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!”