George Saunders

Interviewed by Gary Percesepe

George Saunders is the author of the essay col­lec­tion The Braindead Megaphone, the short sto­ry col­lec­tions CivilWarLand in Bad DeclinePastoralia and In Persuasion Nation, the children’s book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, and the novel­la The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.  A new col­lec­tion, Tenth of December, will be pub­lished in January 2013. In 2006 he was the recip­i­ent of a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He teach­es Creative Writing at Syracuse University.

George Saunders is what used to be called “a writer’s writer.” James Salter is anoth­er of my favorite writ­ers, about whom this is often said, but there is a trace of the roman­tic in Salter, a per­sis­tent lyri­cal wist­ful­ness that at times tips into sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty (do a cat­a­logue of “light” in Salter and Cheever and you’ll soon see what I mean). It’s hard to accuse Saunders of exces­sive lyri­cism; his work cap­tures the spir­it of an age tip­ping hap­pi­ly toward dystopia. Saunders writes fic­tion for post­mod­erns who don’t want to be caught hop­ing but catch them­selves try­ing; chart­ing his cul­tur­al tar­gets is a syl­labus of stu­pid­i­ty. His writ­ing is so tight it cuts the flesh, his humor so dement­ed it deserves its own show, his ear for tech­no-talk and psy­chob­a­b­ble so keen it turns at times on the place­ment of a sly pro­noun or par­tici­ple.

Saunders ren­ders and skews an absur­dist nation­al cir­cus where sen­tences like this are pos­si­ble:

Listen to me care­ful­ly, Brad,” says Doris. “Go up on the roof, install the roof plat­form, duct-tape the AIDS baby to the roof plat­form, then come direct­ly down, bor­row your but­ter, and go home.”

And this: “A giant can of Raid gave me a snug­gie,” said Voltaire.

That he suc­ceeds in mak­ing you care about these sen­tences and the addled denizens of the “per­sua­sion nation” who utter them, is the mir­a­cle of fic­tion.

Jean Baudrillard employed the con­cept of the sim­u­lacrum (the copy with­out an orig­i­nal) to address the con­cept of mass repro­duc­tion and repro­ducibil­i­ty that char­ac­ter­izes elec­tron­ic media cul­ture, phi­los­o­phiz­ing about his­to­ry in retreat, a great trau­ma brought on by the decline of strong ref­er­en­tials, a cul­ture tra­versed by cur­rents but emp­tied of references—but could he have imag­ined the nar­ra­tor of “CommComm” (per­haps Saunders’ great­est short sto­ry) field­ing a call from Jillian in Disasters about the Air Force poi­son­ing a shit­load of beavers, or Mr. Rimney’s imme­di­ate response: “We may want to PIDS this?” Or the narrator’s task: admit, con­cede, explain, and pledge.  I’ll nev­er read this sto­ry again with­out think­ing of Mitt Romney’s Irish Setter, Seamus, strapped to the roof of the car for the trip to Toronto.

Saunders’ work has been com­pared to Vonnegut, Orwell, Huxley, Pynchon, Beckett, Bradbury, Atwood, Swift, Twain, with a dash of Dr. Seuss. We caught up to him in Syracuse just before he set out over­seas. He gra­cious­ly con­sent­ed to this inter­view.

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Mary Gaitskill once told me that for satire to work, the satirist has to have some sort of secret love or empa­thy for the thing she’s sat­i­riz­ing. Do you see your­self as a satirist? Are you a moral­ist? How do you under­stand these terms?

I think she’s absolute­ly right.  Otherwise it’s just the writer using his unfair advan­tage as the cre­ator to go ahead and cre­ate a world in which the tar­get he has in mind can be eas­i­ly kicked, out of spite.  Satire as I under­stand it is all about simul­ta­ne­ous love/hate.  Or attraction/revulsion.  It’s about, I think, the mir­a­cle of love (or the mir­a­cle of the poten­tial for love) exist­ing in the face of aver­sion.  We start out to blame, but praise instead, like what’s his name in the Bible.  Something like: if we are sat­i­riz­ing or mock­ing or call­ing out the defects of some­thing via the method of pay­ing very close atten­tion to it, then that’s an act of faith: we are con­ced­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty that we might be able to con­vert our (first-lev­el) aver­sion into some­thing else – or even if we can’t do it, it still might, the­o­ret­i­cal­ly, be pos­si­ble.

I’ve nev­er real­ly thought of myself as a satirist.  My goals are pret­ty much the goals of the seri­ous lit­er­ary fic­tion writer.  But I found out ear­ly on that for me to do that work, I had to use humor.  I think this is because the world feels com­ic to me – not fun­ny, nec­es­sar­i­ly, but com­ic, i.e., weird­ly designed, giv­en our basic human desires for love, dig­ni­ty, con­ti­nu­ity, order.

