Interviews | June 01, 2001

Interviewer: Douglas Unger has called your admission to the Syracuse Creative Writing program a “grand experiment” that he and Tobias Wolff “had to fight for,” one that has obviously paid off. Given your nonliterary educational background, did you feel out of place as a student there?

Saunders: I was always aware that I didn’t have quite the intellectual guns that a lot of the other students had. But at the same time the atmosphere was open enough with Doug and Toby that I felt it didn’t matter all that much. They encouraged me to get up to speed with whichever writers worked for me without worrying about being comprehensive in my catching-up.

Interviewer: Were you aware at the time that you were a “grand experiment”?

Saunders: No. I felt more like a “clerical error.” I didn’t know that Doug and Toby had had trouble getting me in, though I was aware that many of the other students were from Ivy League English departments, whereas my undergraduate degree was in geophysics, from the Colorado School of Mines. So while the other students knew all about Shelley and Keats, I knew about Alfred Wegener, the father of plate tectonics, whom we affectionately used to call “Big Al.” But fiction is open to whoever comes in the door, as long as you come in energetically, and so I had a feeling there was room for me.

Interviewer: Vonnegut wrote something about the best education for a writer not being in English literature. Would you agree?

Saunders: It depends on the writer. There’s Flannery O’Connor, who got an English degree and who I think went into an M.F.A. program directly after graduation. Nobody has ever suggested that her work might have been stronger had she gone out and worked on a shrimper. My background was unconventional in that I’d been educated at an engineering school and had worked in the oil fields and so on and wasn’t well read in any comprehensive way. The working experience was invaluable because it gave me a low-level rage, or at least a sense that there was injustice in the world and that this injustice was playing out every day on the bodies and minds of the people toward the bottom of the heap. All that work and travel gave me a moral stance that eventually evolved into a certain prose style and set of thematic concerns. Also, those years gave me confidence to invent things, to exaggerate, to make some claims about our culture. On the other hand, almost all of the work I’ve done in fiction has been to compensate for my shortcomings, some of which, I’m sure, have to do with how restricted my reading experience is and how late in life I did much of that reading.

For me it might have been a good thing to have come from a non-traditional background because I’m not exactly an intellectual giant. I suspect that if I’d had a more extensive background in English before I started to write, I might have ended up just badly parroting other writers. But because I hadn’t read enough to even know whom to parrot, the experiences of my own life were what drove me to fiction. Then the task became to find a style that would do justice to these experiences and wouldn’t require too many big words or complicated flashbacks.

Interviewer: Your work is consistently characterized as satirical. Yet you said in an interview once that for you writing is an exercise in compassion. Don’t you think that satire and compassion are mutually exclusive impulses?

Saunders: No. I think they’re manifestations of the same impulse. By compassion I mean plain sight. If you see something plainly, without attachment to your own preconceptions of it and without any aversion to what you see, that’s compassion because you’re minimizing the distinction between subject and object. Then whatever needs to be done, you can do it quickly and efficiently, to address whatever the suffering is in that situation. Satire, for me, is a way of encouraging clear sight. Teasing is a way of encouraging clear sight. The only problem I see in it is that some satirical modes preclude getting into certain spaces. For example, I have two kids and a wife, whom I love like crazy, and my life is very, very good right now. But I’m not sure how to write that.

But it’s not fiction’s job to be photographically representative of reality. If I want to make a fictional world where there’s no kindness, this doesn’t mean I believe there’s no kindness in the real world. In fact, what it may mean is that I very much value kindness. Like if you make a painting in which only greens are allowed, it wouldn’t mean you don’t believe in blue. You’re just saying: Wow, look at green. I’ve heard it said that comedy is the indirect praise of perfection. So if you make a world in which compassion is absent, you are, via its absence, praising compassion.

Interviewer: Are there limits to how far a writer can depart from this world?

Saunders: My sense is that if you go far enough in any stylistic direction, you can make a beautiful and complex representation of reality, although that representation may not be linear. God knows we’ve got enough linearity in our representations of our world. We’ve tremendously overvalued analytical knowledge, rationality, etc. To me, the process of writing is just reading what I’ve written and—like running your hand over one of those mod glass stovetops to find where the heat is—looking for where the energy is in the prose, then going in the direction of that. It’s an exercise in being open to whatever is there.

Interviewer: Do you ever get the itch to test your chops at a more conventional realism?

