In interviews, the chemistry between questioner and subject is everything.
While I’ve long admired George Saunders‘ writing (and once even suggested that he run for president), I didn’t think I’d manage much more than a serviceable question-and-answer session if I interviewed him myself. But my email pal Roy Kesey knew precisely what questions to ask. The interview that follows this introduction is Kesey’s handiwork.
He has conducted oil exploration in Sumatra, played guitar in a Texas bar band, and worked in a slaughterhouse. One of his most wrenching and least representative (but still frequently hilarious) stories is “Chicago Christmas, 1984,” a nonfiction piece about his abortive stint as a roofer. Nowadays Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse.
His latest book, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, appeared recently at bookstores near you.
Says Mr. Kesey: This interview was conducted over the course of five days, between the 19th and the 23rd of August, 2005. Throughout the interview, Mr. Saunders wore a brownish cowboy hat with a python-skin band, a sheer black cocktail dress of scalloped Thai chiffon, and yellow flip-flops. Actually, that may or may not be true. This interview was conducted via email. We have no idea what he was wearing.
Also, please note that the entire interview, if translated into Cantonese, would form a phonemic anagram. That was entirely coincidental.
RK: Good evening, Mr. Saunders. According to my sources, you have a new book out, a novella called The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. Word on the street, and behind the Shop-n-Save, and on the porch, and in many of Beijing’s top-drawer massage parlors, is that it’s a political fable. Any truth to that?
GS: I’m not really sure what to call it. It started out as a kids’ book, but then suddenly became about genocide. So much for the marketing tie-ins! But I’m glad they’re talking about it in the massage parlors. It just goes to show you that phone marketing really does work.
The way I usually work is to try and find some little thing — a concept or a bit of dialogue or whatever — and then let a story grow from there, with as little preconception as possible. In this case, Lane Smith, who illustrated a previous book (The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip) suggested I try to write a story where all the characters were abstract shapes. So I tried that. At some point — I can’t exactly remember when — this line came out about there being a country that was so small, only one of its citizens could live there at a time. And this raised certain questions. So that’s how a story like this proceeds, for me.
RK: Oh, no question about it — if you’ve got the masseuses on your side, the battle is won.
I want to get back to the new book in a minute, but just now I’m fascinated with this business of “with as little preconception as possible.” That gets right to the heart of the mystery, doesn’t it? I’ve seen you mention Barthelme’s essay “Not Knowing” elsewhere, heard you talk about how not knowing where a story is headed is actually a prerequisite for getting it on its way. Do you have a favorite metaphor for the way things build or accrete in spite of your not knowing? Magnetism, maybe? Gravity? Dust-bunnies? And a quick follow-up: you’ve also said elsewhere (again with the elsewheres!) that you know a story is working when it manifests a “complexity that results from 1) truth, and 2) accretion.” Could you explore the dark side of that coin for us?
How do you know when things are building in the “wrong” direction — and what would “wrong” mean in that context?
GS: Wow, okay. Excellent. I can see this is going to be fun.
I do have a favorite metaphor for this — but before I get to it, a disclaimer or apology of sorts. One of the weird things about being interviewed is that, if you’ve been interviewed before, and had one of those enviable moments where you answer sensibly, and actually come up with exactly the right thing to express what you’re trying to express, then you’re in a pickle: next time you’re asked that question or one similar, do you use the example you thought of before, or not? If you’re trying to be truthful and accurate and precise, you probably should — it came to you in a moment of revelation. But then you get to a certain point where these things start following you around — you start sounding like: “Ah, you’re asking about PLOT. Allow me to invoke Chestnut #9!”
So this is just to say that if I repeat myself relative to something I’ve said before, somewhere else, I’m not being cynical or lazy but am trying to be truthful and concise.
