A Conversation with George Saunders

Book a place on our The New Story Festival event: George Saunders short story club

Tell us about the title, LIBERATION DAY.

One of the things that runs through the stories – and I only noticed this once I’d titled the story, and then the collection, LIBERATION DAY – is a recurring pattern: someone is stuck or firmly ensconced in something… and then that condition changes. That thing has been taken for granted or been assumed to be permanent, and then: surprise! This speaks to our current moment, or at least to my feelings about it, on many levels. We thought the earth was permanent? Maybe not. We thought democracy was forever? Looking grim on that front. And so on.

And then, on a deeper lever, there’s a notion, in several of the stories, that the self is the problem – the habitually-constructed self that we make when we think and act and self-protect. We’re born, instantly have egos, and an investment in that rickety thing called “self,” and this self turns out to be the source of all our trouble and heartbreak. So, if we could just get free of the self and ego and all of that – but it’s so dear to us and should be: it’s the source of so much of the joy in this life, this investment we have in our own phenomena. We can get free only briefly. So, I hope the stories introduce the idea that we might aspire to a sort of second-to-second awareness, a curiosity about the current manifestation of the self, and be open to the idea that the self is always changing.

The title story is set in a near-ish future world where brainwashed humans are affixed to a wall and forced to reenact scenes, including The Battle of Little Big Horn, for the entertainment of their upper middle class owners. It’s, well, wild. How’d you get there?

I’ve been casually researching General Custer and The Battle of the Little Big Horn since 1985 or so, when I first read Son of the Morning Star by Evan S. Connell. As with Lincoln in the Bardo, I read everything I could about it. I also went out there the summer before the pandemic and spent a magical (very hot) day tramping around, seeing where all of these events I’d been reading about for over thirty years had actually happened, and getting a sense of the scale of the thing.

Then I was working on a screenplay for “The Semplica Girl Diaries” and somehow the idea of people being hung up for someone else’s pleasure was in my mind, and that idea got cross-wired with the title of a Turgenev story, “The Singers,” that I was writing about at the time for A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. So, that got me to a certain point, and then I needed something for the Speakers and Singers to perform, for a show their “owner” was putting on. And then my mind went, “Well, how about Little Big Horn? You know some stuff about that,” and I got this feeling I’ve learned to trust: a combination of “Oh, fun” and “Wait, why that?” and “This could be a total train wreck.” So, I went off in that direction – the narrator and his Speaker and Singer pals were going to do a presentation on the Little Big Horn fight (sure, why not?) and then the game became to wait for the story to make sense of it for me – for it to start using that juxtaposition in an interesting way.

These stories seem to actively resist a neat moral conclusion. Was that intentional?

In a sense, the act of resisting a neat moral conclusion is, in itself, a kind of moral aspiration. I’ve come to think that these days we judge too harshly and too quickly, and that one of the things fiction can do for us is impose on us, as we read, a sort of…enforced suspension of judgement.

This is my first collection of stories since Tenth of December, nine years ago, and during those years I’ve come to feel that so many of the current binaries we tend to use in public discourse are insufficient to the moment. It’s as if the culture has decided there are only two possible stances for every issue. Our public thinking is thus a little…leaden. The imperative is to feel very strongly about something, very quickly — ambiguity or doubt are somehow seen as forms of weak commitment. And that pretty much pushes “wondering” to the curb.

A short story’s whole function is to make us wonder more deeply. Within a given story, there’ll be several intelligent stances represented, like smart friends arguing around a table. Taken together, these multiple arguments have the effect of making us think more deeply about the thing, more respectfully. Instead of coming up with one “correct” answer, we may come away feeling that the very deferral of judgment can be a sort of wisdom.

So, for example – one surprise that came out of re-reading the title story, for me anyway, was the way my allegiance kept shifting between the oppressor-hobbyist Mr. U, his son Mike, and the brainwashed Jeremy, and never fully settles down. Writing A Swim in a Pond in the Rain made me think that this sort of enforced suspension of judgment might be one of the highest things to which a work of fiction can aspire. And I was happy to find myself doing it, sort of.

