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Writeliving Interview – George Saunders


We’re proud to present an interview with the great George Saunders. I think you’d be hard pressed to find any living writer that David and I collectively like more. Hope you enjoy.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

My father was one big influence, just in the way he tells stories: fast, funny, dark.  But always under the surface was this idea that people were interesting and worthy of attention.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Well, I try to keep everything as open and low-concept as possible – that is, I try to keep the big ideas to a minimum and concentrate on making a compelling and entertaining surface in the language, trusting that everything else – plot, theme, meaning – will take care of itself.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Although it can be really hard to be a young writer, I’d advise trying not to think in terms of “overcoming adversity” but, rather, trying to use those experiences to train oneself in learning to think like a writer.  So, I can remember times when I found myself in a strange or difficult or even somewhat degrading work situation, and writing was miles away – but I always felt (or tried to feel) like if I was noticing, then I was working.   That is, the young writer can do a little mental switch, and think: “Ah, so this too is part of America,” or “So this too is part of life – these feelings that I’m having and all of these physical details I’m seeing around me, and the reactions of the other people in this situation – are all interesting.”  Not easy to think that way, but if you can nurture that tendency in yourself, it becomes a sort of armor.

How does your background in geophysical engineering impact your writing?

One huge way was that it got me out into the world.  I worked in the oilfields in Asia and that was really where my political ideas were really formed – seeing all the suffering and beauty and inequality.

In what ways does being a teacher affect your writing?

I really like being around the talented young writers we get at Syracuse.  Last year we got 520 applications for 6 spots – so the students are just incredible writers and human beings.  I  also like having to revisit the classics I teach (mostly the Russians) and finding new depth in them.

About the Author:

George Saunders, a 2006 MacArthur Fellow, is the author of seven books, including the “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “Pastoralia,” “In Persuasion Nation”and the forthcoming “Tenth of December,” which comes out in January.  He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

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