In the title story of George Saunders’ latest short story collection Tenth of December, a dying man reflects: “He was fifty-three. Now he’d never deliver his major national speech on compassion.” Last year, at age fifty-four, George Saunders delivered his. In a 2013 commencement address at Syracuse University, the National Book Award nominee spoke about themes that animate many of his most celebrated stories: empathy, communion, self-examination, and generosity. “That luminous part of you,” proclaimed Saunders, “that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”
The speech circulated rapidly online, producing a surge of admiration during a banner year for Saunders, who had already cultivated a devoted readership (David Foster Wallace once called him “the most exciting writer in America”). With December he found an even wider audience, acutely receptive in our bewildering time to hilarious and poignant scenarios in which the marginalized become heroic, and divides between neighbors are erased. A revised and expanded edition of the Syracuse speech has now been published as Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness, providing on the page what those who’ve met Saunders have already encountered: mush-free warmth and wisdom born of exuberant curiosity.
A gracious and game Saunders spoke with me about the book and what led to it over coffee on a breezy April morning. He would appear as a guest on The Colbert Report later that day. “Usually I’d be in my room hiding under the covers right now,” said Saunders of his imminent TV outing. “But jeez, you know: I think this chilled me out.” – Nick Curley
The Barnes and Noble Review: To set the table, I want to ask how you became a teacher, and how the job has prioritized and influenced your belief in kindness.
George Saunders: Sure. It’s morning, so I’ve got to get the wheels going a little bit. I’d done a little adjunct teaching, but then, after CivilWarLand [in Bad Decline] came out… Tobias Wolff had been my professor at Syracuse. He called and said, “Would you like to come teach for a year?” At that point, I was happy to do that, but I wasn’t sure if I would like it. I wanted to see how it affected my writing, to be honest with you, because I’d been working this corporate job, and it was all right.
What you find with teaching is that you are plunged into a relationship with people that you don’t know at first. When you walk into the classroom, what are you going to do with all your anxiety and your projections about them? But then I got some advice from an older teacher. I had a particular class that was a little hostile. This professor said, “When you go in there, just before you go in, imagine them, as a group, as they will be when they are forty. Now they’re young, but that’s not them. They’re just nervous. But when they’re forty, they’re going to look back on your class, and what will they remember?” That was really helpful. Then it was like, “OK, whatever awkwardness or indifference or sleeping is going on in here, they’re young, and I’m teaching to their best selves.”
That became the ethos for the whole deal. Your job as a teacher is to abide and receive whatever they have, then somehow try to convert it into something positive. Especially at a grad[uate degree] level. Whatever they’re bringing to you, you’ve got to first accept it.
BNR: And it’s a small group of students.
GS: We get six hundred applications a year and we get six to come, so at any given time there’s eighteen up there: eighteen fiction students in the program, and eighteen poets. So you get to know them pretty well over three years. You’re part of this extended family. They’re already great writers. So it’s advanced mentoring. It’s all-engaging for the teacher, too, because you can’t phone it in. You have to be aware of the different arcs that a writer might go through. Like, she might be really pissed off for a year, or she might be disengaged for a year. And whatever she is, that’s what you have to work with.
BNR: In Congratulations you talk about today regretting the missed opportunity to be kind to a grade school classmate. Was kindness something that was valued in your home, your town, your neck of the woods? Where did you find kindness and why did it linger?
GS: Certainly, our family on both sides are just tender people, and always were. I had the feeling from both sets of grandparents, to whom I dedicated the book, that they were always happy to see you. They were just unreservedly there for you. Maybe you assume that, but I know that’s not true for everybody. It felt really welcoming. I think when you’re a little kid, your sense of the world comes from whoever is around you and what they think of you. So if someone is always happy to see you, then you’re like, “OK, I’m alright,” and you live as though things are basically benevolent.
Then, I went to a Catholic school, and the Catholic schools in Chicago at that time, the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, were also kind of wonderful. You could feel a lot of progressive Christian ideas, a kind of Dorothy Day approach. I got this sense that Jesus was supposed to be a real guy, a really active presence, and you were supposed to emulate him. Any idea of Jesus at that time was the most empathic, present, cool dude, who could be frank as anybody, he could make any situation work… Just a real big-hearted person, really.
BNR: A hip camp counselor.
GS: Even at that time, the so-called “virtue of kindness” wasn’t this kind of wimpy, gauzy thing. In the Jesus story, kindness was something he was able to maintain even as he was dying on the cross, where he says, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” That seemed to me like it was, across the board, a virtue that one would want to have, and that it had active, masculine components to it. Lincoln. Lincoln was kind.
BNR: Having the wherewithal to be tender was itself a form of willpower and control.
GS: Right. It was part of real strength. Lately that’s gotten a bit downgraded. There’s strength, power, aggression, succession, and then…yeah, kindness, gentleness…if you want. [Laughs] After you’ve vanquished somebody, then you can be kind to them.
BNR: On the subject of masculinity: during your [Late Show with David] Letterman appearance, you’re telling a story about seeing the Chicago Bears play at Wrigley Field, and you offhandedly mention that your father was the most generous person you could ever meet.
