An interview with George Saunders

This morning I listened to an interview with George Saunders on Radio 4. I was fascinated by what he had to say. So much so that I have transcribed the full interview!

Today programme – 4 January 2021 – Radio 4

Lincoln in the Bardo was the book that won George Saunders the Booker Prize in 2017 but he had made his name before that as a writer of short stories. In his new book ‘A Swim in a Pond in the Rain’ celebrates short stories especially those by the great Russian writers of the 19th century. Our Arts correspondent Rebecca Jones has been speaking to him.

George Saunders: “Basically you enter into a story with a blank mind, you know you have no opinions, you read the first line and this little needle in your head either says ‘oh I am interested’ or ‘ah, boring’. If you want to know what a story is about these 19th century Russian stories are a really good place to start, I guess I’d say.”

Rebecca Jones: “George Saunders on his passion for the short stories of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol.”

George Saunders: “I was kind of from a working class background and didn’t really have a lot of literature in my life and those were just the first stories that spoke to me directly, kind of emotionally. But I think as a young person I really appreciated the concern that they had for living in a way that wasn’t a waste of time: you know of making the most of your life in a kind of walking right up to the big questions and taking a shot at them.”

Rebecca Jones: “And so great is his enthusiasm that for the last 20 years George Saunders has been teaching a class in the 19th century Russian short story at Syracuse University in New York. ‘It was my goal’, he writes ‘to get a non-reader to fall in love with the short story’. What’s to be gained from loving a short story?

George Saunders: “When you are reading a story you are kind of accenting to the idea that connection is possible. For us to lean in together over a story is a way of making friends: you make friends with Tolstoy, Tolstoy makes friends with you, you make friends with the characters in the story. You know the overall effect is to kind of send you out into the day with a little more confidence of your ability to engage positively in the world. So even though it is a small effect, you know you read a story and maybe that effect lingers for a day or an hour – it is still a real effect. So a little bit of medicine like that you can take a couple of times a week and be more alive and in love with the world. What’s not to love?”

Announcer of the Booker Prize: “The winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize for fiction is Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders.”

Rebecca Jones: “George Saunders was 58 when he won with his first full-length novel. He said he tried to write novels many times before but they always shrunk in size and he is a master of the short story, earning prizes and plaudits for his tales of working-class life and the absurdities of modern America. Fiction, he believes, is more important than ever in these turbulent times.”

George Saunders: “If we think about what ails the world right now I would say it’s sort of the intense frustration of disconnection, the kind of fighting we do online. That kind of communication is telling you that connection is not possible and it’s not real – and that is a terrifying thing. So I think literature is kind of a fire around which we warm ourselves – and it seems, you know, quite simple, or maybe sometimes it seems minor – but to get up in the morning and be reminded that more other people are like you than different. It’s incredibly important I think.”

Rebecca Jones: “You write: ‘we live in a degraded era bombarded by facile, shallow, agenda-laced too rapidly disseminated information bursts’. You sound pretty pessimistic about the world. Are you?

George Saunders: “No. I sound pretty grouchy right there, I admit. I think the rest of the book isn’t quite as grouchy. But no, I think that we are under the sway of a new toxic force which is Social Media, and although it can be a lot of fun and can do a lot of good, I have a feeling that the net effect has been to make us more snarky, more performative. You know if you look at the general malaise and the partisanship you can track it almost directly to the rise of Social Media. So literature really is the sort of anti- Social Media in the sense that on Twitter you think something up and you fart it out basically. But with writing you think something up then you consider it. If all we are doing is blurting, and those blurts are going out far-and-wide: it is going to have a degrading effect on public discourse.”

Rebecca Jones: “For comfort and solace George Saunders returns yet again to those 19th century Russian short stories, which he says he has been reading obsessively alongside one novel which has been helping him during the pandemic.”

George Saunders: “I’m reading Don Quixote and I think this is the first time I have read the whole thing all the way through. And that’s been nice because it is really funny. For me it has been kind of important to remember that all the good things in life are not gone forever, they are just set-aside a little bit, many of them. So to step back into laughter and go ‘oh yeah, I deserve to laugh, I can find something funny’ is really refreshing. You know for me when I read a beautiful story it makes me feel more fully alive.”










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