The American short story writer George Saunders has the kind of reputation that makes one hesitate before typing his email into an address line. It’s not really his outsize presence in the contemporary literary world, though this is staggering: he is the winner of Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships, while Mary Karr called him ‘the Best’ short story writer working in English when TIME picked him as one of the most influential people of 2013, the same year his latest collection, Tenth of December, won universal acclaim for its blend of emotional immediacy, familiar absurdity and ethical complexity. What gave me pause, though, was his reputation for kindness, the theme of his (now viral) 2013 commencement address at Syracuse University. Presenting himself with typical humility as ‘some old fart, his best years behind him’, Saunders used the occasion to tell his audience (and within days, the world) about his regrets. All, he said, were ‘failures of kindness’. ‘Try to be kinder’ is the speech’s title and its soundbite: Saunders admits that it’s facile, but he also reminds us that as a maxim it can be really, really hard.
His stories are violent, hilarious, confusing – but I’ve always felt behind them an animating spirit that was essentially, unfalteringly benevolent. Mechanically, too, his stories feature characters striving to be kinder (and often failing): fathers struggling to provide for their kids, kid-veterans seeking stable definitions of ‘family’ and ‘home’, or wearied workers wandering clumsily through worlds strange but too much like our own to be labeled, comfortably, ‘the future’.
Consciously or not, Saunders never presents himself as the artist-as-intellectual, artist-as-culture-hero, or artist-as-formidable-genius (though he is all these things). His writer-persona is the artist-as-gentle-craftsman, and his answers, as he explains his craft, are surprising, resourceful, cordial, given weight by the gravity of one preternaturally awake to wonder. In the interview below, Saunders uses whatever tool comes to hand: metaphor, confession, concession, contradiction; touchpoints in his generous answers include Gerald Stern and David Hickey, Dylan and Chekhov, Buddhist thought and black boxes.
Working on a Master’s dissertation triangulating Saunders among the post-postmodernists, I caught George at a busy time, and it wouldn’t have tarnished his reputation for kindness if he’d refused my questions. But he accepted. ‘I’m in the throes of finishing up a new thing but would be open to an email exchange,’ he wrote (perhaps referencing the long-awaited first novel, which he recently hinted in conversation with Jennifer Egan would be set in a Saundersised 19th century). ‘Fire when ready.’ Reading and rereading his answers, one feeling remained an undertone, constant through each new discovery. How grateful we must be, I thought, for this man’s ‘throes’.