Interview with George Saunders: Loose in the Real World
Travel Interviews: Frank Bures talks with the author about Dubai, Nepal's Buddha Boy and what he learned about travel from a mob of rock-hauling, 70-year-old women in Singapore
09.28.07 | 1:03 PM ET
A couple of years ago, George Saunders got a call from an editor at GQ asking him if he wanted to go to Dubai and write about it. A long time had passed since Saunders had traveled. For years, he’d been hunkered down, writing his twisted, hilarious fictional stories, collected in books such as CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia. So he hadn’t done much traveling, and no travel writing. But he went and came back with a fantastic take on the crazy emirate-turned-fantasyland, which was included in the Best American Travel Writing 2006.
The story appears in his new nonfiction anthology, The Braindead Megaphone. The Dubai story turned out so well that GQ decided to send him to other places, including the United States-Mexico border, and to see the mysterious “Buddha Boy” in Nepal, a story just included in the Best American Travel Writing 2007. Both those stories are also part of “Braindead,” along with several non-travel essays. Together they showcase Saunders’ sensibilities set loose in the real world. For example, at the end of his stumbling through Dubai, Saunders writes some of the most honest words ever included in a travel story: “Don’t be afraid to be confused,” he says. “Try to remain permanently confused. Stay open forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”
I spoke to Saunders at his home in Syracuse, New York, where he had just returned from an assignment traveling through Africa with Bill Clinton.
World Hum: I read the stories in the book, and I really enjoyed the travel pieces, especially the one about Dubai.
George Saunders: That was the first one I did for GQ, and it was a really special place. I had no precedent, didn’t know what kind of piece I should write. And I hadn’t really traveled for so long, because when our kids were little I was teaching here and trying to get all that going. So certainly no solo pleasure travel, and mostly in the States. When I was younger, I did travel around Asia, because I worked in the oil business. But there was about a 20-year hiatus on solo foreign travel. So it was kind of nice to go back.
Did you start writing when you were traveling 20 years ago?
Yeah. The way it worked was, we worked eight-hour days, but we were in such a remote place that there wasn’t much going on at night. There was no town or anything. So sometimes we would, uh, drink. And other times I would sneak over to the office, where they had one of these old typewriters as big as the desk, and you had to hit your fist on the keys. And so I started writing over in Asia. But I hadn’t read very much at that point. So they were kind of lame efforts.
But there were periods where I would write for two or three hours a night. And even though I make fun of it, I was doing something that would turn out to be valuable: I would go on my vacations to Malaysia or Thailand or Russia—the Khyber Pass at one point—and I would just take notes, like a traveler’s journal. And when I’d come back, I didn’t really know how to use those experiences in fiction, so I would do this cheesy thing of attributing my travel memories to someone in the story. You know: some old guy, totally inert, sitting around remembering his oil field days in Sumatra. Ugh.
In your essay on Kurt Vonnegut, you said you would load up with books in Singapore, and then read them in Sumatra, where you were completely isolated. I think one of the great things about traveling is that kind of isolation, where you can be cut off and in your own little world. But it seems like that kind of isolation is getting hard to find.
Yeah, I was just overseas doing a piece in a really remote place in Africa and everybody had Blackberries—and service! I didn’t have either. I always want to hesitate and not be too judgmental, because certainly checking your Blackberry in the middle of some totally remote village is an experience. I mean, there’s something beautiful about it—so odd and contemporary.
But I did notice the way people were pulled out of whatever was in front of them. We were all joking about it. You’d be in some crazy place and you get an e-mail from someone in New York about the deadline for the story. And that’s weird, and yet kind of great. When I was in Sumatra there was no phone. The mail came whenever the next person from the crew came back from vacation. It could be three days or a month. I remember getting broken-up with in six letters in a single day. In the morning I was going steady with someone, and by noon I was single.
What do you think of that kind of change?
