester” is also a category that contains multitudes (!). That is, the molestation could go ahead and occur, at a level of detail/insight that astounds us and makes it all new again.)

I suppose what we’re really trying to develop is the ability to see, at a given moment in a story (stuck there, sick of our own prose, blinded to it by the hours we’ve already spent), all the inherent possibilities, and then choose the one that is most. . . something. I would tend to say: the one that is most uncommon, i.e., the one that would take the most time/energy/acuity of vision to come up with—the one that is farthest down the trail, so to speak. But I suppose that’s what distinguishes one writer from another: how he/she might complete that sentence: Choose the one that is most (??).

And, of course, all of the above is mere concept—we “decide” how to write by doing it over and over, all the while trying to avoid nauseating ourselves—and then we look up afterwards and maybe try to figure out what we’ve done, and what we, therefore, must “believe” about writing.

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