Now and then, George Saunders, the Oak Forest native and arguably the most celebrated American short story writer of the past 25 years, hears a blunt, caustic Chicago voice in his head, straightening him out, rattling his comfortable cage. “When I’m confused on how to start a story these days, or just feeling full of (expletive), I will hear the voice. And I suppose it sounds something like, ‘George, get off it!’” It provides a wise, necessary corrective, particularly when everything is going well, and in the nine years since the publication of “Tenth of December,” his last story collection, things couldn’t have gone better.
He’s seen the kind of mainstream lionizing that fiction writers rarely get anymore — never mind, literary short story writers whose work veers toward experimental.
On Netflix, last summer, Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller starred in an adaptation of Saunders’ “Escape From Spiderhead”; Saunders wrote and produced “Sea Oak” (starring Glenn Close), an adaptation of his story for Amazon; right now, he and former “Colbert Report” head writer Allison Silverman are shopping a pilot based on “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” the short story that launched his career 30 years ago.
Oh, and in 2017, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” his sole novel, won the Booker Prize. It’s now being adapted by composer Missy Mazzoli for New York’s Metropolitan Opera. His 2020 nonfiction book about great Russian writers, “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain,” led to the popular Substack newsletter “Story Club with George Saunders”; a transcript of his 2013 commencement address at Syracuse University where he teaches creative writing became its own best-seller. You know a new George Saunders book is an event now when the credits of its audio versions read like an awards show guest list: Tina Fey, Don Cheadle, Bill Hader, Lena Dunham, David Sedaris, Ben Stiller. Even Nick Offerman’s 2021 memoir, “Where the Deer and the Antelope Play,” recalled his hiking trips with best pals Jeff Tweedy and George Saunders.
It’s so much good will and ridiculous fortune for one writer that it almost feels a little glutinous to add that “Liberation Day,” Saunders’s new collection of stories, is also among the year’s best books. But there you go. On Saturday, he’s returning to his hometown for the Chicago Humanities Festival, interviewed by NPR’s Peter Sagal. I caught up with Saunders on the phone from his home in Northern California. The following is a shorter version of a longer conversation, edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Q: Starting, I suppose, with winning the Booker, did it change things for you, in a day-to-day sense? I remember you telling me once about struggling early on and wondering if being primarily a short story writer was a practical way to live.
A: Mainly, it gave me confidence that if I go deep, someone will be there to read it. “Lincoln in the Bardo” was a departure, remember. Awards speak to the part of me that has impostor syndrome and feels like I have reached my limit already. When you don’t get one, you ignore it, but when you get something like that: OK, I’ll trust my instincts.
Q: But it’s also given you a public image in which people have a sense of you, not just creatively but personally. Does that sort of recognition change the writing?
A: I think I try to take in all of that stuff. If you feel like you are getting a certain reputation, yeah, you don’t want to screw it up. People expect this from me, I better give them that. But also something else, or it’ll be disappointing. All of that can make you neurotic. Or you can funnel it into the work. If you don’t want to disappoint — OK, work harder. If a certain thing is associated with you — OK, now you have to do something a little different. I tell my students that you can train yourself to think in certain ways that are beneficial to you as an artist. If you have a powerful self-doubting voice, use that and become a better editor of your work. Or let it drive you into writers block. It’s self-hygiene. Attention can bloat an ego. But also give confidence. But also make you full of (expletive), or sometimes even smart. You find yourself becoming a kind of bouncer — Today, I’m going to let in all the positive effects and try to keep the negatives ones out.
Q: Does financial safety change what you write about?
A: It might. But the way I see it is if you’ve ever had financial instability, you don’t forget. It gets in your DNA. You might make the case my early stories were about ways capitalism saps a person’s grace. This book is about the larger things that sap our grace. If you are financially stable, you still have your mind tormenting you. Financial stability let me look up and see the suffering I was doing over money was a form of a more general suffering. Money lets you stand up in the trench and look around a little.
Q: At least three stories in this new book are about vanishing memory — an old man whose memory is erased, a grandfather recounting to a grandson how the country got worse, people forced to reenact memories as entertainment. Are you writing, in a sense, about a personal loss of memory or a broader national loss?
A: It’s funny, I am starting to talk about this and I am having trouble with an answer (about themes in the book). I think that’s a good sign. About 98% of my time, I’m just trying to make my writing more vivid, to take a corner more tightly. The actual meaning, I’m not concerned. If I can take this corner tightly, the meaning will be there. I don’t worry about it. But wait, your question — I don’t remember the question. No, no, kidding! Memory erasure is just a device, a kind of sci-fi thing, but at some point I look up and oh, I have three stories where a person’s memory is being written over. It’s happening in terms of social media, that ability to get into our basic thinking process. But from a Buddhist standpoint, I think I am a guy who is consistent but what is making me think that is a constant stream of thoughts, not from some fixed person but from a bunch of people at any given moment. A lot of the trouble we get in is about how strongly we affix to our idea of self. If I take those thoughts away, does a self disappear?
