George Saunders: “When Did You Know You Wanted to be a Writer?”

From an interview with George Saunders in the Paris Review:

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

In high school, there was a teacher named Sheri Williams who was beautiful and funny. She would show these filmstrips of famous writers and talk about them with real admiration.

Once we were studying Hawthorne and there was cartoon image of him, leaning against a barn or something, looking groovy, and she said something like, This is a person who is now dead, but when he was alive he went out and looked at the world with wide-open eyes and, in the process, changed it. That really appealed to me—this idea that our love of the world could get put into permanent form and then get shared with future generations….

There’s something that happens in the moment of creation of a good sentence, or a good swath of sentences, that feels like the dropping away of self. Somebody else shows up and that person is better than the normal, everyday you. I’m guessing that the various approaches to writing are ultimately all about getting to that moment, that moment of spontaneity and self-negation. It’s going to feel different for each writer and he or she will describe it differently, but basically there’s one holy fountain and we’re all trying to get to it through the same woods….

My view of myself is that I came in through the basement window of literature. I’m not well educated or well read enough to do things correctly, and when I write what seems to me a “correct” story, it’s got low energy and isn’t true to my experience. Somehow the story and the language have to be a little messy or low….

I saw a lot of that growing up in Chicago. People who were essentially speaking in poetry, by expressing great universal longings through a somewhat restricted diction….

You’re fairly unusual in that you didn’t write a novel for a really long time. Did you feel pressure during the first twenty-five years of your career to change?

I really didn’t. I felt a little pressure from me, because I’d grown up in a world that said a novel was a serious intellectual badge and stories were what you did to get ready. Once I started writing stories, I realized how wrong that is. Stories are hard, the hardest form, I think. There are a lot of sloppy novels that can’t stand up to a single story by Yates.

I was really lucky, because my agent, Esther Newberg, never pressured me. One thing she told me early on was if you get a story in The New Yorker, that’s as difficult as publishing a first novel. She was really supportive of the idea that the short story is not an inferior form. CivilWarLand made a nice little splash and made a career possible. So I never felt any pressure at all. Except, as I say, from myself.

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