Saunders: Unfortunately, yes, which is how I spent the years from 1987 to 1990. It started when I got to Syracuse. I had written this crazy story to get into the program. Then I thought I’d be a “real” writer and write nice, realistic stuff. But what I eventually found out was that in realist mode the life went out of my writing. I had about three or four years of this, where nothing was really working for me. This was my Hemingway-if-Hemingway-had-never-been-to-a-war-and-was-working-as-a-tech-writer-and-was-actually-sort-of-a-wimp phase. All these stories had titles like “In Parking Lot K,” “A Hard Rain Is Coming” or “In the Employee Cafeteria, Across from Employee Relations.” It was about the time our second daughter was born, and I was getting a little desperate for some power. In that desperate mode, all of my South Side of Chicago impulses came back, and I started simply trying to be funny.

Interviewer: And it worked. You haven’t looked back, it seems.

Saunders: I still have this dilemma, this Funny versus Earnest polarity. I love, for example, Chekhov, but I know by now that if I’m going to honor human beings in the way he does, in their weirdness and sweetness, I have to drop the realist convention and go down a wackier avenue. In my work, and in my psyche, there’s this very sentimental, traditional, conventional side that’s always in argument with a more radical, sarcastic side. Some of my stories are really sentimental, but they’re layered over with weird, satirical stuff. For example, “Sea Oak” is a very straightforward story about the haves and the have-nots, about one of the have-nots saying, “Why didn’t I get anything?” To get away with what could be a saccharine, sentimental arc, I cover it with all this dark, perverse stuff that makes the reader mistake me for a scatological cynic.

Interviewer: Where does the dark, perverse stuff come from?

Saunders: You know, in my old neighborhood, the people were very passionate and sentimental, very loving. But they would never say, “Gosh, Cal, you are certainly very important in my life.” Instead they say, “Cal, you son of a bitch, come over here so I can kick your red head up your ass, you jack-off.” But you understood that this was code and that they were crazy about you. There’s a little of that in my work. On one level, I am a total softie, sort of depressed and afraid of losing the people I love or failing them. To disguise that, there’s all this harsh, poop-centric, external swagger, full of nastiness. It’s a cloaking device.

Interviewer: In a piece you authored for Feed magazine, you wrote about a particular corner in Los Angeles where you realized the significance of Terry Eagleton’s statement, “Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.” It seems to me that this idea underpins all of your work, from CivilWarLand in Bad Decline through The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. Has this always been a conscious agenda of yours?

Saunders: No. In fact, when the jacket copy came back for CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Dan Menaker had written very wonderfully about fin de siècle capitalism and all that, and of course I was thrilled to hear that I had written about that, but it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that I had. In the reviews there was all this talk about down-and-out American dystopic losers, and I was like: I did that? That was just what my life was at that time, although most of us down-and-out American dystopic losers didn’t actually describe ourselves in those exact words. Because of the way my life has been, which is that I’ve been working since I was fifteen, most of the decisions I’ve made along the way have been saturated with issues of money or scarcity, or the fear of scarcity. I was looking at some old letters recently, actually from that L.A. period, which I remember as being sort of free and romantic and Kerouacian. Every other paragraph is about scrounging up fifty dollars to pay for this, putting together enough to get the car going again so I could drive to some nebulous interview dressed in exactly the wrong clothes, which I’d had to borrow. Lately it’s really struck me how much of our energy in America, especially if you’re from a working back-ground, is spent just keeping your head above water. It really saps your grace and your strength.

Interviewer: How did that background help form you?

Saunders: My dad is a wildly intelligent guy, a genius, really. When I was a kid, he hadn’t finished college yet. He later went back and finished, but at that time—the mid-1960s—he was working long hours for a coal company in Chicago. Anyway, he would bring home books like Machiavelli ‘s The Prince or Michael Harrington’s The Other Side of America or The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and he would just leave them on my bed, saying, “I think you should take a look at this.” Because it was coming from my dad, whom I really looked up to, I was all over the stuff. My dad was very interested in the politics of Chicago, the wild energy of it, the comic side. I’d sit up with him late at night as he interpreted the life of the city for me. This was the time of Daley and the Democratic Convention; Jesse Jackson was around town; Mike Royko was writing in the Tribune.

