Just who is George Saunders – apart from being a writer of short stories, a novelist, and children’s books? He is a traveller and a risk-taker.
“George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year” proclaimed the headline in the New York Times in 2013. The headline was written by the late David Foster. The George Saunders publication of Tenth of December catapulted Saunders from the ranks of well-regarded authors to a new league of literary fame. Now, in 2017, Saunders has a new publication, a novel called Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel.
George Saunders (1958-) is American, born in Amarillo, Texas. Since 1994 he has won many literary awards, while continuing to teach creative writing at Syracuse University.
Saunders is also a travel writer, writing about ‘the despair and depersonalisation of our time in a manner that is deeply cutting in its precision, but somehow invested with enough humanity and generosity of spirit that a glimmer of hope and redemption still shines through,’ says Pat Nourse from Gourmet Traveller, who interviewed Saunder in 2017, ahead of the Sydney Writers Festival on 22-28 May. The festival’s theme is refuge.
Nourse, on the phone from California, discussed travel with George Saunders. Some of the interview is presented below:
How do you travel, George? There was a time in my life when every trip, especially on a plane, felt to me like I was drawing on some reservoir of luck. I felt a little guilty when I travelled – it’s risky, it’s nervy, I shouldn’t be doing this. And as a writer, I also thought “why am I not at home writing? This is indulgent.”
There’s a country and Western song that goes “wherever you go, there you are”, and I try to have that philosophy. If I’m in a plane, I’ve got a little cone around me that I can influence. If I get off the plane and I’m in a really crazy, dangerous situation, same thing – I can only do so much. If I’m in a really beautiful, glamorous situation, same thing. No matter where you are, you have about the same amount of influence, and mostly you have influence over your own mind.
That made it easier to travel. Whenever you go into a town to do a tour and you’re in a new town and it’s all fucked up – that’s okay. You can only influence that circle around yourself. You’re walking in New York City and it’s crazy and you’re feeling stressed out, but there’s still just that little cone around you. It makes travel more fun somehow because you’re going into these new places and letting this multiplicity and variety of the world wash over me and maybe inspire me.
I don’t know how to describe it, but I always felt a little bit horrible when I travelled, and now whether I’m sitting in my room very secure in my usual habits or I’m in some entirely different place, you still have the same stuff to work with, which is your mind and your body and your sense of generosity.
What are your props? Aisle or window? Pre-flight routine?
Part of my routine is that I have no routine. I don’t care where they seat me. I have maybe a little superstitious faith that wherever I’m put is where I’m meant to be. For me the maybe self-flattering idea of myself as flexible has become my habit. If I get seated next to some obnoxious person, I’ll be like, “thank you, that’ll be interesting.”
Book tours today are notorious for their jam-packed itineraries – how do you prepare for that?
The one thing I honestly love about it is that your job is to be yourself. If you are wrinkled-looking, so it goes. If you’re tired, you’re tired. If you’re in an inappropriate interview, you try to have fun with that. I love that. You don’t have to worry about taking the garbage out. You show up and you’re there to be present at your event. I’m not a great multitasker, so I like that part about it. For months I just had to be wherever I was and just try to be as generous as I could, and that’s the whole job.
One of the other really great things about a tour is that by the time you get home, you’re done with that book. You still love it but you can feel your body going “come on, come on! Let’s do something different! Can we get away from 19th-century diction, for example?” I think that’s part of the process of bringing the book up behind you. When you’re in it, of course, there’s no other book you ever want to write, and then you finish it and it takes a while to come out, and then you tour it and pretty soon your whole body is just tingling with wanting to get clear of it.
You’ve taken some serious risks with Lincoln in the Bardo, and this is for a writer whose stories are often fairly out-there to begin with. I’m trying to picture the look on the face of your publisher when you said “rather than do short stories I’m going to write a novel, and it’s about Lincoln spending a night in a cemetery with his dead child. Oh, and it’ll also invoke elements of the Tibetan afterlife in its structure.” That’s a hell of an elevator pitch.
It was risky, you’re right, but it felt good to get off the rails a little bit. If you deny yourself all of your usual gifts, what have you got? If you’re someone who’s really funny at parties and can juggle, and that’s how you get through parties and then someone says “at this party you can’t be funny or juggle,” then what you find out is that whatever produced the funniness or the juggling is still there. There’s some base thing there. That seemed like a good thing, especially at this stage of a career where the temptation could be to kick back, or just go back to the same thing – it seemed like a fun thing to do.
I knew, especially in the early incarnations, that it was a lot different than, say, Tenth of December. And as I was writing it, Tenth of December was just taking off here, so I had this mixed sensation: wow, I finally wrote something in a short-story form that could appeal to a bigger audience – yay – while at home I’m writing this totally different thing. That was an interesting artistic crossroads.
I don’t say this to be modest but to be diagnostic, but my talent is not that great. It’s not like a talent that I can turn to anything and make it productive. (I found that out over the years by having a lot of stale projects.) So part of the job becomes really investigating every corner of the little wedge of talent that I do have, and it was nice at this point to see what else is in the bag of tricks.
Do they call that growth?
I think they do. And I’m appalled to see that I haven’t done more of that sooner.
Sydney Writers Festival, 22-28 May 2017, swf.org.au.
Photography: CHLOE AFTEL