Q: My wife, a much closer reader than I am, said the new stories felt very Russian.
A: For sure, and after writing my last book (“A Swim in a Pond in the Rain”), so many things were in my head and ideas for stories and new tones, so yes, it came out of that immersion. But wait, you asked if this (memory loss theme) felt personal, and in a way, yes. You get older, you notice the extent to which a person is a machine. I’m 63, I look back and think this machine is functioning very similar to the way it was when I was four. That’s beautiful, but also strange that there is a predictability in this self. You see thoughts changing but spend a lot of time remembering, recontextualizing. I am more aware of how impermanent everything is now. There is no solid consciousness here.
Q: The title story, “Liberation Day,” tell me if I’m wrong, but it gives off a sense of a writer who might increasingly feel as if their life was no longer their own, that they are performing for the world and being forced to act for others enjoyment.
A: That’s definitely in that story. Yeah, that is kind of true for me. At the same time, it’s not exactly true. It’s not what a story is for. You take overtones from your life and exploit them, but you pull them out of the context of your life. I’m sure there is a level where I feel like I am performing now. But there is a level where I love that I’m performing. And also a level where I feel like I am trying to stop performing and be more honest — and that performance is the honesty. All of those things are true. On any given day I am trying to pull something from this ragbag of a head and make something alive from it.
Q: The story “Love Letters” is different for you in that it feels overtly political.
A: I was feeling agitated by politics. I am good at one thing, writing. But if something is bugging me, I make a story about it, and this was very close to what I was thinking before the last election. This grandfather in the story writing to his grandson (about a slightly dystopian America) feels ashamed of a way he failed to resist at a critical moment. As I was revising the story, I saw another side to him. As a writer, the feelings are your feelings, but you give them to someone then put them through a ringer. The grandfather started to cough up tidbits. It dawned on me he is not only concerned about his grandson but his grandson’s lover. This is something — speaking of Russians — I first noticed in Chekhov’s “Gooseberries.” There is a beautiful speech on happiness and how happiness may be a selfish emotion to be suspicious of. I’m guessing that’s a thought Chekhov had. He attributes it to a character, but he also has this truth convincingly told, and also a convincing contradiction of that truth. Chekhov lets them reverberate in the same space. As a reader you feel wiser. Happiness, pro or con? The answer is, yes!
Q: Your early stories often had a sense of an America still a few years away. I wonder if your understanding of that future has been overtaken by our reality?
A: I had no predictive aspiration. What I was doing, and am still doing, is to take a far-fetched idea of what the world might be like and drop in regular people. Every surface is hot, but as you follow them around for 20 pages, it’s not about hot surfaces; it’s about the way we deal with it. It’s the same way if you were a scientist: You take steel, put it in a heated environment, then a cold environment — you learn about the qualities of steel.
Q: You moved to California about six years ago. Did that bring in inspirations beyond Russian authors and other writings?
A: I don’t do a lot of curation of myself. I’m doing an event with Sterlin Harjo and I’ve been watching (the FX comedy) “Reservation Dogs,” so now that will be an influence. I’ve been listening to Missy Mazzoli, who is doing the opera of “Lincoln in the Bardo,” so that’ll be in there. I have a ripe subconscious. I imagine myself a tank who runs over influences and they shoot up into the body. Even if it’s something I don’t like they get in there and color what comes next. I’m voracious. “Jaws” has been a huge influence. Partly because it came out at the time when I could first drive to a movie alone. I saw it seven or eight times in a theater, and what amazed me was I could go in and see people reenact the same emotions — that same hush would fall as Quint told about the USS Indianapolis. I was just soaking in that feeling of how powerful storytelling can create predictable effects. At one screening, I remember siting between a pregnant woman and an old guy and thought oh boy, we’re going to lose one or gain one. Anyway, to see art kick the ass of an entire room like that, at that age, it was so inspiring for me to see.
Q: How important is it for an artist to recognize what influences them?
A: I have two answers. One, I don’t worry a bit. Those influences are there if I recognize them or not. I gave an assignment in Story Club to chart the years of your life in five-year increments, to list all the influences of each period — books, movies, relationships. I use that at Syracuse to get students to recognize influences they might have been pursuing. They often see how TV shows they watched at 10 have taught them the basics of narrative structure. Somehow breaking life down in five-year increments makes it harder to be pompous about influences. “Right, for five years I was watching ‘Green Acres.’” If I had done that in grad school, I might have recognized early how important comedy was to me — “Get Smart,” Monty Python. Still, often what’s next is a gut feeling. When I was a kid, my dad (a restaurant owner) catered the carnival in Oak Forest every 4th of July. There was always the first day when I wasn’t working yet. I had hours to roam. I’d think, “OK where do I go?” It feels like that every time I start writing.
“The Art of the Short Story” with George Saunders and Peter Sagal is 5:30 p.m. Oct. 29 at the David Rubenstein Forum at the University of Chicago, 1201 E. 60th St.; $50 at www.chicagohumanities.org