Your work is filled with irony and humor, which I have always under­stood as dis­tance tech­niques, keep­ing some­thing at bay, oper­at­ing at a “remove.” Donald Barthelme was some­times crit­i­cized for this by those who thought his char­ac­ters suf­fered for it, as they were so removed we couldn’t pos­si­bly care about them. Ann Beattie, anoth­er iro­nist, was tagged with this. In my intro­duc­tion, I men­tioned “Brad Carrigan, American,” and “CommComm” because these sto­ries, while uproar­i­ous­ly fun­ny, nev­er feel manip­u­la­tive, and the char­ac­ters, while sketched incom­plete­ly, nev­er­the­less elic­it com­pas­sion. But in the arc of your work and the con­struc­tion of your per­son­al aes­thet­ic, has this been a prob­lem for you?

Actually, for me, it was the oppo­site: as men­tioned above, I was nev­er able to get any real feel­ing into my work until I gave myself per­mis­sion to – well, I wouldn’t have said “to use irony and humor,” exact­ly, at the time. What hap­pened was, I final­ly admit­ted into my writ­ing cer­tain things that were always in me per­son­al­ly, and were in me in abun­dance, espe­cial­ly when I was feel­ing the world intense­ly: humor, yes, but also veloc­i­ty, a more ver­nac­u­lar approach, com­pres­sion, flip­pan­cy, etc., etc.

These were all nat­ur­al parts of me, espe­cial­ly when I was feel­ing moved or anx­ious or excit­ed or engaged – but I was bad­ly read as a young per­son and so always equat­ed “lit­er­ary” with “seri­ous,” i.e., tigh­tassed.  So omit­ted these things from my work, at that time.

There’s a kind of humor that is dis­tanc­ing, yes – but there’s also a kind of seri­ous­ness that’s dis­tanc­ing.  If we imag­ine a guy who is nev­er real­ly present to what’s actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing because he’s always crack­ing a joke – well, not great.  But like­wise: his alter ego, the guy who is nev­er real­ly present to what’s actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing because he is so insis­tent on a seri­ous or trag­ic view of things, or is so fix­at­ed on being in con­trol of his cir­cum­stances, or view­ing him­self as a seri­ous per­son, or using high dic­tion, or not admit­ting, in his fic­tion, that he some­times goes to WalMart, and actu­al­ly likes it, sort of, while feel­ing unclean: also not great.

What these guys have in com­mon is inat­ten­tion to the actu­al.  They have their method and they’re stick­ing to it.  That is, dis­tanc­ing stems from a fail­ure to engage, or some sort of root dis­hon­esty: rigid humor and rigid seri­ous­ness are two sides of the same coin.  I think what a read­er wants is gen­uine engage­ment from a writer: that is, he wants the writer to tell the truth as she sees it, and for the form of the telling to some­how be authen­tic to that which is being told.  The read­er wants the writer to be brave enough to step away from pre-digest­ed forms or modes, as nec­es­sary, in pur­suit of beau­ty.

What is beau­ty?

Beauty is truth, pack­aged effi­cient­ly.  Pithy, right? (I can almost hear you, Gary, stand­ing there in your toga, say­ing: “Ah, yes, but what is truth?”) Well, okay: I think truth, for artis­tic pur­pos­es, is that set of things that we feel deeply, or have felt deeply, but can’t quite artic­u­late, and can’t quite “prove,” and, the direct state­ment of which feels defi­cient.  “The Overcoat” is beau­ti­ful in part, because it says, pret­ty blunt­ly: cru­el­ty is real and sucks. But that’s only part of it.  Anyone can say that.  It’s beau­ti­ful because of the way it says it – the line-by-line progress of the sto­ry, the resis­tance to a too-easy illus­tra­tion of the pre­cept, the delight it takes along the way.  And also, maybe, because Gogol didn’t “know” that he was say­ing that cru­el­ty is real and sucks – it cer­tain­ly wasn’t his “inten­tion” at the out­set, I don’t think. That insight – and the hun­dreds of insights that could come from read­ing that sto­ry – was more like a blos­som, a blos­som that came out of Gogol’s imag­in­ing of that world, in real-time, for fun.  And that is where, I think, ratio­nal­i­ty has to back polite­ly out of the room and let Gogol do his thing.

So art – I think one rea­son we val­ue art so high­ly is because it real­ly is, and has to remain mys­te­ri­ous – in its inten­tions and pro­ce­dures, every­thing.  We can’t talk the life out of it. Well, I mean we can, and often do.  But we can’t get at the life of it via talk­ing.

We humans tend to reduce.  We live through a great day, full of lit­er­al­ly mil­lions of per­cep­tu­al instants (a beach, a love affair, a real­ly weird old cou­ple who mys­te­ri­ous­ly keep say­ing incred­i­bly insight­ful things while pick­ing off of one anoth­er bugs that aren’t there; a stream, a snake under a fad­ed sail, etc, etc.), and at the end that day, we go: “Wow, that was awe­some.”  Art is the inver­sion of that process: pay­ing hyper-atten­tion to the things that make real­i­ty what it is, resist­ing reduc­tion, trust­ing that the truest (and most beau­ti­ful) thing that can be said has some­thing to do with the accre­tion of those small instants.

