George Saunders: 'These trenches we're in are so deep'

The Booker-winning author on what Russian short stories can teach us, late-life realisations and why he doesn’t like social media

George Saunders was born in Texas in 1958 and raised in Illinois. Before his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, won the 2017 Booker prize, he was best known as a writer of short stories, publishing four collections since 1996 and winning a slew of awards. In 2006, he was awarded both a Guggenheim and a MacArthur fellowship. His latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, draws on two decades of teaching a creative writing class on the Russian short story in translation at Syracuse University, where he is a professor. Saunders lives in California but was in the middle of a snowstorm in upstate New York when this interview took place via Zoom.

What prompted you to turn your creative writing class into a book?
I was on the road for a long time with Lincoln in the Bardo. When I came back to teaching, I just thought, man, after 20 years of this, I really know a lot about these stories. There was also that late-life realisation that if I go, all that knowledge goes too. I thought it would be just a matter of typing up the notes, but of course it turned out to be a lot more.

The book focuses on stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol. What is it about Russian writers that has held your interest for so long?
I tried to teach a similar class on the American story, and it wasn’t as good. I just have a connection with [these Russian writers] – with the simplicity and also the moral-ethical core of the stories. They’re all pretty much about: will this guy live? Did this person do right or wrong? And that resonates with my mind.

This is more than just a how-to-write book: there are lessons here, too, about how to live and what fiction can teach us about being nicer, more empathic people.
I think the main thing that it [fiction] teaches us about is the process of projection that we’re constantly doing. I’m a Buddhist, and we believe you really do make the world with your mind. So a story is like a laboratory to help you identify your own habits and projections. Also, it’s about being in connection with that other human being who wrote it. Working on this book made me realise that when you’re reading a story and analysing it, you’re really reassuring yourself that connection is possible, and that even though this person looks like my enemy, there is – maybe, not always – a way to temper that a bit. So I got a little more confident that connection prevails. Until it doesn’t. And then you’re in America in 2020.

You write about the virtues of revision and that slow, incremental process that is vital to telling good and truthful stories. With that in mind, what are your feelings about social media, which thrives off instantaneous reaction?
There’s something wonderful about the spontaneity of social media, but I think at this point it’s becoming 100% toxic for people to be firing off the top of their brains. One of the things this book says is that the deeper parts of our brain are actually more empathic. If you revise something 20 times, for a mysterious reason, it becomes more social, empathic and compassionate. With Chekhov, you feel he’s always saying: “Well, what else?”, “Is there anything else I should know?”, or “Maybe I’m wrong.” And all of that seems to be designed to foster love, or at least some kind of relation to the other that’s got possibility. So I’m not a fan of social media. I’m not on it. And I won’t be, because I think it’s killing us, actually. I really do.

In 2016, you wrote, in a New Yorker article about Trump rallies, that the US is “now two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages”. Has anything fundamentally changed?
It’s gotten unimaginably worse, from my point of view. I have some really dear friends and family members who are Trump supporters, and the really strange thing is, when we talk – with no lack of warmth, using every trick we have – there’s no persuasion. It’s all emotional, in a complicated way that I really don’t understand. The orientation has to shift somehow, because these trenches we’re in are so deep, and nobody’s coming out. And that’s why I think writing is so important. I know it’s way too dreamy to say: “Hey, everybody read Anna Karenina”, but just that idea that people are multiple and I might hate this aspect of a person but we actually could be quite friendly on another axis – I think literature reminds us of that.

What books are on your bedside table?
I’m reading Don Quixote, and it’s resonating because of that feeling that any verity you can construct is going to fall apart. I’m also carrying A Christmas Carol around the house – I try to read that once a year.

What do you plan to read next?
I’d like to go back and read the big Tolstoy books again. It’s funny. I’m 62, and what I noticed is there are certain hazy ambitions that I’ve had since I was really young, that I pushed away – but the idea of a big War and Peace-type novel that spans 10 or 15 years and goes into a lot of people’s heads… that really intrigues me. And it’s kind of a delicious feeling to get to this point in life and think, well, that doesn’t take six months, so it’s now or never, if you want to try it.

You mean to try writing a big doorstopper of your own?
Yes. Even before I’d ever read a big novel, I had this idea of looking out the window in Chicago at a whole neighbourhood spread out and thinking: life’s going on in every one of those houses – would there be a way to represent it simultaneously? So it’s definitely that kind of ambition. But then: how? How? That’s the question.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Contributor

Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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