Okay. So my favorite metaphor for the thing you’re talking about is the seed-crystal metaphor. Like in high school biology: you put the thing in water and it starts growing. The key, for me, is that the crystal is not trying to grow in a certain direction, or to make a certain pattern, or because it wants to be a certain kind of Big Crystal when it’s done. It is, I suppose, following some sort of path of least resistance. That is what it feels like, in the best case. I am not trying to do anything in particular, except stumble on something. I don’t know what. Funny is good, tight is good, clever is good — something that, once you’ve put it down, you go: “Well, okay, whatever else happens, I’m pretty sure that’s staying there.” Or another way to say this: You feel like the events described in that little bit of prose have just gone from Typing to Something That Happened. It gives off a feeling of undeniability, if you see what I mean. You don’t feel like negotiating at least that little bit of story.
As for how it feels when it goes wrong, I was just about, of course, to fire off a definitive answer. But maybe I should first say that a good percentage of the time, if there is such a diagnostic, I miss it. I spend a lot of time writing things that don’t get used. At the time they feel very much like what I described above.
So maybe the truth is, this process is incremental and repetitive. I am familiar with this feeling: What felt right yesterday suddenly is obviously wrong. And: What you cut two weeks ago suddenly is absolutely needed, and right.
In some ways, I suppose, all of these very good questions about writing, that I suspect every writer asks and answers in his or her head as he or she wanders around the kitchen late at night, as if being interviewed by some Charlie Rose-like figure — and the idea that there might BE an answer — mostly just serve to reassure us. When you consider something you’ve written that you like, think of how many rules you broke, or forgot to honor. Think of how uninterested you were in the generality of the approach you were using, the repeatability of it, etc. You were just in there feeling good.
The set of “skills” that add up to Becoming Better are split-second skills, irreducible skills, skills that build up over many years in the same ineffable complex way that, say, our ability to fall in love and sustain relationships builds up. In a sense what I’m saying is: We don’t have to worry. Whatever is going to sustain us is happening every time we write, whether we are aware of it or not.
But: One way I know things are going wrong is when I get indecisive and start thinking too much, having little working models of “how the story works” and/or political rationales and/or pages of notes and/or elaborate rationales of how this or that section is going to work, rationales which have nothing to do with the process of a real live person, just home from work, picking the thing up and reading for pleasure.
When it’s working, it feels simple, is viscerally pleasurable to read, and I feel very decisive — I know just what to do, what is needed.
But that state — I’m in that state very infrequently. It happens at two places: once at the beginning, when the story isn’t bearing any weight yet (and hasn’t even gotten to the point of being a riddle) and once towards the end, when the feeling is one of pleasantly painting yourself into a corner. At the end, the story now means something, something specific, and your choices are fewer; and this in itself is fun, because every choice has the potential to throw light through the story and make it exponentially bigger than it was in the last draft.
Long answer, because the question was so good.
RK: Well, not to worry — as soon as we need to start varying lengths and tempos, I’ll move to the “If you could choose one writer, living or dead, and hit that writer over the head with a shovel, what kind of shovel would it be?” type questions. But as long as we’re talking shop, let me hit you with a few more story-geek questions, and then we’ll move on.
In Pastoralia, you did a bold thing with the sequencing, starting off with the novella, by far the longest piece in the book. It works really well, but I’m wondering how you came up with the idea, what the reasons were behind it, how you see/saw it affecting the dynamic of the book as a whole…
GS: Your timing is interesting — I just spent the last week trying to figure out the order for this new collection that’s coming out in May. Arghh. Index cards everywhere.
What I’ve tried to do in both collections is come up with an order that 1) takes the reader pretty strongly from one story to the next, just in terms of quality and stylistic variation and staving off boredom, and 2) tells a kind of uber-story.
What I mean by 1) is, I try to set it up like a Dream Date. From one good thing to another, and that second thing is in a slightly different flavor, followed by some third thing you weren’t expecting, after which there’s a killer dessert. So I guess at that level I’m trying to find an order that helps me avoid feeling repetitive, etc. And in Pastoralia, there was something about the length of the novella and the humor that made me think putting it first wouldn’t lose me any readers, whereas later, it might. (I tend to think that way — a little defensively. ) Or, to put it more positively, I thought the piece was funny enough and odd enough that, having read it, a reader might at least say: Huh. Okay. I’ll read one more.