GS: Yeah. He was a very tough guy. He’d been an errant youth as a kid in Chicago. Even now, he’s got a powerful life force. But it’s tempered by an incredible ability to sacrifice that or soften that as needed. These qualities were inseparable. In fact, as a kid, I felt: well, he can be gentle because he is so strong. Those things were tied together. And that was a great, great example.
BNR: Just to refer back to your classmate you refer to as “Ellen” in this book, you say that she wore blue-rimmed cats-eye glasses that at the time only old ladies wore.
BNR: For what it’s worth, I’ve recently seen you in the media wearing blue glasses.
GS: They’re blue, but they’re not cats-eyes.
BNR: So you would not consider yours to be feline.
GS: No. Her’s were those kind that curved up. Actually, Flannery O’Connor used to wear those.
BNR: But it’s endearing to think that as we get older, there are fun things that we get to do, that maybe we were hesitant to do for fear of ridicule or standing out too much.
GS: That’s a great advantage of being middle-aged, I can tell you in advance. You get away with a lot more. Because people look at you and they say, “Oh, he’s an old dude,” and then they just go, “Oh, alright, he’s wearing a miniskirt; that’s cool.” But when you’re younger, you’re not quite sure who you are, and you’re walking a tightrope of identity. And as you get older, especially after you have kids, you feel like, “Anybody who wants to disapprove of me, you’re welcome to it.”
BNR: It does seem that in youth, you judge yourself by the standards of others. Other people are your mirror, and you’re conditioned to believe that you need to blend in.
GS: Which I’m sure is totally Darwinian and natural. It makes sense that it would be the case. One of the things about [Ellen] that I remember is that she didn’t have that sense. She didn’t quite know where she was in relation to where she should have been. So that was one of the hidden things about that interaction. It wasn’t like in a movie, where she’s Emma Stone and becomes popular.
BNR: If only she’d take off those overalls, suddenly she would be a model.
GS: Exactly. It wasn’t like that. And also, because I think she had reenacted this pattern at several schools… she didn’t really want to be engaged, even in a “helpful” way. She just wanted to be left alone, because she knew what that helpfulness could cost her.
BNR: Reading some of your earliest work, I was drawn in particular to a story called “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz,” published over twenty years ago. It’s about a man regretting his unkind words to his girlfriend, and then stumbling upon a rather fantastical tool to escape the memory of this unkindness. He wakes up with a note pinned to him that says, “Your heart has never been broken.” It seems as though these moments in which we choose, consciously or unconsciously, to either be kind or pay the price, have been dramatic pivot points for you from the beginning.
GS: I remember always feeling really terrible if I hurt someone’s feelings. Which was sometimes a nice quality, but sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes it was a form of being passive, and a little bit egotistical. If you say something that’s honest, and then you feel all kinds of worry about whether you hurt someone’s feelings, it might indicate a certain reluctance to engage in conflict.
Kindness is a great virtue. But it also sometimes gets misunderstood as mere niceness, which is not necessarily a good thing. If somebody drives a spike through your head, and you go, “Oh, thanks for the opportunity,” that achieves nothing.
[“Offloading”] was funny, because the older woman in that story was based on somebody that I knew. My dad had a restaurant when we were in Chicago, and I used to do his deliveries for him. There was this really ancient woman who would order quite often from the company. You’d go to her home. She did really wonderful monologues, but was kind of excitable. She had been a silent movie organist, so she would play the organ for you. She was amazing, but she didn’t really want you to leave once you got there. And there was a certain drill. You’d listen, and you’d start backing towards the door, and at some point you’d have to just leave. She’d still be talking usually, because you just couldn’t escape. So one Christmas Eve this was going on, and I’d been there forty-five minutes, honestly, and we were about ready to close down, and just I was about to go home, with one foot out the door, she said, “All right. Well, I love you, Georgie.” And I didn’t even realize that she knew my name. I was in for another forty-five minutes after that. But I had that woman in mind, in Mrs. Schwartz.
BNR: You’ve been a fiction writer, a reporter, an oil exploration researcher, and held several other odd jobs. In all these gigs, you’ve been a world traveler. Do you think the concept of kindness, or what constitutes an act of kindness, differs among countries and cultures? Is there something different about the kindness that you observed in Kathmandu or Sumatra compared to the kindness of Chicago or Syracuse?
GS: Let me say parenthetically, this book has been a bit of a trap, because I’m not really an expert on kindness. But I will say that I think, in the big picture, no. In a given human body and mind, those things feel a certain way. But I know some cultures are comfortable with it as part of their national manners. Like, in Nepal, it’s just part of what they do socially in the culture.
BNR: It’s probably in some ways universal in its nuances.
GS: The speech is eight minutes, so I telegraph kindness. “Kindness” actually is a suite of things. In any time and any place, the people who are the kindest had a certain relation to reality. I’ll go that far.
BNR: In Tenth of December and dating back to stories in your earlier books, you see these characters who, fairly or unfairly, believe that they will become kinder when they become wealthier.
GS: [Laughs] Yeah.
BNR: Even of your own young adult struggles to make a living, you’ve described realizing that “money forestalled disgrace.” But in terms of finding a happy medium between security and pleasure, how in your estimation can we insure that money doesn’t forestall kindness? How do we keep greed and materialism at bay? Does it come to charity, or simply self-awareness?