Well, I don’t want to be a Luddite about it. Because it just is the way it is. I hate to use the expression, but it is all good; if the world has changed in such a way, so be it.
I’m at a point in my life where I’ve spent the last ten years trying to fill up my life in terms of professional things. I do a humor column, I do travel pieces, I do a lot of interviews, teaching, guest-teaching, readings, screenplays. And now I’m wondering if maybe it’s time to declutter a little. That’s a choice you can make.
And I think the same with travel. You can choose the way you travel. And when you do choose—however you choose—it does change the experience, and you get the benefits and detriments of whatever way you chose. On this last trip, I just didn’t bring a phone. Mainly because I’ve lost my phone. Actually this is my second lost phone. But that way, no one can reach me, and I can’t reach anyone, and so I’m just, you know, there.
Was the Dubai piece the first travel writing you’d done?
It was. I’d gotten a call from GQ. I knew the editor, Jim Nelson, a little from when he was at Harper’s. And I don’t remember how he and my editor Andy Ward had cooked it up. I think it was something about Dubai being theme-parkish, and they’d read my first book, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.” They took a real flyer on me. I didn’t have to audition. I just kind of went.
Well it worked out great.
Thanks. It was interesting when I was doing it to see how much I had actually learned during my Asian period. I think I did a lot of asking myself: If I was going to write about this place, what would be the relevant details?
And I remember reading somewhere in Hemingway—I think it’s in one of his stories—where a character who’s a writer is talking to his son, and he tells the kid a trick about description. He says: when you go to a Cuban marketplace, your first instinct is to catalog everything you see, especially the stuff that’s typical of a third-world market place. But his advice is to find the one thing that isn’t typical. The example he uses is of a cockfight, where one of the handlers is literally putting the chicken’s head in his mouth and blowing into the chicken, which—not surprisingly—enrages the chicken. And when you get that one odd detail, the whole marketplace will spring up in the reader’s mind. All of the commonplace things—you know, the stalls, the dirt path, the dead pigs and so on—will be supplied by your mind.
So I did a lot of that kind of thing when I was in Asia, just because I had nothing else to do. And so when I went to do the Dubai piece, it seemed like a lot of that Asian experience was close to the surface. Maybe also from writing fiction, too. You don’t get a lot of points for describing every object in the kitchen. And if you can get away with it, maybe you don’t want to describe any of them. So it becomes a matter of selecting those things that make the whole picture come to life, and/or selecting those things that make good sentences when described.
So was the next piece you did the Buddha Boy?
Yeah, which was, in a sense, more of the same. Because I think I wanted to believe in him—wanted to believe he was doing something miraculous. So I made a call to this Tibetan lama. And I was saying to him: Is it okay to write about this, or is it sacrilegious? And he said, “Well, the thing is you don’t know what’s up with this kid.” The boy could be tricking you. Or he could really be something special. You just don’t know. So go and look. Go and look with a very open mind, and just see if it’s true. So this lama was the perfect journalist.
Do you read any travel writing?
I have. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Martha Gellhorn. I don’t know if that’s considered travel writing. She has a great piece on going to Russia and meeting Nadezhda Mandelstam. And I’ve read Joan Didion’s The White Album, which I consider travel writing. And Kapuscinski. But I try not to read much before I go, because I’m a slut at heart, and I knew I would try to imitate it. You know what I think I model a lot of this travel writing on is Dispatches, by Michael Herr, who’s a friend of mine.
I read that book early, and I think that’s a good model. I like the way he basically left everything in. If it happened, he was going to write about it. And if I remember right, he does some cool things with sequencing, where he just says the hell with it. He doesn’t tell it all in chronological order, doesn’t say, you know, “I arrived in Vietnam in May of 1967” and then take you through his experience linearly. It’s organized on a different basis—he’ll write a section about drug use, and pop in all these examples from the whole period he was there. A very confident, epic approach. I don’t know quite how you write a book like that. And I think the reason that book was so successful was that he was the first person to say what Vietnam was really like—the drugs and the very young soldiers and the rock music and so on. So I try to keep that in mind—that if a place looks different than you thought it would—if the scene is more complicated than you’d imagined—err in the direction of putting it all in.