I also have an idea you should put the stories with the most gravitas towards the end of the book, to avoid a feeling of letdown. The thing is, I basically take 5-6 years to accrue enough stories for a book. So the idea of maintaining a plan, or control, during that time — well, I couldn’t do it. But what does happen is that each story is a puzzle. You solve it and it leads you to the next, more complex, puzzle. You don’t solve each puzzle in an equally elegant way — but at the end you’ve enacted a kind of subconscious pattern. So then the table of contents step involves recognizing and honoring that pattern.
It’s actually kind of wonderful to see how non-random the pattern is — the pattern of the stories you started and didn’t throw out, etc., etc.
As for 2), in the first book, I was aware that I basically had eight or whatever stories that were very similar in tone and action and ethos etc. All were basically: Guy in the shit gets pushed deeper into the shit. But what distinguished one from the next was what the guy did after the pushing. In some he just despaired, in others he fought back and lost, in one at least he fought back and kind of won. So I ordered them from least hopeful (i.e. most passive) to most hopeful (most involved/active).
In Pastoralia the thinking was similar. In the novella, he ends up taking on the identity of this person he’s just helped to fire. Things are looking very bad, and we’ve already established that he doesn’t have many options. So that’s a bummer. By the end of the book, “The Falls,” the main character is giving his life for someone else. So, even though I absolutely didn’t write them in that order, or with that progression in mind, my hope was that the reader would feel the progression, if only subliminally: there is a Bad Thing (oppressive capitalism, say, or crippling passivity); there is also a way out.
So for me the key is to go deeply into the stories again at publication time, and in this way get re-sensitized to them, and then trust my instincts, and my index cards.
RK: And again (again!) with the follow-ups: the stories in Pastoralia seemed to — how to say? — to allow the reader slightly more breathing space than the stories in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. This might be a function simply of them being, on average, a bit longer, but I have a sense there’s something else at work here. Could you comment on the motives behind, the mechanics involved in, and/or the repercussions of this trend toward lengthierliness, if in fact it is one, or, alternatively, assure me that it’s all in my head?
GS: No, I think you’re right. But whatever it is, it wasn’t conscious. I think it was organic. The stories in Pastoralia were, at least at first (“The Falls” was written first) a reaction against that very laconic first person in CivilWarLand. So I was trying to see if there was anything else I could do. And so the longer sentences, and the kind of neurotic internal monologues, do make the stories a little more — I dunno what. Spacious? Inefficient? Spaciously inefficient?
One thing I’ve noticed about my stories — when I’m working on them individually, I am really big on compression. I tend to cut out the physical descriptions and have an aversion to what I consider “normalizing” prose. I like Style. I like to sound odd and, hopefully, unique. This of course has a cost. When I get the stories together — well, I wish I could put a disclaimer at the front: Please read no more than one or two a day. Otherwise it feels to me like the contours that I put in there (when I was working on just that story) get lost in the reading process.
So that’s something I’m trying to figure out, that tradeoff between a certain amount of flash and compression, and the real pleasures of a story told in a natural voice.
RK: It’s interesting, this question of maintaining uniqueness (uniquity? That can’t be a word, but I like it much better) in terms of voice, thematic concerns, dynamics, what have you, but in a way that allows you to evolve, to avoid repetition. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because as I was reading “CommComm,” the story of yours that appeared a few weeks ago in The New Yorker, I had the sense that it was maybe a story you’ve spent years getting ready for. So many of the themes and tropes and tics that have appeared elsewhere in your stories — in “The 400-Pound CEO” and “Sea Oak” in particular, but in others as well — seem to have peaked — to have gone forth and multiplied and come back to chat about it — in this new piece. And as a result, the story reaches a whole ‘nother plane of grace, or so it seems from here on the outside, looking in. And so I ask you: as you finished it, did it feel at all to you like some sort of culmination?
GS: It did.