Like that famous def­i­n­i­tion of pornog­ra­phy: we know beau­ty when we see it.  And this is even true as we’re mak­ing it, I think, and the piss­er is, we have to trust that.  There will nev­er be a def­i­n­i­tion of beau­ty that helps any­body make some.  (And cer­tain­ly not this one.)

Oh, what the hell, as long as we’ve donned togas we may as well com­plete the Platonic trin­i­ty: you’ve spo­ken of the beau­ti­ful and the true, but what of “the good?” Your work clear­ly engages with all three, in a way that’s philo­soph­i­cal­ly inter­est­ing to me. And I agree that these terms, espe­cial­ly now, need to be approached indi­rect­ly, from the “slant side,” as Emily Dickinson put it. But I notice you’ve not pub­lished a nov­el, pre­fer­ring short­er forms. Is this because you’re not inter­est­ed, or sus­pi­cious of “the big social nov­el,” e.g. Jonathon Franzen’s FreedomThe Corrections, Updike of the Rabbits, Roth’s American Pastoral, DeLillo’s Underworld (to name just a few) where (most­ly male) authors deliv­er them­selves of chesty opin­ions, or you don’t pre­fer that big a can­vas, or you just haven’t got­ten around to writ­ing a nov­el, your agent is insuf­fi­cient­ly brutish, or some oth­er rea­son? 

No, I’m not at all leery of the “big social nov­el.”  I love those nov­els you named (plus a bunch of oth­er big nov­els) and love the idea of the big nov­el in gen­er­al.  But I just haven’t found a way in yet.  Flannery O’Connor said (para­phras­ing), “A man can choose what he writes, but he can’t choose what he makes live.”  And I guess to date I haven’t found a way of think­ing about a big nov­el (or for that mat­ter even a small one) that gets me fired up.  I’m work­ing on it though.

Speaking of phi­los­o­phy, did I read some­where that you were once inter­est­ed in Ayn Rand’s “phi­los­o­phy” of “Objectivism?”

Yes, I loved that book, Atlas Shrugged.  It basi­cal­ly was the rea­son I went to col­lege.  These two high school teach­ers I adored gave the book to me and I fell hard for it.  I think it was for two rea­sons.  First, it real­ly helped me out of an iden­ti­ty cri­sis – I loved the author­i­ty of it, the us vs. them aspect, the way it turned the world upside down and made self­ish­ness a virtue and sim­pli­fied life into a sort of “pow­er is all” ethos.  I liked the way all of the Good char­ac­ters were also Good-Looking: it made ethics eas­i­er to parse. I liked all of that then, I think, because – well, I was a teenaged dude, who was just start­ing to real­ize he wasn’t as smart as he’d always thought he was, and that he maybe should have been work­ing a lit­tle hard­er at school, and was, actu­al­ly, out­gunned, even at the local intel­lec­tu­al lev­el.  The sec­ond rea­son was just that it was the first nov­el I’d read in a long time and cer­tain­ly the longest and most “intel­lec­tu­al” one I’d ever read.  So that immer­sion expe­ri­ence was pow­er­ful.  All of the usu­al nov­el­is­tic charms kicked in: I felt I was there, I want­ed to be there, the world pre­sent­ed in 3-D etc., etc.

So then I went to engi­neer­ing school and met a lot of oth­er peo­ple who loved that book, also for weird rea­sons (most­ly some­thing like: “Ugh, those envi­ron­men­tal­ists are just like (NAME ANY REPREHENSIBLE SNIVELING CHARACTER FROM RAND BOOK).”  For me, the last straw was going to work in Asia after col­lege and see­ing first­hand that there were good peo­ple who were work­ing much hard­er than any­one I’d ever met and yet still liv­ing in abject pover­ty, and their teeth were rot­ten and their kids were dying, and it had noth­ing, appar­ent­ly, to do with any sort of moral fail­ing on their parts or any desire to rob the rich of their fair­ly-got­ten gains or any­thing like that.  It just seemed like luck – that they were born there and I was born where I was born.  And at that time all of my child­hood Catholic teach­ings came back, and I saw that these peo­ple, these Asian peo­ple (who were unfail­ing­ly nice to me, while strug­gling against a sys­tem they’d nev­er made, while I was walk­ing around in my pock­et with twen­ty times what they would earn over the next ten years) were the meek that the Bible said were blessed – and I left Ayn behind.

How did you devel­op your ear as a writer, and your dis­tinc­tive voice? What were your read­ing and view­ing habits grow­ing up?

I read a lot of books about base­ball and World War II fight­er pilots and so on, and watched a lot of TV.  I espe­cial­ly loved comics like Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, George Carlin, Monty Python – intel­li­gent, lan­guage-based, joy­ful.

Also, my humor has a lot to do with hav­ing grown up in Chicago – there’s a cer­tain South Side style of dis­course, which is satir­i­cal and abrupt and insult­ing but also over­flow­ing with ten­der­ness and feel­ing.

