George Saunders: satirist, humanist, and — after 20 years, four magisterial short story collections, a novella, and a book of essays — now a bestselling author. Tenth of December (Random House), his latest collection, has captured the interest of the world at large. He spoke with me from his hotel in San Francisco a few days after he appeared on The Colbert Report.
How do you feel about being famous?
I don’t really get it. I kind of like it, but I can’t quite understand it. Mechanically, it was the New York Times Magazine piece that seemed to shoot it [Tenth of December] out of the cannon, but then there were some nice reviews clustered around it.
My wife said something interesting: that maybe I leaned a little toward something maybe — whatever you want to call it — accessible, or something. Realism maybe, maybe just a little. I think also the culture moved toward more comfort with “dark and edgy,” so that maybe meant a little bit, too. But honestly, your guess is as good as mine.
Can a famous writer affect political change?
I would never want to think about it that way because it’s too much pressure, and thinking about it malforms the story. The story has to be an individual person at a specific time in a specific fix, and if you concentrate on that, then the story will have feeling. It might have some kind of political moral-ethical overtone, but I don’t think it’s your job on the creative end to worry about that. I think if you worry about that you’ll fuck it up, basically.
Fiction, if it does change anything, we have a scheme or model for how it does it. I read a Chekhov story, and I get a feeling of being a little more open to things, a little more interested in my fellow man. So that lasts for six or seven hours — one hour? That’s about the most you can hope for, and then I think you can take some comfort in the fact that, generally, that’s pretty big. If you could somehow make a graph of all the people in the world who have been made incrementally more kind by Chekhov, it’s in the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions.
From the creative end of it, that seems to me the healthier way of looking at it rather than, I’m going to support this political view or change the world. I think smaller is better. It’s more realistic and more respectful, in a certain way.
Any advice for MFA students?
What I would say, they already know, which is that all the answers — all the questions and all the answers — are hidden under work. You gotta just work. You gotta put in the thousands and thousands of hours. I think all of us have that natural tendency to want to conceptualize and theorize and decide in advance how we’re going to write, but anyone who’s done it for a little bit knows that’s an anxiety response, and it doesn’t really accomplish too much. . . . In some ways, it’s the simplest thing in the world: just keep doing it, and recognize that every bump you hit and every frustration and every time you go, Oh, I have no talent, that’s actually a totally valid part of it. There’s nothing else but that.