It was maybe the feeling of… well, this may not be the best example. But you know when you’re playing a complex video game and get killed, you can go pretty quickly through the game back to that point, and then the real work begins? It felt something like that. I would feel a certain thematic thing or ethical thing coming up and would be dimly aware that I’d been here before, and now was a chance for complication — to stand on the back of what I had done already and reach a little higher. A nice feeling.
I’ve also been more aware lately of certain automatic tics — usually towards darkening a piece or a character. And so I have started questioning these more actively. As in: Is there possibly more to this guy? Am I being fair to him? Is change possible? I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t mean that I’m thinking about these outside the story, but kind of viscerally, as I write it — I’m less content with a stock character. This was the case with that guy Giff in the story.
And the truth is, the only knowledge that matters about stories is the knowledge we have in real time, as we write or re-read what we’ve written. Hemingway used to say he tried never to think about a story when he wasn’t working on it, actually working on it. I’ve found that advice true and liberating — you don’t have to do a lot of strategizing all day. Just trust that the motor is running all the time — your subconscious is always working on the story.
RK: Giff, exactly — great name, by the way — and even Rimney gets his moment of light near the end as the narrator sees “that even now all (Rimney’s) thoughts are of Val, desperate loving frightened thoughts of how best to keep her safe.”
I’d like now to loop back slightly to what you were saying before about the “real pleasures of a story told in a natural voice,” and to the slightly lengthier stories that such a voice implies, or facilitates, or encourages, or something. Do you think you will ever follow that natural-voice+length urge to one of several possible logical conclusions, and actually write a (and you knew the question was coming, the way it always does, not because we interviewers get our jollies out of making you repeat yourself, though that is kind of fun, but in the hope that this time the answer will be “Yes!”) novel? I mean, don’t you realize that ever since we first discovered CivilWarLand in, no joke, the history section of our local bookstore, we’ve just been sitting around waiting for you to write a novel, so that we could enjoy, for much longer stretches at a time, the (as you once said, paraphrasing Barthelme — again with the Barthelme! Again with the agains!) “record of the imaginative journey of a particular mind,” in this case, specifically, yours? I mean, we just sit here and stare at things — the wall, the unmoving ceiling fan, the dust in the air — and say, out loud, “Novel novel novel novel novel novel novel novel,” like turkeys with speech impediments. What have we ever done to you that makes you want to see us suffer like that? Why do you hate us so much?
GS: Well, a novel would be nice. I’m just waiting to grow enough that it feels really enjoyable and natural. I think the time will come. But I’ve made the mistake often enough of mistaking a slightly sloppy, early-phase story for The Big One. And then I spend months adding unnecessary padding, then months taking the padding back off.
I have a feeling that even though a novel and a short story collection seem very closely related, they are, at the origin, very different. Like, say, a fox and a wolf. The mindset may be completely different, even from the first line. I’ve had intimations of this — I recently re-read Gogol’s Dead Souls and was struck by the fact that, in a novel, the whole point is the little constructions along the way… a chance to describe a certain household, or a certain while-traveling phenomenon, etc. And the plot is just a way to link these together and, in a sense, “justify” them. In the end, at least in that book, the plot is sort of a red herring. Whereas, in a story, the progression of the plot is what the whole machine is ultimately judged against. You can do the other things — description, dialogue, etc. — but any piece that is inessential to the plot-machine (to the sense that this thing is moving forward, and along a certain thematic track) is felt as extraneous. And I am very firmly in the latter mindset, having more or less trained myself to it over these many years of reading and writing stories.
So I guess the answer is, weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll see. My approach to writing so far has been colored by having not enough time, too many responsibilities, and too little talent. I take what I can get. If an idea seems interesting, I rush off in that direction, trusting that if I pay attention to something, it will eventually come to have some of me in it, and won’t be a total waste of time.
RK: Fair enough. And speaking of differences between art forms, according to this thing I just found, your story “The End of FIRPO in the World” was at one point turned into a ballet. Is that right? Or a modern dance piece? Or something? Which was then performed in Austin, New York City and Chicago? Did you have any input on that? Did you see it? Any thoughts?