Civilwarland in Bad Decline,” the title sto­ry of your first col­lec­tion, puts me in mind of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, where he writes, of anoth­er amuse­ment park: “Disneyland is pre­sent­ed as imag­i­nary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, where­as all of Los Angeles and the America that sur­rounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyper­re­al order and to the order of sim­u­la­tion. It is no longer a ques­tion of a false rep­re­sen­ta­tion of real­i­ty (ide­ol­o­gy) but of con­ceal­ing the fact that the real is no longer real…[T]he imag­i­nary of Disneyland is nei­ther true or false, it is a deter­rence machine set up in order to reju­ve­nate the fic­tion of the real in the oppo­site camp.”

Well, I don’t know.  This quote feels a lit­tle over-con­cep­tu­al to me.  Did Disney, when he was design­ing Disneyland, do so “in order to make us believe that the rest is real etc. etc.?”  I don’t think so.  I think he was hav­ing fun and try­ing to make some mon­ey and do some­thing that was, by his lights, great.  Now, his def­i­n­i­tion of “great” was a very American def­i­n­i­tion: clean, super­sized, hygien­ic, divest­ed of the naughty bits, safe for all, mad ide­al­ized, let’s say.  But my guess is, he was just think­ing: God, this will be so cool.  Likewise: “Los Angeles and the America that sur­rounds it are no longer real.”  Ha.  Try walk­ing across them.

What inter­ests me is this: when Disney, a great American genius, decid­ed to make a sim­u­lacrum of America, what did he do?  He edit­ed it.  In what direc­tion?  In the direc­tion of nos­tal­gia.  In the direc­tion of per­fec­tion.  In his French Quarter, there are no washed-up junkie jazz musi­cians pan­han­dling.  Why not?  That’s inter­est­ing to me – that his fan­ta­sy erred on the side of the clean/perfect/tidy.  I’ve some­times had the thought that, for some­one like Disney, who grew up (I believe) rur­al and poor­ish – and maybe for his whole gen­er­a­tion, just removed from the farm, and hard­scrab­ble pauci­ty, with WWI still in mem­o­ry – a world free of sweat and labor and dirt and grime must have seemed like heav­en.

I mean – this is what Baudrillard is get­ting at, I think: our American desire to elim­i­nate the nasty or “actu­al” (which is a form of retreat­ing from pover­ty(?)) has become a nation­al obses­sion, and has had the effect of negat­ing the per­son­al, or the inti­mate.  Maybe.  But I don’t know.  Maybe what’s required here is a wider ver­sion of what’s “real.”  L.A. not “real”?  I have to say I don’t buy the han­ker­ing after so-called authen­tic­i­ty evi­dent in the Baudrillard quote.  What is, is real.  When were things “real­er” than they are now, and how could that be?  Whatever L.A. is, it’s real.  I mean, even if some­thing is hyper-styl­ized, cos­met­i­cal­ly enhanced, all glass, fake, fake, fake: there it is, evi­dence of some human ten­den­cy or aspi­ra­tion or desire.  It’s real.

I think there’s some­thing deep and inter­est­ing about this them­ing impulse – which is not just American and not just con­tem­po­rary (think, for exam­ple, of the elab­o­rate spec­ta­cles in the Coliseum – mock naval bat­tles and Gardens of Edens with real lions, etc etc).  It seems to me this them­ing is sort of a cel­e­bra­tion – a cel­e­bra­tion of the orig­i­nal on which the themed thing is based.  The American twist, I think, as men­tioned above, is that our theme parks don’t real­ly try to be “real.”  They try to be clean­er, less com­pli­cat­ed ver­sions of the things they rep­re­sent.  Why?  I think this may have some­thing to do with the American ten­den­cy towards (what we call) “opti­mism” – the idea that all is well, and that any indi­ca­tion that things might not be well equals negativity/cynicism –a ten­den­cy which some­times presents as rad­i­cal re-writ­ings of his­to­ry (“and civ­i­liza­tion was thus spread across the Great Plains, replac­ing the sav­agery that had pre­vi­ous­ly reigned”) and also rad­i­cal re-writ­ings of now (“a con­cert­ed effort against ter­ror­ism is going to unfor­tu­nate­ly from time to time involve loss­es and dam­ages, in terms of non-enlist­ed enti­ties and or lib­er­ties, that will be, in the end, seen as regret­table but nec­es­sary”) and some­times presents as, you know, the “Great Mining Train Adventure!!” or what-not.

Speaking of L.A., not long ago I vis­it­ed the Getty Villa in Malibu, where var­i­ous statu­to­ry “mus­es” from antiq­ui­ty are on dis­play. And it set me to won­der­ing, again, about mod­ern artists and mus­es. Do you have (a) muse(es)?

Hmm.  Well, in a very lit­er­al way, yes: my wife.  I’ve always, since the first moment I met her, real­ly want­ed to impress her.  And she has very high stan­dards and great taste, espe­cial­ly in writ­ing, and espe­cial­ly in the way that she will not tol­er­ate bull­shit, and very much val­ues a piece of writ­ing that is real­ly try­ing to say some­thing impor­tant – she has lit­tle patience with the mere­ly lit­er­ary.  So when I’m writ­ing she is always in my mind.  I am always hop­ing that what I write will move her.