Politics got into my head as a noble way to approach things, something adults talked about and cared about. Understanding politics was a way, in our extended family, of getting respect—politics and humor. We’d have these big Sunday dinners and everybody would be sitting around arguing about Nixon or Vietnam. If you could handle the politics or if you were funny, nobody blinked. You were welcome to sit there and participate. I thought that was very cool. You know, I was a nerd. Dick Cavett was my big personal hero. I got very giddy at the idea that I was participating in an Intellectual Discussion. I actually had this recurring fantasy in which somehow Dick Cavett got wind of this very bright little political wunderkind on the South Side of Chicago and flew me out to New York and made me his permanent sidekick, à la Ed McMahon, except I was in fourth grade at the time.

In terms of fiction writing, I think that if you set out to write a political story, then that is what you will get: merely a political story. Your story will be confined by your ability to conceptualize it. Our conceptual mind is much less subtle and perceptive and joyful than our non-conceptual mind.

Interviewer: You’ve praised Douglas Unger for helping you become a writer and for being such a generous and committed teacher. You’re now a teacher at the very program where he helped get you admitted. If you ever reached a point where you could quit teaching to write full time, would you?

Saunders: This is like when they ask the first-term senator if he would ever run for president. No, no, of course not, never in a billion years. I intend to teach and continue writing letters of recommendation from beyond the grave. In truth, I could see cutting back some, but at this point I honestly think I would keep teaching. I have, at Syracuse, really amazing students. They are talented, but they are also real mensches, terrific people. I get a lot of energy from them. They are like really good friends—if those friends were fifteen years younger than you and much more talented and better looking, and yet you still were sort of the boss of them. The only problem I have with teaching is that it is located in the Land of Analysis. Unless you’re really careful and energetic, it’s very easy to forget that writing, the writing process, is nearly impossible to talk about. That’s what you do when you teach; you talk about writing. When things are going well, I find it easy enough to be honest, to say very often that the process is mysterious, etc., etc. But at other times the pull to dogma is very strong. It’s much easier to resort to cant and theory and the language of science, of rationalism. Your responsibility is to undercut that at every opportunity. If things are going well, you can teach in this really sensitive way that is more akin to mentoring or coaching. But toward the end of the semester, when you’re a little overloaded, you fall into this dogmatic mode where you’re just basically barking, “Show, don’t tell!” or “I’d like to know more about the mother!”

Interviewer: So when things are going well you tell them .. .

Saunders: I think the best way to teach writing is to bombard the student with alternative approaches, in the hope that something you say will resonate with their own intuitive approach and hasten things along. I constantly ask my students to remind me that we can’t really talk directly about writing. We can allude to it; we can catalyze it and get wheels turning. But we really can’t talk about the actual doing of it. Any mastery you can achieve in writing is totally personal and incredibly nuanced. It’s a sort of antimastery, feeling comfortable with being unsure. After fifteen years of doing this, what I know about writing is nothing I could actually say to you. It’s like boxing, maybe. A good boxer could tell you, “Always keep your hands up,” or “It’s important to be a good counterpuncher.” But the reason the boxer is a good boxer is not that he can articulate those things but because he can do them instantaneously—and also of course because he has great abs and can mp rope for three hours straight.

Being a teacher of creative writing is like being a teacher of personity. I’m trying to coax out of my students the most raw and real energy that they have, which is not going to be the same kind of energy that I have. Luckily, we have such great students that it’s a pretty low-risk deal. If we gave them three years on an island with computers and placed ourselves with parrots, they’d still produce great writing and am very quickly.

Interviewer: Did you begin The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip with the Lea that it would be an illustrated children’s book?

Saunders: Yes, I did. I’ve always wanted to do an illustrated book. I had led and failed a few other times, primarily because I had that common idea that the difference between kids’ books and adult books is that when writing a kids’ book, you could be stupid and sloppy. So I wrote, “Tommy the Miffed Pink Bunny” or some nonsense like that, and even my own kids were rolling their eyes. When I started this one, I tried to approach it pretty much the same way as I did the other two books, using as complex a diction as I liked and trying to be dark and funny and satirical, the only difference being that in this book I saw myself talking consolingly to someone, maybe a kid, who really needed to be consoled. My normal approach is more to talk chidingly to some adult who needs to be chided. When I tell my daughters stories, they prefer the ones that are wise-assed and dark, with many fart jokes and talking body parts that march off in the dead of night to become stars on Broadway, only to realize the error of their ways after the first time they see themselves in a partial leotard. That sort of thing.