GS: It was modern dance — as I remember it, one or two performers, performing over just the read text. And I liked it very much. I never saw it in person, just on video. It was done by a very talented choreographer at UT Austin whose name is Holly Williams. I didn’t have (and didn’t want) any input, since what I know about dance is: Don’t Fall. If You Do, Get Up Quick, Look Casual.
RK: See now, that’s the same strategy I use when crossing the street.
Shifting gears a bit, in an essay you wrote for The Guardian back in March of this year, you said, “Specificity, precision, and brevity, applied in language, drive us towards compassion.” Which reminded me of another thing, from what I think was the last piece of prose Raymond Carver ever wrote, called “Meditation on a Line from Saint Teresa.” The line of hers that he quotes there is “Words lead to deeds… They prepare the soul, make it ready, and move it to tenderness.” Carver then discusses two beautiful scenes from Chekhov’s “Ward No. 6,” the first describing a man who “has picked up the habit of a certain kind of tenderness,” and the second involving a character who ends a bit of dialogue with, “Oh, I think to myself: ‘Old fogey, it is time you were dead!’ But there is a little voice in my soul that says: ‘Don’t believe it; you won’t die.'”
And then Carver says, “The scene ends but the words linger as deeds.” It’s his use of the word ‘as’ that really gets me — as if words, chosen so carefully as to have the very palpability and irrefutability of deeds, actually become deeds in a certain sense. He’s saying, I think, that just as good writing drives writers to compassion, good reading of good writing drives readers to tenderness.
When I first started thinking about bringing this up with you, I didn’t actually have a question about it — and was going to say as much. It was just something I really liked thinking about. But now I wonder: is this drive toward compassion or tenderness something that a writer can — or should — be thinking about as a given story is in the course of taking shape? Or is it maybe the kind of thing — the kind of responsibility, really — that could almost become paralyzing in its size and weight? I don’t mean to ask you to speak for all writers, but is this drive something that you keep front and center as you work? Or is it more a question of coming to this conclusion about the importance and validity of the drive just once, and then keeping it in the background, even the subconscious if possible, and repeating the mantra (maybe in the form of an acronym–SPBALDUTC?) only when necessary, and otherwise keeping your focus tighter, locked into language and character and arc and so forth?
GS: Well. A beautiful question, beautifully put. I’m tempted to just answer: Yup, for sure.
But one thing your question makes me think: This talk about compassion and tenderness…. I think in writing, as in all things, saying to yourself: Be Compassionate! only goes so far. I think it might tend to make us saccharine — just as untruthful as being bitter, but in the other direction.
I think we can make this desire to be compassionate and tender more practical. It seems to me that if a writer 1) pays attention and 2) tries to keep the mind free of preconceptions about what he wants the story to be about (or wants a character to do, etc.) — then he will automatically move towards a story which is richer, more full-hearted, etc. In this model, compassion just means keeping yourself open to the possibilities of the story, which, in turn, means keeping oneself open to the possibilities of the world — what’s actually there, rather than what you want to be there.
Let’s say you start out to write a story about an Evil Radical Republican, because it happens that you are a liberal and are sick of all this shit that’s been going on. Well, if you write with attention and open-mindedness (and these are, or can be, craft-based things–more on this in a minute) then you will soon find there is no such thing as an Evil Radical Republican. There are people we may call that, or who may call themselves that, but once you leave the superficial plane, no — no such thing. Or, another way of saying this: Leaving your character as just that is going to make a very boring story. So you look deeper. And you find that this guy you thought was an ERR, is actually, you know, “Hal.” Hal has hobbies. He used to have a stutter, maybe. He has amorous fantasies about a Swiss girl in braids who, as he imagines her, shyly plays with one braid while they walk down, inexplicably, Hal’s street in Des Moines. You find, in other words — as you must, that Hal is — crikey! — a manifestation of You. Where else could he come from? Which leads to another realization: You and Hal are not — cannot — be that different. He is not unimaginable. You could get to Hal from where you are. That, to me, is compassion in a nutshell.
