Although I’m the one who lives in London, it’s George Saunders who has been to the Charlotte Street Hotel before. He calls my name as I’m dithering between outdoor tables, trying to decide which might magically protect us from the sound of drilling coming from the other side of the street. The American writer stayed here in 2017, flying over for the Booker Prize ceremony. He was on the shortlist for Lincoln in the Bardo, his polyphonic novel about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, and he proceeded to win.
“I wasn’t really nervous because the word was that an American wasn’t going to win,” he says. We’re sitting outside to be Covid-safe, as the 63-year-old is in the middle of a transatlantic tour for Liberation Day, his first collection of short stories in almost a decade, which continues his trademark of tilting the world strange to get closer to what is true, veering between speculative and surreal. It’s a sunny autumn day and an urban orchestra is warming up, complete with drilling, car alarms, bickering passers-by, reversing vans. I fear that my voice recorder is going to have a panic attack.
Saunders has a knack for the unexpected. Lincoln in the Bardo is narrated by a chorus of ghosts in denial of their own death, yet it reaches an unanticipated beauty, capturing grief, love, forgiveness. With five collections to his name, his short stories often tease timeless revelations from unfamiliar settings (one story in Liberation Day is set in a hell-themed section of an amusement park with no exit).
He’s a moral writer: not in judgment, rather he moves characters in the direction of enlightenment (it’s no coincidence that he’s a Buddhist). But he’s not strait-laced. This is the joy of Saunders: he encapsulates human experience, while always hitting the punchline.
In person, he is disarmingly himself — beard perfectly trimmed, eyes blue and creased with curiosity. He’s cheerful, inquiring, expressive while not giving too much away. Shall we decide what we want to eat? “I’m just going to have a burger because that’s who I am, a simple fool,” he says playfully.
I might get some wine, I propose. “I don’t think I want to have wine,” he says, but his voice implies otherwise. A minute later, he begins to demur — “Maybe I’ll have some wine” — before arguing against himself. “No, I have to go on TV after this.”
Saunders is generous in conversation, so it’s no surprise we’re quickly talking not about him, but about how great his students are. “It’s really sweet work,” he says, of his job teaching creative writing at Syracuse university, where he has taught since 1997, the year after his first book was published.
“In the past few years I’ve realised how powerful it is to praise somebody. When I was younger, I thought, ‘Let me tell you what you’re doing wrong.’ But now, to read somebody’s work and go, ‘You know what, let’s just talk about this paragraph, you did something very special there.’ Then if I can be articulate and specific about that, that’s harder actually.”
Charlotte Street Hotel
15-17 Charlotte St, London W1T 1RJ
Burger and chips £25
Gnocchi with wild mushrooms and sage £25.50
Saumur-Champigny wine x2 £26
Total incl tax and service £86.06
I order the potato gnocchi with wild mushroom and sage. Saunders orders his burger. And are you going to get some wine, Saunders prompts. As the waiter fetches the drinks menu, he tells me he’s going to join in. “I’ve got one more day in London, so . . . ”
We return to our conversation. Saunders does this throughout our lunch — any interruption like a pause button, afterwards returning right back to where we were. “Anyway,” he says, “it’s just nice to feel your maturity as a person and go, can you praise what’s praiseworthy? Should that help a person? Yes, a lot.”
Does he feel himself sitting in the position of role model?
“No,” he says, decisively, “but I do sometimes feel in teaching and in public life that you have slightly more power than you maybe should.
“I had somebody come up in the line a few days ago and tell me something very personal. That was an opportunity to console that person that I wouldn’t have if they walked by on the sidewalk.”
I tell him that I enjoyed Liberation Day, how his voice feels immediately there on the page, that readerly joy of here he is. “What’s interesting to me is, at one point I had to say, I’m not a writer who has a vast talent. I have a very narrow one. So then the life’s work is to . . . almost like if it’s a vein in a mountain, you’re mining that vein and anything you can do to find even a slight variation is good.
“It’s wonderful how [writing] never abandons you,” he carries on. Saunders is good at lowering the stakes of writing, approaching it sentence by sentence: like urging a drunk man to walk, easing them through step by step. I ask him whether it’s a form of reassurance, to insist on boiling the writing down to its basics. “Yes,” he says, nodding, “for me, that’s anxiety control.”