Which of the stories in this collection had the most surprising or unlikely journey to the page?

“Sparrow” was that rare story that came directly out of a dream. We were in Oneonta, N.Y., in the deepest part of winter, and I woke from a dream with the first few lines in my head. Usually, those ideas are dumb (“A group of penguins are singing an opera in a sinking cruise ship! Yes!”) but this felt different. So, I forced myself out of bed and wrote a whole draft sitting at the kitchen table, in the dark, sans glasses, squinting at the keyboard. And then, of course, polished that for months.

The main driver was that, during that first draft, I could feel my mind trying to pull the story toward the negative – a catastrophic and humiliating end to this little romance – and then another part of my mind was like, “Why, always, so negative?” So, part of my mind was trying to refute another part of my mind, that part that tends to steer toward what I’ve come to think of as the “auto-dark” – that tendency, in stories, to assume the worst of people and situations. And yet, as Chaplin said, “life isn’t just one mortuary after another.”

For me, this story is maybe the most hopeful in the book. It seems to be expressing an idea that, these days, seems more and more like wisdom to me: “Hey, you never know.”

Love Letter” is a beautiful, intimate story; it feels (to me) the most personal in the book. Did this come from your own experience?

A couple years ago, I had long talk/argument with a conservative family member about politics and then a few weeks later had another talk/argument with some very progressive young friends – to the left, even, of me (which takes some doing). I found myself thinking about how important these talks are, even if they’re tough—they are, really, a way of transferring political and ethical knowledge back and forth and moving everyone involved closer to the truth. That sort of talk is, or can be, a form of love — if the basic respect is there. Also, I was feeling (as the narrator is) great angst about the possible end of our democracy and questioning whether I was doing enough. I like the feeling at the end, and it’s one I hope readers feel throughout the book—I’m not sure what the grandson is going to do, and I’m not sure if the grandfather is going to step up and get involved, and I’m also not sure what I want them to do, or what they should do – but I feel their dilemma more intensely, and both of them feel more dear to me.

So, the little mental transformations we make while reading – from, say, “I know the solution” to “Honestly, I have no idea, this is really a tough situation for these people to be in”– are important, if only because they show us that such transformations are possible, that we can make them, and that we, actually, crave them.

How is it possible that “Ghoul” and “My House” emerge from the same brain? How is it possible to work in such completely different voices and modes?

Well, I think what makes a writer a particular writer is the way they tend to work on whatever idea is presented to them. So, at this point in my career, I feel that, no matter what I start with, if I just revise the heck out of it, it will start to say something, and that thing will be in step with, or a continuation of, or in communication with, what I’ve done before – with my primary interests and tendencies and so on. I don’t worry too much about what I start with. It can be any old thing, serious or silly. I just trust that, if I really work on it, it will start to….well, ascend, I guess. It will start to say something non-trivial. I don’t worry about whether that idea is in keeping with what I’ve done in the past. The assumption is that I’m writing to get at some deeper moral-ethical ideas and that those ideas will eventually show up in a story, as I try to tell it in a way organic to itself. The analogy might be a composer, who starts with any old bit of melody and takes that as his theme, trusting that his method of working – his revision process – is really what he has to offer.

What do you hope readers take away from the collection?

I always like to invoke the idea of a roller-coaster designer and say that I hope the reader has an intense experience that she can’t quite articulate afterwards – so intense that, for a little while, the need to explain and thereby reduce it is totally absent. She’s just like, “Shit, yes, wow, that was fun.”

It’s good to talk about and analyze stories and all of that but, at the end of the day, a story is supposed to be a vehicle for astonishment. Any good that might come of it can only happen if it first astonishes us. And, come to think of it, if something astonishes us, it’s already done something important, which is wake us back up to life, about which we should feel astonished.

Article courtesy of Bloomsbury

Book a place on our The New Story Festival event: George Saunders short story club