Now, as for the craft: I think it’s about sentences. You write: “Hal, as usual, was talking a lot of right-wing bullshit that made no sense.” Okay, fair enough. But now, in revision, you feel that the sentence lacks specificity. Forget about politics, truth, fairness, all that — it’s dull because it’s vague. The question is: What does he say, exactly? And what does his face look like as he says it? And who is he saying it to? And what do they think? And what is Hal thinking as they look at him? Does he feel he’s being judged? Is his stutter getting worse, filling him with rage? Is the father of the Swiss girl there, looking appalled at Hal’s stutter? Is the Swiss girl playing nervously with her braid, suddenly ashamed of Hal? So you have to cross out “talking a lot of right-wing bullshit” and give Hal something to say, in a specific voice. And now suddenly you’re really paying attention to Hal, which means you’re being compassionate. You’re actually curious about what Hal is all about, instead of pre-knowing what he’s about.
What I’m saying is, all moral concerns in fiction reduce to technical concerns. And technical concerns drive us towards specificity and detail and truth.
RK: And there I was, trying desperately to come up with a natural-seeming segue from craft to politics, and you lob one in over the plate. Much obliged.
It seems that most species of fiction, for reasons you just touched on, and other reasons as well, are better suited to raising certain kinds of questions — political, social, philosophical — than to answering them in any sort of categorical way. But interviews on the other hand! So. To take one specific example: in The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, Capable’s father says, “There have always been gappers, and exhausted children brushing them off.” In the course of the story, Capable finds a way to deal with the plague of gappers — a way that requires great courage, let it be said, since it entails resisting all sorts of powerful pressures — economic, historical, political and societal just for starters — and her world becomes a better place. Do you believe that such a move — “selling the goats,” as it were — is feasible in our own current politico-social real-world brand of Frip? If so, what would that move consist of? And if not, is there something inherently honorable and heroic about continuing exhaustedly to brush gappers off our goats each day? Or should we all just kill ourselves now and get it over with?
GS: I think the trick has to do with scale — with the scale of the perceived problem and the scale of the proposed solution. I think one reason for cynicism is that, early on, we have a too-large idea of how perfect life can be made. “Life is suffering,” the Buddha said, and Christ said, “The poor will be with us always.” There is, in other words, a limit to our influence. So the “goat we sell” might be a relatively small thing — you can’t cure cancer but you can be a mindful friend of someone with cancer, can’t cure hunger but can send some small amount to work against hunger. The trick, I think, is to recognize a small good thing as just that. A small but GOOD thing. It’s not so easy to do small good things. More often than not, weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re overlooking those opportunities.
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not sure if this is answering the question. I agree with what you say about fiction — Chekhov said the same thing: “Art doesn’t answer questions, it only helps us formulate them correctly.” But art also reminds us that life is complicated, so complicated that its first demand on us is humility. Not to get too big for one’s britches is an admirable life-goal, I think. And art also adjusts our gaze, so that we are seeing life’s very real cruelties — and the very small but real chances to salve these — on the scale on which they really exist — not hoping for too much influence, but also not underestimating what we can actually do.
I’ve known people who started out wanting to fix the world, and when they find out the world can’t be fixed (because in fact it’s not broken) they retreat to a sort of cynical stance. When you think about it, that’s all ego: The world refused to be fixed by me, the center of the universe; therefore I hate the world.
There’s a complicated Buddhist idea that I haven’t even come close to really getting yet, but it has to do with the idea of all of this mad life-energy as being a kind of display. You try to see it in a nonjudgmental way: just “things-as-they-are.” What makes good and evil come into existence is our insistence on seeing ourselves at the center of it, as permanent entities, and then judging everything according to how it affects us. Of course, this is entirely natural — but also entirely delusional. So I think writing can help in this — by examining small phenomena from multiple perspectives, reminding us that what looks like some kind of fixed, still point at the center of things (Us) is every bit as transitory and negotiable and impermanent as every other thing.
Well, I’m answering this question late at night and any moment will burst into a rousing chorus of “Desiderata”–so I will go to bed and check in again tomorrow, when I’m feeling more awake and less Ethereal.
