For George Saunders, the lines between utopia and dystopia, between realism and science fiction, between humor and horror, have always been fine. Never is it more true, though, than in his new collection of short stories, “Tenth of December.” Saunders has stripped these stories of the skewed settings that marked his earlier works, concentrating instead on rendering a very real, very genuine world and all the emotion that flows within it. A streak of absurdity still runs through it, but it's much more organic in nature.
It has been 20 years since The New Yorker first published Saunders' work. Since then, the MacArthur Fellow has written three short story collections, a novel, a children's book and a collection of essays — and mentored a new generation of writers at Syracuse University (including Adam Levin, author of "The Instructions"). Saunders, a Chicago native, will appear Tuesday at Lincoln Hall, for a reading and conversation with Levin.
We caught up with Saunders by phone last month to talk a bit about "Tenth of December" and why his latest stories are more grounded in reality than his earlier collections. Here's an edited version of our conversation.
Q: What inspired the shift to realism?
A: It wasn't really conscious. In writing it, I'd get to a certain point and I would know how to do it more realistically than I could've done it four or five years ago. I'd get to a place where there was a certain emotional thing happening and I just knew how to proceed. It's almost like over the years my subconscious has grown in a certain direction, and so when I turn to it, it just sort of led me there. I don't really plan things out before I do them very much, even on the story level. I just try to be entertaining for 20 pages. To some extent, it just might be that I'm 180 years old now and I'm more sure of what matters to me, so when I get to a place in a story where there's something really important going on, I'm less tentative about just going there.
Q: You've written nonfiction since your last collection of stories; did that influence this work?
A: I did six pieces for GQ that were travel related, and that was a real eye-opener as to how much power the simple detail could provide. It was so fun just to imagine someone who hadn't been to Dubai, say, and my job was to tell them what it was like — plain and simple, nothing fancy. I think that sort of made me aware of certain muscles I didn't know I had maybe in that way, and there's just a kind of simple pleasure in saying, "Once there was a parking lot," and actually making the parking lot real to readers.
Q: The realism in "Tenth of December" makes it all the more unsettling when dystopic elements crop up. Was that intentional?
A: That fits my view of things, because I think in our actual life the dystopic or absurdist elements happen sort of sneakily. They get in there on a normal day, and I guess as I'm getting older I feel like I'm honing in more on this question of good and evil and what does it actually mean? If you look at the end conditions — Auschwitz — OK, that's one thing. But what does good and evil look like and feel like on a given day?
I'll tell you the honest thing: On this book, the one mantra I had was I wanted to really connect with the reader in a very deep kind of intimate emotional way by any means necessary. So as I was writing, I was always thinking about this imaginary reader: Am I doing my best to really connect with her on a friendly, intimate level? Maybe I'd put aside cleverness if I had to or I'd use humor as necessary, but I'd always try to keep an eye on the reader as you would in a nonfiction piece to say, "I don't have time for shenanigans. I really have to communicate something to this person." What I really want to do is to move you. I want you to feel like we're interested in the same things and that our lives haven't been that different and that what you care about is what I care about. It's that close channeling that fiction is so wonderful in doing.
Q: Had that not been your goal in the past?
A: Yeah, it had. But you're always writing to what feels urgent to you at the moment. When I was younger, I think what was urgent and surprising to me was that life could be so hard. It never occurred to me somehow. My wife and I got engaged in three weeks and then she got pregnant on the honeymoon and she went into labor at four months with our first daughter. We thought we were still hippies or beatniks or whatever we were, and then suddenly, well, this also happened with our second daughter, and both times she had to go to bed for five months (to carry to term). So by the time we'd known each other three years, she'd been in bed for 10 months and we had two kids and we didn't have any money. I was thinking I was Kerouac, and then suddenly I found out that I had no interest in being Kerouac. I didn't want to be a freebird. I just wanted to be a good dad and husband, so I started working these jobs I never imagined myself working.
In that period, which was "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" and "Pastoralia," I was kind of taken aback maybe by, wow, life can be kind of surprisingly difficult. I knew I wasn't in any really difficult position, but even from the small hardships we were experiencing, I had that growth of empathy. For example, I realized how harsh capitalism could be. Those were the kinds of things that were urgent to me at the time. They were making their way into those books, and it seemed to me that the best way to do it was to maybe exaggerate that a bit. But then over the years, the urgent thing has changed a little bit. I still think capitalism is still harsh and life is harsh and all that, but I guess I've been more struck by the human ability to make happiness within that construct. You write out of whatever happens to be true for you for the moment, and right now, this book is a pretty good representation to how things are looking to me.
Q: Have your kids influenced the way you see the world?
A: Absolutely. They're wonderful kids. I can see that the love and the care we put into them paid off. It wasn't like we always did the right thing — it wasn't always perfect — but they're very flexible vessels and incredibly intelligent people. It left me thinking, well, that's interesting that actually worked out. The ultimate aspiration is to get a really rich picture of what life is actually like, and I noticed that the representation I'd made thus far wasn't fully accounting for the richness of my life now. This book is still not any big hoot — it's not like a Disney book. I'm trying, trying, trying to get some of that to the table, but it's hard, it's technically hard, to show those aspects of life without becoming sentimental. It's easier to sneer, but harder to praise.
Q: You mentioned your earlier work reflected your views about the harshness of capitalism, but doesn't this book pursue similar themes? I'm thinking of "The Semplica-Girl Diaries," in which a family preparing for a girl's 13th birthday party installs people from developing countries as lawn ornaments. It seems just as rooted in the tension created by middle-class aspirations.
A: I don't consciously go into any story for any kind of thematic reasons. The last 15 years of my life, we had our girls in a private school in Syracuse we really couldn't afford, and we were fighting to get the money. Our philosophy of child-raising was, let's raise them like they're richer than we are and then pay it off later. We were always in crazy comical credit card situations, but the way that story came out was, I just had a dream. We were living in our house, and there was this window that actually isn't there, but in the dream I woke up and was kind of restless and I went to the window and I looked out and there was a line of those (human lawn ornaments) out in the yard. The part of the dream that was so scary and weird was (that) the person I was in the dream was not horrified. He was thinking, "Oh, we are so lucky. This is so great we finally did it."
You know in a dream when you fall in love with somebody, the emotion is so strong. In that dream, the emotion was just gratitude that I could finally get to a place in my life where I could get those Semplica Girls in my yard. I think a lot of the story was basically compressed in my subconscious just by the life I was living and then it became a matter of just scrolling it out, almost like those little sea monkeys — you put them in there and let them expand.