Writer George Saunders Reflects on Engineering Short Fiction

February 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
George Saunders, a former MacArthur Fellow, talks to Jeffrey Brown about his latest collection of stories, "Tenth of December," and his unique voice and approach to capturing contemporary American culture in a compressed, short form.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: Short story writers don’t often receive a lot of attention, but, of late, George Saunders, has been getting plenty.

Saunders, a MacArthur fellow who teaches at Syracuse University, is an acclaimed master of the genre, known for his biting social satire and deeply felt takes on contemporary American life. In his new collection, he writes of a teenager who witnesses the attempted kidnapping of a neighbor and must decide whether to intervene, a war-damaged combat veteran who returns to a suddenly unfamiliar home town, and a man with cancer who takes action to spare his family the pain, and then finds his own kind of salvation.

The book is titled “Tenth of December.”

George Saunders joined us for a talk in our studio recently. Here’s our conversation.

Welcome to you.

GEORGE SAUNDERS, Author: Nice to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: I think I want to start by asking you about the genre of the short story, because it’s something we don’t talk that much about.


JEFFREY BROWN: It gets little attention. What is it good for? Why is it the form for you?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Well, for me, it’s kind of almost neurological. I understand what something short should be like. I understand beauty in that form.

If I start extending, somehow I kind of lose my bearings. I think it might be a little bit like in sports where there are fast-switch muscles and slow-switch muscles. And, so, for me, my stories have — I can understand them as a little toy that you wind up and you put it on the floor and it just goes under the coach. That, I get. Beyond that, I’m a little lost.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, a short story compresses the narrative. It compresses the story.


JEFFREY BROWN: You are also known for a compression of language. You leave a lot out.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: As much as I can.

JEFFREY BROWN: As much as you can, really?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Usually, I will get maybe, maybe two-thirds more than I need and cut back. And the assumption there is that if I can be more efficient, I’m actually being more respectful to the reader, which then implies a greater intimacy with the reader.

JEFFREY BROWN: So these pieces are worked over, worked and worked and worked compress to?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Yes, there is a piece in here that I started in ’98 and just finished last year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, so that’s a lot of work.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Yes, a lot of work, maybe even slightly deranged,     but …

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, speaking of deranged, people speak of a George Saunders subject, the kind of wackiness of consumerism sometimes or the absurdity of corporate life or the fraying of social relations, and that certainly comes through in a lot of the stories here, for individuals, families, the haves and have-nots in today’s society.

Do you feel you have a subject? Is there something that you are trying tell?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Well, I do, but my approach is much more intuitive.

What I find usually, if I have a subject and I do that, it tends to be a little dull. So, for me, the approach has become to go into a story not really sure of what I want to say, try to find some little seed, crystal of interest, a sentence or an image or an idea, and as much as possible divest myself of any deep ideas about it. And then by this process of revision, mysteriously, it starts to accrete meanings as you go.

And those meanings tend to be a little more emotional, a little more intense than the ones that you plan in advance. So it’s kind of an elaborate exercise in being comfortable with an element of mystery or sort of an unknown quality.

JEFFREY BROWN: These stories that do look at — well, there is one, “Home,” about a soldier coming home. There is — the title story is a man learning that he’s dying and not wanting to put that on his family. These are real-life things, the corporate culture.


JEFFREY BROWN: Where do these things come from?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Well, I’m really interested in those things as ideas. I started out in engineering.

I was a geophysical engineer. Throughout the course of my life, I have done a lot of strange jobs, and the effect has been to make me kind of think a little more skeptically about our capitalist society. And so these stories, in one way, are a way of just suggesting that there might be sort of an underside to it and that in fact unrestrained capitalism is quite cruel and the cost is on the individual human, on his or her grace again. Again, that’s sort of a sub-idea.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, but what’s interesting is, I mean, you could approach those things as a political analyst or as a journalist. You’re doing it as a writer, but you’re also doing it as a writer who uses a lot of humor, whether — I mean, it’s dark humor often.


I think if you — you know, there is a great — quote, unquote — “political story” by Chekhov. It’s called “Grief,” and in the story all that happens is there is a man who drives a horse-drawn cab and his son has died earlier that day. And the whole story is he can’t get anyone to listen to him about his heartbreak. And at the end of the story, he goes into the stall with the horse and takes the horse’s head and just says: “My son died today. I loved him very much.”

Is that a political story? Not really, except we are 10 years away from the Russian Revolution. So, to me, if you want to explore a political idea in the highest possible way, you embody it in the personal, because that’s something that no one can deny. Whatever your supposed politics are — left, right — if you put it in a human connection, most people will rise to the occasion and feel the human pain in a way that they might not if it was presented in a more conceptual way.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I’m also curious, because some of your stories present the contemporary strangeness of life by taking us a little bit further into the future and taking something happening now and, I don’t know, pushing it even further.

But then another — so, it almost has the quality of science fiction sometimes.


JEFFREY BROWN: Other of your stories, and I see more of them in this collection, feel more right of the moment, realist, human, humane, in a way.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Right. Right. Yes.

You know, I have been married to my wife, Paula, for 25 years. We have wonderful kids. Things are — it’s been a really rich life, so I started thinking, is there a way to get valence a little more into the stories, the idea that, yes, things can go wrong, but also they can go right? And when they do, what is the human activity that makes that possible? How do things — how do people do good, basically?

So, I didn’t do it intentionally, but I definitely found that sneaking into these stories more and more.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are getting a lot of great attention here, critical acclaim, profiles, great reviews. How does that feel?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: It’s really wonderful. It’s a nice chance to kind of watch your own mind and sort of see how you react to the attention.

But I love the idea that more people would read short fiction. I think it’s such a humanizing form. It softens the boundaries between people. And I think, in our time, where, you know, so much of the information we get is sort of pre-polarized, fiction has a way of reminding us that we actually are very similar in our emotions, in our neurology and our desires and our fears.

And so I think it’s a nice way to neutralize that polarization. I’m very happy — if I can do even a little bit of work to get the short story out more, I’m thrilled.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new collection is “Tenth of December.”

George Saunders, thanks so much.


JEFFREY BROWN: Tomorrow at noon Eastern time, we’re hosting a live online chat with George Saunders. You can ask him your questions about his work and more. To do that, just go to our home page,