In a larg­er sense, I think peo­ple write bet­ter when they’re hap­py.  (Allowing for a broad def­i­n­i­tion of “hap­py.”)  Maybe “feel­ing exul­tant” would be a bet­ter way of say­ing it.  So for some­one to have some idea, or per­son, in mind that makes them feel exul­tant: help­ful.  Or that feel­ing we get when some­one is mak­ing us feel exul­tant – that feel­ing of antic­i­pa­tion of won­der­ful things and places in our future? – that’s a good feel­ing to work from, I think.  I some­times get a feel­ing, when I’m work­ing, that what I’m work­ing on will some­how expand my life, expand my cir­cle of influ­ence and influ­ences, break me out of myself – all good, I think.

 

Do you watch a lot of TVMad Men? Reading Persuasion Nation I won­dered what your thoughts were about the Don Draper char­ac­ter, who is giv­en to such pro­nounce­ments as, “Advertising is based on one thing, hap­pi­ness. And you know what hap­pi­ness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s free­dom from fear. It’s a bill­board on the side of the road that screams reas­sur­ance that what­ev­er you are doing is okay. You are okay.” And, “What you call love was invent­ed by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you for­get those facts. But I nev­er for­get. I’m liv­ing like there’s no tomor­row, because there isn’t one.”

Draper oper­ates on the assump­tion that peo­ple want to be led, they want to be per­suad­ed. Someone might as well do it, and be paid hand­some­ly. Which is why he says, “Just so you know, the peo­ple who talk that way think that mon­keys can do this. They take all this mon­key crap and just stick it in a brief­case com­plete­ly unaware that their suc­cess depends on some­thing more than their shoeshine. YOU are the prod­uct. You- FEELING some­thing. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can’t do what we do, and they hate us for it.”

To me, adver­tis­ing is just a slight cor­rup­tion or uti­liza­tion of our human desire for beau­ty (or sex/glamour/adventure, what­ev­er).  People want to be charmed and want to be involved in beau­ti­ful things.  I’m not, maybe, as against adver­tis­ing as some of my work might sug­gest. I just see it as this thing that humans do – a form of cre­ation.  It’s false at its heart and will stop at noth­ing, true.  But it’s also sort of like one set of birds call­ing out to anoth­er: Come see my nest!  (If, that is, the oth­er birds had to pay to see the nest.  Hmm.)

The thing is – I know adver­tis­ing, from the hours of TV I’ve watched.  It’s some­thing I can “do.”  Unlike, say, nature descrip­tion.  So that’s one rea­son there’s so much of it in my work: I can do it.  I can make a sur­face out of the stuff of adver­tis­ing.

As far as Don Draper— he’s a great char­ac­ter.  But if we want to think about actu­al adver­tis­ing peo­ple, I don’t know…I always like to move my gaze to the way things might work in the real world.  Who does adver­tis­ing?  I think they’re gen­er­al­ly tal­ent­ed, cre­ative peo­ple who decid­ed, at some point, that it’s bet­ter to do some­thing you’re good at than to be a medi­oc­rity.  And I get that.  (You can make a case that fic­tion is a force for good in the world, but if some­body could prove oth­er­wise, would I quit?  Hope so.  Doubt it.) And then they say: Well, let’s do this job as hon­est­ly and well as we can.  And they put all of their urge-to-cre­ate and their sense of beau­ty and their wit into their work, and hence ads get more and more aston­ish­ing and con­vinc­ing all the time, and encroach upon (or encom­pass) areas that are hard­er and hard­er for us view­ers to wig­gle out of or dis­miss.  So we get ads that sell prod­ucts AND fun­nel mon­ey to AIDs research.  Or ads that use amaz­ing cin­e­mat­ic tech­niques and so you find your­self cry­ing dur­ing a frig­ging Hefty Bag ad.

At this stage of life, I just find it all kind of won­der­ful: a crazy-ass dis­play that I’m hap­py to alter­nate­ly despise/satirize/expose and then enjoy/celebrate/wallow in.

Please tell me that Rimney in “CommComm” is not Romney. Or Rumsfeld.

He’s not.  Just liked the sound of the name.

MFA pro­grams have been known to teach stu­dents not to employ brand names in fic­tion. You obvi­ous­ly don’t agree with that advice.  What oth­er “writer­ly advice” don’t you agree with, and, more pos­i­tive­ly, how would you describe your phi­los­o­phy of teach­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly when “work­shop­ping” sto­ries? And how do you respond when some­one asks you, in a skep­ti­cal voice, “Can writ­ing be taught?” 

I don’t agree with that advice, no.  Whenever says “nev­er do that,” some­one should try it right away.  The game is: know rules, flout same.

