A Conversation With George Saunders

George Saunders. Chloe Aftel photo
George Saunders. Chloe Aftel photo

By Lindsay Andarakis

George Saunders, award-winning author of nine books has an upcoming free lecture and reception at the John Jermain Memorial Library on June 25. Mr. Saunders, who has books that have been New York Times bestsellers, was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 2006. He talks to The Sag Harbor Express about writing historical fiction, spirituality and the next generation of writers.

Did you always have a history bug? What led you to writing historical fiction?

Well. I think about history a lot – about the strangeness of it, the strangeness of the passing of time, the fact that this world was once full of people, just as real as us, moving around and thinking and acting – who are now all gone. I’m fascinated by the notion that entire modes of thought and living, that were once so real they existed unexamined, are now totally gone and essentially unknowable – as will our precise modes of thought and living will be, soon enough.

Although your book is set long ago, do you draw parallels into today’s political landscape?

Honestly, I’d finished it before the current maelstrom began – just before Trump declared, as I remember. But I think any book that engages energetically with any part of life will have resonances beyond its intended scope. In this case, I was really thinking more, especially toward the end of the book, about America’s unfulfilled potential around the notion of equality, and of how that notion that all beings are created equal is both politically and spiritually central.”

How do you manage to make historical writing, what some people find to be “dry” subject matter into an enticing novel?

Well, with any piece of writing there are inherent problems at the outset. Part of the way a writer proceeds, I think, is by looking those square in the face – owning them, as it were. In this case, saying, essentially: ‘Ugh, historical writing is potentially dull. Why is that, and how can I avoid doing the things that ca make it dull?’ My answer was: What makes certain historical writing dull for me is when the writer is piling on the “period” details, as if the point of a novel is verisimilitude. I think the point of a novel is drama, so early on, I recused myself from this notion that my job was to recreate the exact sights, sounds, scents of 1860s America, etc. I just wanted to tell a moving human story, and the story I wanted to tell just happened to be set in 1862.”

Would you consider yourself to be a spiritual person? Did this influence your choice to write about the bardo?

“I try to be. I am a practicing Buddhist and, before that — especially as a kid — was a pretty enthusiastic Catholic. I just feel that the fact of our eventual death means that we should be thinking about that every day — trying to figure out what it means to be here, how we might live most sanely in light of the fact that, though we feel permanent….we aren’t.  To me, that’s the essence of a spiritual approach to life — just thinking and feeling, as much as we can bear it: “What is this thing I find myself in down here?”  It’s also the essence of an artistic approach to life.”

I see you are a creative writing teacher at Syracuse University. How important do you feel this skill is for today’s young people?

“Well, our students are really serious writers who have declared that, for them, this is the most important thing — it’s their vocation. In general, I think any educated person should be a serious writer — dedicated to precision and truth and clarity in language.  It improves a person in every way and —as I think we are now finding out — a culture that is negligent about precision and truth and clarity is not a culture that can sustain democracy.”

Do you have anything new on the horizon?

I’m about to start a new book of fiction but have no idea what it’s going to be. I’ve also written a TV series based on a short story of mine called “Sea Oak,” and we are going to be shooting the pilot episode in July, for Amazon. Other than that, I have a resolution to work out at least once this summer for at least half an hour, unless something more interesting presents itself on that day.

The Esther Newberg Annual Author’s Tea featuring George Saunders will take place on June 25 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the John Jermain Memorial Library, 201 Main Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, visit johnjermain.org.