Issue 231, Winter 2019
My first meeting with George Saunders took place in his home of ten years, a ranch house in the Catskills. The house stood on fifteen acres of hilly woods, crisscrossed by narrow paths that he and his wife, the novelist Paula Saunders, had cleared over many afternoons, following mornings spent writing.
The Saunderses had lived in upstate New York for three decades; they raised their two daughters in Rochester and Syracuse, two of the region’s Rust Belt cities, and Saunders’s first three story collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2000), and In Persuasion Nation (2006), are marked by the experience of bringing up children and holding down jobs in a postindustrial economy. But the stories aren’t constrained by the conventions of gritty realism. There are ghosts, zombies, prosthetic foreheads, and memories uploaded onto computers straight from human brains. Many of the stories are extremely funny, many have endings of great emotional power, and most are written in a style that’s spare, vernacular, and very catchy. Appearing in The New Yorker since 1992, they won Saunders a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006 and have exerted an enormous influence on contemporary American fiction. The many writers who love Saunders often complain that it takes great effort not to imitate him.
In recent years, Saunders, too, has worked to write less like Saunders. Tenth of December (2013), shortlisted for a National Book Award, found him experimenting with new voices; in one story, “Escape from Spiderhead,” the narrator imbibes a drug that causes him to compose sentences in the style of Henry James. Saunders followed that book with his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), set in nineteenth-century Washington, far from the futuristic office parks and theme parks of his early work. It debuted at the top of the New York Times best-seller list and won that year’s Man Booker Prize.
Saunders and I spoke in his kitchen over mugs of strong coffee. Furniture was sparse, because he and Paula were moving. They’d decided to sell the place and live full-time in their house outside Santa Cruz, California. But the shed where he wrote Tenth of December and Lincoln was still as it had been when he was working on those books. His desk, flanked by bookshelves, faced a table displaying perhaps ten framed photos of Buddhist teachers in robes.
Our two subsequent conversations took place in Saunders’s office at Syracuse University. He’s been a professor of creative writing at Syracuse for twenty years, although he’s taught mostly short intensive courses since his move to the West Coast. The centerpiece of the room is a scuffed wooden desk, stained with coffee rings, that once belonged to Delmore Schwartz. The window looks out on a statue of Lincoln that presents the savior of the republic as a sad young man, clean-shaven, frowning, his head bowed. It’s rumored, falsely, that the sculptor intended to depict Lincoln mourning Ann Rutledge, a woman thought by some historians to be his first sweetheart, after her death from typhoid fever in 1835.
When we finished our last session, Saunders and I drove around Syracuse. It was late autumn, and the lawns were sprinkled with fallen leaves. He showed me the bucolic parkside street where he set his story “Victory Lap” and, nearby, the squalid house where David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest. The door to the basement apartment where Wallace lived was bright red, peeling, marked with a crooked numeral 1, and lit from above by a harsh bulb. “Someone should have done this kind of interview with Dave,” he said.
Saunders is easy to interview. He’s chatty, kind, quick to shoot down any glib analysis of his work, and free with an anecdote, often casting himself as a blunderer whose illusions land him in hot water. Back in his twenties, he played guitar in a country band, and at sixty he looks like a veteran Nashville sideman, with a tight beard and long red hair combed back from his forehead. His accent is working-class Chicagoan, slightly lilting. He often substitutes ya for you. The effect is that when he does say you, as he did when he told me, “You have to let evil have broad shoulders,” it commands attention.
When you were a teenager, you worked in your dad’s restaurant, Chicken Unlimited. What was that like?
I loved it. We were this upstart franchise in competition with KFC. I was the delivery boy, and after school I’d go right over—never did any homework—and the place would be full of people I knew and loved. My parents both worked there, my sisters, aunts, friends from school. Like a party every night.
We had these tricked-out 1977 Chevy vans that were carpeted inside, even the walls and ceilings, and had stoves and mini fridges so we could cater weddings and bar mitzvahs and carnivals, and, on the sides, our sort of zen motto—chicken unlimited doesn’t stop at chicken. I was sixteen and had just gotten my license, so this was a dream job. I’d drive around Midlothian, Oak Forest, Harvey, and Markham, Illinois, four or five hours a night, cranking the Allman Brothers on the eight-track—a great job for a future writer. There’d always be a few minutes in the foyer while the family went to get their money, when you were artificially part of a household that wasn’t aware it was being observed. You had access to that particular house’s smell and weird decor, and maybe a gaping pet would step out of the guest bathroom or you’d hear some shouting from somewhere in the house. There was this one guy who’d always greet me with, You married yet? And I’d say, I’m sixteen, sir, so . . . no.
Good! he’d say. Promise me you’ll never get married. It destroys you. And then his wife would drift out from the kitchen, this sweet older woman, smiling . . .
And so on.
At that age I had a certain vision of the world, this very tidy, control-freak, Khalil Gibran–reading idea of nobility, like the way to be a good person was to hover righteously above all those weak, dopey sinners down there. Sort of a purity obsession. To go out in the Chicken Van every night was to constantly have that view undercut. Because the whole world was crazy and erratic and sinful. But the people I met were also sweet and weird and endearing. You’d get all of that in one night.