Interviewer: So you’ve read the book to them?

Saunders: Actually, when we first got finished copies their favorite babysitter read it to them. And they really enjoyed it. I had this great moment when I got home and they came running down the stairs saying, “Daddy, you wrote a good book!” That was a nice moment.

Interviewer: You’ve published two collections of short stories and a children’s book. Do you feel any pressure to produce a novel?

Saunders: One of the wonderful benefits of energetically pursuing a writing career is that I’ve come to understand the staggering limitations of my abilities. If there are Three Hundred Things That May Be Done in the writing kingdom, I can do three, and when I try to do any of the other 297, readers start dozing off, but dozing off in a state of mild irritation. So one way I cope with this humbling state of affairs is via a little mantra: If I just stay fully engaged in whatever has presented itself, things will be fine. That is, I try not to think about things like: Next, I begin MY NOVEL!

Interviewer: What does the rest of your family think of your work? Do you ever get their input while you’re writing?

Saunders: My wife is a great reader for me. She reads everything and always sets me straight. She knows when I’m slacking off or being Johnny Denial, trying to sugarcoat something. She’s very smart and knows me very well, which is a dangerous combo if you’re trying to get away with something. We met in the Syracuse Creative Writing Program, as students way back when, and got engaged in three weeks, so our connection is very, very deep, and I trust her completely, even when she is pointing out that the last three months’ work has been a total waste of time.

Interviewer: Your work is seen as very dark. I’m thinking of that section at the end of “The 400-Pound CEO.” Does that darkness signal any real pessimism or misanthropy on your part?

Saunders: Well, a story like “The 400-Pound CEO” doesn’t say, I don’t think, that life is always shit, though it does say that some people’s lives are sometimes shit. It says that a shit-life is a possibility. I think that’s true and important. It’s important to remember, if happy, that our current happiness is not permanent and is not due to any intrinsic “goodness” on our part. American society is uncomfortable with the idea that some people’s lives are difficult past the point of sanity and that they aren’t necessarily to blame. There’s no way you can argue that everyone has a difficult life. This is an incredible culture; the majority of people live in amazing comfort, with real dignity, maybe more comfort and dignity than any other culture in the history of the world. We live relatively safe and sane lives, which, if you’ve ever loved anybody and therefore feared for them, is a wonderful thing. But part of our moral responsibility is to keep in our minds those whose lives are unsafe and insane. In this way, fiction can be like a meditation, a way of saying: Though things are this way for me right now, they could be different later and are different for others this very moment.

Interviewer: We’re not all equally privileged.

Saunders: Exactly. Let’s say that in some hospital somewhere, Baby One and Baby Two are born side by side. Baby One has intelligent and loving parents, is healthy and without defects, smart and beautiful. Baby Two has abusive parents, is missing a leg, is stupid and ugly and has an obnoxious personality. If you extrapolate from that point, then Baby One, no matter what you throw at it, is going to have more reserves and more good fortune, while statistically Baby Two is going to come up short. Whatever troubles are thrown his or her way, they are going to cost Baby Two more than the same troubles would cost Baby One. So who is to blame? At what point did Baby Two screw up? When he or she came out of the womb? A month before? Three years after? Of course, it’s absurd. Seen this way, Baby Two is the inevitable lowering of a chain of events that literally goes back to the beginning of time. Therefore, the order of the day is compassion, and I think that fiction has a part to play in urging us, as a species, toward compassion.

Interviewer: The typical fiction workshop model is that one or more students posts their work and the class then critiques it. This classroom critique is supplemented with individual meetings with the instructors. How are your own workshops different?

Saunders: We basically work within that model. The only thing I try to do is to constantly be reminding my students (and myself) that this whole workshop thing is really just an economic construct. Historically, it was (and is) a great way to get older writers paid to teach and younger writers paid to write. And this method can severely affect the Fiction; there’s that committee tendency. So we try to constantly deconstruct the process itself. The other thing I’ve been playing with is the idea of getting away from the traditional let’s-all-crap-on-Hal’s-story approach and instead using exercises and close readings of very short passages of text and so on to open things up a bit. What I find myself doing more and more is approaching a story as a manifestation of energy and trying not to say what’s good or bad about it but focusing on where and how a story is attempting to manifest itself. That is, I try to look at how the strengths and weaknesses of a story are intimately bound up together.

