GRAMGeorge Saunders was born in Texas in 1958 and raised in Illinois. Before his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo won the 2017 Booker Award, was best kn Yes as a short story writer, published four collections since 1996, and won a host of awards. In 2006, he received a Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowship. His latest book, A bath in a pond in the rain, is based on two decades of teaching a creative writing class on the translated Russian short story 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 went back to teaching, I thought, man, after 20 years of this, I really know a lot about these stories. There was also a belated understanding of life that if I go, all that knowledge goes too. I thought it would be just a matter of writing d Yes the notes, but of course it turned out to be much more.
The book focuses on stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol. What about the Russian writers? Who has held your interest in so long?
I tried to teach a similar class on American history and it wasn’t that great. I only have a connection to [these Russian writers] – with the simplicity and also the ethical-moral core of the stories. They are basically about: will this guy live? Did this person does good or bad? And that resonates in my mind.
This is more than just a how-to-write book: here are also lessons on how to live and what fiction can teach us about how to be kinder, more empathetic people.
I think the main thing is [fiction] What it teaches us is the projection process that we are constantly doing. I am a Buddhist, and we believe that you really make the world with your mind. So a story is like a laboratory to help you identify your Yes habits and projections. Also, it’s about being in connection with that other human being Who wrote Want Working on this book made me realize that when you are reading a story and analyzing it, you are really reassuring yourself that connection is possible and that even though this person looks like my enemy, there are, perhaps, not always, a way to moderate that a bit. So I was a little more confident that the connection prevails. Until it doesn’t. And then you are in America in 2020.
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 on social media, which thrives on an instant reaction?
There is something wonderful about the spontaneity of social media, but I think at this point it is becoming 100% toxic for people to shoot from the top of their brains. One of the things this book says is that the deepest parts of our brains are actually more empathetic. If you check something 20 times, for a mysterious reason, you become more social, empathetic, and compassionate. With Chekhov, you feel like he always says, “Well, what else?”, ” Is there anything else I should know?”, Or “Maybe I’m wrong.” And all that seems to be designed to foster love, or at least some kind of relationship with the other that has possibilities. So I’m not a fan of social media. I’m not in that. And I won’t be, because I think it’s actually killing us. I really do.
In 2016, you wrote, in a New Yorker article on Trump rallies, that The United States is “now two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages.” Has something fundamentally changed?
It has gotten unimaginably worse, from my point of view. I have some very dear friends and family Who support Trump, and the really strange thing is that when we speak, without a lack of warmth, using all the tricks we have, there is no persuasion. Everything is emotional, in a complicated way that I really don’t understand. The orientation has to change in some way, because these trenches that we are in are very deep and nobody comes out. And that’s why I think writing is so important. I know it’s too dreamy to say, “Hey, everyone reads Anna Karenina“But just that idea that people are multiple and I might hate this aspect of a person, but we could actually be quite friendly on another axis; I think literature reminds us of Want
What books are on your nightstand?
I’m reading Don Quixote, and it resonates because of that feeling that whatever truth you can build will collapse. I also carry A Christmas Carol around the house – I try to read that once a year.
What do you plan to read next?
I would like to reread the great books of Tolstoy. It is funny. I am 62 years old and what I noticed is that there are certain fuzzy ambitions that I have had since I was very young, which I rejected, but the idea of a great War and peace-novel type that spans 10 or 15 years and gets into the heads of many people … that really intrigues me. And it’s 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 Want
Want to try writing a great doorstop of your Yes?
Yes. Even before reading a great novel, I had the idea of looking out the window in Chicago at an entire sprawling neighborhood and thinking: life goes on in each 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 is the question.
• A bath 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 Bl£16bury (£ 16.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism