Behind the Curtain with George Saunders

Bestselling author George Saunders talks with Symphony Space’s Director of Literary Programs, Jennifer Brennan, about the role of the writer and what it takes to pursue your dreams.

Jennifer Brennan: What author has had a lasting impression on you?
George Saunders: I find myself drawn, again and again, to the great Russian, Nikolai Gogol. The weird thing is, I’m not sure why. I don’t find him as funny as Twain or as profound as Chekhov, but somehow his vision seems to me essential. I sometimes think that he sees us the way God sees us. Gogol can show a person as sweet and pompous and dangerous and deluded, often in the same paragraph—a very dynamic and truthful view of human nature. 

JB: America has changed in many ways over the last year. How has this influenced your writing?
GS: By reminding me that the construction of the world we make in our heads is always woefully short of actual reality. Which, in turn, makes me believe, now more than ever, that the role of the writer is to go out into the world and look around with an open mind and try to minimize that difference, through her powers of observation and also by her powers of revision, once she gets home (i.e., trying to work toward the truth by improving her sentences). 

JB: Now that you've written an award-winning novel, will we get more short stories?
GS: Yes. That is my default writing practice. Lincoln in the Bardo only became a novel because it brattily insisted on it.

JB: What has surprised you most hearing your work read aloud by actors?
GS: How good actors are—what a strange and wonderful sensibility a person has to have to be good at that beautiful art form. It strikes me as a much more instantaneous and intuitive practice than writing, and, for that reason, it really intrigues me, who can only seem to make sense and be moving if given fifteen years and ten thousands pages to throw in the recycle bin.

JB: What advice can you give anyone trying to pursue their dream in life?
GS: Well, based on my experience as a young writer, I’d say that, since we often have to make a living apart from our art, it helps to try to understand whatever it is you are doing for money as a potentially enriching part of your artistic life. My early work as a tech writer turned out to be vital to my aesthetic stance—it gave me intimate access to a strange and hidden slice of American life. In other words, if you have a dream, and you want to pursue it—you probably already are.