GS: [Laughs] Oh boy. That’s a big one. That’s a big one, Nick. I don’t know.
BNR: What I’m saying is: please save us from ourselves.
GS: OK, let me just do it right here, over breakfast. When you were talking, I thought, you know: money does forestall disgrace. In my experience, you can imagine a path of a mountain, and let’s say the top of the mountain is a really together person, somebody who is really just cool. My experience was, you get to a certain point on a mountain where money has put up a barricade. Especially in our culture. Money puts up a barricade, and you do get embarrassed and humiliated and kicked around by not having enough. Even if it’s just that you have to work two or three jobs to get your family fed, OK, then, you’ve got to kind of pause there because the world has kind of kicked the shit out of you for a while.
BNR: It’s immensely trying on one’s patience.
GS: Yeah, and on the body and everything else. That Terry Eagleton quote: “Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.” As a kid, I didn’t have it. Our family was doing really wonderfully, and my dad made a lot of money for where we lived and for his time. Then when I got out in my twenties, I kind of screwed up and pushed myself back down the hill, and had to get myself back up and hit that barricade. I wasn’t in the Gulag, but I felt it. Does money make you necessarily a terrible person? No. Does it present certain temptations? Yeah. Well, let me see if I’m telling the truth here. [Pauses]
Chekhov wrote that every happy man should have an unhappy man in his closet with a hammer, to remind him by his constant tapping that not everyone is happy. That’s a great danger of middle age. You start thinking: Well, since my job is great, it’s great that everyone has great jobs. You move out of the swamp onto the high ground and you go, “It’s so nice that they dried the swamps.” It’s human nature. But it’s also how the aristocratic ruling class gets murdered in the street. That was the great Russian Tsarist delusion: since he felt everything was good, it was.
The materialism that we are in the middle of now is kind of catastrophic, because it’s so beautiful. Even with the financial crunch, we’re so affluent compared to almost all of the rest of history.
BNR: Walking around here, within a block of the Plaza Hotel, Central Park, Trump Tower, and an Apple store that looks like a glass cathedral, it’s a little jarring.
GS: It’s unbelievable. In my view, that kind of thing-based materialism is problematic. But the deeper one is that when the material world is so good to you, you start to think somehow that everything is material. The universe just happens to be pitched in such a way that we totally get it. There’s nothing that we can’t perceive. I think that’s hubris. It means a shutting down the spiritual dimension of life.
BNR: Accumulation comes to be viewed as pure evolution, pure progress.
GS: And also that whatever we need to know, we know. Whatever is habitually obvious to us is what’s true. That’s a real sign of decadence, or degradation.
BNR: In Congratulations, you acknowledge that at times in your life, kindness went on the back-burner. You say, “First let me finish this semester, this degree, this book.” If I may ask what might be a fairly personal question: when are you unkind?
GS: [Laughs] Tuesday is usually the big day when I try to get it all out of the way. That’s when I do that. Ethnic cleansing on Tuesday.
BNR: [Laughs] But even on Wednesdays, what causes you to fall into those easy rationalizations of selfishness and pessimism? Perhaps a more beneficial question would be: How do you climb out of the hole?
GS: I think I’ve never been an un-nice person, and I try really hard to be considerate and all that. But for me, maybe because of biology or anxiety, on a normal day, life is going by about 20% faster than I can really manage. Not in a dysfunctional way, but somebody will be with me, and only later I’ll go, “Oh, I wonder if I missed an opportunity?” or I said something I shouldn’t have said, or I inadvertently said something that I didn’t mean to. So for me, what I’m calling kindness in that speech is probably more accurately presence.
When I’m nervous, I’m kind of a wisecracking guy. I noticed a couple of times where I went a little too far. Didn’t really even hurt somebody’s feelings, but you know—that kind of thing. At this point in my life, at fifty-five, I’m not trashing hotel rooms. It’s more just sort of subtle absences, where your mind is so consumed with your own anxiety or inadequacy that you totally missed the banquet.
When the speech came out, people responded. And I don’t think they were saying that “We burned down an ancestral village; whoops, that was bad of us.” It’s usually about small things, where you look up and you think, “Oh, my friend was going through a rough time; I kind of missed it. I didn’t even realize it.” Or even just failures of functionality where “I know you’re going through a hard time; I don’t know what to do; I don’t know how to respond.” That to me is the real crossroads. Because this so-called kindness has got elements, of course, of courage, but also discernment. Almost that feeling of Kipling, when he says, “If you can keep your head when all about are losing theirs…” If you’re in a situation where somebody just saw you in your moment of need and came to your rescue, that makes you want to be better.
I was in the airport the other day, and it looked to me like the line was here for something else, and my thing was here, and I went up, and this guy goes, “Hey, are you in a hurry?” It threw me off: my reality and his didn’t match. And that happens, of course, a lot. If you’re up teaching college and living in the Catskills in your quiet house, it doesn’t happen that much. But if you’re doing actual things in the world, it happens a lot. That moment of discomfort is really telling. How quickly do you rebound? How do you respond in that moment when somebody comes after you?
BNR: You’ve received some accolades recently. How do you feel, in the midst of them, that you’ve changed as a writer? Do you find that there are more opportunities? More inspirations? That your self-esteem has grown? Or is praise something that has to be put aside once you’re alone in front of a new blank page?
GS: I would agree with all of that, actually. I think the big mistake would be to think it didn’t affect you. It’s like if you ate a bunch of beans, and you say, “Beans don’t affect me; I’m a good person.”
But what I’ve noticed is that when you’re in a period of public stuff and/or success, your mind turns to you. In other words, you get up in the morning and you’re like, “Oh, I hope there’s more good news.”
Also, I’ve been writing through this. The last two years have been really busy, but I’ve also been writing this new thing that’s really hard. So that’s good. You’re out on the road and you’re feeling pretty happy, and then you get home and that manuscript’s glaring at you from the corner.
And teaching is amazing. You go out on the road and do a reading, or you get like an award, and then you go back and teach a Chekhov story. The world can respond how it will, but those great masters are there all the time. You do a gut-check against them, like, “Wow, I know where I stand in this pecking order, and it’s really low.” Then, if you have a love for craft, you go, “OK, fair enough; when I can, I’m going to come back and try to get higher on the pecking order.”
BNR: I think you should feel good about your pecking order placement. Although I am curious: your Chekhov analogy of the man tapping in the closet — where is that from?
GS: That’s from a story called “Gooseberries.” It’s beautiful. What’s really amazing about it is it’s embedded in a whole speech. It’s a beautiful speech about why we should be suspicious of happiness. It’s probably Chekhov at his wisest, speaking from his heart. What he does in the story is, he puts that speech in this pompous guy’s mouth, and it totally works. The guy is right and he’s also wrong. He’s made such a good case that happiness is suspect, and we go, “Yeah, I agree, but he’s miserable!” He’s in a group of people, and he’s a drag. He tells this big, depressing story, and then that story ends with this great image of that guy sleeping in a bed beside his friend, and in the middle there’s a table, and the guy who made the speech has put his smelly, uncleaned pipe there, and so his friend can’t sleep. This great speech is undercut with real human things. That story is part of a trilogy called About Love: it’s got a story called “A Man in a Case” and “Gooseberries,” and ends with this beautiful story called “About Love.”
BNR: That seems a great distinction of the short story: its ability to distill.
GS: Those three stories taken as a trilogy might be one of the greatest things ever written. It has that Chekhovian quality where he never occupied just one seat. He’s always moving around into the different characters’ heads and subverting what you already think, and in the end it’s this beautiful, resonating question. And you don’t even know what the question is! When I was in grad school, Tobias Wolff was going to do a reading, and I think he was feeling under the weather, so he said, “Rather than read my own stuff, I’m going to read some Chekhov, and he read us those three stories. That was one of the biggest moments in my education as a writer: how much he channeled all the different valences in Chekhov. They were funny, and they were severe, and lyrical. It all came through and was really magical.
BNR: Talking about these powerful responses that rise from Chekhov’s work and others: are you ever moved to physical emotion by your own stories, by your own words?
GS: Not so much. But every so often. I do a lot of moving around of stuff. So sometimes a joke will not be where I put it in the first place, and then it will hit funny. This is kind of weird, but it’s almost like the awareness that if I wasn’t so much in the middle of it, I would have been jolted. It’s almost like a simulacrum feeling, like, “Well, a normal person would feel this at this point.”
In Tenth of December there was one place that really surprised me. There’s a speech that a guy makes in his head about his wife, about their marriage. I remember just going, “OK, he needs to think about his wife,” and that came directly from my life.
BNR: There are real varieties of poignancy in that book. You’ve got the very touching ending of “Victory Lap”: the sentiment that is expressed in its very last line. You’ve got this bitter rationale of a character like Al Roosten, or this put-upon father in the “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” Part of what distinguishes this book is not only that people are choking up, but that they’re choking up for a variety of different reasons.
GS: Thanks. Sometimes I’ll have these sections of alternating viewpoints, and you’re kind of looking around, like, “OK, where is the doorway? How do I get out of this?” It would be nice to think, “If I feel emotion at this part, it’s a keeper.” But even that isn’t really true. You have to feel emotion when you clear your mind and read the whole thing from the beginning to the end. Otherwise, you’ve got to cut it. Which hurts.
BNR: Now that this commencement speech and Tenth of Decemberhave really resonated with people, do you find that members of your readership are seeking advice from you? Or that one curiosity of kindness is that those who are seeking it will often latch on to someone who they see as a provider? Have you had instances where people have reached out to you, either through correspondence, or in person, after readings, et cetera? What are you able to give, and what do you have to withhold as a mere mortal?
GS: There is some of that. Actually, I would trace it back to that Joel Lovell piece which was in the Times, which was so generous, in terms of getting new readers. This will sound weird, but if I’m like, 60% nice, you get extra points because you’re a public figure. You get inflation in that way. What I try to do is say, “Even if I can’t see it right now, even if I’m kind of blind, that person is just as real and valid and there as I am.”
I read something that said, “If you’re talking to somebody and you’re in a confrontation or in trouble, open your chest, like literally turn… [pulls chair out from table and adjusts himself to align his chest directly with Curley’s] That’s actually hard to do.
BNR: You’re exposed. You’re actually saying, like, “Go ahead, put the knife in me,” or simply: “Here’s all of me.”
GS: Physiologically, yeah. You don’t want to do that too much because you look like a crazy person. But I was hosting a Zen monk who had written a book, and he was an amazing person. I was hosting him for a dinner, and it was me and him and his assistant. We talked late into the night, and we went outside, downtown, and suddenly, out of nowhere, this homeless guy comes up: “You got any money?” Of course, my thing was to turn away. “No, I don’t.” Get to the car. This monk just turned to him, looked him right in the eye and said, “What’s going on?” You could feel the energy change. The guy’s tone changed and he stood up a little straighter, and he said, “Well, I’m having some bad luck.” He goes, “What’s happening with you?” He made the guy tell. Almost like magic, as this was happening, a young woman stepped out of the shadows. That was this homeless guy’s girlfriend or whatever. By whatever was going on, she felt… Suddenly we’re five people hanging out on the street. They told the story. He goes, “Oh, man, that’s terrible.”
BNR: You’re actually giving them a place in your world. You’re saying, “You belong here as much as we do.”
GS: Right. Also, what the monk did was, he just took that label that I just used, “Homeless Guy”… He’s not a homeless guy; he’s Jeff, or whoever he was. It was really startling to see that. Kind of like this thing in the speech with Ellen, I instantaneously observed my own shortcomings: my intuitive reaction, which was to get the hell out of there.
Then he said to his assistant, “Can you give me twenty dollars?” It was just a totally loving exchange. And it was because of something that this monk had going on. It wasn’t a show. It wasn’t fake. Totally natural. So that kind of thing is really educational.
This book [Congratulations] is a little scary. I make a little joke about it. “How to be kind? Well, I’ve only got three minutes.” That was a purposeful evasion on my part, because it’s very uncool to act like you have information in an area when you know you don’t.
BNR: You risk becoming not only the role model, but the public spokesman for kindness…
GS: Yes, a facile guru. “Yeah, I wrote the book on kindness; hey, come to me with your kindness questions.” That would be like a nightmare.
BNR: [Laughs] In that case, get ready for more kindness questions. This ties in nicely to the next one. I want ask about the practice of Buddhism. As I understand it, there is a condition which translates to “loving-kindness,” sometimes referred to as metta. It’s a meditative practice in which you think kindly upon a variety of different people, different circles of your life. You think kindly upon your friends, your family, teachers, strangers, even enemies, in a series of outward expansions of goodwill. But the first person in this metta cycle to whom you must think kindly is yourself. Does this notion of self-kindness as the nucleus of generosity speak to you?
GS: I should say, too, that I’m a very novice Buddhist.
BNR: I ask because in the speech, you do cite prayer, meditation and establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition as practices that can “raise one’s ambient levels of kindness.”
GS: When you were asking the question, what occurred to me is that that’s actually not a bad description of fiction, even. What you’re doing is throwing down an imaginative view of life. Once you get your first draft down, you’re then coming back to it to try to “improve it.” But what you’re really doing is trying to improve the quality of your imagination. So first, you’re sort of puppeteering and mocking the character. Then with many drafts, you see him more clearly. I’ve found that eventually you’ve got to cut him some slack. You’ve got to imagine him, again, to be your equal—or close. Just mechanically, for the story to proceed, you have to give him the benefit of the doubt. If you caricature him too harshly, he can’t go anywhere, and the story flatlines.
For me, maybe that was the first time I’ve ever had that experience of trying to change the way I thought about things, was through fiction. You have a crummy first draft, and you’re like, “I don’t really feel that way about the world.” Or, “here at this point in the story I’m being a little harsh.” You correct that. Then suddenly, you’re making a model for yourself of how to think about the world. Like that example of the homeless guy. That Zen Master didn’t see him the way I saw him. His mind skipped past “Homeless Guy” and saw a human being, which is sort of a fictive technique.
I don’t know if that answers your question. You can see I’m going to skip around all the Buddhist questions, because I really don’t know.
BNR: I think in the past you’ve even commented that the magic in your Buddhist practice is to some degree that it’s difficult to explain: the wonder is the value.
GS: It’s difficult for me because I’m such a novice. That’s really the truth. In the speech I talk about this spiritual tradition. I was trying to tread lightly there, because it was a graduation speech and you don’t want to be preachy. But it does seem to me that if a kid felt that kindness was something in which he would like to improve, it’s not like that’s a new idea. In all the great spiritual traditions, if you find an authentic core, that’s really what they’re doing. There are traditions that are so vast and intelligent and beautifully reasoned and comprehensive… and they’re just sitting there for us. These are thousand-year, even two thousand-year lineages of people who have been totally on top of this.
The one thing about being even a novice Buddhist is you get to meet people who aren’t novice Buddhists, and you see that this stuff we’re talking about is not abstract. Kind of like if you were out shooting free-throws, and suddenly Michael Jordan walked up, you’d be like, “Oh, so that’s where this can go.” That’s probably the stage that I’m at, is just to go, “Damn, I wish I had known this when I was twenty.” I really do wish I had known it.