RK: No no no, Ethereal is good — it’s the one rope we have, I think, leading up from the cubicle, the ditch, the seat we reserved months ago as part of the live studio audience. And this business of art reminding us that our best first response to life’s intricacy is humility, and calling our attention to both life’s cruelties and our limited but not insignificant opportunities to assuage them, brings us at long last back to your new book, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, to a place and time where cruelty abounds but assuagement too can be found.
I’m curious as to what sort of research went into the novella. Phil himself seems to incorporate elements from any number of genocidal nationalists from the past — a bit of Hitler, a bit of Pol Pot, a bit of Andrew Jackson. Did you look into any historical figures in particular, searching for actions or excuses or even specific bits of language to incorporate?
GS: I didn’t do any research as such. I tend to read a lot of history and then trust that it will filter down into whatever I’m writing. So a certain historical referent would present itself and as soon as I recognized it I’d try to move on to another. I’d feel a certain Holocaust metaphor creeping in and then try to first finish that riff well and then shake it off, move to something else. In other words, I didn’t want to do a point-for-point metaphor for some particular thing, but rather, through this technique, try and develop a kind of composite portrait of the human tendency to tyranny. Asking: What, if anything, do these various tyrants have in common? I did this once before in a novella called “Bounty,” where I was using slave narratives and sci-fi riffs, etc., but trying to mix it up and confuse myself as to the referents — and then, with all of the easy referents confounded, some other thing is being referred to — hopefully some new thing, some new way of looking at a familiar phenomena.
In the Phil book, I had in mind, at various times, Rwanda, Bosnia, Hitler (especially the way he took over power in Germany), and then bits and pieces from the post-9/11 world — Phil has a touch of Bin Laden about him, but also some Abu Gharaib, and he’s got this tendency to inefficient language that Orwell talked about being the sure sign of a despot. Basically he became kind of a lab test for the question: What does it look like when someone goes genocidal — by which I mean, when they negate the humanity of their opposition, so as to more easily kill them — and how do they defend it to themselves?
But really — in the actual doing of it, it was about trying to make the narrative viable — creating intense characters and good transitions and trying to make the story seem inevitable, even though at heart it was so silly and odd.
(By the way — I feel strongly that whenever a writer talks about a particular technical approach, all he’s really saying is: Given my particular flawed talent, here’s how I tend to [or have to] do it. I’m not sure how useful one writer’s approach is to another writer. Maybe hearing about it is good, just so we remind ourselves about how many valid and different approaches there are, and thus feel better about making up our own.)
RK: You mentioned that the idea for Phil began when Lane Smith dared you to write a story where all the characters were abstract shapes, and in the end, most of the characters are sort of amalgamations — part human, part machine, part plant. A quick chicken v. egg question: given the seed-crystal approach you’ve discussed, the organic sense in which everything develops in response to everything else, with highest attention paid at the sentence-level and a trust that everything will work itself out as a result, did you, in general, “flesh out” the shapes and then allow them to develop personalities that were in some sense correlative, or did you let the personalities form first and then sort out specific biological/mechanical/botanical accoutrements to match? Or both? Or neither?
GS: As I remember it, both things were going on. For example, there’s a President that Phil ends up overthrowing, and I described him as having a bunch of bellies and mustaches. Then as I started to have him talk, it turned out he was repeating himself, which led to the idea that he had a special kind of senility, wherein he is getting more and more forgetful every minute, and then suddenly he was sprouting additional mustaches and bellies, which became sort of connected to the increased memory loss — but it was all done in the heat of the moment, just trying to make the prose funny and quick. I really try hard not to strategize when I’m not actually typing.
Or then later, I had this vague notion to put some media figures in there — guys with the press — and I remember I just ran my mind over in that direction to see what they’d look like. And I’d recently done a talk where I’d described television as this big dumb guy with a massive megaphone growing out of his chest — and so I made these media guys look like that. Then, when I had them talk, they of course talked very loudly, and (thinking of that big guy, dominating a party with his banalities) I made them say really trivial things, really loudly — so it’s not a conscious thing, but the image and the personality playing off one another in real-time. (Otherwise, planned, it gets too neat.)