There’s this won­der­ful book I just read in gal­leys (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore) that direct­ly flies in the face of this “no prod­uct name” advice – Google is in there, the actu­al cam­pus, and all kinds of oth­er com­pa­nies and prod­ucts, some real, some invent­ed.  I had a great time read­ing it, flew through it in one sit­ting, in fact. The book has a won­der­ful unde­ni­a­bil­i­ty: the read­er gets that deeply sat­is­fy­ing feel­ing of enter­ing a whol­ly cre­at­ed world, and look­ing on in won­der as that world gets cre­at­ed by the author’s fear­less­ness and dis­re­gard for con­ven­tion.  It’s a beau­ti­ful fable that is giv­en legs by the author’s brava­do use of the real to sell us on a shad­ow world of the unreal/speculative.  The writer (Robin Sloan) comes across as so big-heart­ed, so in love with the world – the ancient world, the con­tem­po­rary world, the hi-tech world, the world of yel­low­ing scrolls, in love with love, in love with friend­ship, you name it – and the read­er is swept along by his pos­i­tive enthu­si­asm, by his autho­r­i­al courage, and feels the inclu­sion of this real stuff to be essen­tial to the veloc­i­ty and the emo­tion­al con­tent of the book, in oth­er words.  It’s a lot of fun, a real tour de force, and what’s par­tic­u­lar­ly amaz­ing about it is the absence of cyn­i­cism.  Sloan likes tech­nol­o­gy, he thinks Google is amaz­ing, and then he shows how and why Google is amaz­ing; he thinks our tech­ni­cal abil­i­ties can serve as con­duits for beau­ty, and shows this – but also shows the flip-side, i.e., how these super­pow­ers, like all super­pow­ers, have the poten­tial for get­ting too big for their britch­es and going awry.

Now – could he have done it with­out using Google?  Probably.  But there was some­thing ball­sy and insid­er­ish and con­vinc­ing about using the real thing instead of a stand-in that def­i­nite­ly made for a more pow­er­ful read­ing expe­ri­ence.

So in oth­er words, rules/shmules.

One of the things I was enjoy­ing about the book was the way Sloan set this almost Harry Potteresque adven­ture against a very real and con­tem­po­rary back­drop (techie San Francisco) with­out bat­ting an eye.  I was enjoy­ing his bold­ness and his unself-con­scious immer­sion in his sto­ry, in oth­er words.

Can writ­ing be taught?  I don’t know, but the thing is, at the MFA lev­el, in a place like Syracuse, you don’t have to teach it.  This year we got 520 appli­ca­tions for six spots, so the peo­ple we accept­ed are way past the point of need­ing to “learn to write.”  We can men­tor peo­ple, and give them time and mon­ey, and the occa­sion­al encour­ag­ing or focus­ing word – and that’s all it takes.

The thing about teaching/mentoring writ­ing is, you just have to refuse to coast.  Never lean back on your accrued dog­ma.  See this new group (so much younger than you!) as valid, explo­sive, won­der­ful – and hon­or them accord­ing­ly.

Meg Wolitzer wrote a piece for the New York Times recent­ly, titled “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women,” where she laments the fact that many first rate books by and about women go direct­ly to “the women’s shelf” and nev­er make it to the top shelf where cer­tain books, most of them writ­ten by men, are promi­nent­ly dis­played and admired. Meg cites sta­tis­tics com­piled by VIDA, a women’s lit­er­ary orga­ni­za­tion, show­ing that women get shock­ing­ly short shrift as review­ers and revie­wees in most pres­ti­gious pub­li­ca­tions (e.g. of all the authors reviewed in the pub­li­ca­tions VIDA tracked, near­ly three-fourths were men). She con­cludes that women writ­ers are still fight­ing to have their work tak­en seri­ous­ly and accord­ed as much cov­er­age as men’s. The unfair­ness of this “sys­tem” is strik­ing, espe­cial­ly when one con­sid­ers that the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple read­ing lit­er­ary fiction—and of writ­ers apply­ing to MFA pro­grams and attend­ing writ­ing con­fer­ences– are women. What are your thoughts on this, gen­er­al­ly? And specif­i­cal­ly, in regard to your own work, I am won­der­ing about how you approach writ­ing char­ac­ters who are women, and the role(s) of women in your work? 

I hadn’t read that arti­cle but I’m glad I did, just now.

Well, the for­mer sci­en­tist in me gets all jan­g­ly.  Like: let’s do a study!  Why are ¾ of the review­ers men?  Is this a defect in the process of approach­ing poten­tial review­ers, i.e., are most­ly men approached?  Are there few­er women inter­est­ed in writ­ing reviews?  If so, why is this?  And so on.  Suffice it to say there is clear­ly a prob­lem and I, like every­one else, appar­ent­ly, can’t quite put my fin­ger on the cause.  But this kind of shot-across-the-bow arti­cle is a great thing to do, a vital kind of activism (or a great thing to keep doing: sad­ly, I’ve been read­ing pieces in this spir­it for as long as I’ve been writ­ing, i.e., since the mid-1980s).