BNR: In the spirit of kindness, and to try to make this more of a community exercise, I put out a few feelers on Facebook, Twitter, and among friends, asking if anyone had any questions for you. Many people were willing to “Like” or “Favorite” this notion, but only two brave souls actually stepped up to the plate. The first brave soul was my high school classmate Katelyn Shanklin, who is an English teacher now living in Baltimore. Very simply, she wanted to know what your dreams are like. Interestingly, I’ve even heard you say that some of your stories have come from dreams.
GS: “The Semplica Girl Diaries” came out of a dream. “I Can Speak” [from In Persuasion Nation] came out of a dream. “Pastoralia” came out of a dream. What amazes me about dream life is that your subconscious is so amazingly detailed. We’ve all had the dream where your boss yells at you during the day and at night an elephant trumpets at you. But what’s amazing is the complexity of the dream state. Not unrelated to writing. Kind of better. Your dream state is a better writer that comes up with amazing little strange twists and stuff like that. But Freud said something about that, the idea being that the dream has no responsibility to be coherent, to be organized or beautiful. It can be beautiful, but it has no responsibility to be coherent, whereas in the story, you use dream energy to make coherence.
BNR: It speaks to the talent of someone like Chekhov as well, to recognize that there is beauty in ambiguity.
GS: Yes. So a lot of times it’s just a matter of trying to tease out the coherence. Like, “Semplica Girl Diaries” was a beautiful image. Troubling. But it didn’t have that quality of dream insanity. It was quite tidy.
BNR: And it was simply that women from the third world were being used as decoration outside suburban homes?
GS: I saw it, yeah. And I saw the person in the dream who saw it, and that his reaction wasn’t horror but gratitude. “I’m so lucky to finally be able to give this to my kids.”
BNR: Like having a really good Christmas tree.
GS: That’s exactly what it was. “Look at that. I brought that home.” Faulkner actually talks about that. I think The Sound and the Fury came not out of a dream but out of something he saw. He was driving by this house, and I think he saw this older brother boosting his sister up into the tree with the muddy hand on her panties, and he saw that and went, “OK, what’s the world behind that?” Thanks to Katelyn for the question. This like a call-in show without the technology. We’re going to go to a commercial break now.
BNR: The second came from Jaclyn Backhaus, a playwright from Brooklyn, New York, who writes: “Lately, there have been a lot of prominent artists and thinkers lamenting the increasing impracticality of living in New York. I am an artist trying to combat that feeling, primarily through the operation of a non-profit arts community called Fresh Ground Pepper, which presents free evenings of new work across Manhattan and Brooklyn. Do you consider yourself part of any communities that work to maintain vitality in the arts? Are there organizations that have helped you, or whose programming or message you believe in?”
GS: The one organization that I still belong to is the Syracuse MFA program. That was an incredible elevator up to a higher level of artistry. That’s my artistic community—my colleagues there, my students. Other than that… I’m not exactly disciplined enough to be a recluse, but that’s my energy. Or maybe like a bit of a cannibal, in that when I need something, I’ll come in to New York and get it—go to a museum or a show. For whatever reason, I’ve found for me to share work early, to talk about it, doesn’t really help much. So I tend to kind of just pull up and work alone, and then at the very last minute give something to my wife. That’s my real community, right there.
Now, I’m not disparaging community at all. But a lot of my twenties were spent in Denver and Amarillo, Texas… trying to find other artists, actually, at that time. I had a little group out in L.A. of close friends from engineering school who were also artists.
I think living in New York would be hard financially, but what an incredible trove of riches in terms of just being always surrounded by humanity and beauty. So I wish her luck with her group.
BNR: I wanted to quote you a passage from the final edition of your column, “American Psyche,” that you wrote years ago for The Guardian.
GS: [Laughs] Oh boy. Thank you for bringing that up. I enjoyed it, but it was a real Zen exercise. You had to crank out something every week, so there was a lot of variety in those babies.
BNR: In the final edition of the column, published nearly six years ago, just a couple of weeks before the election of President Obama, you wrote: “America is having an identity crisis. On one side, fear, aggression, banality, xenophobia. On the other, hopefulness, humor, confidence in human nature, critical thought. This battle is not being fought along party lines. It is not the case that one party or candidate holds a monopoly on these positive virtues. No, it is more existential, and every one of us is fighting it internally. Which country are we to be? The terrified, torturing, isolated bully, or the tolerant, slow-to-anger, naive-but-bright protector of the poor? It’s not altogether a new battle. The American heart—hell, maybe the human heart—has been divided along these lines for a long time. But here, in our time, it feels like the battle is heating up.”
Well, the battle sure did heat up, and in many ways, the temperature is rising still. Six years later, are we any closer to figuring out whether we’re the bully or the protector?
GS: The thing in there that strikes as true is that it’s an internal battle, in every person. If you went back to the Neanderthal times, and there were two guys in a cave, and a third guy approached across the prairie, one of the guys would say, “Kill him! He’s gonna fuck with us.’ And the other one would say, “Maybe he’s got some new ideas; let’s go ask him.” And actually, both those guys might be right.
