Q&A With George Saunders: The Outtakes

Travel Blog  •  World Hum  •  10.05.07 | 12:36 PM ET

imageLast week’s Q&A with “The Braindead Megaphone” author George Saunders took some intriguing turns, some of which didn’t make it into the final version. In these outtakes, Saunders and interviewer Frank Bures talk about the writing process, travel as transformation, “noble confusion” and why it’s not always necessary to be “Johnny Authority.” 

What’s it like when you come back from a trip and sort through your material?

It goes like this: Type up every scrap of notes, transcribe every tape. Start sifting through all of that 100-odd single-spaced pages of mess, to try and find some critical incidents you know you’re going to use. This is the hard part—since nothing is polished yet, nothing seems like it will make good writing, ever. When you’ve finally revised these incidents or vignettes, and put them in some kind of order, suddenly there actually is a story there.

And when you’re traveling to write a story, you remember more than you would otherwise.

Right. You’re looking closely. It was interesting: every time I got home from one of these trips I’d think I’d missed “it.” That is, I thought I had no story. I came back from Dubai and said, “Oh God, nothing happened. I don’t really have anything.” And then you start working with it, and you go, well, I keep coming back to these six key incidents. Why is that? Then you concentrate and revise each of the elements and slowly the story tells itself to you. And once you’ve got it polished up, surprisingly, it is a pretty accurate depiction of your trajectory during the trip. If you would have talked to me the day after I got back from Dubai, and asked what it was like, I would have given you some banal, quickie, cliché version. But the process of picking out the most vivid bits, and revising them until they’re their most vivid, you find that the piece is now pretty much the essence of your experience. Not a slavish recounting of every moment (that’s in your notebook) but the Platonic version, if you will: the trip boiled down to its essential core.

Reading your stories, I was struck by the impression that you always were aware of just how much you didn’t know about the place, and how honest you were about that.

I didn’t have any stake in knowing anything. I didn’t get the job because I knew anything about Dubai. Now, I think probably if you looked at early drafts of that [Dubai] piece, I was probably trying to be Johnny Authority. You know, I’d done, by the time I went, a little bit of research, and wanted to get it all in there. It had the falseness of somebody being a blowhard, somebody pretending to know more than he does. So finally it seemed to me that the way to approach this—the way to get rid of this falseness—was just to bring all of my not-knowing into it.

I’ve read some of the other pieces on Dubai, which were much better researched and more authoritative and journalistic—but one thing I do like about mine is that it simulates the experience of a regular person going there. And that’s sort of how I think of these pieces: “I’m not particularly stupid, but I’m not particularly smart. I’m not an expert on Dubai. I’m not an expert on the border. But I’m not a complete moron. And you, my reader, you’re the same. Let’s go and see what’s up.”

So you take all your ignorance and your doubts with you and try to sort through them. Or you try and attain some minimal level of self-education. I’d read some things about Dubai, and knew the clichés: It was the Las Vegas of Arabia, blah, blah, blah. You take that information, and see how it holds up. Is the border chaotic? Is the Buddha Boy cheating? Bearing in mind, of course, that just because you don’t see something, that doesn’t mean it’s not there. But generally it’s of great value to have gone yourself, I think. And it’s of great, albeit secondary, value to have gone via reading prose written by someone you trust. That’s really what gonzo journalism was, except that in gonzo journalism the writer always had to be drunk.

I really like how you sum up in the end of the Dubai piece with a bit about confusion.

Well, that seems to me more and more the challenge of getting older. I’m 48 this year, and the mind keeps wanting to be sure. It gets scarier to not know. I keep wanting to be sure of who I am and what I’ve accomplished and what I believe and so on. As you get older, at least in my experience, you’re less comfortable with ambiguity, and you want to draw a line in the sand and say: “This is what I believe, once and for all.” You crave the very great relief of not having to think anymore. 

Now, the world kind of positions us old people to do that, by giving us rank and money. Rank and money can buy you a really nice comfort zone. So that piece was very interesting for me, just in terms of getting me out of that zone. Because at first, of course, I was very insecure about whether I could write 10,000 words about Dubai. I had this nightmare vision where I’d send it to GQ and they’d go, “Yikes. No thanks. Pay us back those airfares, faker.”

So in response—to fight off this fear—I, of course, made up some theories about what the piece would be “about” before I went. And one of the things I wanted to show was, you know: Elite vs. Droid. The Rich oppressing the Noble Poor. And I wanted to be on the side of the droids. But then you go there, and it’s sort of true, but it’s also not 100% true. The Poor are grateful to be there. The Rich are pretty nice. The place is gorgeous. So what the heck? But then—this was the real thrill—you realize that formally speaking, you could actually make a whole piece out of just that, just those kind of oppositions. 

It reminds me of that Fitzgerald quote about the mark of in intelligent person being the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in the mind at once, or whatever that was he said. Just kind of lay the contradictions out honestly: Here’s this. Here’s that, which contradicts the first thing. And just let all of that sit there. That’s the thing I learned from that Dubai piece that informed these others: Whatever the state of your knowledge is, it can be written, it can be used. In fact, that’s all you’ve got: the story of the evolution of your knowledge over time. We all tend to be insecure, and think we have to choose a position, then go in and find the data that supports it. But actually, you can just sort of confess that you’re not sure, or that there seem to be many sides to the story, and let the story stay there, in that kind of place of noble confusion.

Is travel writing a completely different beast from fiction?

It’s not completely different, but it’s different in one way that I really enjoy. For some reason, in fiction, I spend a lot of time trying to discover the events that are critical to the story, the ones that aren’t discretionary. The ones that absolutely have to happen. In other words, I spend a lot of time on plot. And, because you’re making it up, you have to come up with events that convince, that make the reader go, “Yeah, of course that’s what happens next. I totally believe it.” And a lot of my rewriting is just making stuff up, and then going, nah, that doesn’t seem quite right. And that’s really time-intensive. You have to polish a section before you know whether you actually need it, if you see what I mean. So there are a certain number of dead ends required—real trial-and-error stuff. 

With the non-fiction the events are given to you. What a relief, you know? You drive to the Mexican border and these things happen to you. Your only real power is selection. You can choose to narrate them, and decide how you’re going to narrate them. I found it really nice to say, “Okay, I had this trip, and now I have these 15 things to choose from that might make vignettes.” That’s all I’ve got and it’s going to have to be enough. And that was really nice because you didn’t have to do the whole inventing, trial-and-error thing. As long as you changed from day one to day ten of the trip, you can trust that there’s a story in there, and it’s contained in whatever happened to you, even if you can’t see it at first.

That’s sort of the definition of a story: a person changes over a period of time. So on a trip, a certain thing happens to you. You inscribe a certain psychological arc. You feel that it was meaningful, but you don’t know why. And so in revision you’re trying to work the prose so that it becomes more and more honest, in order to find the moment when something clicked in you. You’re kind of looking for the inflection points, the places that, taken all together, add up to the sum total of whatever your change was. Instead of inventing, it’s more like discovering, I guess.

But not every traveler is changed by every trip, right?

That’s a good question. Maybe it’s not that the person has changed, but that certain working hypotheses he brought to the trip have been modified. If these changes weren’t trivial, then there’s a story there.

Related on World Hum:
* Q&A with George Saunders: Loose in the Real World

1 Comment for Q&A With George Saunders: The Outtakes

TambourineMan 10.08.07 | 11:42 PM ET

Thanks for the interview, Frank. And George. Interesting stuff.

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