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The Creative Process: Interview with George Saunders

Indiana Review is honored to be part of The Creative Process, an exhibition and international educational initiative traveling to leading universities. As part of the exhibition, portraits and interviews with writers and creative thinkers are being published across a network of university and international literary magazines. The Creative Process is including work by Indiana Review contributors in the projection elements of the traveling exhibition.

George Saunders is the author of nine books, including Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and won the inaugural Folio Prize in 2013 (for the best work of fiction in English) and the Story Prize (best short story collection). He has received MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, The Man Booker Prize, the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story, and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In support of his work, he has appeared on The Colbert Report, Late Night with David Letterman, All Things Considered, and The Diane Rehm Show. In 2013, he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine. He has taught in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University since 1996.

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GEORGE SAUNDERS

Interviewed by Mia Funk

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Can we talk about one of my favorite stories in Tenth of December? “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” This is a story that went through more revisions than usual?

SAUNDERS

Yes. It ended up taking me fourteen years to finish. I sort of got stuck at a certain point and wrote tons of material that I ended up not using. Regrettable, but necessary.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

It’s a story that got its impetus from a dream you had?

(The Semplica-Girls are young women from developing countries who’ve been leased and strung up on clotheslines as lawn ornaments for the well-to-do.)

SAUNDERS

Yes – I had a dream in which I saw those women in my backyard and the “narrator” of that dream was very proud that he’d been able to buy that lawn display for his family. Very unsettling dream. So the writing of the story was just trying to reassemble the world of the dream – what kind of world was it, where he could feel good about something awful like that and yet be a pretty good guy? It just took a really long time. As Orson Welles used to say, in a series of commercials, “No wine before its time.”

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Do you often get inspiration from your dreams?

SAUNDERS

About four times in my career, a story came out of a dream. And about 9000 times I woke from a dream, sure I had a story, and was wrong. Hence the failed “penguin orgy” trilogy.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

This story felt poised between the satire of your previous collections––CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, In Persuasion Nation––and the softer tone of Tenth of December. I’m wondering what changed in your own life as you were writing these stories.

SAUNDERS

Well, I got older, I guess. And got both (1) more aware of the lucky/beautiful side of life and (2) more technically capable of expressing it.

But honestly, I tend to think of writing as less a temporal-lineal phenomenon and more a data dump. So, for example, the person who wrote my darkest story is still alive in me, as is the person who wrote the most optimistic. Those selves just keep flickering on and off. They existed when you were four and will exist when you’re ninety. There’s some progression over time, I suppose, as your skills improve and you find yourself more capable of getting into the difficult places (which, for me, tend to be the more optimistic or hopeful places) – but I can still get to the guy who wrote the most apocalyptic stories and, even as I was writing those, I think I would have been appreciative of a story like “Tenth of December.” We tend to think of ourselves as being one whole and consistent person but it feels to me now that we are more of a flickering, constantly transitioning phenomenon – no fixity, minimal consistency.   So the artist could be seen as a sort of caretaker of all these different selves – trying to respect and love each self and get it to step up to the mic and really go for it.

But even there, I’m falsifying a bit. I don’t think about it all that much as I’m working. I don’t necessarily feel that controlling the creative process (i.e., understanding it or being able to control or predict it) is really part of the job. That is: to know how I’ve progressed or even if I have – or to understand the underlying themes and so on – is fun, and valid, but not essential to what I conceive as my life’s work, which is somehow making my stories stand up and feel real to a reader. I just have to trust that if I am intense and refuse to take shortcuts, then whatever results will have some sort of shape and integrity greater than I could have willed in there.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I was listening to your audiobook. You get right into the voices when you’re reading your stories. And some of the stories in your latest collection–”Victory Lap,” “Tenth of December”–are about situations where young people are in a tentative process of rehearsal for their life ahead. Also, the language you use to describe the process of revision, some of it reminds me of the language of actors: using uncertainty and confusion to catch an honest performance. I was wondering if you feel what you do in your stories is close to being an actor.

SAUNDERS

Sure, I think so. There’s a kind of internal improv going on, which I then (luckily) get to revise. The thing is, if you sort of let go with the language in early drafts, really swing wild, the prose will suggest a person (a character) to you. And as you keep riffing and revising, that character will start to become someone new. So let’s say you decide to “do” the voice of a very control-freakish middle-aged guy. He will start out to be that, but then at one point he will say or do something (led by the energy of the language) that will transform him into someone you can’t pin down, who is (in every pass) morphing and exerting his own will (and, in turn, influencing the plot). So he’s moved you away from your original concept of him – he’s outgrown it, essentially. That’s what you’re really hoping for.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Did you you ever do improv? When you were a kid joking around with friends, what kind of language games did you play?

SAUNDERS

I never did it formally but, as you suggest, we did a lot of characters and satirical stuff when we were kids – impersonations of celebrities (and friends and teachers). I can see that one thing I learned was that feeling described above – where you are “doing” somebody and then the language sort of catches fire and bears you away – those little energy-bursts. I am always hoping for those when I’m writing. There’s a weird wisdom in them. I think it has something to do with the cessation of the controlling mind, and its replacement with what we might call the curious mind – that part of us that is very perceptive and alert to truth. Once the controlling (or pontificating) mind shuts up, the curious mind gets emboldened.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

You brought up teachers there. Can you talk a little bit about teachers (or books) who made a particular impression on you growing up and later when you were doing your M.A.?

SAUNDERS

I had two life-changing teachers in high school, Sheri and Joe Lindbloom. They got me thinking about college for the first time and then literally got me into college. Then, many years later, when I was trying to start writing but was down on my luck, they offered me a room in my house and two months of writing time – an incredible gift for someone just starting out.

In grad school I studied with Douglas Unger and Tobias Wolff. Between the two of them I learned everything a person would need to know about teaching writing. The essence of it, I think, is openness: being willing to take whatever is there in the student, accept it, and work with it. This is, of course, a moral-ethical gift and both of these teachers had it.

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How Can I Participate in The Creative Process?

There are many ways to become involved. If you’re interested in sharing your views on creativity and the humanities, we would love to hear from you. Involvement ranges from interviews, podcasts, short films, or engagement with other art/educational initiatives.

To participate in an interview or submit your academic essays or creative works: 

submissions@creativeprocess.info

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