Ultimately workshops aren’t something you’re supposed to do your whole life. I think of it as two or three years of shock therapy that you won’t ever repeat again. Sometimes I think the whole point of workshops is to humiliate you and frustrate you until you come to the realization that you are the only one who can figure this writing thing out for yourself. That’s how it was for me. After two years of workshops, I was totally convinced that I was going to have to do it myself and that I was never going to negotiate with someone about my stories again.

Interviewer: So much of your fiction is charged with social import. Given our recent political upheavals, have you ever thought of writing overt political satire?

Saunders: I’m not very interested in that kind of satire because it works on the assumption that They Are Assholes. Fiction works on the assumption that They Are Us, on a Different Day.

Interviewer: Do you think being funny can be taught?

Saunders: No. But you can take someone’s innate funniness and show it to them, which almost always involves compression. You can say: This is funny. And you can show them how their humor is actually their ticket to a deep, interesting, sophisticated place in their work. Most funny writers long to be serious. I know I did. I distrusted humor because it came easily and because all my writing heroes were the big serious brooding guys. The best thing anyone ever did for me—and Toby and Doug both did this for me—was to steer me toward funny writers who did big moral things with their humor: Gogol, West, Kafka.

You can also help someone learn to discipline themselves so they know how to cut out all but the funniest bits. Bill Buford at The New Yorker, for example, is great at showing me the things in my stories that are practice runs for funnier parts. For instance, in “Sea Oak” there’s a reference to a TV show called “The Worst That Could Happen,” which is these computer simulations of tragedies that haven’t yet occurred but theoretically could. Well, I’d originally included a couple of other similar TV shows, which were essentially rough drafts of that show. But I left them in because I liked them. And Bill pointed out that those other shows were just lame versions of the first TV show and that by cutting them I could make that first show even funnier. So you can show a writer what her 5.6 (on a scale of 10) looks like and what her 8.9 looks like, and encourage her to get rid of anything that’s not at least a 9, which strengthens the whole piece and makes her seem more intelligent and likeable.

Interviewer: “The Falls” is a story that has a very open ending. John Barth asserts that it is the function of fiction writers not to create worldviews but to create worlds. I was wondering how complete the world of that particular story is. Do you, as the author of “The Falls,” know what happens to Morse and those little girls after the story ends?

Saunders: I don’t know. What was important about that ending for me was the fact that he jumped. It really doesn’t matter if he saves them-that depends on wind and water currents and that sort of thing, which in the world of the story are just random elements. What matters—what we feel matters—is if he’s going to be able to extrapolate from his own son to those two nearly dead girls, and transcend himself. At least that’s how I felt about it when I stumbled on that ending. Here’s an interesting thing about endings: I was teaching my students the Vonnegut story “Harrison Bergeron,” and I’d gotten a copy of it out of an anthology and given it to my students. But when I actually sat down to read what I’d passed out, I realized that the version in the anthology was truncated by about three pages. So as an exercise, I told them about the truncation and had them write a new ending. And the amazing thing is that every kid in that class wrote a decent ending, even the kids who really couldn’t write. My point is, the ending of “The Falls”—of any story—is just a kind of flourish. It’s the first two-thirds of the story that really matters; to use a lame juggling analogy, it’s the throwing of the balls into the air that matters. If there are the right number of balls and they’re sufficiently interesting, it almost doesn’t matter in which order they come down, or whether one of them gets stuck up on the roof beam.

Interviewer: Has your publishing success affected your relationship with other writers?

Saunders: I don’t think so. I hope not. It’s a pretty mild success, really. Most of the writers I’m friends with now were friends from long before anything happened for any of us, so those friendships are pretty deep and immune to dopiness on either side. Success is nice because then you don’t have to worry so much about having been unfairly robbed of your very richly deserved success. Success is bad because momentary good fortune can temporarily hide the fact that you are still, despite your success, full of shit. One of the great blessings I’ve had was the period while I was writing the stories in CivilWarLand, when I had given up all hope of publishing anything and was just going to my job and typing a few paragraphs a day, then riding my bike home from work to my wife and kids. It was an amazingly happy time, even though nothing was going right careerwise, maybe even because nothing was going right careerwise. I couldn’t have felt any dorkier or more foolish running my little photocopier in too-tight brown corduroys, writing Environmental Health and Safety Assessment Plans, but even so, life was all around and it was good and I was enjoying it. And so when things started to heat up, and stories started to sell and so on, I pretty much knew what was what.

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