The waiter is back. We hum over the reds. “I gravitate towards the wine that I can pronounce . . . or that you can point to easily,” he jokes, before doing exactly that. “I’ll have this first one here.” I’ll have the same. “Well played.”
The waiter offers us blankets but we’re fine. Saunders is layered in shirt, tie, jumper and jacket, me in a long coat. It’s mild, unnervingly so, and a beam of sun warms my face.
Our wine arrives fast, wide glasses of a French red with a smoky finish. That’s what I learn from googling later, anyway. In the moment, all I know is that it is soft and gluggable.
We turn to reading. He describes his process as “scavenger-like”. Does he do much rereading? “I do and it’s amazing,” he says. “I go back to a lot of the Russians. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit how little new stuff I do read. I’m reading for comfort and to . . .” he pauses over the phrasing, “to recalibrate my enthusiasm.”
So it’s more talismanic? “Exactly,” he says, elongating the word. “Just go back to Gogol and say, OK, do you remember when . . . Hell yeah, I remember.”
Saunders’ experience of teaching the Russian short story informs A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (2021), which peppers close-reading essays on stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev and Gogol with expansive insights into his own journey as writer, reigniting the wonder of reading and craft. It’s instructive, warm, profound, yet never grand.
“When I was younger,” he tells me, “I was a working-class kid and so I just read whatever, a lot of books about sports . . . then when I was in college I read, I think, a Tolstoy first and I thought, OK, this guy is talking about the way things actually are and is kind of guiding you on how to live.”
We are interrupted by the arrival of our food, but that downplays it. A monster has arrived, a Guinness World Record-breaker. It’s the kind of burger you need to be alone with; the kind that demands you take your jacket off, roll up your sleeves, attack.
We don’t mention it, not immediately. “So there was something in it that felt urgent,” Saunders says, returning to his point. “I loved Hemingway and I was a real fan, but when I read him I thought, OK, don’t work a boring job, fish, drink a lot, be kind of rude. I didn’t take a life lesson . . . But reading Tolstoy had a religious feeling and I was a pretty serious Catholic kid.”
We compare the experience of both having been the first fiction writer in our families. “You can make that your turf,” he says. “It’s that beautiful moment of having to decide for yourself what you like. You don’t have the canon or the curriculum, but you think, I do like Monty Python and I also like this other thing.”
He interrupts himself. “I have to eat this burger in front of you, I’m sorry.”
It sits on his plate like a puffed-up king. He draws his white napkin up in front of his face in a mock curtain and we both laugh.
He snaps back to where we were: unlikely influences. “Jaws was big for me, I saw it seven times,” he says. “What I loved about it was watching the reaction of the people around and being able to predict it — ‘They’re going to flip out right now.’ So that was why I got into writing partly. If you deny that, you’re taking some of your power off the table.”
I push away the sage leaves curved over my gnocchi and tuck in. It’s good: oily, soft, little mushrooms mixed within.
“It took a long time,” he says, “to allow myself to be funny.” Before he started writing the stories that would become his first book, he was sure he was a Hemingwayesque writer and persisted with lifeless stories that weren’t working. “Because of that and because of probably class things, I thought, well, it’s low to be funny. So for about 10 years I just wouldn’t be funny, except in life and then . . . ”
He puts his hands around the burger, and they are dwarfed in comparison. Presumably, it was exhilarating when things clicked?
“What a relief,” he says. “If you think of storytelling as a seduction or relationship, then of course you’re going to use what you do well . . . you have to allow all the valences that you have inside yourself or you’re monotonous.”
It’s rewarding to let that variation in, I suggest, to contrast humour with darkness. But not just that, it can feel as if the reader needs the shock of the opposite, for either to properly land.
“That’s exactly right . . . I read somewhere that digital music is a little jarring to listen to because all of the overtones have been taken out.
“When you listen to analogue . . . there are overtones that are slightly discordant . . . but you feel them as complexity.” A drill from across the street emits a sound like a shriek from an elephant’s trunk. The builder evidently has a sense of humour.
Born in 1958, Saunders grew up in Illinois and trained as an engineer before studying at Syracuse on the writing programme in 1986, where he met his wife Paula (“It’s just been writing for ever,” he says of Paula, also a writer. “I remember the early romances, driving around in her little car, arguing about Robert Stone and Faulkner”). They got engaged in three weeks and now have two daughters, both in their thirties.