As far as women in my work – hon­est­ly, I find that pro­duc­tion hap­pens in a zone where I am not think­ing quite ratio­nal­ly.  If I go into a piece think­ing: Hey, let’s make sure and be fair to the women (or the men, or the kids, or the Bolivians, what­ev­er), that skews the whole thing.  That is, my goal is nev­er accu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion any­way.  I try to go in think­ing: Be fair to every­one, in the final analy­sis.  Or: Make the moral com­pass here such that it would be accept­able to a just and lov­ing God, who is also pret­ty patient with naugh­ti­ness.  So there are crum­my women in my sto­ries and crum­my men, car­i­ca­tures abound­ing, ass­holes of both gen­ders, cliché male and female arche­types etc., etc. – I real­ly don’t care.  I don’t like any con­straint, self- or oth­er­wise, when I’m work­ing, and so I just trust that, if I write and rewrite like crazy, any sur­fi­cial bias or cheap humor will either van­ish or, in the end, be doing good work.  I think you have to keep your eye on the work the sto­ry does as a whole – the fair­ness work that results at the end, if I could say it that way.

I’ve often thought that all of the hor­ri­ble sys­temic injus­tices mankind has invented—sexism, racism of all sorts, homo­pho­bia, region­al geno­cides, you name it—are best under­stood and diag­nosed and fought as man­i­fes­ta­tions of a greater spir­i­tu­al glitch – a design flaw, maybe. Take three peo­ple, let there be even the slight­est dif­fer­ence between them, and soon two of them are going to be kick­ing around the third.  Why is this?  I’d say – and to real­ly get at this would require anoth­er thou­sand pages of typ­ing, and it’s a beau­ti­ful sum­mer day up here in the Catskills, and we have a new pup­py – but I’d say it’s because each of those three indi­vid­u­als is too con­vinced he/she is real and cen­tral to the uni­verse.  As soon as we think that, we start find­ing dif­fer­ences between us and oth­ers and pre­fer­ring what­ev­er it is we have that they don’t.  And we start group­ing and gen­er­al­iz­ing and con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing in order to main­tain our advan­tage – to uphold that ini­tial delu­sion of self-emi­nence.

You’ve been com­pared to so many writers–Vonnegut, Orwell, Huxley, Pynchon, Beckett, Swift, Twain, Bradbury, Atwood, David Foster Wallace. Which com­par­i­son seems most apt, which least per­sua­sive? 

Ah, I don’t know.  I’d take any of the above.  I feel a lit­tle like the Steve Martin char­ac­ter in “The Jerk,” where he says, with respect to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of watch­ing the Bernadette Peters char­ac­ter make love to her boyfriend, “I just want to be in there some­where.”

Was Donald Barthelme an influ­ence for you?

He was, although ear­ly on I wasn’t read­ing him cor­rect­ly.  I was admit­ted to Houston when he was there but didn’t go.  I think, at that time, I felt about his work a lit­tle like you described it above – I was mis­read­ing him, being young and stu­pid and sen­ti­men­tal, and wasn’t able to feel how full of emo­tion and long­ing all that crazed lan­guage is.  I feel it now, though.

But you know, if I was going to be hon­est about lit­er­ary influ­ences, they were and are most­ly real­ists.  I’m just gen­uine­ly down with the real­ist agen­da: mak­ing emo­tion­al pow­er via the invo­ca­tion of the real.  The prob­lem is, when I try to do it, it doesn’t work.  So to gen­er­ate emo­tion­al pow­er I have to use a dif­fer­ent bag of tricks.  Or anoth­er way of say­ing it: I have to aban­don the so-called con­sen­sus view of real­i­ty in order to get at the emo­tion­al real­i­ty under­neath it, maybe?  I believe that fic­tion is about real human expe­ri­ence, and about emo­tion, but have found that I can only get at any sort of pow­er if I let go of the idea that the fic­tive sur­face should resem­ble “the real.”  To get at the deep stuff I have to make a strange sur­face.

Which, I sup­pose, makes sense: life, as it is lived and as we feel it, is strange, deeply strange, and the only rea­son we don’t feel it that way is because we habit­u­al­ly nor­mal­ize it.  That’s nec­es­sary, that’s sane – but it’s also only par­tial­ly “rep­re­sen­ta­tive” of what actu­al­ly is.

Who is your ide­al read­er, or is there such a thing?

Someone who has just got­ten some real­ly good news and is in the mid­dle of an orgasm.

What fright­ens you most in America today, and what brings you the great­est plea­sure?

What fright­ens me is that we are becom­ing a very mate­ri­al­ist, lit­er­al group of peo­ple: always tak­ing the straight, log­i­cal line between points.  We feel that mys­tery, dif­fi­cul­ty, the inar­tic­u­la­ble are for babies, etc etc.

