Despite the accolades and the awards, George Saunders knows that some readers still think of him as “the theme park guy.” You know, the satiric short story writer who creates dark, amusing dystopias that reflect the callow absurdity of modern life: the dying attractions in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (plagued by bold teen gangs who occasionally kill a horse or otherwise terrorize the theme park) or Pastoralia (where the narrator and his increasingly fed-up partner are dangerously close to being fired from their jobs living in a cave and mimicking the lives of early man) or My Chivalric Fiasco (set at a Renaissance Fair where “[o]ur pigs were fake and our slop was fake and our poop was fake ...”).
Saunders, though, doesn’t pay much attention to the differences between those exaggerated scenarios and reality.
“I really don’t make that division,” says the author, who appears Thursday at Books & Books in Coral Gables to talk about his latest collection, Tenth of December. “Mostly what I’m trying to do is to make the stories a wild ride. I want to put you through something. ... Keeping it in a realistic frame, that really just means you’re playing by the rules the guys in the 1800s set up. Sometimes I can get an emotional payout that way. Sometimes you have to bring in some ghosts.”
Fantastical elements make an appearance in the stories in Tenth of December (Random, $15 in paper) — in the nightmarish The Semplica Girls, for example, immigrant women have lines passed through their heads and are raised as prestigious outdoor decorations — but most of the stories are grounded in our familiar reality. In Victory Lap, a boy witnesses a neighbor girl’s abduction and is forced to act; Puppy, in which a mother sets out to sell a pet to a wealthy family, provides a shocking glimpse into the chasm in perception between the affluent and the working class. In the title story, a young outcast crosses paths with a dying man bent on committing suicide.
“The title story means a lot to me,” says Saunders, author of three other story collections, the political satire The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, the essay collection The Braindead Megaphone and the delightful children’s story The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, inspired by a bedtime story he made up for his two now-grown daughters. “You always feel like, ‘Wow! I’m glad I’ve gotten out of that one alive.’ ... But it felt like I was able to get into a zone, to represent positive mind states. That’s a lifelong struggle for me, to not go on auto dark. I understand it’s an improvement in skills to represent a positive mental state.”
Dark or not, Saunders’ work resonates. When Tenth of December was first published in January 2013, a New York Times Magazine headline crowed: “The best book you’ll read this year is George Saunders’ ‘Tenth of December.’ ” The headline writer may have had a point: The collection was shortlisted for the National Book Award and found its way onto many top 10 lists. A MacArthur “genius grant” recipient in 2006, Saunders also won the PEN/Malamud Award in 2013 and was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” this year (his work “is a stiff tonic for the vapid agony of contemporary living,” wrote fellow Syracuse faculty member and memoirist Mary Karr).
“I think George Saunders was born knowing how to pick up a concept that's been around for awhile — terraforming, genetic engineering — and work hard for as long as it takes to develop it into something more,” says short story writer Kit Reed, author of The Story Until Now. “His best stories are dense, powerful reflections on — OK, I'll say it — the human condition. He's come a long way since CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. The new collection is brilliant.”
Saunders, 55, might argue with the “born knowing” part of that assessment: His college degree (geophysical engineering) came from the Colorado School of Mines, not a fine arts program. His first job was for an oil exploration company in Sumatra.
“I wasn’t an English major, hanging around other writers and reading books I should have been reading,” he says. “I think that’s why I can’t finish a novel. I don’t feel comfortable with that foundation.”
This training ground, however, was not without its merits, although at times it seemed as frustrating as the endless task that confronts the children in The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, who must brush loud, obnoxious, orange creatures off their goats every single day knowing all the while they’ll be back in the morning. (“Ever had a burr in your sock? A gapper’s like that, only bigger.”)
“In engineering school, the rigor was merciless,” says Saunders, who lives in Oneonta, N.Y. with his wife Paula. “You could work 12 hours a day for two weeks, and if you were wrong you were wrong, you got an F, no partial credit, which helped me a lot when I started writing. No number of days was sufficient to guarantee a work would be good. You could work for years and not be good. My first job in Asia got me out into the world. I had stupid political ideas that were kind of facile and saw so many interesting, harsh things about the way human beings f--- each other over, even a lunkhead like me couldn’t ignore. I was learning about oppression first hand.”
That hard knowledge fuels Saunders’ work to this day. His characters often make selfish, foolish choices only to turn and battle injustice, like the prisoner in Escape from Spiderhead. Part of a cruel prison experiment, he finally rebels against his oppressors, slips his drug-addled bonds and refuses to hurt anyone else at great personal cost. He marvels at his brief freedom: “This was all me now.”
As a writer, Saunders thrives on the short story to explore such themes of morality and (sometimes) redemption. He admires the format’s deceptive simplicity and rigorous space demands, which he likens to a ticking clock speeding a writer to his destination.
“I found out I work well under that ticking clock,” he says. “When I don’t have that I don’t really know what beauty would look like. I can’t write 700 pages. It’s like having a party and saying, ‘I don’t know who will show up and I don’t know what they’ll want.’ If you tell me grouchy people are coming over, I know how to deal with that. ... [The format] gives me a basis on which to think quickly. I love that compression where you go, ‘I thought this piece was tight, but where are the extra words?’ I think of it as shrinkwrapping. When I do that, the prose gets smarter and cleaner. I love that aspect of short fiction.”
Sometimes, though, short fiction takes a long time to write. Saunders says he spent 14 years on The Semplica Girls and still sometimes wishes he had time to tinker with it.
“I had a dream with the image of those girls, and in the dream I was happy to be providing this for my family, not horrified. It’s a sci-fi vignette, and to have the guy in it be a sweet guy who shares my concerns about family and to try to put both of those things in one story was interesting for me. It illustrates the notion that when horrific things happen, the person doing them isn’t Snidely Whiplash. It’s a person like us who slightly misunderstands the situation.”
As for his dark sensibility, it’s not going away anytime soon. But Saunders has a greater ambition, one he feels he’s coming closer to achieving with Tenth of December.
“What I’m trying to do is demolish the distinction about dark. Dark doesn’t mean you have to have an unhappy ending. There’s a way in which the story form tends to privilege darkness. In Little Red Riding Hood, you don’t hear about the 50 times she went to her grandmother’s with no problem. You just hear about the wolf. But I’m a southside Chicago kid. ... I want to make sure I know how to look at the positive variances of life. At this stage I’m really grateful. You’d have to be a dolt not to look around and find the world beautiful at times.”