One thing is: I am getting so tired of the liberal-conservative wrestling match. It’s become such a big-money thing now, and the media is so invested in it—media outlets and pundits and networks—that it’s become a great business to be in. And they are fanning the flames. They are taking a cosmetic divide that exists within every one of us into this deep crevasse, and they are making the crevasse wider. I think the only reason is profit. I think if you follow the money, it’s easy business… It’s easy broadcasting, it’s easy writing to those liberals, those conservatives. I think it’s actually really eroding national culture.
Right now, that’s fine. But it’s almost like if you had a really dysfunctional family, a really dysfunctional marriage. If they’re at the beach, no problem. But if suddenly they run out of gas in the middle of the desert, that lack of functionality becomes dangerous. My fear is that we haven’t really gotten better. I think President Obama is an incredibly positive presence. What has maybe depressed me more than anything else recently is to see that good, incredibly intelligent guy getting stymied from time to time by this kind of bullheadedness. It actually isn’t just the conservatives’ fault. It’s that this national mode of opposition has gotten so reflexive and so late-failed-marriage that nobody could fix it. Washington could come back, or Lincoln could come back, and they wouldn’t be able to maneuver.
I talked to a really brilliant guy, Melvin McLeod at the Shambhala Sun. He suggested to me that, in his experience, sometime in the ‘80s, these things like gentleness and kindness got demoted to the second-tier… he used the phrase “feminine virtues.” He didn’t mean it in a gendered sense. But “masculine” would be power, aggression, success, certainty, and “feminine” would be tolerance, compassion. If you think of the country as a being, a being who only believed in strength would be a monster. “I can manage it. No problem. No matter what happens, I’m just going to roll right over it.” That’s a monster. That’s not a human being. It’s also a very brittle monster, because eventually the world is going to kick that monster’s ass, through age or death or circumstance, and he’s got no resources. But the being that has those so-called masculine and feminine virtues coexisting is really strong.
With this liberal-conservative thing, we’re making ourselves weak by falling into a permanent posture of belligerence. You put on your cap, whether it’s liberal or conservative, and then you don’t have to think any more. You know the answers. All the really vexing questions of life don’t really have answers. They’re complicated. I think if you’re looking at any human heart, you can find a liberal and a conservative fighting like crazy. It’s almost like the more lively the liberal is, say, in the conservative, the more he’s going to have to shout to keep it down. That’s why so many homophobes are actually secretly gay. Same with liberals. I know so many liberal people who are just a half-turn away from fascists.
But here’s the thing. Let’s say, forget about all those labels, and take a little 8-year-old kid, somewhere. That kid develops a moral stance by being afraid, by noticing pain in himself or people he cares about, by clenching. You go out and life starts to instruct you. So that kid is going to notice that life is scary, that paucity sucks, that life is short—all these things that any kid knows.
Now, what does he do with that? Some kids become liberals. They say, “We’ve got to help each other and the government is there to help us do that.” Whatever a liberal says. Some of them become conservatives, and they say, “The only way I got out of this was to really knuckle down and work” or whatever. Look at somebody like John Boehner, whose life story is very moving and very compassionate. Nobody disagrees on the fundamental condition of life, really, I don’t think. But in the face of that early pain, we take harsh positions because it’s so scary. The first time that your cage gets rattled, whether it happens when you’re eight or twenty-two, you go, “Oh my God, that’s not happening again,” and politics kick in.
Look at gun control. On the surface, I’m a garden-variety liberal and I have my garden-variety liberal beliefs. But I love shooting guns. I also have a really deep paranoia that I can get at where, “I’d like to have a few guns, just in case.”
BNR: There’s a gorgeous moment in your story for GQ, “Tent City, USA,” that’s not over-explained, where you notice some pruning shears have been left at a fence, and you casually walk over and bring them into your tent, as means of self-defense. It’s such a simple yet dramatically ominous moment that you very subtly utilize.
GS: Oh, yeah. I remember that.
BNR: I did want to ask you about that story. My girlfriend said, “If you’re interviewing George Saunders, you have to read this story.” I credit her for that.
GS: Thank you, girlfriend.
BNR: Yes, thank you, Megan.
GS: Thank you Megan. [Leans closer into microphone] Thank you Megan!
BNR: In “Tent City”, you traveled to Fresno to live for a week with a tent community of hundreds of homeless and displaced people. You write there about how those less fortunate can often be cruel, mean, stupid, grandly delusional. You say something that counters poisoned “makers and takers” political rhetoric: “But to love the unfortunate, it is not necessary to feel fond of them, or tenderness toward them. Our minds can be kind when our hearts cannot.” I wonder if you could expand on what that idea means to you, that “our minds can be kind when our hearts cannot.”
GS: Here’s the thing. When I went into that, we thought it was going to be this Steinbeckian love fest.
BNR: That you’d be suckling from a teat.
GS: That was the hope anyway. And a person would be playing guitar while it happened. But it was not that. It was at least two crack dealerships — gang-related crack dealerships. So it was really scary. The people in there were all over the board. Many of them had been institutionalized and released. Many were addicts. Everyone was humiliated by being there, of course. And dirty and hot, and not-nice, not fun. The place was not nice or fun.