Or there are these guys called Phil’s Special Friends — these very stupid enforcers. I was thinking about who the Brown Shirts were — what would make them so loyal and brutal? So these guys were, of course, huge, but also, as I was writing them, it turned out they were also very emotionally needy. I asked myself why — and it turned out they had been mistreated and neglected as kids — so when Phil shows them the slightest attention, he wins their loyalty completely. And then, when the time came to describe them, I gave them red shirts, without really recognizing the connection to the brown shirts. But again, all of this happened quick, in one draft, in one or two afternoons. Later there was a bunch of refining and editing and cleaning it up. But the basic seeds of who they were came out right away, in one or two sittings. I think the subconscious blurt-out can be very wise, and there are times when it occurs with such authority and joy that you just kind of trust it.
So I guess I would say it was a process of coming up with one thing — an image or a voice — and then quickly coming up with the rest of the package, playing off that first thing. It was more playful than deliberate and I hoped that the cross-firing between image and voice would be complex — not just straight-line metaphorical.
RK: Borges once wrote, “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.” I’d like to end here by asking you about Time, about its relation to the content and form of your work, about the way you talk it into sort of folding in on itself. It seems — particularly in The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, but in other stories of yours as well — that one of your central interests (or artistic strategies? Or subconscious urges?) is in creating something like futuristic ancient folktales that are happening right this moment. Okay, there’s got to be a better way to put that. How about: would it be fair to say that part of the process involves taking the silliest, least promising, least attractive aspects of how and when and where we currently live, and pushing them into the future, and thinking of them as though they were past, and then dredging them for anything that might still be human and useful, even beautiful, even true? And if that would be unfair to say, what would be fairer?
GS: I think the way I’d put it is that I’m trying to take the real life, and distort it in some way, and, in this way, find out more about the essence of that real life. If you had a movie where everyone was incredibly grouchy, the movie would actually be about kindness. If there was a painting of a forest and all green had been omitted, you would suddenly value green, and be really aware of it. Somebody once said: Satire is the indirect praise of perfection. That seems right to me.
Or here’s another way I look at it: Let’s say that you were given the job of writing a story about two talking, sentient rubber bands on a desk. Within those confines, I’d say, the story could become about the entire cosmos, because the generating agency — your mind — is infinite. Even with this dumb constraint, your story would strain to be about Everything, because your mind is always straining to accommodate Everything. The rubber bands would talk, fight, fall in love — whatever. (The paper clips a few feet away would come to represent something to the rubber bands — and then you’re off to the races). And in this way, the whole world could find its way into that story. And maybe — because the writer of that story wouldn’t be distracted by things like “describing the trees accurately” or “recreating the 1960s” he or she might cut to the chase — what’s the real essence of this life, when this life is shorn of all its distracting surface? I think this is what Beckett was doing.
So, to date, my stories have started out with some version of this rubber-band constraint. Why? Well, partly it’s limited talent. I think about a grand all-encompassing novel and I get nervous. But also — there’s something about looking at us when we’re at our worst, or our most stressed — when we’re occupying some kind of end-condition — that tells us about us at our best. What’s the bottom-line in this life? I’m not sure the answer lies in looking at the happy and honest and well-fed. I mean, it might be, for a great writer like Tolstoy or somebody. But for me…. I think there’s value in looking at human beings at the point of fracture. Put six people in a boat with one hot dog and no water, and you’ll find out a lot about human nature very quickly — and some of it will be ugly, but some of it will be wonderful.
My real feeling is that we don’t have to do too much thinking about what stories should do, or can do, or much time defending them or anything like that — I have this faith that, if we train ourselves to the task and then go at it with all the energy we have, then that process is a noble and worthy thing in itself — just looking at the world, through the construct of language, and trying to understand the world, and to love it better.
RK: Thanks very much, George, for this and for what is to come.