Interview with George Saunders in the White Review

A little less than a year ago I turned in a Master’s dissertation on George Saunders (mostly), the crowning jewel of which was twenty page appendix containing our email exchange – my fumbling questions and his generous answers – in their raw, effusive, and original form. Now The White Review will be publishing selections from that transcript in their Issue No. 17. You can buy it when it’s released 13 July, or you can read my interview now online.

You can also read Aidan Ryan’s interview with George Saunders, in which the great writer reminds us that fiction ‘encourages us to step out of ourselves and into someone else … de facto a moral experience’. This conversation offers hope that art and literature can change the way we think, and by extension the way we act.

–         from The White Review Issue No. 17 release teaser

I came to Edinburgh in late summer 2014  with the vaguest of inclinations that I wanted to write about George Saunders, who’d changed my understanding of what was possible in the short story form with his collection Tenth of December, which had been released the year prior, and what I sensed was not only the central concern of his stories, but the key to their mechanics. This, I thought, was a movement toward or away from greater kindness, greater empathy, and greater community. The phrases “telos of kindness” and “the ever-expanding first-person plural” echoed off the sides of what was at that point my rather empty skull (I would abandon both by the time I sent the paper to the printers) and it was with these in mind one September afternoon that I climbed the Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh, a copy of Saunders’ debut collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline in my hand, looking for some comfortable outcrop to suit me as I searched his pages for the seed of a Master’s dissertation proposal. Thankfully Edinburgh’s summer days are long – I finished the stories before the sun set, walked back through the gorse into the moil of the city with a topic, an angle, and a sense of awe that carried me through the long months to follow.

At first I thought I’d rather cross Catullus on a bad day than risk, in an email to Saunders, the Chicago-born saint recognizing some slippage of smallness or meanness in a hasty clause or a postscript — but by June of 2015 my inquiry had expanded to include David Foster Wallace, Roland Barthes, Fredric Jameson, and M.M. Bakhtin, and amounted to an unwieldy tower of handwritten notes on yellow legal paper, organized via paperclips and bobby pins (which work almost as well) that I’d found on the floor of the postgraduate study suite. I needed something to help shape the research, I needed justification to avoid writing about the less interesting angles that I knew by intuition were irrelevant but out of duty had explored, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, unavailable to many of my colleagues, writing on Joyce and McCullers and John Williams, of corresponding with a living author.

Well, for a while, the first-person plural expanded to include George and I — his famous generosity reached me in successive, somehow gentle shockwaves carried across the Atlantic. I will never forget receiving his reply, straight to my phone while sitting with a friend in Edinburgh’s Cult Espresso. I think I looked back up from my phone an hour later: my friend was gone, my coffee cold, and I was moving through that sort of awe that the best short stories give us.

Unusually, I can now say without glibness or irony that the rest is literary history. You can read it in The White Review.