Do have any special places you want to go?
One, perhaps perverse, advantage of the life I’ve had is that I haven’t really been to that many places. Another is that I haven’t really read that much. So that leaves me lots of nice, late-life surprises. I’d love to go to Palestine and Israel. I’ve heard about it all my life and the problems seem so intractable that it would be interesting to see it in person. But the problem with this approach, of course, is that you only go once, for a limited time, and you only see what you see. You meet six nice jolly fat people, who are from the land of Wherever, and end up writing about the jovial well-fed land of Whatever. So I think you have to be really careful—especially in a political hotbed like the Middle East—not to be a sucker; not to say, I saw this, therefore it all must be like this.
Yeah, it seems like a lot of people aren’t aware, or maybe don’t care, about being a sucker for their own experience.
I had a real fear of that in these pieces. There was always a moment when I was overreaching, where I said, “Ergo, based on my time here, one must conclude…” And then I’d think: Hold on, you’ve been here three days. Speaking scientifically, you’re working from a limited data set. And this should inform your level of confidence in your conclusions. As long as you explain and understand the limits of your study, you’re okay. If you go to Baghdad for one day, and hang around a video arcade, and then write, “Baghdad is composed of purely young men playing video games”—well, you’re a dope. You’ve been overtrustful of your own experience. But if you say, “Well, I was only there for three days, but here’s an interesting slice of life, and it probably has no bearing on what was going on in terms of the war, but it’s part of it—a valid part of what Baghdad is at this moment—well, that seems fair. For me this travel writing has been interesting because—it almost seems absurd—but it makes you realize how much the information that we get via our media is predetermined by the minds of the people who report it. And I can see that in myself. You go on this trip and you have this idea. And if you don’t know enough to unclench a little, it would be very easy to miss or ignore the things that contradict your theory. In other words, you are clinging to those factoids or images that support your theory, and rejecting whatever doesn’t. It becomes circular.
How long did you travel when you were younger?
Internationally? A couple years.
How did that influence your ideas about the world?
Well, it was really important. Because I went over to Sumatra as sort of a young Republican. I went to an engineering school that was known for being pro-Reagan and free enterprise. You’d see these bumper stickers, “Earth-Raper and Proud of It,” or, you know, “Nuke the Whales.” And I’d been reading a lot of Ayn Rand. So I was buying into this idea that technology is a force for good, that we were going to help people by bringing wealth. And then to go there and see that it was, actually, just plain-old earth-raping and local-culture-violation. I think there was an authentic part of me that was pretty nice, pretty decent, pretty fair-minded, that got awakened by the traveling.
You try to see the world in a Reaganesque way, but then you walk by a mob of 70-year-old women in Singapore hauling rocks in a construction zone, for a dollar a day or something. Or I saw the guys on my crew urging this older Muslim guy to hold a pig-roast for us, which he did. And we had a guy on our crew who was basically molesting these 15-year-old boys. So to read, say, Steinbeck, in that light, suddenly you go, Oh, I get it. Now I get why socialism might have happened. Poor people do get dumped on. And they’re nice to me. And they love their kids.
It was kind of a three-year gradual politicization, which I didn’t realize was political at the time. I just started to discern certain patters that have been with me ever since. I think one of them is enacted in that Dubai piece, which is: OK, have your ideas, but when you go there, be sure and listen. And if someone contradicts your pre-existing ideas, be brave enough to discard that idea and pay attention. As Cromwell said, approximately: “I beseech thee in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
Sounds like kind of a basic mind-opening.
Yeah. But it was slow, because I didn’t go there to get my mind opened. I went there to get pictures of myself in quaint settings.
Want more? We’ve got outtakes from the interview.