The first time I met George Saunders, I got shivers of déjà vu. I’d driven to his house in upstate New York, to interview him for this magazine, and he’d come out to his driveway to shake my hand. It was a crisp fall day in the wooded hills south of Oneonta, with a hard wind and bright blue skies, and the trees cast sharp, waving shadows on the hood of his Prius. There was something about the way he swung open his front door and ushered me into his mud room, wearing his wide Midwestern grin, that felt eerily familiar. Then I realized why: I was living out a fantasy I’d indulged a hundred times. For much of my twenties, what I’d wanted, more than almost anything else, was to get inside Saunders’s mind, learn how it worked, and steal his secrets, so that I could write short stories that were as good as his short stories. My dream had been to sit down with him and ask him whatever I wanted.
I couldn’t do that in my twenties, but I could make the surfaces of my stories resemble the surfaces of his stories. Present tense, first person, short declarative sentences, frequent jokes. Characters whose thoughts and speech were peppered with euphemistic neologisms. A working-class American suburb in a troubled near-future, a naïve narrator with a good heart, a shopping mall. I could assemble those parts, but the result was never George Saunders. There was something else he was doing. He had a technique whose effects I could feel but whose workings were mysterious to me. After I had written a stack of bad stories in a fake-Saunders mode—security guard finds gateway to hell in fountain of food court, et cetera—I stopped trying to write the way he did, feeling I had wasted two years trying to pull it off. When I applied to M.F.A. programs, I got into the one at Syracuse, where he taught. He even called me and encouraged me to come, a great moment of my life. But I’d decided he was dangerous, for me. Given how Saunders-derivative I was, the last thing I needed was more Saunders in my head. I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, hoping it would whip the Saunders out of me. A couple of times, my classmates submitted Saunders-y stories, and in workshop I enumerated everything that was imitative about them, surprising myself with my own prosecutorial zeal. I had expected Iowa to be mean at times; I just hadn’t expected that the source of meanness would be me.
Now I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self, It’s okay to imitate Saunders, just not in the hapless, superficial way you’re doing it. What you need is more Saunders in your head, not less, in the sense that what you need is a deeper understanding of what Saunders does. The interesting, generative way to imitate Saunders is to imitate what he does with the bones of a short story, not what he does with setting, dialogue, or prose.
But “bones” isn’t quite right. In fact, one of the most important aspects of the Saunders aesthetic is something that might be termed “bonelessness.” A boneless story doesn’t begin with an idea for a central conflict, or with an outline, or with any other structural design. A boneless story has no skeleton. That doesn’t mean that there’s no action. To the contrary, Saunders’s stories are packed with incident. But the stories accumulate beat by beat. As a general rule, Saunders doesn’t conceive of plots in advance, but rather tries to write one funny, interesting moment, and then another funny, interesting moment, and so on. A Saunders story grows like a fungus. It wouldn’t be totally accurate to say that it grows sentence by sentence. To use Saunders’s words, it grows “bit” by “bit.” A bit is often a joke, but not necessarily. It can be a tragic occurrence, an incisive observation, a grotesque shock. It’s anything that administers a stimulus to the reader.
“I discovered that I could make a fairly ambitious story via fragments,” he told me, in the interview.
“I didn’t have to have a through line or a plan, didn’t have to know where it was going… If you trimmed all the fat out of a bit, it would start to thrum with meaning—and then, all of a sudden, it would have something it wanted to cause. So there would be these, like, vital bits on the page, not linked to anything yet. And then structure became just linking up those vital bits, looking for the simplest way to connect them.
So, if you cut all the lazy shit out of a story, what’s left will tell you what structure to put in place so that none of those good bits need to be lost. And then you are trying to arrange them so that they are in causal relation to one another.”
How does one bit cause another bit? Consider this passage from “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.” The story is set in a Civil War theme park beset by violent teenage gangs. The narrator, one of the park’s executives, has asked Quinn, an actor hired to play historical figures, to expel the gangs from park property.
…I hear gunshots from the perimeter. I run out and there’s Quinn and a few of his men tied to the cannon. The gang guys took Quinn’s pants and put some tiny notches in his penis with their knives. I free Quinn and tell him to get over to the Infirmary to guard against infection. He’s absolutely shaking and can hardly walk, so I wrap him up in a Confederate flag and call over a hay cart and load him in.
…We decide to leave the police out of it because of the possible bad PR. So we give Quinn the rest of the week off and promise to let him play Grant now and then, and that’s that.
(A short digression: See how well those two paragraphs work on their own, cut off from the rest of the story? “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” is like an octopus, an animal whose tentacles remain alive even when severed from the rest of the body, because each tentacle has its own brains, instead of bones. The whole creature is a sack full of brains.)
The first “bit” is that the gangs tie Quinn to the cannon. (This is a Civil War theme park with only one cannon, we learn from the article “the.”) The second bit, caused by the first, is that once the gangs have rendered Quinn helpless, they notch his penis, a highly specific, considered, psychological torture. The specificity and originality of the form of that torture cause the third bit, which is that the narrator orders Quinn to “get over” to the Infirmary to make sure his penis doesn’t get infected, not the gentlest or most respectful response, and one that raises the comical question of what the Infirmary is like. Historically authentic, medically modern, or somewhere in between? The narrator’s demand that Quinn go to the Infirmary on his own steam suggests the problem that Quinn is trembling and unable to walk, (“absolutely shaking” in the narrator’s office-speak) which causes the fourth bit, which is the narrator wrapping him in a Confederate flag and depositing him in a hay cart, as if he’s a figure in an oil painting of wounded Southerners. The whole incident is so unsavory it suggests the fifth bit, the decision not to call the police because of “possible bad PR.” Which leads to the sixth bit, the decision to give Quinn a week off and let him play Grant “now and then,” which is enough to buy his silence.
Just by letting one bit sprout another bit, Saunders gives us new details about the setting, a new turn in the plot, and an implied critique of late-stage capitalism, all as side effects, happy accidents. The development of political themes, and the escalation of hostilities between the park and the gangs—these things happen organically, not by authorial fiat. If you start with good bits, the framework you develop to hold them together will be more interesting and fun than any framework you could think up in advance. Saunders told me how sweet it was to discover this way of working.
I’d been driving myself crazy with questions like, What do I believe about structure? and, What is my theory about character development? and, Well, what is a story, anyway?
This new mode’s whole idea was to put those questions aside. Just keep the reader reading, and all questions will be answered. And suddenly, as a bonus, I was blurting out things about my position in the world that I hadn’t even known until I blurted them out.
That may be the single most important accomplishment, for a writer: to surprise oneself with truths that were previously obscure.
You can take the boneless mode and pair it with long, lyrical sentences. You can pair it with a realistic setting, or with autofictional reminiscences, or with any other un-Saunders-y surface. In fact, you probably should. That way, it will be Saunders-y in the best way possible, that is, it will be Saunders-y without anyone being able to tell.
Benjamin Nugent is the author of Fraternity, a collection of linked stories forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He’s the recipient of the 2019 Terry Southern Prize.