So I thought, “OK, now watch me rise to the occasion. Watch me be a loving presence here.” And within a day, that was done. I was scared and tired myself, and irritated. People were harassing you, people were telling you repetitious, pointless stories. People were lying to you. Again: “Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.” A homeless camp plunders the sensuality of the body. Everybody is reduced. It’s very sad, because nobody wants to be there. Everyone wants to corner you and tell you why they’re the exception to the rule, that they’re the only sane person in the camp. So it starts to work on you. Pretty soon, I had to recognize that that was the whole point of the story, that Mister Compassion over here had gotten his butt kicked. I had quickly seen that my everyday niceness was just circumstantial. Here I am, in a nice restaurant, having breakfast with a nice person. Yeah, I’m nice right now. But when suddenly you’re down in the dirt, and there’s a guy who wants to beat you up if you don’t give him five dollars… Then suddenly it’s different.
BNR: In a moment of real frustration, you write something in your journal… I forget the exact wording, but it’s reminiscent of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, where he says, “One day, a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”
GS: It was “Exterminate the brutes”, from Heart of Darkness. I’ll tell you the feeling I had, which I can’t remember if I put it in the piece or not. We have two daughters, and I had a sort of post-apocalyptic feeling, like, “If I wasn’t who I am…” As it is, I could get out of here in a heartbeat, I could call in the troops basically… I could call GQ, get the police in here. I could get a lawsuit. All the power was mine. But I remember thinking if that was not the case, if all that was taken away, like for example after the Russian Revolution, where people like me were suddenly in the street for real… it’s terrifying. Just kind of cowering in the tent, doing that thought experiment, I thought, “OK, if that was the case, what would you do?” My response was, “I’d get hold of a gun for sure.” There’s not any question about it.
I was trying to my best to listen, and I actually made some friends in there, and met people who were really wonderful and were incredibly heroic, because considering where they were, to have as much humanity and kindness as they did was extraordinary.
It’s like Twain said: “An untested virtue is not a virtue.” So for me to be reckoning myself a kind, friendly, benevolent force—all right, good. But where are you a kind, friendly, benevolent force, and what conditions have to pertain in order for you to keep being that?
It was in an abandoned freight yard that the homeless had taken over, and they had once been evicted from there very violently a few years before. By the time the story came out, about two months later, the city moved them out in a really intelligent way. They had money for each person, and they had found a place to live for each person, and basically had given them two or three months of stable living. They had people interviewing them to see what kind of programs they should be in, and what kind of federal money they weren’t getting. So I was there kind of in the last days of the place.
BNR: Another amazing thing about that story that Megan pointed out to me is that you’re reporting your emotions and reactions in real time: fear, uncertainty, amusement. You give your internal self the weight of reportage.
GS: I would thank Andy Ward for that at GQ. We had done a number of pieces like that, and he gradually made that more and more OK, like that was actually what I was supposed to be doing. He guided me through all those GQ pieces. I thought of it as kind of a gonzo journalism, but maybe slightly more New Age. In that piece, the mock-scientific voice was really key. Then you can say, “I was feeling so sad,” but write it as, “he noted at that time a certain sadness manifesting…”
BNR: In closing, for what it’s worth, I wanted to mention my own George Saunders kindness story. We’ve actually met once before, very briefly. It was at the after-party of this year’s National Book Awards. I nervously approached you, and began by saying that I know people have probably been coming up to you all night, singing your praises. You said something wonderfully candid, which was, “I could use some more.”
GS: [Laughs]Actually, I do remember that.
BNR: Your tone in saying it was very funny, gracious, and human, especially given that, without digging the knife in, you had five minutes earlier… shall we say, not won the [National Book] award [for Fiction].
GS: Yes, let’s say it that way. You can’t lose an award. You can just not win it.
BNR: You very patiently listened to me sing those praises, and you also introduced me to your wife, Paula…
GS: Now I totally remember. I’m sorry I didn’t remember earlier.
BNR: It seemed particularly cool, because I’ve met some authors who treat their spouses like silent servants, and this was different. You were very present. And as I turned away, I felt this hand patting me on the back. Mysteriously, I don’t know if it was you or someone from the dance floor trying to push me out of their way…
GS: [Laughs] I was going for your wallet actually.
BNR: [Laughs] …or if this was some entirely imagined pat of my own invention. But that was as a moment where I saw your kindness with my own eyes.
GS: Thanks, I’m glad! Actually, that night, I got a lesson in kindness from my wife. That event is kind of exciting. You’re there with your editors and your agents, and it’s really exciting. Then, when you don’t win, you feel a bit like, “Oh God, I’m in public and I just didn’t win.” Just a little bit. But afterwards, my wife just said, “Let’s dance.” I went, “Well…” She says, “Yeah, come on. I got all dressed up. We’re gonna dance.”
BNR: You can’t ask for better than that.
GS: No, exactly. It was a physical cure to whatever whininess or hurt feelings I had, whatever was embarrassing and uncomfortable. She fixed it with this physical gesture of taking my hand. “Let’s go dance.” You dance for two minutes and you’re like, “Yeah, we’re happy.” She used to be a ballet dancer, so her way of being in the world is very physical, very joyful. I remember thinking, “I don’t want to dance; it’s embarrassing; I’m not going to…” But then I couldn’t say no. She looked so beautiful. I’m not going to say no to her. Within a couple of minutes, you’re back to yourself again. And I didn’t do that. She did it. So that’s marriage. A good marriage.