Before teaching and writing, Saunders worked in oilfields, as well as in a slaughterhouse and as a roofer. “Working all those jobs put me in touch with the hardship of actual life,” he says. “When we had our kids, we didn’t have any money.”
He eats a morsel of burger. The bun has been discarded entirely, leaving a mountain range across the plate as he cuts up mouthfuls.
“Suddenly everything was charged with meaning, whereas before . . . I could make some meaning [in writing] but it was false. Then suddenly: I miss the bus by a minute, I get an hour less with the kids . . . The list goes on and on. Somehow the jobs made everything fraught in a way that I am grateful for.”
He speaks with a frank almost-incredulity for how things were. “There were a couple of years where it was pretty clear that I might not do it,” he says. “I’ll still try to be a good husband and father and I’ll be OK, but, gosh . . . I’m sure you know that feeling. The dream is fading.”
When you summarise Saunders’ stories, they can sound pretty dark. The titular story of Liberation Day is set within a future where “Speakers” can be installed at home: a choir of brain-erased, wired-up singers. The conductor’s wife, Mrs U, instructs a Speaker to talk dirty to her at night and through her he learns desire and beauty. Feelings, stripped of familiar surroundings, are brought closer. The reader is caught by the absurdity, I tell Saunders, but held too by the purity of emotion.
“Thank you,” he says, with a soft smile. “Suddenly you’re able to feel first love again because it’s not coming in the guise of a high-school romance . . . that feeling of, wait, why I am responding so sincerely to something that’s in such a goofy matrix?”
The Irish novelist Anne Enright, reviewing Liberation Day in the Guardian last month, teasingly wrote: “Why is such a nice man so mean to the nice people he invents?”
“I liked that one,” he says of Enright’s review. So what’s his answer?
“If I write a story of a striving young man who is very virtuous, it just sits there. So in a certain way the real answer is — that’s what gets the sparks flying.”
I’m not sure it’s fair, though, that we have to write happy-go-lucky people in paradise to be seen as positive. He agrees. “The idea that . . . hope in a story means a happy ending, that’s absurd.
“If you put somebody in a terrible situation and they respond with fidelity, truth and love, that’s happy.”
I ask him whether he is optimistic about the democratic systems we have in place. “I vowed to be careful about politics because I talk a lot of shit,” he replies. “In 2016 I was shocked like so many people and I thought, well, that’s on me, because it was clearly going on. I have a lot of family members who are to the right and . . . I can’t square it away with any kind of theory. My feeling is that the drift is that way.”
“It’s a mess of banality,” he continues, “but I know I’m missing a frequency.”
George Saunders on ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’
The author talks to Lorien Kite about his Booker-winning novel, in which he reimagines a night in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln visited the graveyard where his beloved child Willie was buried
I ask whether having kids charges politics for him. Definitely, he says. “The generation in their twenties and thirties. . . They don’t have the visceral memory that I have about America in the ’70s, which was a fucking mess, but also you actually could do better than your parents.”
On the other hand, he says, “You don’t fight well when you’re in despair, so I’m trying to tell myself, OK, let’s reimagine it. That’s your job . . . How about, we’re closer than we ever were to justice for people of colour and gay people and queer people and trans people, everybody.”
The waiter reappears. “I’m finished,” Saunders says, as the waiter looks questioningly at the burger bun, spread like shrapnel. Our wine glasses are empty and time has disappeared.
I remember one last thing I wanted to ask. His characters’ inner lives are rich: they reveal insecurities, imagine what-ifs. Is that self-scrutinising lens important to him? He lights up. “If you say, ‘show a guy sitting at a table’, I love that. I can do that for hours.
“If you can generate a simulacrum of thought,” he says, “then that’s plot to me.”
We wrap up, and he stands. “It’s been such a nice conversation,” he says. “I was nervous about it before, but it’s just been so nice.” And off he goes, returned only to a man on the street, leaving me at the table. Show me someone at a table, I can do that for hours. What would he do with this? I can’t ask, he’s already gone, walking out of the picture, so instead I’m left to imagine.
Rebecca Watson is a novelist and the FT’s assistant arts editor
‘Liberation Day’ is published by Bloomsbury
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https://www.ft.com/content/3da30d72-ebbc-4772-8f04-90e63d135b14 George Saunders: ‘It’s wonderful how writing never abandons you’