What brings me the great­est plea­sure is the way that, corny as it sounds, peo­ple tend to be pret­ty kind to one anoth­er, or at least try to be.  Obviously, they aren’t, always.  But I’ve enjoyed find­ing out that, if you pro­ceed as if most peo­ple you meet are gen­er­al­ly like you, in their desire to be and do good, you won’t be dis­ap­point­ed all that often.  Well, unless you’re in a war zone, I guess.  Or it’s a depres­sion or the apoc­a­lypse or some­thing.  Or it’s Germany in 1933.  Or you’re gay and it’s 1971 and you’re in Kansas.

What is the most impor­tant thing for a writer?

Hmm.  I guess it would depend which one we’re dis­cussing.  I mean, in gen­er­al, I think a tank- like refusal to quit is pret­ty use­ful.  Or a peren­ni­al hope that cur­rent dif­fi­cul­ties will lead to beau­ty down the line.  Engagement?  A will­ing­ness to step into any real­i­ty and go: Ah, so this is how it is, right here and right now: excel­lent.

Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, whom Paul Ricoeur called the mod­ern “mas­ters of sus­pi­cion,” taught us to look away from reli­gious belief as evi­den­tial (that is, whether or not these beliefs could be “proved”), and to focus instead on “what work does reli­gious belief do in the world,” or more point­ed­ly, “how do reli­gious beliefs func­tion as masks to dis­guise and advance self-inter­est.” What is the func­tion of reli­gious belief in your sto­ries, your ver­sion of a spir­i­tu­al­i­ty ade­quate to the times, and how did this gov­ern your employ­ment of terms like “Christ-por­tion” and “light-crav­ing” in “CommComm?”

Well, sounds like Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud had it all fig­ured out.  And yet, where are they now?  Ha ha ha.  No: I think a spir­i­tu­al approach to life just means that you are smart enough to negate the idea that every­thing you know at this moment just hap­pens to be every­thing there is to know in the uni­verse.  Wouldn’t that be weird?  If our gen­er­a­tion just hap­pened to be the one alive when our intu­itive, sen­so­ry-based under­stand­ing of how things work was EXACTLY right?

A human being is exact­ly: a fish out of water.  There is lim­it­ed time, the sit­u­a­tion is unsus­tain­able, just lying there is not an option.  So if the fish goes: Ha, you reli­gious weirdos, what are you get­ting so fran­tic about? – he seems…dopy.  Self-sat­is­fied.  Doomed.

There’s this incred­i­ble place in one of Freud’s books where he’s talk­ing about Eastern mys­ti­cism and says some­thing like, you know: Now, it is said that cer­tain prac­ti­tion­ers can alter the state of their minds, and thus alter their per­cep­tion of real­i­ty – but we do not need to con­cern our­selves with this at this time.

Doh.

My feel­ing is, Freud missed the most inter­est­ing exit ramp there.

What we know: we’re going to die and are not ready to die, because we like it here too much and are too fond of our­selves and our loved ones.  If we look to the known and com­mon-sen­si­cal world, there’s not much help being offered.  It most­ly says: get yours.  Be a suc­cess.  Or, as Dr Seuss said it: “Fame!  You’ll be famous as famous can be.  With the whole wide world watch­ing you win on TV!”  But any­one who’s lived and/or suc­ceed­ed and/or failed at all can see that this is a dead end.  As much as we win, we are going to be in for a big shock on our last day, if not before it, via bad luck or ill for­tune etc., etc.

So what are we wait­ing for?  I’d define “the reli­gious” as: “that field of inquiry that ardent­ly seeks to know that beyond which we lazi­ly know.”

So I like: “focus…on “what work does reli­gious belief do in the world,” but find “how do reli­gious beliefs func­tion as masks to dis­guise and advance self-inter­est,” a lit­tle dis­mis­sive.

I’d say: reli­gious beliefs, at their best, are series of com­plex metaphors that are so accu­rate they cease to be metaphors.  If hav­ing reli­gious beliefs, and pur­su­ing reli­gious prac­tices, and think­ing in reli­gious metaphors, has the effect of trans­form­ing the indi­vid­ual and mov­ing him towards more pres­ence and more kind­ness and more open­ness – than the dis­tinc­tion between the real and the metaphor­i­cal has dis­solved.

I read where you once said, “The num­ber of rooms in a fic­tion­al house should be inverse­ly pro­por­tion­al to the years dur­ing which the cou­ple liv­ing in that house enjoyed true hap­pi­ness.” Please unpack this com­ment, with con­stant ref­er­ence to Tolstoy. And thanks for spend­ing time with us today at BLIP.

Yes, that was a joke.  A joke meant to under­cut the idea that writ­ing dic­tums are any damn good.  Writing dic­tums are the equiv­a­lent of replac­ing the tightwire with a wide plank: a lazy man’s approach.  Safer, but less thrilling.

My plea­sure, and thanks for ask­ing me.  Great ques­tions…

~

Gary Percesepe is Associate Editor at BLIP Magazine and a Contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. Author of four books in phi­los­o­phy, Percesepe’s fic­tion, poet­ry, essays, and inter­views have appeared in Story QuarterlyN + 1, Salon, Mississippi Review, The Millions, PANKand oth­er places.