Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Interrogating the Story: George Saunders Gives Voice to His Work at Rutgers-Newark

By Nick Fuller Googins
Newark, NJ, April 15, 2014

Ventriloquist: Saunders reading at Rutgers-Newark
(photo by John Keene)
I learned something new about George Saunders when he visited Rutgers last week: In addition to his fearsome fiction-writing powers and his killer beard and his reputation as a really nice guy, he also has a preternatural knack for voices.

Don’t confuse “voices” with “voice,” as in, the unique tone and expression of a narrator or character. That Saunders knows “voice” goes without saying. I mean voic-es, plural, as in, the precise spoken-aloud voice of a bumbling teenage gentleman suitor. (“Let us go stand on the moon. Or, uh, in the moon. In the moonlight.”) Or the precious, cartoony voice of a baby deer trembling in the woods. (“Is my mom killed?”) Or the aristocratic, slightly-snobby voice of an apologetic hunter who has just killed poor trembling-baby-deer’s mom. (“If I could will life back into this fawn, I would do so, in hopes you might defer one tender kiss upon our elderly forehead.”)

Saunders willed life into all these voices and more on April 15th at Rutgers University’s Paul Robeson Gallery, where he capped off this season’s Writers at Newark Reading Series along with poet Matthea Harvey. Before reading from “Victory Lap”—the opening story in his Story-Prize-winning collection, Tenth of December—Saunders explained that the story is written in what he calls “third-person ventriloquism,” or, “third-person close, but you drop into the character’s diction as quickly as possible.” With that, he dropped in, broadcasting straight from the wandering mind of Alison Pope, an egregiously optimistic girl about to turn fifteen:
There was so much she didn’t know! Like how to change the oil. Or even check the oil. How to open the hood. How to bake brownies. That was embarrassing, actually, being a girl and all. And what was a mortgage? Did it come with the house? When you breast-fed, did you have to like push the milk out?

Alison, in the first section of “Victory Lap,” does nothing more than dance downstairs  (“hop over thin metal thingie separating hallway tile from living-room rug. Curtsy to self in entryway mirror…”) and into the kitchen for a handful of Cheez Doodles. Yet, through his “ventriloquism,” Saunders grants us immediate access to the inner-most reaches of Alison’s being without the need for lengthy passages of exposition or psychological description. He introduces Alison, as he does most of his characters, by sharing their thoughts with us, in real-time. And when those thoughts include an awkward gentleman suitor, a trembling baby deer, a snobby aristocratic hunter, and so on—all voiced by Saunders—they are not only delightful insights into a character’s psyche, but insanely funny as well. Saunders’s reading often felt more like a performance, and in this way he thwarted my attempt to capture a clean audio recording. I guess that’s something else I learned: One does not simply expect a George Saunders reading not to be laced with continual and uncontrollable laughter.

Hardly surprising, then, to hear that Saunders partially gauges the success of a story by measuring the amount of fun he has while writing. This came in response to a Rutgers MFA student who asked about the stuff that doesn’t work. How does George Saunders know, when writing a new piece, if it’s time to walk away, try something new?

“One useful barometer,” Saunders said, “is whether it’s fun. Is it fun and do you feel confident at any given minute? What happens to me is that if it gets less fun and I feel less confident, my thinking, conceptual mind comes in, and I’ll say, ‘Oh! This is about patriarchy!’ and then suddenly—in my case—you’re deciding from a dumber place than if you were just trying to follow the joy and confidence of it. I’ll often find myself getting locked up in a story and trying to think it out, and if I can catch myself that’s a good place to go to something else.”

The author's well-worn copy
To help get his point across, he paraphrased Norman Mailer: “You should never have sex if it’s not fun.” (“Maybe that’s kind of obvious,” Saunders added. “Why you’d want to take Mailer’s advice on sex, I don’t know.”)

He had similar advice for a question regarding endings. How does George Saunders know when to wrap up a story?

“Most of my writing process is rereading what I’ve already done and trying to react honestly to it: Am I liking it or not? Is it positive or negative? In a sense, finishing a story is trying to be able to get through it on a given day with that needle staying in the positive range. And being honest—if the needle comes down, don’t panic, just turn to the story and go, ‘Is there a problem?’ and the story will go, ‘Yeah, there is, I kinda suck on page three.’” (Saunders, evidently, plays ventriloquist not only for the characters in his stories, but also for his stories themselves. This particular story was whiney and mopey with a hint of self-indulgent defeatism). After honest evaluation—Saunders cautions—if your story really does admit to sucking on page three, it is important to avoid panic mode. Better to continue the interrogation.

“You’ll say, ‘What’s the matter?’ and your story will go, ‘I’m boring.’ So then you try to address it, and eventually you think it through to where you’re all right, until it’s polished off to the very last paragraph. And by then your subconscious is so deeply enriched in it that there probably is an ending.”

He added, later, “I thought the best definition of an ending is, stopping without sucking.”

As for the ending of “Victory Lap,” Saunders left us hanging, stopping after the first two sections of the story. It was a well-chosen moment that most definitely did not suck: radiant Alison Pope in serious and immediate danger. Some of us in the audience may have loudly groaned.

“It all turns out fine!” Saunders said, returning to the podium. He couldn’t help himself. He’s too nice a guy. “Don’t worry!”

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

“Thank You For Having Me” (You’re Welcome!): Lorrie Moore at Powell’s

By Molly Reid
Portland, Ore., April 11, 2014

Moore: Reading from Bark at Powell's
I’m obviously not the only one who goes a little fangirl for Lorrie Moore. The reading room at Powell’s Books was packed, people standing in the back and along the aisles, clutching their copies of Self-Help and A Gate at the Stairs, excitedly twittering like all the birds of America (see what I did there?).

Lorrie Moore read from Bark, her first story collection in fifteen years. Moore has written several lovely novels, but, for many, she is one of the reigning queens of the contemporary short story. (In a talk she gave years ago for Literary Arts’ Portland Arts and Lectures series, in response to a question about how she knows whether something is a short story or a novel, she likened it to knowing whether an animal is a dog or a cat: “If you throw the ball, and the creature goes eagerly after it and then brings it back to you, wanting to continue for eternity or for as long as you can stand it, whichever comes first, you’ve got a novel. If you throw the ball and the creature doesn’t budge but just looks at you as if you are out of your mind, you may have a short story – or you may just have a cat.”)

With humor that’s often described as mordant or sardonic, but feels more soft hearted than that, she handles the serious matters of life with lyric precision, offering up your very heart disguised as somebody else’s, or something elsea joke, a visit to a dead friend come to life, a dog named Cat.

Bark is what animals do in fear, in anger, in loneliness. It’s a laugh, a cough. A warning. Bark is also the protective layer, able to peel off and heal, sometimes grown rough and scabby over oozes of sap. In the last story of the collection, which she read from, the narrator tells her daughter that she saw a PBS show “that said only the outer bark of the brain — and it does look like bark — is gray. Apparently the other half of the brain has a lot of white matter. For connectivity.” In typical Lorrie Moore fashion, these multiple meanings echo and branch and contradict themselves throughout the stories of this collection. Her characters are a little older, if not wiser, have become more layered, have grown a bit more spiritually gnarled.

The title of the story she read at Powell’s, “Thank You for Having Me,” comes from one of the characters, a farmer who is playing music at his ex-wife’s wedding in Wisconsin, singing songs like, “I Want You Back,” and “I Will Always Love You.” But this character is somehow not pathetic or pitiful, or not only: 
Except he didn’t seem to want her back. He was smiling and nodding at everyone and seemed happy to be part of this send-off. He was the entertainment. He wore a T-shirt that read, THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME. This seemed remarkably sanguine and useful as well as a little beautiful. 
This is typical of the kind of dance performed in the story between humor and pathos, the push-pull of play and heart Lorrie Moore is known for.

This story doesn’t, actually, have much of a plot, at least not in the traditional sense. The only real event is that some bikers roll in and the head biker (wearing a football helmet with plush puppy dog ears glued to each side) gives a little speech about life, shooting a gun in the air. However, the bikers quickly realize they’re at the wrong wedding and speed off before anything really happens. Most of the story consists of the narrator, a woman living in the wake of her own heartbreak, a husband who left, talking to various characters, to the bride’s ex-husband, to her sassy daughter, and musing about life, and death. But the reason it works so well is simple: The writing is so f-ing funny. Every few lines, the audience erupted in laughter, and Moore knew exactly how to read with those interruptions, is obviously used to pausing as her audience continually loses control. She read: 
Aloneness was the air in your tires, the wind in your hair. You didn’t have to go looking for it with open arms. With open arms, you fell of the bike: I was drinking my wine too quickly. 
She read: 
The bridesmaids were in pastels: one the light peach of baby aspirin; one the seafoam green of low-dose clonazepam; the other the pale daffodil of the next lowest dose of clonazepam. What a good idea to have the look of Big Pharma at your wedding. Why hadn’t I thought of that? 
These lines are funny on the page, but Lorrie Moore delivers them with such sharp smoky intimacy, they feel brand-new, and even funnier.   
“Most of the humor I’m interested in has to do with awkwardness,” Moore says in a 2001 Paris Review interview, “the makeshift theater that springs up between people at really awkward times—times of collision, emergency, surrealism, aftermath, disorientation.” This is what prevents Moore’s stories from seeming like just a string of one-liners, wordplay, amusing musingsof which there are many. Most of the stories in this new collection have very serious backdrops: divorce, war, death, torture, psychosis. Two of them—"Referential" and “Wings”re-imagine tales by Nabokov and James. They trace the moments right before and after loss, the language play and humor inextricable from this loss, what floats to the surface when reason and safety fall away.

The story she read at Powell’s is the last story in the collection, and it feels more optimistic than the rest of the stories. Though death and loss still lurk, it takes place at that staple of comedy, a wedding. After all the heartbreak and sorrow, Moore tips the balance a bit, and ends her story, and her collection, on a hopeful note: 
I needed my breath for dancing, so I tried not to laugh. Instead I fixed my face into a grin, and, ah, for a second the sun came out to light up the side of the red and spinning barn. 
The red and spinning barn! (I just wanted to try that out, another thing Lorrie Moore can get away with and I can’t: the exclamation mark).

In the Q&A after the reading, Moore politely and thoroughly answered the audience’s questions, even the ones that seemed to me blurted unformed and absent of reason. But she had some good advice, delivered with the same kind of crackerjack humor and poise as her stories: “This is why it’s called art. There’s an element of artifice to it. You don’t write every single thing someone says. You write down the essential thing, and you get people bouncing off each other in interesting ways, and if it’s not interesting, don’t put it in,” she said about dialogue. And: “The difference between someone who is a writer and who’s not a writer is that they’re just writing things down,” in response to a question about whether there was anything in particular that influenced her to become a writer. 

I mean it when I say that’s some of the best advice about writing I’ve ever heard. If I could remember just these two things, if all writers could, what a world it would be: If it’s not interesting don’t put it in. Writers write things down.